A poncho to cover that torso! Niuean Language Week 2013

A poncho to cover that torso! Niuean Language Week 2013

This week is Niuean Language Week. The theme for this year’s celebration is ‘Leveki mo e Fakaaoga e Vagahau Niue’ | ‘Treasure and Use the Niue Language’. Pacific Cultures curators will be posting blogs related to Niue throughout the week and highlighting treasures from Te Papa’s collections.

Today’s blogpost is by Rachel Yates, who writes about a distinctive garment made from an equally distinctive cloth…

Tiputa (Poncho), 19th Century, Niue, maker unknown. Gift of Ebenezer Vickery, 1880. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (FE000268)

This poncho-like garment is called a tiputa and is made from Niuean hiapo (tapa cloth). Although referenced in earlier accounts and oral histories, it is generally believed that the art of hiapo started, or at least grew considerably, under the instruction of Samoan missionaries from the London Missionary Society Group (LMS) in the mid-19th century.

Niueans made hiapo by felting layers of bark into a single sheet using an ike (tapa beater).  They had also created their own indigenous style of decoration, inspired by Samoan freehand, Niuean designs were finer and incorporated local plants, people, stars and abstract compositions often times in a grid formation. Some scholars believe that many hiapo in the late-19th century were made by a single small community on Niue. They make this claim on the basis of a continuity of style and motifs, and the recurrence of particular peoples’ names on signed pieces of hiapo.

The origins of tiputa are Tahitian but the style of garment was introduced to Samoa in the 1830s when Tahitian missionaries for LMS introduced tiputa as a way to easily cover up one’s chest, as the show of that much skin was offensive to Christian beliefs.  Samoan missionaries to Niue repeated this action and many tiputa were accordingly made in Niue as the population converted to Christianity.

Once labelled by English explorer James Cook as ‘Savage Island’ due to the people’s resistance of foreign contact and influence; today, representation of the Christian church in Niue is easily identifiable. This shot is of celebrations marking 150 years of the first LMS missionary arrival, Niuean Peniamina in 1846. In October of every year, Niueans have a national holiday titled Peniamina Gospel Day which is dedicated to this event.


Pule, J. P., & Thomas, N. (2005). Hiapo: past and present in Niuean barkcloth. Dunedin: University of Otago Press.

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