Kiribati - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. The forerunners of the present-day Kiribati Protestant Church (K.P.C.), the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and the London Missionary Society, arrived in the northern and southern islands, respectively, in 1857 and 1870. The French Roman Catholic fathers of the Order of the Sacred Heart began work on Nonouti in 1888. Catholics (53 percent of the indigenous population) are in the majority from Tarawa northward. The K.P.C. (41 percent) holds a near-monopoly on Arorae and Tamana and retains majorities on a few of the other southern islands. About 2½ percent of the I-Kiribati adhere to the Baha'i faith. Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, and members of other Christian sects make up the remainder of the population. A good deal of social, recreational, and even economic activity centers on the churches.

Religious Practitioners. The expatriate (mostly French) Catholic clergy has been largely replaced by I-Kiribati priests and nuns. Local catechists conduct services on most islands between occasional visits by a priest. K.P.C. ministers are all I-Kiribati (except for a few from Tuvalu) but do not serve on their home islands. The priests of the old pagan religion interpreted omens and made offerings to deities that descended from time to time onto pillars of coral limestone and other shrines or took animal forms. Spirit mediums are probably still active, although they are possessed by recently introduced supernaturals and are regarded with great ambivalence. I-Kiribati deities (some with western Polynesian names) were believed to have been ancestors of descent groups that obeyed their taboos and relied on them for protection. Their associations with animals and natural phenomena gave them significance for the community as a whole.

Ceremonies. Early in the colonial period, indigenous dancing was permitted only on Christmas, New Year's, and the Queen's birthday. These holidays, with Independence Day replacing the Queen's birthday and Easter and Youth Day added, are still occasions for public feasting and dancing. Catholics celebrate the major feasts of the church in the same ways and sometimes by mass visits to their coreligionists in other villages.

Arts. The patterns of plaited sleeping mats, created by alternating light- and dark-colored strips of dried pandanus leaf, show off women's esthetic sense as well as their technical skills. Durable ornaments are made of spondylus, mother-of-pearl, and marine snail shells; in former times, dolphin, whale, and human teeth were also used. Kiribati sitting and standing dances, accompanied by singing and by clapping hands or beating on a box, are famous. Songs are still composed by traditional methods, although usually on a Western tonal scale.

Medicine. Illness is generally attributed to material causes, although attacks by ghosts, retribution for offending a parent or other superior, sorcery, soul loss, and divine punishment are advanced as explanations in particular cases. Indigenous curing methods include the use of proprietary herbal medicines and systems of massage and cautery.

Death and Afterlife. Nineteenth-century travelers reported that the body was kept in the house for three to nine days and even longer if the deceased had been prominent. Some months after burial the skull was removed and thereafter oiled and offered food and tobacco. Mission influence has been opposed to drawn-out funerals and of course to the custom of keeping a relative's skull on a shelf or carrying it around. The wake is still attended by a large number of kinsfolk, who contribute Cyrtosperma corms and money and eulogize the departed. Burial is in a village cemetery or in a grave next to the house. Despite strong Christian beliefs in an afterlife of rewards or punishments, people remember the old story that the god Nakaa welcomes souls at the north end of the Gilberts.

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