Kato'aga: Rotuman Ceremonies

by Elizabeth K. Inia

Table of Contents


Part 1: Components of Ceremony

'Epa, Apei, and Päega: Ceremonial Mats
Koua: Earth Ovens
'Umefe: Chiefly Tables
Tefui: Garlands
Lolo: Anointing Oil
Mena: Turmeric
Mafua: Knowledgeable Elders
Fumarä'e: The Man in Charge
Etiquette and Manners
Numbers and Measurements

Part 2: Ceremonies

Death and Funerals
Birth Rituals
First Birthday
Hapagsu: Recurrence Prevention
Majau: The Power to Heal
Ag Forau: Farewell to Travellers
Mamasa: Welcoming Ceremonies
Installation of a Chief
Homage to Chiefs
Koua Puha
Ancient Marriage Rituals
Modern Marriage Customs

Rotuman Indigenous Spirituality


A Hopi Indian proverb says: "Work hard, keep the ceremonies, live peaceably, and unite your hearts." This could just as well have been a Rotuman saying, for it expresses the implicit wisdom of Rotuman culture. It acknowledges that the performance of ceremonies resides at the heart of culture, and that keeping the ceremonies is key to perpetuating culture during times of radical change. Like the Hopi, Rotumans value hard work and harmonious social relations, but the imposition of a commercial economy, increased mobility, access to mass media, and associated changes have combined to erode the sense of community that once characterized social life on the island. Under such circumstances ceremonies take on special significance, for it is during the performance of ceremonies that people are brought together in a social context that unites them in honouring their cultural heritage. Planning, preparing for, and conducting ceremonies in the proper way is hard work and requires the cooperation of many people. Along with language, knowledge about how to perform ceremonies is key to preserving a sense of collective identity and perpetuating a cultural tradition.

If this is true on the island of Rotuma, it is even more so for Rotumans abroad. More than three-fourths of the Rotuman people now live off-island. Most of them are in Fiji, but they also form significant enclaves in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and Great Britain. Wherever there are enough Rotumans to perform traditional ceremonies, they are doing so, although it is often necessary to simplify due to a lack of material items (such as mats or pigs), or the absence of key personnel (especially chiefs and knowledgeable elders).

Elizabeth K. Inia is a knowledgeable elder, as well as a (retired) schoolteacher and published author. What she has given us here is a detailed digest of her considerable knowledge of ceremonies in a form that will permit Rotumans everywhere to draw on it when needed.

Mrs Inia has had an enduring concern for preserving Rotuman culture. Since 1977 she has been preparing Rotuman language materials for the Fiji Ministry of Education Curriculum Develop-ment Unit with a view toward perpetuating the language among the children of Rotuman migrants to Fiji. Her 1998 book on Rotuman proverbs, Fäeag 'es Fuaga, was an extension of her work on language; so was A New Rotuman Dictionary, published in the same year in collaboration with Sofie Arnsten, Hans Schmidt, and ourselves.

Writing this book on ceremonies was also motivated by her concern for the perpetuation of Rotuman culture. The passion Mrs Inia has for preserving her cultural heritage in writing came home to us while she was visiting Honolulu from July through September 1999. She was usually up writing before dawn and working late into the evening, often shunning opportunities to enjoy herself with leisurely pursuits. Indeed, she wore us out while we typed her text, tried to keep up with her elaborations and explanations, and worked at clarifying meanings. Her energy and enthusiasm was infectious, however, and we feel privileged to have had the opportunity to help bring her project to fruition.
To Rotumans everywhere, we repeat the Hopi proverb: work hard, keep the ceremonies, live peaceably, and unite your hearts. We hope this book will contribute to all of these worthy goals.

Alan Howard and Jan Rensel
July 2001