ALTERNATE NAMES: Taukei (indigenous Fijians)
POPULATION: About 800,000
LANGUAGE: English; Fijian
RELIGION: Christianity (Methodist)
The word "Fijians" refers to any of the inhabitants of the chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean called the Republic of Fiji. The islands became completely independent from Great Britain in October 1987. There are many ethnic groups who are originally from the Fiji Islands, but many of them share a number of cultural traits. In this chapter, the term "Fijian" is used to refer to the descendants of the original population of this chain of islands.
The Fijian word Taukei, which means "owner" or "original inhabitant," is now commonly used to refer to indigenous Fijians. This term and the ideas behind it have become very important recently. Using this concept of original ownership of the land has helped the Fijians to insist that they, and not the Europeans who colonized the islands, have the right to the land, its resources, and the political power of the country.
The Fijian archipelago (string of islands) lies in the western Pacific Ocean, southwest of Hawaii. There are more than 300 islands within the Fijian group, the two largest being Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. These two islands make up about 86 percent of the total 7,055 square miles (18,272 square kilometers) of land that makes up the island group. Only about 100 of the islands are inhabited or capable of human habitation.
The archaeological record of Fiji shows that humans first settled on the islands about 3,500 years ago. These people were probably migrants from the nearby islands of Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Fiji was a crossroads of the Pacific in prehistoric times. The distinctive cultures and physical features of the Fijian groups are evidence of that fact.
Linguists (people who study languages) usually refer to the Fijian language as a mix of about 300 dialects. Most villages in the island chain have their own dialect. Standard Fijian is based on the dialect spoken by the Bau. Missionaries to the islands chose this dialect as their standard for translation of the Bible. Wesleyan Missionaries developed a written form of Fijian in 1850. This has contributed to the high degree of literacy in the islands. English is the official language of the country.
Fiji has a large body of folklore, mythology, and oral history. One myth describes the protection of the island of Kadavu by a Shark God. This belief explains why the inhabitants of the island today have no fear of the sharks that are common in their island's reefs.
There is also a series of myths surrounding the Fijian practice of "fire walking." This practice, in which men walk on white- hot stones with no protection on their feet, has become in recent years an event staged to mainly to amuse tourists. Traditionally, however, fire walking was a ceremonial occasion.
For three days before the ceremony, men were not allowed to eat coconut or have any contact with women. A large pit would be dug and filled with large river stones. A fire would be built on top of the stones about six hours before the event. The coals would then be raked over the stones, eventually making them white hot. Then the men would walk across the stones without any protection for their feet and without burning themselves.
The overwhelming majority of Fijians, nearly 90 percent, are Methodist. Both Methodist and Catholic missionaries established churches, schools, and missions in Fiji in the 1800s. The Fijians were quick converts to the Wesleyan Methodist Church. This was probably due to the Methodists' use of Fijian in services and their early translation of the Bible into Standard Fijian.
Major holidays for Fijians include the annual Hibiscus Festival, a celebration of things Fijian; the Queen's Birthday in June; Fiji Day, October 13; Constitution Day, June 28; and Christmas Day and Boxing Day, December 26.
From the time they can understand, children take orders from older men in the family, especially their fathers. Respect and strict obedience are expected of children. Discipline and punishment is the job of the father. Mothers are more indulgent with their children.
In traditional Fiji society, women are expected to be virgins at the time of marriage. Premarital sexual relationships were not allowed within the society.
Disease and death were attributable to evil spirits in traditional Fijian culture. The funeral ceremony was very elaborate, especially for men of status. Groups with relationships to the deceased would visit the village and pay homage. A strict set of rules was enforced after death and they remained in effect for up to one hundred nights. Wives were strangled to accompany their dead husbands into the spirit world. It was believed that the god Ruvuyalo would kill the spirit of any man who did not have his wife accompanying him. This practice is no longer followed.
The standard Fijian greeting is ni sa bula, or the informal bula. Visiting a person's house always entails removing one's shoes before entering.
The majority of houses on Viti Levu are made of wood and concrete blocks. Almost all homes have electricity and a piped water supply. On the smaller islands, houses are often constructed of local materials and have either thatched or iron roofs. Western-style houses are a sign of prosperity. Electricity is available in many rural areas. In very remote regions, people use kerosene or benzene lanterns.
Villages in rural areas are centered on a village green, called rara in Fijian. At either end of the rara, each village has a church and a village hall.
In the eighteenth century, Fijians developed a new type of ocean-going canoe. These ships were a great design invention and were much more maneuverable and faster than the other style of canoes that were being used by other island peoples in the area. It permitted Fijians to move more quickly between islands and to escape quickly after raids. These canoes were elaborately carved and decorated.
In traditional Fijian society, men were permitted to have more than one wife at a time. The more wives a man had, the higher his social status. Chiefs especially had many wives. This helped them to create political alliances among various villages. Once a couple is married, they usually live in the house of the groom's father. Because of this, most households were composed of an extended family. Extended families were under the leadership of one senior male. Divorce was easily accomplished by either the husband or the wife.
Family structure is very hierarchical, which means it is led by a strong figure whose authority cannot be questioned. The senior man in a family has the same kind of authority that tribal chiefs have. And within each family, power is granted according to age and gender. Any food, for instance, that is not eaten by the senior man cannot be eaten by anyone else. A woman's social position within the family is based on that of her husband, unless her family is of higher status than his.
Traditional Fijian clothing for men is a native kilt called a sulu. Men and woman also wear Western-style clothing. The sulu is always worn during ceremonial occasions and has become more popular since the coup of 1987.
The main staples of the traditional Fijian diet are taro root and cassava. Although sago palms are found on some of the Fijian Islands, this plant was never a staple as it was in other nearby islands of the Pacific. Fish and shellfish are still important foods in the current diet, as they were in the past.
The literacy rate (percent of the population who can read and write) for the Republic of Fiji is estimated at 80 percent. Western education has been available in Fiji since European missionaries arrived. Mission schools were built by Methodist and Catholic missionaries. Today, primary education is free and compulsory. Rural villages often share a common school. Children between twelve and sixteen attend junior secondary school, which is not free. High school education can only be obtained in towns and cities. The University of the South Pacific is located in the capital city of Suva.
Dancing is an important part of traditional Fijian culture. Men and women danced separately. Women's dances often used intricate and delicate hand gestures. Many of the men's dances suggested military exploits and involved aggressive posing with weapons. Both men and women had "sitting" dances. Singing was also important in traditional society. Today, Western-style instruments and singing styles have become popular.
Traditional Fijians were subsistence farmers, which means they raised just enough food to support themselves. Some Fijians continue this way of life today. They raise taro root and cassava. They supplement this diet with fish and other sea food. Agriculture is the traditional domain of men. Fishing and the collecting of marine resources are done by women.
Today, although about 60 percent of Fijians live in rural areas, the number of people willing to do the hard work of farming is decreasing. As in many less developed countries, young people often leave rural areas to find work in cities and towns. Tobacco and sugar are important cash crops in the Fijian economy.
Rugby is an important spectator and participant sport for Fijians. Soccer is very popular as well. Fiji sent participants to the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta and had very good performances from the athletes who competed in judo and swimming. Cricket is also popular in Fiji, but more so with the Indo-Fijian population there.
Among adult Fijian men, drinking the alcoholic beverage called yaqona (known as "kava") is an important social ritual. The sharing of kava accompanied the performance of pre-Christian religious events, political discussions, and the curing of illness. Kava drinking has become an important attraction for tourists who visit Fiji, although the event does not carry any of the ceremonial importance that it used to.
Electricity has made television, radio, video, and movies all popular forms of entertainment in Fijian cities, towns, and villages.
Traditional crafts made by Fijian women include pottery, woven mats, and bark cloth. Men do a great deal of carving and sculpting in wood. They create beautiful spears, clubs, ceremonial bowls for kava drinking, and elaborately decorated seagoing canoes. Before the arrival of Europeans, the Fijians were well-known for their weapons, and especially their war clubs.
The Fijians had several types of war clubs, each designed to perform a special function in battle. "Throwers" were made to be thrown at an enemy and strike with the wide, knobbed butt. "Penetrators" had a spike with a weighted head. They were made of the heaviest wood available and were used only by the most skilled warriors. The club would make a single, fatal hole in the skull of the victim. According to tradition, a person killed in this manner was the most desired for cannibalism and the killer was honored.
Since the coup of 1987 and the constitution of 1990, Fijians have made it clear that they want to reclaim the resources and rights to self-determination that have been gradually taken from them. This has increased tensions between the Fijians and other ethnic groups, especially the Indo-Fijians.
Crocombe, Ron. The South Pacific: An Introduction. New Zealand: Longman Paul Limited, 1987.
Mayer, Adrian. Indians in Fiji. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.
Siegel, Jeff. Language Contact in a Plantation Environment: A Sociolinguistic History of Fiji. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.