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Niuē-fekai (or Savage) Island and its People

Manners and Customs

Manners and Customs

The difficulty I have already alluded to, in acquiring the Niuē dialect, prevented my obtaining a good deal of information on the above subjects. Most of what follows was kindly furnished me by page 53 the Rev. F. E. Lawes, but part by the chiefs of Alofi and other places, and is necessarily very imperfect.

Birth:–Niuē women seem to bring forth their offspring with the same ease as the rest of their sisters of the same race. Formerly it was not uncommon for women to be at work within a day or two of the event. They appear to have had much the same kind of feeling in reference to the umbilical chord (pito) as the Maoris; its burial at certain places made a sort of connection between the individual and the land, entitling him to some rights. Young children were fed on cocoanut and arrowroot (pia) after a time. A few days after birth the child was submitted to a procedure called mata-pulega which was in fact a semblance of circumcision, though this right was not actually practised in Niuē. The child was laid on the ground under a screen made of hiapo, or bark cloth, and then one of the old men (? a relative) went through the motion of circumcising the child, though the flesh was not cut. Following this was a rite which may appropriately be termed baptism, though it was not so remarkably similar to Christian baptism as that which obtained with the Morioris, but was very like that of the Maoris. The following is the description as written for me by Pule-kula of Liku.

22* “Living man was born from a tree—the tree which is named Ti-mata-alea (a species of Dracoena) which grows in the open, not the Matalea of the original forests, which is a taue. Thus: when a married woman is pregnant she longs for the Ti, with its root or stalk; then the husband and the parents prepare an umu-ti, or native oven of hot stones for cooking the roots, in order to cause the child to grow. After the woman has eaten of this, the child becomes hard (maō) from the effects of the Ti. This is the ancient custom of Niuē from the time the island was made. The oven is two nights in baking and then it is uncovered (fuke); the oven being in the ground.

“It is done thus, because the Ti is the parent of man, and the child should feed on the fullness of its parent, the Ti-mata-alea; after it is born then it feeds on its mother's milk.

23 “If a male child is born it is said to be “e fua mai he malo tau,”** or “fruit of the war-girdle.” If a female child it is said to page 54 be “e fua mai he la-lara,” the latter word being applied to female occupations.

24 “When the first child is born, it is shortly afterwards bathed in fresh water, whilst one of the principal chiefs (patu-lahi) rubs the body of the child, carrying it in his hands and saying to it the following words:–

‘Kia teletele totonu;
Teletele fa tagi
Teletele fa tiko
Teletele fa mimi
Teletele fa vale
Kua tele mui e tama i fonua,
Ka e tele mua a mea i Palūki
Fiti-kaga ai o tupua.
Teletele ki tufuga,
Teletele fa iloilo
Teletele fa taitai
Teletele fa mafiti
Teletele fa uka-hoge
Kua tele mui e tama i fonua.
Ka e tele mua a mea i Palūki
Fiti-kaga ai o tupua.
Be facile in kindness,
Facile in crying,
Facile in the operations of nature,
Facile in anger.
The child hereafter will be expert in the land,
But so and so will be more expert at Palūki,
Fiti-kaga ai o tupua.
Be facile to render works,
Be facile in knowledge,
Be facile in fishing,
Be facile in activity,
Be facile in uka-hoge.
The child hereafter will be expert in the land,
But so and so will be more expert at Palūki,
Fiti-kaga ai o tupua.

25 “Shortly afterwards they commence to place food in its mouth, such as Heahea bird, Kamakama (a species of crab) sugar-cane, the bird Taketake, and other quick and active birds, and that kind of sugar-cane that does not die quickly in the forest, in order to strengthen the child to be offered (fakapoa—dedicated). Then the prayer of offering—for a male child:–

‘Kia tu ai a Tagaloa,
Ke monuina, ke mafiti
Ke mata-ala, ke loto matala,
Ke maama e loto he tau fāhi oti,
Ke manava-lahi, ke ahu-maka, ke toa,
To iloilo ke tufuga he tau mena oti ni,
To molu e loto, to loto holo-i-lalo, mo e tutu tonu
To fakamokoi.'
page 55 ‘Be thou present O Tagaloa!
(And) bless (this child), make him active,
(Make him) watchful; of a clear mind;
That he may have understanding at all times
That he be stout-hearted and brave,
That he shall be accomplished in all things,
That he may be kind, humble, and faithful
And that he be generous.'

That in rain he may be able to run; in gales to run away; by night or by day.—That he may not be swept away by the waves: that he be swift to escape when chased by his enemies; and live long on the surface of this earth.

26 “For a girl, the prayers are to the effect: That she may be accomplished in making tegitegi (one kind of fine mat, used for complimentary presents); also in beating hiapo; to braid kafa-lauulu (human hair girdle), to make kafa-hega (girdles of parroquets' feathers); to weave baskets and all work that springs from the la-lava (woman's occupations)—to strain arrowroot, grate the wild yams; to be accomplished in preparing food, and to preside over all similar work.”

Such is the description of the customs with regard to the very young by my friend Pule-kula; and it will be noticed how very like it is to that embodied in the tohi rites of the Maori—except that no prayer is ever uttered on behalf of a Maori child to make him humble—such is quite contrary to Maori ideas of what is correct in a man, and I think it possible my friend may have allowed his Christian teaching to bias him here. The idea of the origin of man from a tree is, I would suggest, a dimly remembered acquaintance with the very ancient form of arboreal cult found in many lands: as expressed in the Hebrew Aleim, and amongst the Polynesians in ancient times by the cult of Tāne, who, according to Maori mythology, is the god of trees, besides expressing the male element of the human species.

Infanticide was far from uncommon. In old times the women used to accompany the men to war, and they could not take young children with them nor leave them behind at their villages, so in such cases the husband would kill their offspring. This was generally done by casting them into the sea. Near Mutalau, is the N.E. point of the island, called Tuo, against which the seas break. This was the place for that district where these poor little things were taken by their unnatural fathers and cast over the cliff into the sea. On this subject Fata-a-iki (loc. cit.) says: “The island is indeed blessed at the present time, since the Word of God came to Niuē, for there are many new kinds of food, and peace (mafola) prevails. But in the olden days ‘faka folau moui ni e tau tama ka hoge,’ in time of famine the children were sent adrift (to sea)—the people ate katule (harmless centipede) and hiapo (paper mulberry) page 56 leaves, and potoga and patuluku (plants) of the forest. During such a famine (hoge) great was the internal pain; they tied tightly their stomachs and slept, not rising during the day to help in keeping peace; they remained immovable and careless, nor did they do their best for the good of the island.”

Children were carried on the hip (hapini), as is the general Polynesian custom.

* The numbers of paragraphs refer to those in the native dialect to be found in Part IV. hereof.

See origin of island, Part IV.

The umu-ti, or oven in which the root of the ti is cooked is connected with the fire-walking practises of the Polynesians, for which, see this journal, vol. X., p. 53, etc. Fire-walking was however unknown to the Niuē people.

** The Morioris also call a male child maro, i.e. “tamiriki-maro.” See this journal vol. V. p. 198.