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Ethnology of Manihiki and Rakahanga

The Biological Family

The Biological Family

The Household

It is probably largely because of the nature of the Polynesian household that foreigners have been led to regard the Polynesian as overlooking the importance of the biological family as a unit of social structure. Western culture is individualistic, and from the Polynesian point of view, selfish. The European tendency is not to share dwellings, food, property, or children. Relatives are not encouraged to stay indefinitely with the European family, a procedure almost incomprehensible to the Polynesian. Europeans, except in families holding ancient titles or inherited social position, do not keep family pedigrees. Relationship terms are restricted to a few degrees, and collateral terms have no vital meaning. The idea of kinship obligation and coöperation has weakened. The unit of money has displaced community coöperation in supplying man power for tasks beyond the scope of the individual. Villages and towns are accumulations of individual family units, independent of each other and having no common blood tie to unite the whole community. When members of one family do establish their households in the same village or town, they become separate independent units. Although the separate households recognize close relationship and may coöperate more closely with one another than with unrelated households, they develop different occupations and interests, and one household cannot dictate the policy of another by right of kinship. In the course of time, when relationship becomes remote, the diluted blood tie assumes a merely historical interest. Migrations are frequent, and separation further weakens any influence that blood kinship might have exerted. Thus collateral relationship ceases to exercise an active influence in social structure.

The Polynesian household offers a marked contrast. Although the nucleus of the household is the puna, or single biological family, it is augmented in various ways. A son may elect to live with his parents after reaching adulthood. He marries and brings up his children in the same household, which thus comprises three generations. As the couple of the first generation grow old they relinquish the active management of the household to the couple of the second generation. The younger couple does the harder manual work in providing food and other necessities. The old people page 37 do the light tasks and take care of the grandchildren. Parental authority becomes divided, and the grandparents exercise an active share in the upbringing of the children of the third generation. Two brothers of the second generation or a sister with her husband may also remain with the parents. If the family is wealthy in land, some poor collateral may live in the household and assist in cultivating the land and procuring food supplies. Some of the children of the third generation may be adopted by other relatives and thus pass away from their own family. On the other hand, the family may adopt children of other relatives and bring them up in their own household. The household, through the recognition of the blood tie and the prevalence of adoption, is thus rarely confined to one biological family. The children come under the influence and instruction of grandparents, aunts, and uncles, so that the clean-cut parental control characteristic of Western culture is not sharply defined, though it is recognized. The composite household, comprising members of three and even four generations, is in a fluid state, affected by the ebb and flow of blood kin. Seniority of birth indicates the family head. The source of the complex household is the first biological family in occupation. The bilateral biological family is the unit on which family pedigrees are built up, and the position and relationship of each individual member is clearly defined by the family pedigree.

The household residence consists of separate buildings devoted to cooking and sleeping. The cooking house is shared by all. The food supplies are pooled, cooked in one earthen oven, and shared among the members of the household. The sleeping house accommodates all.


The great desire of the single biological family (puna) was to have male issue (kapi tane). The intensity of this desire led to incestuous marriages in the beginning of the history of the atolls. The general Polynesian attitude toward children was that females, through marriage, were likely to be lost to the local group or subtribe, whereas males, owing to the prevalence of patrilocal residence, strengthened their own community. In prominent families the desire for male issue was increased by the law of male succession to rank and title. A young married couple occupied by love and appreciation of each other's physical perfections probably dwelt less on the idea of male issue, though the desire must have existed. To the parents of the couple, however, the desire for male issue was dominant. The romantic side of the marriage did not affect them. The chiefly parents of the husband looked forward to a grandson to carry on the line, to succeed to the title, and to inherit the estate. A granddaughter would merely be a wife for some other family. The feeling was naturally shared by the husband's family and page 38 tribe. The desire for male issue, curious though it may seem, was also shared by the parents of the wife and her tribe. They were actuated by the wish to see one of their blood occupying a high position, even though it be in another tribe. Although the sex of the wife may have been regarded as a mistake at the time of birth by her people, once she was married to a high chief she assumed importance in their eyes. She was the potential mother of a chief who would be of their blood. Considerable friction occurred from time to time between the families of two wives married to one chief, owing to the interest taken in the first son born of each marriage, and led to the establishment of a land distributor (tuha whenua) in the 6th generation and of the dual ariki in the 11th generation.

When the news reached the parents of the newly married couple that the wife was pregnant, general satisfaction was expressed. Both mothers-in-law commenced to plait garments of split hala leaves (papa) for both the prospective mother and child. As the time of confinement arrived, the parents-in-law prepared to give a feast in celebration. If the child born was a male there was great rejoicing. The news was called (ka karangatia) throughout the village. A feast was the material expression of the general rejoicing. If the child was a girl, however, the disappointing news filtered out, but there was no public announcement. The food prepared was eaten, but there was no feast. It was stated by my informant that after the birth of a daughter the husband sometimes left his wife in disgust.

The accouchement was carried out in the squatting position. The patient sat on the floor reclining against a relative of experience. When labor pains came on the patient was pushed up into the squatting position, and she supported herself also by holding to a rope hanging down from a rafter. The support assisted her in bearing down. Older female relatives assisted her by massaging the back and lower limbs between pains. The child was received on a plaited mat held by an assistant.

The placenta was taken away and placed in a hole dug for it at some appropriate place. A little earth was filled in, and a coconut was planted above the placenta. Mr. Savage informs me that the coconut is always referred to as the weri of the afterbirth of the child. As the plant grew it was observed from time to time. Its manner of growth was supposed to indicate the nature of the growth of the child. If growth was vigorous the child would be healthy and strong, but if it was poor the child would be correspondingly weak and ailing.

When the umbilical cord was tied and cut, the short end which remained attached to the child was termed pito and when it dropped off the umbilicus was also termed pito. The short length of cord that dropped off in natural course of time was differently disposed of for the two sexes. The male page 39 pito was taken to the ocean side of the island and cast into the sea. This action, Mr. Savage informs me, was referred to as “titiri ki te moana roa” (casting into the long ocean). It was a form of sympathetic magic to insure that the child would develop into an expert fisherman or find success if he made voyages on the long ocean. The female pito was taken to the lagoon side of the island and cast into the lagoon waters. This was termed “titiri ki te tai roto” (casting into the inland waters). Man's sphere was in the ocean waters outside the bounding reef, but woman's sphere was in the waters of the lagoon. The treatment applied to the female pito insured that when she grew up the girl would become an expert diver in procuring pahua (Tridacna) and would be able to remain under water for a long time.

In addition to the placental tree (weri), one or more coconut trees were planted by the parents or an elder of the family on family land to commemorate the birth of the child. Such trees were regarded as the special property of particular children, to whose exclusive use they were reserved. The custom and the trees, which were to provide a beverage for the children in years to come, were termed wai (water, coconut fluid).


Children, as they grew up, were instructed in the observances of life as they came under the influence of the elder members in the composite household. Grandparents, who had more time than the parents, told them tales and myths and probably gave more instruction than the parents. The children played with tops and darts on land. Within the calm waters of the lagoon they early learned to swim and to handle canoes, and so laid the foundation to future success as fishermen and seamen.

Mr. Savage writes me that girls of high rank were specially cared for from childhood. A female child was kept in a private house and attended by an elder woman of the family. During the period of childhood she was carefully fed, and her limbs were massaged with the coconut oil (romonga) prepared from mature nuts. She received careful attention in early childhood as regards the processes of excretion. After micturition or defaecation the parts were washed and gently patted during the washing. Such action is the natural care of children during babyhood, but its continuance with a selected attendant went with higher rank. The careful feeding and massaging was influenced not only by affection, but in order that the girl should become well-favored for some future marriage of note.

The care lavished on a female child of rank was increased as she reached puberty. At about the age of the first menses she was kept guarded in a house by the mother and female attendants. This seclusion was for two purposes, to keep her from exposure to the hot sun to render her skin fair, and page 40 to prevent her from obtaining any premature sex experiences. When she was allowed outside for physiological reasons she was accompanied by female attendants to guard her from any love affairs that the desires of her age might dispose her to entertain. Walks for the purpose of exercise were taken in the evening, to protect her skin and also to prevent others from seeing her too closely. Always, she was guarded by female attendants.

A third reason for the seclusion and night walks was to keep the form and beauty of the girl a secret from other families until she should make her public début. During the period of seclusion the best foods obtainable were contributed by the family and subtribe to make her well-nourished, for plumpness was one of the standards of beauty acquired and required by the upper classes. The greater the impression created at the official début of a girl of rank, the greater the credit and satisfaction to her family and subtribe. That a girl of high rank was being kept in seclusion was known throughout the village. All in the community, particularly the families of rank who had marriageable sons, were interested. Thus the whole population looked forward to the time when the girl would make her public appearance.


The public appearance of the girl took place at puberty. She had had her first menses and was considered fit for marriage. The ceremony of showing her to the people was termed whakahinga, according to Mr. Savage, and was associated with the father of the girl. Thus, if Mika was the father of the secluded girl, the approaching ceremony was promulgated through the village as “te whakahinga a Mika” (Mika's whakahinga). The event took place at a religious inclosure or marae at which the people gathered, after the announcement of time and place. The maid was dressed in a particular form of tipora garment, consisting of a sennit belt (tu kaha) supporting a small rectangular apron of plaited material (tautape) in front and a similar tautape behind. She was escorted to the gathering place by her family and on the marae was subjected to the scrutiny of the people, who appraised her physical beauty. It was stated that girls treated with seclusion and good feeding developed beautiful figures with skins of velvety softness. The brother of the girl's mother had the right to remove the maid's garment. He untied the tukaha belt and removed it, with the two tautape aprons. The girl thus stood entirely naked, but she folded her hands in front of her for concealment. The adults inspected her figure and shape. Viewed from the back, if her lower limbs were close together (piri) it was held that she had been virtuous. Her general demeanor was also observed. From the native point of view, no girl had any need to feel shame at the exposure of her naked form which custom allowed on such an occasion. If well formed, page 41 she had every reason to be proud, for the ceremony was a public honor from which she would derive the appreciation and admiration of the people. She was getting publicity that would insure an advantageous marriage. Her only cause for fear was that if she had managed to elude her guards and had given away her virginity, the fact might in some way become known to the public The shrewd onlookers studied her with the knowledge that guilt is sometimes manifested in psychological behavior.

During the ceremony on the marae the maid, from association with a religious structure, was tapu. During the period of seclusion she was also tapu, in the sense of being restricted from intercourse with outside people. After the inspection on the marae had been concluded, the maid was conducted through a complementary ceremony. Presumably her garments were restored to her, and she was taken to a place called Taipari. This excursion found expression in the words, “E ue haere ki to koutou whenua ko Taipari.” (Go to your land at Taipari.) There she was bathed, and a ceremony in which incantations and leaves were used was performed over her. No details were available, but I was informed that the ceremony made the girl noa (common), to enable her once more to mix with the public. I understood from my informants that the second ceremony was termed whakapu, but Mr. Savage seems to indicate that the word whakahinga used for the first part is an alternate term with whakapu. After the ceremony, though the girl moved about with fewer restrictions, she was still watched, as all the trouble taken was for the purpose not only of advertising the family but of making an advantageous marriage. A certain amount of restriction was enforced until the marriage was arranged and completed. The family and the social group had contributed food in order that she should be kept fair and virtuous for marriage. They had a share in her, and a worthy alliance was necessary to justify the interest and support they had given.

The whakahinga and whakapu ceremonies were observed in the few families of high rank, particularly for the high-born tapairu of the ariki families. Among the general mass of the people such restrictions were not imposed. Both sexes had early love affairs with sex experience. Sex restrictions were not actively imposed as a rule until after marriage.

I was informed that young men were also treated at puberty to seclusion and the subsequent public appearance on the marae. It was after or during the visit to Taipari that a father took his son to all the islands on which he owned property. He pointed out his shares of land and indicated the landmarks. The visit formed an instructional tour during which the boy committed the information to memory for future guidance. After this, the boy was qualified for marriage.

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Among junior branches of families which had come to form the mass of the people, it is probable that matings took place without much ceremony. Young people who wished to prolong love affairs and to continue to live together probably did so without much ado. The cohabitation was soon noticed by their respective parents and perhaps ratified at a small feast by the two families. The couple might also obtain the consent of their parents beforehand, and the mutual consent of both families would ratify the marriage.

For children of senior and chiefly families, marriage arrangements were much more formal. Males in the line of succession to the titles of ariki, tukuwhare, and to leading positions in subtribes, and girls of chiefly family who had been subjected to the whakapu ceremony, were public characters in whom the greatest interest was taken by the families and social groups to which they belonged. Any loose alliance conducted in a common way was not conducive to the maintenance of family and group prestige. Marriages of those of high rank were thus of public concern.

Marriage alliances were discussed at meetings called for the purpose. When the parents or elders of the family came to a preliminary decision, they discussed the matter with the leaders of the families within the group or groups concerned. The decision was made at a public meeting, and carried the support of the group. Most decisions were quickly arrived at by those most intimately concerned, but the longer course of submitting matters to the group was necessary in order to give them a share in discussion and, by their public ratification, to obtain their hearty support in providing the food and property necessary to the marriage ceremony. Objections raised by parents to what they considered unsuitable marriages have, on occasion, led to romantic marriages in which the parental wrath was braved.

The marriage having been consented to by all concerned, the members of the two family groups set to work to plait garments and mats for a marriage dowry. The dowry is termed takahinga (takahi, to stand on), as the mats form the material on which either party will stand in the house of the other. The women prepare the garments and mats, and the men collect and prepare food to accompany the takahinga. The bride's tribe (matakeinanga) escorts the girl in procession to the house of the groom's father, carrying dowry and food, to the accompaniment of singing and dancing. The takahinga and the food is formally presented to the bridegroom's family. The bride's people then retire to their own part of the village to await the reciprocal part of the ceremony.

The bridegroom's tribe now escorts the bridegroom to the house of the bride's father. They, in turn, take a takahinga of garments and mats and page 43 also food, which is presented to the bride's family with the appropriate speeches. In this manner both tribes share equally in the expenses, and each tribe contributes the food for the feasting of the other. The dowries are also distributed in the two groups, and though some may not receive as much as they gave, all get an ample share of the food to which they have contributed. The principle governing such ceremonies is one of public contribution followed by public redistribution. From the public speaking, singing, dancing, and feasting, the groups derive much pleasure. The exchange of gifts and accompanying speeches and reciprocal feasts give the alliance public recognition and constitute the main features of the marriage complex among the upper classes.

Later, the husband is escorted back to his father's house, where the parents of both parties weep loudly and even cut themselves as a sign of grief that their direct authority over their children has ceased. This public demonstration of removal of parental control indicates that the married couple can now set up a household.