Learn the History and Customs of Your Culture

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Why learn the customs and history of Pacific island people?[edit | edit source]

It is important to understand the customs and history of the island where an ancestor lived. The languages of the islands were unwritten until after the year 1800. Also written records vary in type and availability. Naming customs, the relation of people to the land, and the way they reckoned time differ from European traditions. In essence, the history of the village or district where an ancestor lived is the history of the ancestor. It gives the clues needed to find more information.

Pacific island oral history customs[edit | edit source]

The Pacific islanders kept histories in their memories and passed them down orally, from one generation to another, through memorized chants, dances, songs, legends, and pictorial designs.[1] Although many of these were written in the mid-nineteenth century, they are not dated according to Western culture. The names of people do not always agree between tribes that have common ancestry, and occasionally errors crept into the pedigree through human weakness and because of repeated copying. Even today, some do not have name standards that are widely observed in many of the islands.

Personal names[edit | edit source]

People were known by single names, which are considered to be given names. In the past, we used a naming system similar to that of the Bible. A person was generally given one name, which was a descriptive name. We might add other names later, or the person’s name might be changed entirely to honor some event in that person’s life.

Names consist of several ideas or words, none of which is a surname, but which consist of several words to describe the person.

Folikemua means Try to win
Kaitangata: The man-eater
Afalahi: Big Hurricane
Muahtika: Come first place in throwing the tiki
Paeke ale o Kanolu: He who rides the crest of the wave

Modern surnames. The adoption of modern names and the use of surnames came about in various ways. Natives in outlying areas were slower to adopt them. When a person was baptized a Christian, he might take on a Biblical given name, such as Hoani and use his single name, such as Te Rangituanuku as a surname.

Example: Hoani Te Rangituanuku.

After Europeans came to the islands, many islanders adopted patronymic surnames. In Hawaii, the U.S. Postal Service told the King in 1850 that people had to start using surnames. In some families, the children would take the father’s given name as their surname. Others would use the patronymic for two or three generations and then change the surname again. In some cases, the surname would revert back again after the third generation. Various patterns of name styles emerged in various areas.

Examples: A man named Mamaku has a son named Awhio. The son used the name Awhio Mamaku. A man named Te Niko a Nipu has a father named Nipu. His name actually means “Niko son of Nipu

If the ancestor had a long or unusual name, he might take a part of or a shortened version of the name for his family surname.

Example: The name Keli`ikulahala, could be cut down to Keli`i.

Many Polynesian names, especially Tahitian, begin with the prefix Te. The definitive article Te is not a prefix, but an article, showing that a “certain one is meant.” It adds dignity and prestige to the name. Further, it is used to mark nouns, indicating something well known. Te has no further meaning. In Samoa, Te may be written as Le. In Hawaii, it is written as Ke.

For example, a name may be written as Te Maunganui, Te maunganui, Temaunganui, or Maunganui. Researchers should understand that these are all the same name. In other words, the name is really Maunganui.

In the old computer system that the Church Genealogical Department kept, the Te in names had to be hyphenated to keep it joined with the rest of the name. This was not consistently done, and the same name could be filed four different ways: Te Kanawa, TeKanawa, Te-Kanawa, and Kanawa. Because of alphabetical sorting rules that apply to spaces, hyphens, and capital letters, we should try looking up names like this in the International Genealogical Index by using all of the possible spellings.

Pacific island people marry freely with people of other ethnic groups. Most of us have mixed ancestry. This means we may need to learn how to do several different kinds of research. In some islands, people of mixed ancestry were known as “half castes.” Some of us with half-caste names later used a Polynesian pronunciation and spelling. To do research on a European line, we need to know both versions of the surname.

Example: Bloomfield is written in Tongan as Pulu.
Smith is written in Maori as Mete.
Dawsen is written in Niuean as Tosene.

In eighteenth century Samoa, if a person had an Anglo name, they had a better chance for a job, so some people adopted Anglo names even though they had no Anglo blood.

There may also be different versions of the given name. Example:

Semisi Semisi


A chief or person of rank was usually given a title-name. During his life, he would be called by the title name, rather than by the original given name.

Example: A man named Maeli later became known as Fuimaono
A man named Mimitinui became known as Makea.

Many of us have a nickname. Or we may use in life a name other than the one given us at birth. We might be known by our nickname all of our life. Both names should be recorded.

Examples: Tevi, for Tevita
Solo, for Solomone

Because Polynesian languages are spoken rather than written languages, slight variations in spellings will appear. Pronunciation will indicate the names are the same.

For example, double vowels may appear or variations in the use of consonants may appear, due to phonetic spelling.

Example: Peeka may be written Peka
Maake may be written Ma’ake

Because of the many dialects in the Polynesian language, the same name appears differently in different languages. A famous Polynesian ancestor’s name is written as follows:


Determining gender[edit | edit source]

Legends and genealogies do not always indicate the gender of the person named. Authorities sometimes disagree about the sex of certain ancestors. Varying versions of the legend may alter the sex of the same person. Stories, legends, and traditions often give clues to the person’s sex. The activities of the persons indicate their gender. Stories of love affairs and weddings almost always identify which person is female. There are very few distinctly masculine or feminine names, but some seem self-evident:

  • Names which include Hine, Hina, Sina, or Mahina are female.
  • Names of flowers or wreaths and names which refer to the moon or pleasant waters were usually given to girls.
  • Names which include Kane, Tane, or those which begin with Tu were generally given to males.
  • Names which indicate strength, action, a warrior, or weapons were usually given to men.
  • Chieftain titles such as Ariki, Ali’i, Tui, and others apply to the hereditary office and not to the sex of the title holder. Both males and females held these positions. The legend will usually give a clue to designate the sex of the person.

If we have the legend or narrative story, we should keep it in the record. It gives context of time, place and events that are left out of the pedigree itself.

Pedigrees of Samoans and Tongans often designate a child as “son” or “daughter.” Transcribed genealogies from other islands may sometimes include this information. Perhaps only the initial letter (T or K for tane and kane) for males and V or W (vahine or wahine) for females was given.

The language also has certain relationship terms which are distinctly masculine or feminine.

Example: Niueans call a woman’s brother Tungaane, and a man’s sister is Mahakitaga. Sometimes you can learn the gender by cross-reference to other records which show marriage connections.

Polynesian genealogies usually favor male kinship. Names of sons were more likely to be remembered. When female names were included, this fact was mentioned. If a pedigree was of a female lineage, this is usually stated.

Time reckoning[edit | edit source]

The old genealogies were preserved by memory. Consequently, only the names of persons, the histories and stories, wars and travels, and lines of descent are available. No specific dates were kept prior to European contact in the islands. Even since the arrival of Europeans, few specific dates are available.

Although standards for estimating dates of birth for the ancient Polynesians were attempted, no estimated date can be considered exact. Different genealogists or tribal groups may estimate certain lines of pedigree in a different manner than others, and thus arrive at a different set of dates. Major events in a person’s life (such as birth, puberty, maturity, or death) were sometimes identified in connection with an unusual occurrence.

The months (moons) were named, and the days and seasons were known. Planting, harvest, hunting, and fishing were all regulated by the waxing and waning of the moon and by the annual cycle of the sun and stars. The constellation called Matariki (the Pleiades) leads all the stars of heaven and its annual rising in the evening sky heralded the commencement of a new year.

Pacific island navigators used stars on the horizon instead of compass directions. To them, constellations were long chains of stars. In much of Oceania, islands were associated with stars that have zenith appearances above them.

Arorae in the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati) is very close to the equator, and the people of the Caroline Islands also used a kind of star compass. The Maori used a similar system. Various cultures in central and South America have also been interested in horizon and zenith events. These include the Maya, the Inca, and the Aztec. Our ancestors made long voyages and accurately arrived at small islands in a huge ocean on sea-worthy ships long before Europeans made such voyages.[2]

The passing of time meant little to our ancestors. The quantity of years in a life span was hardly considered. Birth, puberty, maturity, and marriage were factors controlled by nature. The western calendar was not used.

Names of people, places, and events were remembered, but there was no way to record the exact date of any event. However, since traditions, pre-history, and lineages given in the genealogies are true, it is possible to prepare some type of logical and sequential date system for the lineages. Our ancestors used a narrative story to provide a type of a sequence for events. This is of value in interpreting the pedigree, and should be preserved, but constructing a precise chronology from such traditional narrative may be difficult.

Oft-times, no marriage date is available because people married in tribal fashion, under tribal law or custom. Sometimes, because of governmental or church requirement, these same people may later have been married under official government authority. Since several children may have been born prior to this marriage, we shouldn’t estimate the birth of children with reference to the marriage date of the parents. In records where a man and a woman lived together under tribal law and had children, consider them to be married.

Written history and records[edit | edit source]

The written record of dates and events in the South Pacific lands began with the arrival of Europeans, with their governments and missionaries. Even then, the recording of dates of vital statistics of the native peoples was not considered of importance. Many of the early churches and missionaries kept some record of their converts. From about 1850 A.D. onward, dated records can be obtained for dates of many newsworthy events in our ancestors’ lives. For example, wars, troubles, colonizing, shipping, trade, deals, and other historical events were recorded in newspapers and other documents.

Generally, enforced registration of vital statistics in most of the Pacific lands did not begin before 1935, although there are a number of events recorded as far back as the early1800s. Government registration of vital statistics for the Maori in New Zealand did not begin until 1928. Although registration has been required in most islands since 1937, it is possible that in some isolated areas some events have not been officially recorded. Some families waited until after several children were born to register their births because of the long distances to be traveled to the government offices. They may have estimated the birth dates of their own children, making a conflict between recorded birth dates and the dates people remember as their own birth dates.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. The information on this page was compiled and written by the late V. Foli Po’uha Fisiipeau.
  2. "Polynesian navigation" in Wikipedia: the Free Encylopedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polynesian_navigation (accessed 1 January 2008).