Tokelau tattoo and tattooing: Tokelau language week 2013

This week is Tokelau language week. The theme for this year’s celebration is: “Ko te au o mātua, ko fānau: At the core of a parents heart, are their children.” With the younger generation in mind, Te Papa staff are blogging daily with stories related to Tokelau and its cultural treasures.

One of my research interests is Samoan tattooing. In the course my work in archives and museums, I’ve come across many little snippets of information about tattooing in the Pacific Islands. There have even been a few, but only just a few, accounts and images of Tokelau tattooing. They may be well-known to some readers, but perhaps new to others. In today’s blogpost, we take a look at what the archival and published record tells us about tattooing in Tokelau.

The key accounts of tatau (tattooing) in Tokelau were recorded in the 1800s by European explorers and other observers. They say the tattooist’s ink was made from a mixture of soot from a charred coconut mixed with water. According to one account, the pakiau (puncturing instrument), was made of a short stick with a set of fine teeth of turtle bone lashed at right angles at one end. It was tapped with another stick to deliver the pigment into the skin (Macgregor 1932).

bowdith islander

In 1841, members of a United States exploring expedition recorded that the main tattoo image was a triangular motif “with the apex downwards imprinted on each haunch.” A double row of lines with little crosses between was drawn down obliquely upon each cheek, and images of turtles were tattooed on the breast. The arms down to the elbow were also tattooed with small triangles. Alfred T. Agate, who was an artist on the expedition made a pretty good drawing of some people decorated with tattoos. He titled the drawing Bowditch Islanders (a European name for the atoll of Fakaofo)(Hale 1841).

tokelau tattooed people

The art of tatau in Tokelau waned and eventually disappeared after the arrival of Christian missionaries. However, according to observations made by J.J. Lister on the atoll of Fakaofo in 1889, “Many, if not all, of the old women, were tattooed with triangular markings around the mouth, each triangle having its base to the margin of the lip, and the apex pointing up or down. There were ten of these, five above and five below.”

MacToke144a-1

Lister also saw a tattooed old man with “two bands across each cheek, passing from in front of the ear forwards and downwards towards the mouth. Each band consisted of an upper and lower line, the space between being filled in with oblique cross lines. A similar band encircled each wrist, and several interrupted lines were traced round the lower part of each forearm. There were two horizontal bands across the gluteal region, a representation of a fish over the hip-joint, and a circular ornamentation above, at the crest of the ilium. A transverse band was tattooed across each calf, limited to the back of the leg, and there were interrupted lines above and below it; a single line surrounded the leg above-each ankleScreen Shot 2013-10-31 at 11.44.15 PM

Writing in 1932, ethnologist Gordon Macgregor noted that: “After the death of a member of the family, particularly a child, it was customary to have a “picture” of the dead person tattooed on the left side of the chest [...] At the time of Lister’s visit the high chief had four such figures: one for the past king, one for a dead female relative, and two for dead children. He had also smaller triangular or geometric figures for children who had died at an early age.”

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This final image is from the National Library Collections in Wellington. It is titled [Lister family] :Tattooing on an old woman of 60-70 at Fakaafu – one of the Union Islands… [ca 1888](sic). Notice the close up detailing of the motifs.

These are tantalising glimpses into the tattooing practices of Tokelau’s past,  collected over a few short decades during a time of great change. As more museum and archive collections are digitised and put online, more Tokelau tattooing stories, images and artefacts are bound to come to light. Let’s watch this space…

Words

Pakiau – tattooing instrument ; an instrument for opening up a swollen part of the body to let out pus. It is made from the tooth of a shark fastened to a piece of stick.

Tatau – tattoo

Sources:

Hale. Horatio in Matagi Tokelau: History and traditions of Tokelau.  Tokelau. Ofiha o na Matakupu Tokelau.; University of the South Pacific. Institute of Pacific Studies.(1991) p.70

The Alfred Agate Collection Naval Historical Centre, Washington DC http://www.history.navy.mil/ac/exploration/wilkes/wilkes19.html

Lister, J. J., Notes on the natives of Fakaofu (Bowditch Island), Union group: Roy. Anthrop. Inst., Great Britain and Ireland, Jour., vol. 21, pp. 43–63, (1891).

Macgregor, Gordon  Ethnology of Tokelau Islands. Bernice P. Bishop Museum (1937) http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-MacToke-t1-body-d1-d10-d5.html

 

8 Responses

  1. Filipo

    Finally!!! I am a Tokelauan who has been searching and searching for inspiration to create my tattoo design. This is brilliant!! Interesting to read also about ties to Samoa via Tilifaiga and Taema.

    Reply
    • Sean Mallon

      Thank you for the feedback Filipo…I’m glad the blogpost was of interest. I’d love to see some of your Tokelau tattoo designs when you have them done…best wishes.

  2. Lagi

    Very interesting. What do you make of Tokealuans with a pe’a? I don’t know how common it is, but I know that one tufuga ta tatau recently travelled to Tokelau from Samoa to apply the pe’a. Purportedly, Tilifaiga and Taema (the mythical goddesses of tattooing) stopped in Tokelau on their way to Samoa a long time ago. Tilifaiga and Taema were also (supposedly) given a Tuluma to safeguard their ‘au. What do you make of this? Would you say that the pe’a and malu are indigineous to Tokealau’s tattoo history?

    Reply
    • Sean Mallon

      Hi Lagi, thank you for reading the blogpost and commenting. I am aware that there are Tokelauans in New Zealand with the pe’a. This doesn’t surprise me given the close associations Tokelau and Samoan communities have with one another. I also saw the recent news story you mention about a tufuga ta tatau travelling to Tokelau from Samoa to tattoo a man with the pe’a. It was a fascinating story, I wondered if it was a first for Tokelau.

      Unfortunately, I don’t know of any historical observations or published sources that would suggest the pe’a was indigenous to Tokelau. I also can’t identify a source confirming whether Tilafaiga and Taema stopped in Tokelau on the way from Viti (Fiji). Is it part of the Tokelau oral tradition?

      As the blogpost points out, there are very few recorded observations of Tokelauan tattooing in the 1800s. There could be more material in archives not yet discovered, and the oral traditions of Tokelau people may offer more information. I hope this blogpost continues to attract comments and thoughts from people…

  3. Ahenata-May

    Thank you so much for sharing this information, it is just great.

    Reply
  4. Roji Oyama

    Kia ora, fascinating as another tradition of tatau emerges from an island that I have only a fleeting understanding of. I hope to visit the Te Papa Museum next year when I will visit Aotearoa for the first time.

    Ke te pai,

    Roji
    (Japan, by way of San Francisco, California

    Reply
    • Sean Mallon

      many thanks Roji, for reading and feeding back on the blogpost. There is still much to learn about the histories of tatau in the Pacific, but we are glad you found this article of interest.

      best wishes
      sean

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