Tuvalu - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Tuvalu is a solidly Protestant society, with other sects and religions still having only minor significance. Beliefs and practices associated with ancestor worship and animism began to crumble even before the arrival of missionaries, though some of the northern islands, where visitors were subjected to rigorous "quarantine ceremonies," initially proved recalcitrant. Nevertheless, some syncretic beliefs in magic and sorcery remain. The Christian deity, known to Tuvaluans as "Te Atua Ieova," is universally acknowledged, with the Tuvalu church (unlike some of the more fundamentalist sects) giving equal prominence to Jesus, known as "Iesu, Te Aliki." In pre-Christian times, supernaturals included worshiped ancestors, culture heroes, and some natural phenomena. It is also possible that some pan-Polynesian deities were recognized (e.g., Tagaloa).

Religious Practitioners. Missionary accounts never specified whether pre-Christian priests were chiefs as well as religious specialists. Their roles and powers are extremely difficult to reconstruct, though it seems clear that chiefs themselves had important ritual duties and were hedged in by taboo. For several decades after missionization, great power was wielded by (predominantly Samoan) pastors of the London Missionary Society, and the role became a prestigious career choice for Tuvaluan males as well, a number of whom were appointed to other parts of the Pacific. Locally, deacons (men and women) and lay preachers (men only) play important parts in religious affairs.

Ceremonies. Apart from regular Christian holidays and days of worship, Tuvaluans celebrate islandwide festivities held to commemorate a variety of significant events and people (founding ancestors, arrival of missionaries, deliverance from human or natural disaster, etc.) Ceremonies are also held in conjunction with communal activities. Some rites of passage are also held on a communal basis (e.g., multiplevillage-sponsored wedding ceremonies), but the preference is for nuptials to be organized by the families concerned. Next to weddings, funerals are the most important life-cycle rituals.

Arts. The major artistic traditions are performance-oriented—oratory, plays composed for specific occasions, and, above all, the action songs known as faatele. These songs take the form of seated singers and standing dancers singing and acting out the repeated verses of a song faster and faster until they reach a crescendo. Faatele may involve competition between different sides, be an adjunct to other festivities, or be an end in themselves at family gatherings. Tuvaluans also enjoy other kinds of musical activity: hymn singing (often on a competitive basis between choirs as well as in church), Western-style dances, and pop music, among others.

Medicine. Western medicine is practiced by trained doctors and nurses, but it is variably available throughout the archipelago. Local curing practices are a syncretic combination of traditional, Christian, and scientific ideas; massage; herbal and other medicines; special foods or food prohibitions; faith healing; prayer; and other methods.

Death and Afterlife. In contemporary Tuvalu, Christian ideology proclaims the existence of Heaven and Hell as the destinations of souls. Alternative views, if they exist, are not officially condoned, though the spirits of the dead are believed to have the power of action under certain circumstances (lack of filial piety, bad relations between kin, etc.).

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