Tikopia Island: A little-known outpost of traditional culture in the South Pacific

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Excerpt from the book Across Islands and Oceans

TIKOPIA ISLAND

by James Baldwin

"Fired by lust for adventure and the desire to see new lands, canoe after canoe set out and ranged the seas. Fear of storms and shipwreck leaves them undeterred. The reference of an ancient song to the loss of a man at sea as a 'sweet burial' expresses very well the attitude of the Tikopians.”--Raymond Firth – anthropologist, 1936

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Chief Kafika and Chief Fangarere.

A sail appears on the horizon and soon a crowd gathers on the beach. Canoes are launched into the surf, the men pulling hard on their paddles. The yacht tacks into the empty anchorage, guided through the menacing brown coral heads by canoes on either side of the bow. The anchor bites into the sandy bottom as a crowd of people on shore waves and shout a friendly greeting, “Malo e Leilei!” (Welcome).

This is how I arrived alone at Tikopia, a remote and unspoilt island at the far eastern end of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. Tikopia stands out from the ocean like a green fortress, surrounded by coral and pounding surf. In 1984 the population of about 1,000 still lived a traditional lifestyle without electricity, motor vehicles, or even a shop to buy food or merchandise. For a freedom-loving cruising sailor, the total lack of officialdom – there is no police force or immigration officers – is a welcome change from the tedious and costly bureaucratic controls forced on cruisers in most countries we visit.

The three mile-wide island is divided among four clans, each ruled by a hereditary chief, called a “teriki”. Though on the edge of Melanesia, the people speak Tikopian – a Polynesian language peculiar to this island and Anuta, another small island 70 miles to the north.

Custom dictates that ‘palangi’ (foreigners) should ask permission of one of the teriki before exploring the island. My interpreter advised me of the local etiquette; the first rules being to never turn your back to a chief or walk upright in his house. In any case, the entrances to the thickly thatched grass huts are so low that you are obliged to crawl in on your belly.

In a long, low hut near the beach, shaded by coconut and breadfruit trees, Teriki Taumako sat cross-legged on a hand-woven mat covering the sand floor. His arms and chest were covered in tattoos (tattoo is a Polynesian word meaning to puncture) and he puffed on a clay pipe stuffed with strong locally grown tobacco. As is their custom, he set aside my gift of fishing tackle without examining or acknowledging it – an attitude that most Westerners would misinterpret as bad manners. For them, I learned eventually, inspecting gifts too eagerly is a sign of coarse behavior. 

Just as I was beginning to doubt their hospitality, I was offered some baked vegetables and fruit. Then Taumako welcomed me to travel wherever I wished apart from one scared valley, which was ‘tapu’, or forbidden to all palangi

Despite my cries of “Enough!”, the more I ate, the more food his wife and daughters set before me. It soon became apparent that you could not visit anyone here without partaking in a huge meal. I had to plan my visits carefully because if there were several stops to make I would soon be so completely stuffed I could hardly walk.

According to Chief Taumako, the four clans of Tikopia arrived here from different island groups many generations before the first white men entered the Pacific. In that era, the double-hulled sailing canoes ranged across Oceania carrying native settlers and soldiers between Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, and other island groups.

A month before my arrival, chief Taumako’s father had died, passing his title to his eldest son. Since then, the islanders had been in mourning. Activities such as dancing and even fishing were tapu. The end of this period of mourning was now to be marked by an island-wide feast. The women had worked for days gathering taro and cassava roots, green bananas, and breadfruit. The vegetables were cooked in a communal earth oven for a few hours then were mashed in huge wooden bowls and a rich oily coconut cream mixed in to form a tick pudding they call masi. Some of this mixture was wrapped in taro leaves and taken away to be buried underground for several years to ferment. Hundreds of caches of this pungent pudding are buried all over the island to tide the people over in times of crop failure. Friends gave me a sample of seven-year-old masi freshly dug up from the sandy earth. It tasted good (in small amounts), with a flavor something like a strong blue cheese.

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Chief Tofua at one of the new chiefs swearing in ceremony.

On the day of the ceremony, the four chiefs took their seats on mats outside Taumako’s house. Tucked under their belts were branches of a sweet-scented bush that appeared to sprout from their backs. A few men with clubs were beating out a monotonous rhythm against the bottom of an upturned canoe. A group of village elders were wailing discordantly, making eerie, inhuman sounds. The chiefs hung their heads and wept in a show of respect. Then the chiefs and elders began dancing slowly around the upturned canoe, stamping their feet hard in the sand as they circled around and around. Later, baskets of food were brought out and the chiefs ate in silence while bare-breasted girls clad in tapa cloth skirts hovered around them and fanned away the flies.

Later there were hours of story telling while the men continuously chewed betel nut. All over Oceania, these nuts are peeled and chewed together with a lime powder extracted from burnt seashells and a green leaf that neutralizes its bitter taste. A chemical reaction turns the teeth and lips bright red and makes the mouth water with scarlet juice. As I soon found out, to the uninitiated its effect is to set the head spinning and make the legs wobble. The men here chew it endlessly without any sign of it affecting them.

Between pauses for betel nut, one of the elders told of the islanders encounter with the outside world during World War II. Many of the other islands in the Solomons, such as Guadalcanal, had suffered terrible destruction. The only soldiers to come to Tikopia were survivors of an American plane that ditched in the sea nearby. “The big bird fell out of the sky over there”, the old man said while pointing past the reefs. Despite the shock of seeing their first airplane, the islanders had quickly launched their canoes and saved three of the flyers. Sadly, another four drowned. “We all cried for the dead men,” he said as sincerely as if they had been his own relatives. The islanders cared for the survivors until a passing navy ship took them away.

Another man said that soon after that incident an American named John flew his “big bird” over the island, passing so slow that he shook some of the palm fronds loose. “How could you possibly know his name was John?” I asked. “Because he dropped us a carton of cigarettes with his name ‘John Player’ printed on the boxes.” I couldn’t ruin the legend by telling him that John Player was a brand of English cigarettes. Fortunately, that was as close as the madness of war came to this happy island.

In front of the gathered crowd, Taumako honored me with a gift of a shell necklace carved in a bird-like design called temanga, which is worn only by the island's chiefs. By custom, the chiefs of Tikopia are not allowed to travel outside of their island unless the Solomon Islands government requests them for a meeting in Guadalcanal. This happens rarely, so they are naturally curious about other lands and people. As I sat on a woven mat with my back pressed against the hut's main support pole, I tried to answer their questions about my travels. We spoke about navigation techniques, which the elders knew were based on a knowledge of the position of certain stars that could point the way to those who could read them.

"Which star will you follow from here?" asked a man old enough to remember long ago canoe trips to neighboring islands. I simplified my explanation of modern celestial navigation and said, "There is a star that rises over the big island of New Guinea and that is the way I will go." They knew of the island of New Guinea, though they did not know the way there.

Judging from the amazed and satisfied expressions of the audience, my interpreter was a skilled storyteller. I suspect that whenever my own narrative lacked in exciting events, he embellished it with exaggerated claims. At one point, Chief Tofua made a speech to all present, claiming that I must belong to a royal bloodline and wished me to verify the fact by admitting to them that my father was a chief. "No ordinary young man could have come so far alone," he asserted.

I did not feel in a position to shake up their belief in the caste system of chiefs and commoners. Thinking quickly, I remembered my grandfather had held public office and even ran once for town sheriff, so I told them that yes, I had descended from a chief, not a great chief, but a type of chief nonetheless. Chief Tofua nodded his head approvingly. 

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Children guide me past the crater lake on a walk around Tikopia.

It is impossible for a visitor to walk alone on Tikopia. Always scores of laughing children are at your side, each trying to clutch one of your fingers and guide you along. Accompanied by a dozen of these excited children we walked around the 20-kilometer circumference of the island. When overhanging cliffs blocked the shoreline route, we detoured inland taking care to avoid the forbidden valley. What could be in that valley, I wondered.... A temple for human sacrifice? Perhaps they sequestered their loveliest virgins there whenever apalangi sailor was visiting the island?

On the island’s windward side, the walking becomes difficult on steep slopes of mud and loose rock. This uninhabited shore is a maze of cliffs, balanced boulders wrapped in creeping vegetation and deep caves beckoning to be explored. Protruding incongruously from the reef is the battered wreck of a Taiwanese fishing boat, which met with disaster during a storm some thirty years ago. In their canoes, the Tikopians rescued the entire 20-man crew.

The islanders sympathized with the shipwrecked fishermen and took them into their homes until another Taiwanese fishing boat picked them up a month later. Before they were rescued, a government boat arrived from Guadalcanal with the intent of arresting the fishermen for poaching in the Solomon's territorial waters. However, the island chiefs, being happily ignorant of the concept that the deep sea could be owned as if it were a piece of land, simply refused to hand them over. Finally, the officials had no choice but to leave empty handed.

The broken windward-side shoreline gradually gives way to the smooth beaches of the island’s leeward side. When the tide runs out it reveals an expanse of shallow tidal flats. Generations ago, low walls of stone were built to form pens on the flats in front of each village. Each day, as the tide drops, fish are still trapped in the pens and groups of women wade into the water to scoop the fish up with hand made nets that resemble loosely strung tennis rackets. This daily ritual usually ends up looking like a game of water polo as the women chase the fish into corners and frantically slash at the water with their nets. Farther out in the lagoon, men drift about in canoes fishing with hand lines under a languorous midday sun.

Here at Potikorokoro Village, the weekly soccer game attracts hundreds of spectators. The tournament is always held at low tide because the only level playing field on the island is on this tidal flat. After a few hours playing on the moist sand, players are forced to yield the field to the incoming tide.

On a moonless night I was invited to join Joseph Roto in his canoe for a flying fish hunt. On board was a kerosene pressure lamp tied to a post. The flying fish are attracted to the light and are swatted out of the air with a net attached to a long bamboo pole. The kerosene lamp, acquired by bartering with their copra in Guadalcanal, has mostly replaced the ancient lighting method of coconut sheath torches.

About two miles offshore we stopped paddling and the bombardment started. Flying fish shot back and forth just above our heads, the humming sound of their wing-like fins giving only a fraction of a second warning of their approach. Joseph leapt into action with his net and pole. In three hours, swinging his net from side to side, he filled the canoe brim full with stunned fish.

Each small wave threatened to sink us as we paddled slowly through the black night towards the faintly visible island. With our feet safely planted on the beach and the women unloading the fish into baskets, Joseph mentioned the sudden storm that came up two years ago when several canoes were out fishing. Three of the fishermen were lost in what the Tikopians still refer to as a ‘sweet burial’.  

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Mt. Reani, at a modest 400 meters above the sea, is the highest point on Tikopia. Seeing my interest in exploring the island, Cheif Taumako called for a boy named Tivoli to guide me to the mountain’s peak. Leaving the coast we ascended a trial that passed cultivated lots of fruit trees, vegetables and tobacco plants. The islanders work their independent garden plots and then distribute the food equally among their clan so that none may go hungry.

On the upper slopes, the trees leant seaward as if listening for the muted crash of breakers spilling onto the reef below. From Mt. Reani’s grassy peak, there is a clear view of Lake Te Roto, reflecting cliffs and hillsides on its pale green and still waters. Formed in the crater of an extinct volcano, the lake is continuously fed by freshwater springs and occupies nearly a third of the island’s area. Beyond the lake, framed between jagged peaks and a narrow strip of beach, a line of white foam marks the reef. Past the breakers lies the cobalt blue of the ‘Moana’ (the deep sea), and the unbroken horizon.

As he gazed over the sea, Tivoli must have keenly felt the island’s isolation, for he said in a serious way, “Friend, when you leave here in your boat I will go with you.” He assumed that such a courageous offer would be automatically accepted, but seemed relieved when I declined. Perhaps somewhere in his genetic make-up was awakened the same urgings of his ancestors whose large sailing canoes once crisscrossed this sea as if it were a well-known highway: great voyages that are now only a distant memory.

Rowing the dinghy back to Atom on one of my last evenings on the island, I paused in the middle of the lagoon to listen to a group of girls on the beach. Their hauntingly beautiful songs of courtship pierced the darkness of the calm, starry night. If the cyclone season were not approaching, I would surely have lingered longer on this most pleasant and traditional island I was to come across in two crossings of the Pacific. During my stay there, life on Tikopia went on much as it always had, and I wish them the strength to withstand the inevitable winds of change.  

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Tikopia Island after cyclone Zoe, by Geoff Mackley

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Update: On December 28-29, 2002 Tikopia was directly hit and devastated by tropical cyclone "Zoe". This was the strongest cyclone to hit the island in living memory, with winds estimated at well over 150 knots. Reports say most of the islander's homes and crops were completely destroyed and trees were uprooted or stripped bare. Islanders survived by sheltering in caves in the side of the mountain. The storm seas breached a narrow strip of land and contaminated the life-giving freshwater lake with saltwater which ruined the taro plants used as a staple food on the island. Repairs to the breached lake were finally completed four years later in 2006.

In November 2005 I was contacted by a researcher for the BBC television series Tribe, who wrote:

Subject: BBC Tribe Series 
Dear James,

I read with interest your description of your experience on Tikopia. 
I'm working on a BBC TV documentary looking at ethnic groups in various
environments around the world. I would really like some advice about
communities in the South Pacific and hope you don't mind me emailing you
out of the blue! 

The premise of the programme is that our presenter, Bruce Parry, and a
small crew of no more than four, live with a community for up to 6 weeks
sharing in the activities and issues that shape their lives, and
learning how they interrelate with their environment. At times Bruce has
become involved with a people's spiritual life and always eats, sleeps
and lives within the community, whilst the crew tend to stay outside and
entering only to film. As presenter he comes to the programme as an
expedition leader and explorer, though he was formally a member of the
Royal Marines. 

Generally speaking each film has an event, experience or celebration to
build towards. For example, we made a film in Mongolia that followed a
migration of a nomadic people to winter grazing lands; another programme
led up to a very dramatic festival of the Adi people, which marked the
end of the rice harvest; and in Gabon Bruce underwent shamanistic
rituals and was initiated into the tribe. However, whilst we may
illustrate traditional practices, festivals/gatherings, belief systems
or livelihoods that give an ethnic group its strong identity, we do not
romanticise cultures, but try to paint an accurate picture and show how
different societies are facing the 21st century. 

In the ideal world what I'm looking for are culturally rich communities
who perform daily activities which Bruce can partake or involve himself
in (this is key, albeit helping with the harvest, building, accompanying
people on a pilgrimage, or taking part in some other way). Obviously we
need the people to be interesting visually, but often the most important
thing is finding a group who would be genuinely interested in hosting
Bruce and even entertained by having such a visitor. We are happy to
travel/trek hard to get wherever we need to go (a two week trek is not
out of the question) and at the present time all options are open.
I'd really appreciate talking to you about your experiences on Tikopia,
or if you could suggest any other places/people you have had contact
with whilst on your adventures? 

Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.

Renee Godfrey
Researcher, Tribe 

I corresponded with Renee Godfrey and encouraged them to go to Tikopia or its neighbor Anuta Island and gave them some ideas on preparations and logistics. The result was a documentary of their visit to Anuta Island seen on BBC Tribe and shown in the US on the Discovery Channel's Going Tribal series. Here are the links:

BBC Tribe Anuta Island Page

BBC Anuta Island Photo Gallery

"Bruce sails to the island of Anuta, a tiny, remote tropical outpost in the South Pacific. It is one of the most isolated communities on Earth -- 75 miles from its nearest neighbor (up to four days sailing to Tikopia Island). Due to its extreme remoteness, Anuta is one of the most intact Polynesian cultures remaining on earth. Two hundred and fifty Anutans inhabit a beautiful island just a half mile wide. They are an ocean-going culture, still capable of navigating great distances by the stars. The men fish with hand lines from traditional out-rigger canoes for sharks and marlin. They dive on the reef for lobster and collect shellfish at low tide. The women cultivate every available patch of land with taro, manioc and bananas. To the Western eye it looks like paradise -- white beaches, turquoise sea, swaying palm trees. But what is life like for the people who inhabit paradise? Bruce spent six weeks finding out."

While I had the ear of the BBC, I pitched an idea for an adventure documentary I call  "Voyage" about an Englishman (or woman)
who sails alone around the world on a small sailboat, say about 28-32 foot. The boat is fitted out with fixed cameras and solar power. A film crew would not be needed on the actual passages and could join him at each island. His goal for each episode is to reach the next island unaided, walk across the island while living with the natives, and climb each island's highest peak. You'd have anywhere from ten to twenty episodes and the journey would take two years to complete. In fact, it's what I did in a 1984-86 solo- circumnavigation, only without the cameras. A bit too ambitious for TV perhaps...

More on Tikopia:

Photos and article of the closing of the breach into the lake   

The Tikopia project

In 2008 James Wharram and friends built a traditional-type Tikopian voyaging canoe in the Philippines, sailed it to Anuta Island and donated the canoe to the islanders. Since then the Anutans have used it to complete a trip to Tikopia and back to Anuta as they had done in generations past. More info and a video link:

Lapita Voyage

A Voyaging Canoe for Tikopia