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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands

Nature Lore

page 89

Nature Lore

Much of the Tokelau nature lore is based on shrewd observations of natural phenomena. Clouds traveling rapidly or fish jumping from the water (sumu, lautiapua) foretell strong winds which are dangerous for canoes. Still clouds indicate safe weather but little sailing breeze. When the sky shows small clouds “an arm's length in size” it is called te langi o atu, a bonito sky. The west wind, which brings the bonito close to the island, usually blows at this time. When the sky is red and solidly cloudy except for a few small breaks, it is called langi o teo (the sky of the teo fish). Orange reflection of the sunset in the clouds, common near the equator, is la sila fonu (the sun like a turtle's breastplate). When the south wind is chilled it is tafenga a le malu (the cooling freshet). Although this wind is refreshing it is dreaded for it is believed to bring death to some member of the population. Rain which makes the surface of the lagoon red or yellow also signifies death. A rainbow is nuanua.

Violent phenomena of nature were dreaded in ancient times. Close thunder (faitilitili) and distant thunder (tangulu) were thought to come from supernatural objects rolling about on the shelf (takataka) of the sky. Thunder and lightning (uila) bring out the ufu and kone fish that live in the coral of the lagoon.

An eclipse of the sun predicts some catastrophe. The sun is thought to lose its blood and become lifeless, ngase toto o te la (the sun's blood becomes like that of a sick person).

A full moon setting in a clear sky is an indication of calm weather. According to Turner (32) the ancient people believed that the moon was a residence of departed chiefs and that its waning (kaina te masina, the eating of the moon) was caused by its being eaten by the inhabitants. This was cause for great consternation and feasts and ceremonies were held. The name for an eclipse of the moon, which brings the atu and malau to the surface of the sea, suggests that this was explained in the same way as the waning moon.

Stars and constellations were used as guides in navigating among the islands and on voyages to Samoa. The following stars are remembered at Atafu as part of the old voyaging captains' lore of navigation.

List of Stars used in Navigation
Fetu ao or Kui salimona The Morning Star, which gives a bearing on the east. The origin of the name, Kui Salimona, could not be explained and its does not appear to be a true Polynesian word.
Famau malanga The Evening Star, which gives a bearing on the west. Famau is an ancient Tokelau name whose meaning has been lost; malanga means “a journey”.
Kaniva The Milky Way, which gives general bearings.
Na tangata These two stars are guides for voyages from Tokelau to Samoa.page 90
Tolu The three stars in the Belt of Orion. In their zenith these are a direct guide from Nukunono to Atafu.
Matiti Stars said to be guides in voyages to Hawaii.


The winds are counted and named in 12 points of the compass. Burrows (5) and Lister (14) collected lists of these names in Fakaofu and I collected one at Atafu. The names in these three lists are identical except for the omission of Luata and Tefa by Lister, but their order and arrangement in quarters is different. Burrows' list is probably the correct one. Tefa should undoubtedly precede Sema in the Atafu list. Atafu has two local names which are synonymous with names in the list: tafenga a le malu (a south-southwesterly wind) and taumuliava (west wind or wind which comes from behind the passage in the reef; at Atafu this is on the west side of the village). The lists are arranged in table 5 for comparative study.

Table 5. Wind Names
Atafu List Burrows' List Lister's List
N. Tokelau N. Tokelau N. Tokelau
  Fakalua   Fakalua   Pakalua
  Luatu   Luatu
E. Tonga E. Tonga E. Tonga
  Sulu   Sulu   Sulu
  Sema   Tefa
S. Tefa S. Sema S. Sema
  Lafalafa   Lafalafa   Lafalafa
W. Laki   Lakalua   Lakilua
  Lakilua W. Laki   Fakatiu
  Fakatiu   Fakatiu W. Laki
  Palapu   Palapu   Palapu


The Tokelau year is divided into 12 lunar periods, thus omitting one moon for which no system of intercalation is provided. My informant at Atafu stated that the first month of the year (tausanga) was December. Burrows' (5) informant said that January was the first month, an attempt to adjust the native calendar to the European. But if the year begins in December or January the succession of months does not coincide with the sequence of winds, stars, and fish habits described for each month. However, if the year begins in June as in the calendar given to Lister (14) at Fakaofu in 1889 the natural phenomena described coincide with their actual occurrence in the equatorial year. In Samoa the ancient calendar began in June. At Vaitupu in the Ellice Islands the calendar year was divided into two seasons, page 91 one of the westerly winds beginning in November-December and the other of the trade winds beginning in June. The Tokelau calendar may have been similarly divided.

Table 6. Lunar Calendar given at Atafu

  • Palolo mua, June-July.
    • Beginning of the trade wind season, blowing strongly from the southeast. Little fish, kalo, talatala, malili, and lupo, appear in the lagoon. Large fish, bonito and turtles, are plentiful. Many birds from the west and northwest. The stars Melemele and Langafu rise.
  • Palolo muli, July-August.
    • Continuation of the weather of palolo mua. Land grubs and fish are plentiful. Stars Melemele and Langafu show.
  • Mulifa, August-September.
    • Strong winds and big waves. Mulifa = “four sides” or “the winds shift and blow from the four directions.” Star Matiti shows.
  • Takaonga, September-October.
    • Sea turtles appear off the island for mating season. Takaonga is derived from taka ika onga (to go around to mate). Star Nataki shows.
  • Silinga, October-November.
    • The trade winds cease, intermittent winds from northeast. Ngatala and fapuku fish go out to sea to lay their eggs. The Pleiades (Mataliki, the little eyes) appear in the east.
  • Toe silinga, November-December.
    • A continuation of the weather of silinga. Toe means again.
  • Utua mua, December-January.
    • The hottest months of the year and most feared for tempestuous storms. The fapuku fish, large at this time, go to the shoals. Utua means shoals.
  • Toe Utua, January-February.
    • A continuation of the weather of utua mua. Stars tolu (Orion's belt), Lefulefu, and Tulalupe show.
  • Vainoa, February-March.
    • The name means “troubled waters”. Great shoals of pone and ufu fish appear in the lagoon and inside the reef. Star Lua tangata (two men) shows.
  • Fakaafu, March-April.
    • The hot month when everything fades. Meamanga manga (4 stars in form of Y), sumu (name of fish), Manu (southern cross), and Na tangata (two stars) rise. Manu and Na Tangata show every night.
  • Kaunonu, April-May.
    • The name is given as kaununu or kaunuunu in other islands. Changing and shifting winds, mostly from the east. Manu appears every night.
  • Oloamanu, May-June.
    • The name means “the flying about of birds”. Beginning of the trade wind season. Birds fly low and near the land because the winds are becoming strong.

Nights in the Phases of the Moon

The lunar month is divided into the nightly phases of the moon which are all named and counted in two series of tens, the first ten nights of the waxing of the moon and the last ten nights of the waning and dying of the moon. With the eleventh and twelfth nights a second counting begins, but the thirteenth and fourteenth are named utua, the night when the moon is “drawn up”, and malama, the night of the full moon. After the full moon page 92 there is a period of growing and the counting recommences with the fifteenth night with one and ends on the twentieth night, fakatutupu (the plural of the verb, “to change into” or “to cause to grow”). The twenty-first night is counted as 10 and the counting diminishes to the fifth night, before the moon disappears or becomes completely dead. The last four nights of the lunar month are called: “the night when the moon's head has perished in the shadow,” “the night when the moon's heart has perished in the shadow,” “the night when the moon dies above the horizon,” and “the night of long death” when the moon is completely lost for a whole night.

The last night of the month, the moon and sun travel together (fanoloa). The first two days of the month are celebrated with feasting and a general holiday.

List of Nights of the Moon












































Po hiva


Po valu


Po fitu


Po ono


Po lima






Mate ki lunga