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Our traditions say that the first people to settle on the sand banks now called Nanumea were two women named Pai and Vau.  It is said that the neighbouring islets were formed from the sand which fell out of the women's baskets after they had been sent away from Nanumea by the Tongan warrior Tefolaha who became the ancestor of the people of Nanumea. 

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Tefolaha was involved in some battle between Tongan and Samoan warriors. After one of these wars Tefolaha decided to settle in Samoa. He was given some land by the Samoans for helping them fight the Tongans. But Tefolaha soon  became tired of fighting so he decided to leave Samoa, hoping to meet with new adventures somewhere else. He travelled for many days, meeting with strong winds and currents until he finally arrived on the beach of Nanumea.

When Tefolaha arrived at Nanumea he thought that the island was uninhabited but he soon found some footprints in the sand which he followed until he came upon two women, Pai and Vau. They were weaving baskets and garlands when Tefolaha suddenly appeared.  He ordered the women to leave the island at once on the grounds that he was the owner.  The women however, insisted that Tefolaha should leave, unless he could tell them their names. In doing so they were adopting a defence that is frequently used in the mythology of the Pacific Islands. This mythology reflects the belief that to know someone's name is in some way to have power over that person.  On Funafuti for instance, in a story collected by Mrs. David, four brothers named Nautiki, Nautaka, Valivalimatanaka and Naka attempted to save their house from a dwarf named Nariao by telling him that he could have it only if he guessed their names. Craftily, Nariao climbed up onto the roof of the house and lowered a large spider onto the forehead of each brother. As he expected, each one was called by name by the other brothers to warn him of the spider. Nariao heard all this, and quickly went to the brothers and told them their names. They then departed, leaving the house to him. It was much the same on Nanumea with Tefolaha and Pai and Vau.

Tefolaha was known in Samoa as "Folasa-Aitu" because he was able to turn himself into a spirit.  As he was keen to know the names of the women he turned himself into a spirit so that he could easily get up into the rafters of the hut to observe them.  Then he took a piece of string, tied a wooden hook to the end of it and, having climbed onto the roof of the house, lowered the hook down close to one of the women.  When the other woman saw it she called out "Pai look out.  There is a hook above your head." Tefolaha then knew the name of that woman was Pai. He now wished to know the name of the other woman so he pulled up the hook and then lowered the hook close to the other woman's head.  Pai called out "Vau, look out the hook is over your head."  Now Tefolaha knew for certain the names of both women.  Using his magic powers he turned himself into a man again and walked towards the two women.

"Why have you come to my island without my permission?" he asked.  One of the women said "It is our island.   We were the first to live here."  To this Tefolaha said, "There is, as we have already discussed, only one way to sort out who owns this island.  If you can tell me my name you can have the land.  If I can tell you what your names are, I can have the land."  The two women agreed.  They asked Tefolaha to tell them their names.  Tefolaha paused for a little while and then pointing to one of them, he said, "You are Pai."  He then pointed to the other and said "You are Vau."  The two women were very surprised because the man knew their names. 

Tefolaha then said, "Now, it is your turn to tell my name."  They thought and thought. They gave him this name and that but none was correct. Tefolaha had now the right to be the owner of Nanumea.  He asked the two women to leave the island and they picked up their baskets of sand and left spilling sand as they went.  From the sand they spilled the islets of Lefogaki, Te Afua-a-Taepoa and Lakena were formed. The two women then landed in Kiribati where they stayed.

Having won the island, Tefolaha then married a woman named Loukite.  They had five daughters.  Four of the daughters were fierce cannibals with beaked fish mouths, so Tefolaha had to kill them.  The fifth, named Koli, did not eat people and so was allowed to live.  Some time later Tefolaha returned to Samoa for a visit.  On this trip he also visited Tonga, where he acquired a new wife named Puleala.  The children he had by her were all fully human and it is from their three sons, Tuutaki, Fiaola and Lavega that most Nanumeans traced their descent. 

There are other things too, which swerve to remind Nanumeans of the heroic Founder of their community. One is the belief, still strong among them, that they are the rightful owners of Tefolaha's land in Samoa, although that is now claimed by the Samoan Government. Another is, or what is at least thought to be, Tefolaha's grave. In 1978 this was dug up near the residence of Tepou, one of his descendants. A huge flat stone was found in the grave, together with pieces of decayed bone believed by the people to be the founder's remains.

According to tradition, soon after the first settlers were established on Nanumea their peace was disturbed by visitors from Tonga. The first of these is said to have been a lone voyager, a prince named Lupo, who came from Nukualofa. He was first seen by Kaimoko, as inhabitant of Nanumea, who was fishing on the reef. Observing Lupo trying to come up on the reef, Kaimoko broke the long handle off his tae fagota (a round fishing net with a very long handle used for catching reef-fish during low tide) and threw it at Lupo. The prince was struck in the eye. It is said that Lupo immediately turned back for his homeland with the handle still stuck in his eye. He completed his journey, only to be found lying dead on the beach with the handle of the tae fagota still there in his eye. His countrymen tried to pull it out while uttering the names of different countries but they could not do so until the name Nanumea was mentioned. The Tongans then learnt that that was where the prince was killed. Because of the death of Lupo, successive raiding parties from Tonga visited Nanumea to exact revenge for their dead prince. One of the parties was led by a giant called Tuulaapoupou. It is said that Lapi, a Nanumean warrior fought the giant on the southern reef of the main island and killed him with the Kaumaile, the powerful spear which belonged to their warrior ancestor Tefolaha. Tradition tells us that Lapi was aided in the fight by Tefolaha from the spiritual world.

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In yet another attempt to subdue Nanumea, a raiding party from Tonga was destroyed by the combined magic of the powerful spirits of Nanumea - Tagaloa (the chief spirit), and Maumau and Na Kaa, (the eel and the octopus). The occupants of only one of the eleven war canoes were allowed to live. It is said that the crew of this particular canoe were all octopus worshippers and that, consequently, the octopus who was responsible for cutting the anchors off the war canoes left their canoe alone. Noko and Ila, the Tongan women who were with the survivors of the spared canoe, warned the Nanumeans to avoid eating the leve, a poisonous fruit which they would be given to eat by the Tongan warriors. The two women also informed the Nanumea warriors where to find the weapons of the Tongans.

Another raid was notable for the presence of Laukava, a son of a Nanumea woman who had been kidnapped by the first raiders, a generation before. Despite fighting bravely, this party of Tongans, too, was defeated, but when the battle was over Laukava's Nanumea ancestry was discovered by the victors. He was spared, and allowed to live on the island. It was a wise decision, for when the nest generation of Tongan warriors returned, Laukava defeated them single handed. Moreover, he then persuaded the survivors that a Tongan victory was no longer possible, and so they agreed never to return. This ended the intermittent fighting and the raids that had regularly killed many Nanumeans and disturbed island peace.

Meanwhile, despite the raids, Nanumea society continued to function along the lines laid down by Tefolaha. He gave to his sons by Puleala various responsibilities and privileges which they in turn passed on to their children. Tuutoki was given the task of cutting up fish offered to the chief by his people. His descendants are called Kau a te Nifo (the 'fividers'). Fiaola was given the task of passing food to the chief. His descendants are called Kau o te Tufa (the 'distributors'). The youngest son, Lavega was given a much greater task. He was to guard and protect his father, the chief, on his journeys at sea and on land and to carry out his orders. It is said that he was also given power to alter the directions of the wind so that the chief's journey could be safely completed.

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So well did Lavega perform his duties that eventually he was appointed aliki by his father. Mopreover all subsequent alike claimed descent from him. Thus the Te Aliki a Mua, one of the two aliki clans (aliki maga) which traditionally ruled (hopo) the island, traces its descent back tohim through a notable ancestor named Teilo. Loeadership by a member of this clan is supposed to be marked by successful ocean fishing and abundant coconut production. The name of the branch means 'the front chief' and refers to the fact the Teilo was older than his half-brother, Tepaa. They were sons of the same mother. The other leading clan, Te Aliki a Muli, meaning 'back chief', claims descent from Tepaa. The rule of this line is characterised by an abundance of easily caught reef fish.

In addition to the two leading maga there are five other chiefly branches which developed later. Normally the ruling chief was selected from the main branches alternately but occasionally he might be chosen from one of the other. These others are as follows:

Te Tuinanumea. An offshoot of Aliki a Mua, this branch, which is said to have provided carpenters for the aliki.

Te Aliki o Tai or Tuumau. The function of this branch, which was supposed to care for the welfare of the aliki, has been well described by Anne Chambers. Its members would organize and form the crew for canoe voyages of the aliki (hence the word ocean, tai, in the name Tuumau ('stand fast') marks this maga as having been descended from the aliki Logotau, who stayed to fight the I-Kiribati invaders when when all the other aliki fled. The role of this maga as leoleo (guardian) of the aliki stems from Logotau's assumption of that role, and members of the branch lecture men who have been chosen to hopo (reign) on their duties and appropriate behaviour before they take office. Traditionally the group is not supposed to rule but one of its members did so in 1960 when he was told to do so by Government officials from Tarawa.

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Te Paa Heiloa. The name means having no paa, or defects. Paa is normally applied to mis-shaped wood, which the members of the maga are skilled at carving into beautiful canoes. They also have a reputation for being physically beautiful and for being skilled in the use of magic, which enables them to catch very large numbers of fish. Sometimes they are called Kau o te toki or adze holders.

Taualepuke and Pologa. Both these maga are said to have done 'the work of the aliki' but their specific functions have been forgotten.

Before the arrival of the Europeans the ruling chief was chosen from the two chiefly branches. In later years some from other lines were chosen. When a ruling chief was appointed he had to be well behaved. Traditional belief tells that misfortune would befall the island if the chief's behaviour was not appropriate to his position. The ceremony of appointment would occur the day after the meeting of the chiefly members to decide who was suitable to be chosen. The festivities of the day included the ceremonial fighting called tualapalapa, in which the appointed chief's guardians symbolically protected, and also hand fed (fakapuku), the new chief in deference to his high status.

The ruling chief used to get a share of food prepared by the chiefly members. This share, called faagaiga, has long since been passed over to the pastor by the consent of chiefly clans.

At one time the various aliki controlled all the land on Nanumea, but this changed as they gradually handed over much of it to the tuaatina (their mothers' brothers) who cared for them, to the toa (warriors) who defended the island and to the fakaalofa (new comers) who were adopted into the kopiti or land-holding extended family groups. By 1900 there were about seven or eight such groups although by that time they were already dying out. Their decline followed from the destruction of the old religion, since people approached many of the aitu as members of a particular kopiti. The death-blow came with the registering of lands in the names of individual owners by D. G. Kennedy in the 1930's. Meanwhile the aliki families, as a result of their ancestors' generosity, were relatively impoverished, although they still owned most of the matafenua (that is, the ends of the islets). Thus it is that some of the descendants of Taitai, a later migrant from Kiribati, have more land than some members of old chiefly families.

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The colonial government aimed to reduce the powers of the aliki. The Native Laws of the Ellice Islands in 1894 recognised the High Chief as the main member of the island government. Then in 1916 he was the main member of the island government. Then in 1916 he was replaced by a magistrate and a lesser ranking Chief Kaupule, while in 1968 the establishment of a system of elected Island Councils means that the aliki of Nanumea would no longer participate officially in government. Chief Kaupule were supposed to be elected by the island people from among the aliki but in practice they were often appointed, and summarily dismissed, by touring colonial officials.

The last ulu aliki ('head aliki') to serve on Nanumea, held his position for about five years, until 1968. Most Nanumea people believe that this malo fou ('new government') put an end to their traditional aliki leader, as well as to the Famasino and Chief Kaupule combination that had ruled them since 1894. Nevertheless in 1970 they reorganized the aliki system to the concerns to form a group of twelve men called the kau aliki. This was to attend to the concerns of the island in a non-governmental way. It would, for instance, organise island events, set rules for wedding feasts, and care for the ahiga or meeting house. Despite the important of such functions in the life of the community the kau aliki did not last long. It was disbanded in July 1973 because its members felt that their duties were below their dignity, and so degraded further their traditional status. The functions of the kau aliki were then taken over by the Island Council. The final blow to the old chiefly order came in 1974 when the leader of the former kau aliki attempted to register the group as a club with the Island Executive Officer (IEO) and was refused. The IEO said that the aliki had no place in modern life, and therefore should not be recognized.

However, much had happened on Nanumea that must be recorded before that point was reached.

After the Tongans, people from Kiribati (or Tungaru) started invading the Tuvalu Islands. Thus Uakeia and Kaitu, two warriors well known throughout the Tungaru group, conquered Nui but are said to have passed by Nanumea due to the powerful magic of the Nanumea priests in making currents too strong for them to land.

Nanumea traditional history tells that about 1700-1750 Taitai, Uakeia's son, was more successful and landed on the island together with his sister Teputi and a fellow warrior from Onotoa named Temotu. Tradition says that Teputi warned her brother not to land on Nanumea as she had seen, through her magic, the danger they would face if they tried to land. But Taitai was a great warrior. He despised the warning, and his confidence was rewarded. The three were accepted and apparently adopted into island families since both Taitai and his sister were both married on Nanumea. Still, Taitai planned to dominate the island. Gradually, he killed Nanumea warriors secretly as they worked alone in the bush. Taitai even terrorised the island's chiefs into fleeing to neighbouring islands of the group until he virtually ruled the island himself. Logotau was the only young chief remaining on Nanumea. He hid himself in the bush with Matio's assistance. Matio was one of the island's warriors. He, with the young chief, plotted to kill the usurpers. The plan was successful. They killed Taitai by luring him to dig a post-hole for a new ahiga and stabbed him fatally. Temotu, who was with a party of dancing girls, was killed when he tried to escape. Teputi, with all the descendants of the Tungaru immigrants, was allowed to live. The exiled chiefs, meanwhile, used magic visions to keep abreast of developments at home and decided to return. They agreed that the first of them to return would rule. Logotau, who had never left, was there to greet them as they arrived and mocked them for their cowardice. Ashamed, they all agreed Logotau should rule, but he refused, preferring to uphold whoever was made chief and to use his strength to provide continuity as the chief changed from time to time.

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Though Taitai was killed by the people of Nanumea his struggle to settle there was at least partly a success. Today his exploits are recalled by his descendants who still live on the island. One of them is named after Taitai's father - Uakeia. Remembered, also, is a grandson of Taitai named Poepoe, who planned to avenge the killing of his grandfather. When he was forbidden by his father to fulfil his intention Poepoe sent out in a canoe with his uncle Pikia to folau, or commit suicide at sea. No one heard about what happened to them until nearly 200 years later, in the 1960's, when some Tuvaluans living in the Solomon Islands heard a local tradition of Poepoe's canoe arriving safely at tiny Anuta Island. An account of this voyage was also collected by the anthropologist Raymond Firth in 1929.

Not all fighting on Nanumea was against attackers from outside. Occasionally our people fought among themselves. The most famous such conflict was the 'taro pit war' which occurred about 250-300 years ago. Probably because of a prolonged drought, the inhabitants of the island had split into two groups, one living on Lakena and the other on the main island of Nanumea. They were forbidden to travel to each other's residence. Then, as today, there were no taro pits on the main island of Nanumea. The people living there resented their lack of taro to eat and decided to plant some on Nanumea, even though that would attract mosquitoes to the island. Accordingly, they secretly raided Lakena to get taro shoots to plant, and then returned to Nanumea and started digging a pit. The Lakena people ambushed the Nanumeans while they were at work. Each side then took up positions at rock outcrops (pae) along the lagoon shore, the Lakena people at Pae and Kamu and the Nanumeans at Pae Hoopuu. Rocks, and spears carved out of coconut wood, were the main weapons used by each side. The leader's names of this war are forgotten but evidently the Lakena people were victorious. If the Nanumeans had defeated the people of Lakena, it is likely that Nanumea would today suffer from the stings of the mosquitoes, as Lakena still does. As it is, the inhabitants of Nanumea, where the whole population again lives, are proud of their mosquito-free island and prefer the long trip to Lakena to obtain pulaka to being pestered by mosquitoes.

This was strikingly shown in the 1950's when they forbade the Samoan teacher of the new village school to dig taro pits at Matagi, just across the lagoon from the main village.

The last fighting between large groups of Nanumeans occurred about 1840, before the missionaries put an end to such activities. It involved the members of two extended families, one led by a man called Keli and the other by Laukava, who was seeking to avenge the attempted abduction of his wife. About half of the ten men who fought on each side were killed.

Violence, exercised by one or two of the leading warriors, was also used as a means of ridding the community of undesirables. The last time this happened was about 1874, when a man called Kalihi was killed. He was supposed to be killed by a toa named Moulogo. Instead Moulogo's younger brother Tepou, hearing of the plan, decided to do the job himself. So he met Kalihi one night and stabbed him fatally in the stomach with a sharp-pointed club. Kalihi took the club and broke it but before he could do anything more Tepou and men of Nanumea grabbed him and tied him up. They then put him in a leaking canoe without a paddle and pushed him away from land, which was another way of disposing of trouble-makers.

The next morning Moulogo arrived from Lakena ready to fight Kalihi, only to learn that he was already dead. Tradition tells us that Moulogo was furious at the news. He then threatened to kill Tepou, but was persuaded by some of his relatives to leave brother alone and to join them in accepting the new religion - Christianity. Moulogo agreed, and not only urged others on the island to become Christians but announced his own wish to be a deacon.

Christianity had a difficult beginning on Nanumea. It was introduced by a man named Tumumuni, who converted his brother Teuhie, a powerful toa. Eventually they managed to persuade the aliki, Lie, to accept a teacher, but only after Captain Moresby of the Basilisk in 1872 had demonstrated the frightening power of a naval bombardment. A few months later Tuilouaa, the first teacher, arrived. In 1874 the Nanumea people showed that they had accepted Christianity by ceasing to practise the traditional purification ceremonies for strangers. These ceremonies, which could last all day, were a religious activity, intended to counter any hostile aitu, or tapu. Yet they were also useful in a practical way in that the ritual washings reduced the risk of strangers bringing harmful infections to the island.

In 1922 (on the last day of the New Year celebrations) the people decided to commemorate the golden jubilee of the introduction of Christianity by Temumuni. They had no time to prepare a great feast. Instead they decided to complete the conversation those families who had retained their old beliefs, and named the day Po'o Tefolaha, 'the day of Tefolaha'. Some years later a Samoan pastor changed the name to Pati, a word formed from the first letters of Po Alo Tefolaha Iesu, 'the day of Tefolaha and Jesus'. This is now the day on which new members are admitted in the Church of Tuvalu. The church bell is rung as each member is accepted.


Click on the above map for a detailed map

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 Jane Resture
(E-mail: -- Rev. 17h October 2003)