Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Niuē-fekai (or Savage) Island and its People

The People of Niuē

The People of Niuē

FROM what has already been said in the first part of this paper, it is abundantly evident that the Niuē people speak a dialect of the Polynesian language. It is equally evident at the first sight of them that they are a branch of the Polynesian race. There is no mistaking the characteristics of the race as seen in other parts, and which are plainly exhibited by the people of Niuē. They are one and the same people with those who occupy the space included by Hawaii in the N.E., Easter Island in the S.E., New Zealand in the S.W., and Nukuoro in the N.W. So much are they like their brethren elsewhere, that at a cursory glance they might be taken for Maoris, Tahitians, Rarotongans, Hawaiians or other members of the race. But a closer acquaintance will disclose certain differences in personal appearance (besides other things) that differentiates them from—at least–the branches mentioned above, but still, to no very great extent. I am personally acquainted, (more or less), with the Maoris, Morioris, Tongans, Samoans, Niuēans, Rarotongans, Aitutakians, Mangaians, Raiateans, Tahitians, Easter Islanders, and Hawaiians, and on a careful consideration of the question, to which branch do the Niuē people bear the greatest affinity in personal appearance, I come to the conclusion that that branch is the Moriori of the Chatham Islands, more especially in the case of the men. In the Ure-wera tribe of Maoris is also to be seen much the same type of face.

It is probable—and has been demonstrated in the case of the Maori and Moriori (and possibly others) by an examination of their skulls—that every branch of the Polynesian race has a slight admixture of Melanesian or Papuan blood in it. But I think that this shows more than usually strong in the Niuē people. I judge, of course, by personal appearance, for I took no skull or other measurements to support my idea. It is certainly the case also, that there are two types of face and figure in Niuē, and generally, it may be said that page 30 the type which I should call the more Melanesian of the two, is to be found in the south part of the island. Here is to be seen a type that is somewhat shorter and broader, with large wide jaws, a low forehead, and a generally more morose expression of face, than the others, who exhibit the characteristics of the true Polynesian, tall, broadshouldered, intellectual looking faces, of cheerful demeanour, and altogether of a pleasanter mien. It must not be understood that there is any strong line of demarkation between these two types; the one graduates into the other, as is only naturally to be expected from the circumstances under which the peoples-would be thrown together in a small island, where inter-marriages were constant. Nor do I wish it to be understood that there has been a migration of Melanesians to the island—not at all; those who exhibit to a larger extent than others, the Melanesian characteristics, acquired them through their ancestors long before they came to Niuē, and probably in Fiji, which was the headquarters of the Polynesian race for many centuries.*

It is due in a larger measure to this sojourn in Fiji that Polynesians have a taint of Melanesian blood in them, and the statements of certain writers to the effect that a prior race—Melanesian, Papuan, Negretto, or what not—was found in many of the islands of Eastern and Southern Polynesia now occupied by Polynesians, is to my mind a mistake, and results from ignoring the history of the race. To most of those who have studied the Polynesians and their history amongst the people themselves, the idea of a prior occupation by a different race in the above locality seems quite unwarranted. The few traditions the Polynesians have of a people prior to them are mere localized recollections of their contact with these strange peoples in times long antecedent to their occupation of their present homes. But this is a digression—ha mena kehekehe, as my Niuē friends would say.

The results derived from a study of the personal appearance of the Niuē people, is borne out by the fact that they have two distinct names for themselves; those occupying the southern parts are called Tafiti, all the others Motu. I shall have to return to this subject when treating of the traditions.

Having said that the people are Polynesians, little more remains to be said as to the description of them. It might be said (for the

* See “Hawaiki”—Journal of Polynesian Society, vol. vii., p. 137.

How badly a name is wanted for this race. Maori has become identified with New Zealand and Rarotonga, whose peoples both call themselves by that name. The Rev. Mr. Whitmee, of Samoa, feeling the difficulty, suggested “Sawaiori,” a compound word derived from Sa-(vai‘i), (Ha)-waii, and (Ma)-ori. But it has never come into use, and probably never will. The people themselves have no racial name applying to the whole of them. The Marquesians are said to call themselves “Take,” but this is no racial term, as it is not known elsewhere.

page 31 benefit of my fellow New Zealanders) that the Niuē people are Maoris, and that would obviate further description. But all who read this are not acquainted with the Maoris, and therefore a few points may be mentioned. The people are of the same light brown, copper-coloured tint, as the rest of the race, with good figures, active and lithe. Some of them are much fairer (kili-moka) than others. Their hair is generally very black, but, like the rest of the race, there is occasionally a tint of brown; indeed sometimes almost red or light tawny coloured hair is to be seen, just like many Maoris, especially like the Maori uru-kehu. The hair is either quite straight (ulu-halu)—the true Polynesian hair—or curled (ulu-pikipiki), or in small crisp curls (ulu-ginigini) somewhat like the Melanesian hair, or ulu-fiti, bushy finely curled hair like the Fijians, hence the name; but whether this name is modern or not I do not know, probably it is. Baldness (ulu-kila or ulu-muna) is seen occasionally, whilst grey hair (ulu-hina) is common. Like their brethren of other parts, they are not a thickly or bushy bearded people, though in the old men thin beards (hafe) are common, very often worn braided in thin braids. In former times the men wore their hair long and floating over the shoulders, but sometimes tied up on top of the head (fuhihi), whilst the women wore it short, but occasionally in small twists called penapena. At present it is just the reverse, the men's hair, as a rule, is cropped quite close, the women's long and fashionably made up.

The following story illustrates the length of hair worn by the men formerly: At Alofi, in ancient times, lived a man named Tuhega, who was one of the ancestors of the Alofi people. A time of dearth (hoge) came on, and there was little food left in the land except what the people could secure in the wilds of the forest, so that they were sorely pressed by hunger. Tuhega was a fierce savage (favale) man, and a thief (kaiha), stealing from those he saw had acquired some food for themselves. He used to watch the people coming down to the seashore to prepare (tuhoi) the wild and bitter yams (hoi), and after they had washed it in salt and fresh water, &c., so that the yams became fit for eating, Tuhega, watching his opportunity, used to steal it all. He was so successful in his operations that a band of his relatives, fifteen or eighteen in number, joined him, and then Tuhega extended his operations. He went round the island killing all men whom he met, and thus created much alarm. His relatives associated with him began to fear him, and anticipated from his savage demeanour that he would turn on them at last, and kill them. They made one or two attempts to entrap him, but he was a very strong and active man, and they failed; so they decided to catch him unawares in the house in which he lived by himself. Now Tuhega's hair was very long, but, as was the fashion, it was tied up (fuhihi) on the top of the head. He always slept with his head near one of the posts of the page 32 house. Entering very quietly, his relatives managed, without disturbing Tuhega, to untie his hair, and then lashed it round the post so that he was firmly secured, and then they killed him. Here is the song said to have been sung by his spirit after his death, but it is expressed in language I am unable to translate:—

Kuia Togia ke he toa
Ka e kului i au ki Tapēu,
Potiki tolu to veli he po.
Hoku toa, ti fakavaia.
Tuhi feogo ki a Toga,
Kua hifo e folo kai-tagata,
To manavanava a Niue nei,
Hoku toa, ti fakavaia.
Atu toa he ko Tama ha Makefu.
Tatau e mate i Vailoa,
Atu tefekula kau hagaia ni,
Kua ti kai haofia,
Haku toa ti fakavaia.

The eyes of the Niuē people are like those of other Polynesiaus, large, and from deep black to dark brown; expressive, and in the women and children, soft.

There are a few albinos amongst the people, which they call mahēle, and they are as unprepossessing as the korako amongst the Maoris. They are said to be the offspring of the god Tu, who caught the original ones in a net at night, hence they blink their eyes in the daylight. Tu himself was a mahēle.* In Rarotonga, the light haired people are supposed to be the descendants of the god Tangaroa.

Notwithstanding the constant hard work which both men and women alike participate in, they are erect in figure and carriage. I never saw any old women in Niuē bent nearly double with work as was at one time so common with the Maoris; nor are either men or women so obese as many Maoris—their active life prevents this.

As a rule the men are not good looking as compared with other branches of the race, though many have intelligent and very pleasant faces. On the other hand the women are almost invariably fairly good looking, though few are really pretty—their expression is quiet and pleasant. I saw no woman so really pretty as large numbers of Maori women to be seen any day, and they cannot compare with the Tahitian women in beauty. But the Niuē women have one advantage over their Maori sisters—their lips (gutu) are generally as thin as those of European women, which is not the rule with Maoris. This seems rather strange if the people have a stronger strain of Melanesian blood in them than most of their brethren, but on the other hand the

* See Part III. for the native account of the origin of the albino.

page 33 noses (ihu) are certainly more flat, both in men and women, than the Maoris and other branches.

In the chiefs of Niuē (Patu or Iki) I never saw that dignity and “presence” observable in a high chief of Samoa, Tonga, or New Zealand,—such as is describable in Maori as he tino rangatira or he momo rangatira: but in their own way they are chiefs nevertheless, and exercise a good deal of influence over the lalo-tagata, or common people.

Of their intellectual gifts, I did not form on exalted opinion. But then my only dealings with them which could call forth their powers in that respect, were of a nature that ran contrary to all their preconceived ideas, viz., the consideration of laws drawn up for the general good and necessarily expressed in terms as technical as the language admitted of. The whole subject was new to them, and without precedent, so allowances must be made on that score.

In industry, I think the Niuē people compare very favourably with any other branch of the race I have met. They are hard workers; indeed the nature of their island obliges them to work in order to live. They make excellent sailors, and are much sought after in Tonga and Samoa as labourers of all kinds. There are over 500 of the young men constantly away from the island, working for Europeans, a large number being engaged at Maldon (which the natives call Pokolāā) and other islands working the guano. This enables them to earn a little money, but, at the same, it is a very bad thing for the island itself in many ways.

Like other Polynesians, they are very hospitable, and appear to be fond of gathering at feasts, when large quantities of food are consumed. A great feast is termed a katoaga*, which may be translated a “basketing,” but an ordinary feast is a galēue.

In the presentation of the food to guests, speeches invariably are made, just as in New Zealand, and—which is not done in New Zealand—all the articles are enumerated, using of course their honorific names which have already been given. The food is then divided out amongst the various fagai, or related groups, present, which must be done by some one having a knowledge of these groups, or offence might be given.

* This word kato, a basket, is interesting as illustrating the inter change of the first series of vowels, i.e. ‘a,’ ‘e,’ ‘o’—for the above word is the Maori and Rarotonga kete.