Tokelau - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Since the latter half of the nineteenth century, Christianity has been a central part of Tokelau life. Of the gods and spirits of the past little is known. Tui Tokelau was preeminent, had no visible being, and was represented by a huge mat-wrapped pillar in front of his shrine in Fakaofo. Here annual rites were held appealing to the god for continued abundance and fertility. Other gods or spirits were associated with particular places or kin groups. Catholic and Protestant proselytizers competed for Tokelau souls in the 1850s-1860s. Their successes were initially in Atafu, which became and remains wholly Protestant, and Nukunonu, which became and remains wholly Catholic. Fakaofo ended up with adherents of both denominations and decades of veiled antagonism, if not open hostility, between them. However, a true ecumenical spirit came to prevail there and has become part of general Tokelau morality. Whether Protestant or Catholic, Tokelau Christianity is of a fundamentalist, puritanical bent. Christian morality is preached in support of Tokelau precepts: respect for elders, obedience to parents, unity of community, equality of all, etc.

Religious Practitioners. Protestant congregations have pastors, until recently Samoan ones, who have been "invited" by the congregation to "serve." The governance of each parish is in the hands of local deacons and lay preachers, upstanding male members of the congregation. Catholic congregations have catechists, always Tokelauans, and sometimes host a resident, non-Tokelauan priest.

Ceremonies. Celebrations, whether of Christian derivation or Tokelau origin, have both Christian and local components. Significant days of the Christian calendar, days set aside for local groups (often marking their founding), and events of moment to the community (such as weddings) invariably include four features: prayer, food, games, and entertainment (i.e., a church service, a feast, a cricket match, and a song-dance evening). Other features may be added, such as a parade, and the basic ones may be elaborated and modified in innumerable ways.

Arts. The performing arts are the most developed and creative Tokelau arts. The song-dance repertoire is huge, and new performances are continually being created. Equally creative, but more individual, are comic skits and routines devised and repeated by recognized clowns and comedians, many of whom are older women.

Medicine. Hospitals with Western-trained Tokelau doctors and nurses are long-standing village institutions. When they are ill or injured most people go to the hospital for attention. Certain local people are recognized masseurs whose skills are sought to relieve or correct various conditions. Although herbal remedies and other "medicines" are used, there are few specialist healers of this sort.


Death and Afterlife. A death in the village is signaled by the tolling of the church bell, and from then until burial all other activity is in abeyance. The body is laid out in the appropriate family home. Women of the immediate family remain in attendance, their wailing broken by speeches, hymns, and prayers of visitors. Before the body is placed in its coffin, people gather at the house of mourning to take part in final farewells. Following a Christian service, the coffin is Transported to the burial ground and placed in a deeply dug grave. After the last rites, all men present give a hand in filling the grave. A period of postburial mourning ends with a feast. The influence of the dead is often remarked on soon after burial: the deceased may bring an abundance of fish, or the deceased's ghost may be encountered, or the ghost may bring misfortune to kin who do not follow specified instructions. Mainly, however, the dead are considered to be remote, though they are fondly remembered.

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