Cultural Overview

Tikopia's isolation and small size meant that colonial intrusions like the 19th-century slave ships and European settlers did not impact on it at a time when other, more accessible, islands in the Pacific were being changed totally. Apart from a few anthropologists and one school teacher, virtually no Europeans have ever lived on the island and therefore the land remains under traditional control. The land is actually owned by the four chiefs (ariki), but patrilineally focused family groups belonging to each clan use garden plots which have nominally belonged to each family for generations. The four chiefs (Kafika, Tafua, Taumako, and Fangarere) control all aspects of life on the island with the Ariki Kafika considered to be the first among equals. Technically, the island comes under the jurisdiction of the now independent Solomon Islands government but the distance from the seat of government, Honiara, and the lack of sources of money on Tikopia means that the government shows little interest in the island. Equally, the Tikopians do not consider themselves part of a larger polity unless they leave the island for work elsewhere.

The people live in small villages of fewer than 100 people around the flatter parts of the coastline. The economy is a subsistence one: the island is fertile and produces a range of fruits and vegetables; the sea and the lake provide plenty of fish, and material for clothes, house-building, and canoes come from the land. Western clothes have been acquired by people who have been away from the home island to work but the more traditional barkcloth is usually worn.

Descent is strongly patrilineal, and households ideally consist of parents, their sons, the sons' wives, and their children. Unmarried women remain in their parents' house; girls go to live with their husband's family on marriage. The children of any union are seen as belonging to the patri-lineage and in the almost unheard of cases of divorce, the children remain in their father's house. Young unmarried men may build a bachelor hut on family land to allow themselves more freedom than is possible in a one-roomed house occupied by several related families, but on marriage they will return to the main family house.

Christianity arrived late; total conversion by a Church of Melanesia (Anglican) missionary did not occur until the 1950s. There are now Tikopian Anglican priests who minister to the island, but some of the old rituals of the traditional "Work of the Gods" have been revived. However, the introduction of Christianity had one far-reaching consequence: traditional birth control practices were banned. On a small island where the people were well aware of the need to control population, sexual relationships among the young were allowed but only the eldest son could marry and have children. Abortion and infanticide were enjoined on the others to ensure a population which merely replaced itself. The early missionary observed what appeared to be promiscuous encounters among the unmarried young people and insisted on marriage for all. This led to a 50% increase in the population over about 30 years (from 1,200 in the 1920s to 1,800 in the 1950s). Two severe cyclones in 2 years caused many deaths from starvation, and government-assisted migration to settlements in other parts of the Solomons was introduced to relieve population pressure.

This article will deal mainly with the home island of Tikopia because it retains practices long gone from other parts of Polynesia. There will be some discussion of the settlements and their relationships with other ethnic groups as well as a money economy, neither of which is an issue on Tikopia.

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