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


Rotuma is divided into seven districts, each with a gagaj 'es itu'u (district chief) as its leader. Districts are subdivided into ho'aga, clusters of households forming cooperating work groups under the direction of a fa 'es ho'aga (village chief), who is responsible for organizing labour on ceremonial occasions and whenever district work is to be done. While district heads are always titled, fa 'es ho'aga may or may not be, and some men take titles without assuming a leadership position. This suggests a conceptual separation between prag-matic leadership and the ceremonial roles of chiefs.

At ceremonies, titled men have special rights and responsibilities not afforded untitled men. They eat from 'umefe symbolizing their special status and are honoured in kava ceremonies at which their titles are called out in rank order. Titled men are expected to give speeches on behalf of their constituents and to be more generous than other men when presentations of food and valuables are required.

Titles 'belong' to the descendants of previous title-holders, who form kainaga (descent groups) known by the fuag ri (named house-sites) on which their title-holding ancestors lived. Following custom, the choice of a successor to a title is made at a meeting of the kainaga. In most districts, three or four kainaga claim rights to a title eligible for district chief. Collectively, these are referred to as mosega (literally, 'bed'). Ideally, district chiefs should be chosen successively from each mosega in turn, but in practice the process is highly politicized.

The second-ranking title in each district is that of faufisi, who serves as the district chief's 'right hand.' He customarily acts as head of the district when the gagaj 'es itu'u is away. In times past, the faufisi was served kava prior to the district chief at district functions, but this practice has been discontinued. Among the subchiefs, the faufisi alone has the great honour and right of installing the district chief. In his absence, a district chief (fa 'es itu'u) of another district who is a close relative is asked to perform the installation instead.

Lesser titles are bestowed on those occupying other special roles, such as tautei (head fishermen) and tonu (messenger or herald).

One ordinarily holds a title throughout one's lifetime, but if a man is particularly remiss in his role or otherwise angers his kainaga, they may pressure him to give up the title. Whether kainaga have a right to take back titles once they give them is currently a matter of debate.

There are two kinds of titles: major titles, including the district chief, the faufisi, and titled village chiefs (as ne ho'aga); and minor titles ('umef agai). The seating arrangement at ceremonies reflects the difference in their status. Ceremonies may take place within buildings (meeting houses or homes) or outdoors. Buildings are divided into two parts: the front (mua heta) or chiefly section, and the back (fa' heta) or common section. The front of a building is the wall nearest the sea, or if the building is not near the sea, toward the east. Men with major titles and high dignitaries sit in a row against the seaward or eastward wall in the front part of the building, while 'umef agai and minor dignitaries sit in rows along the side walls, or in a line in the front part of the building facing the major titled men. Traditional buildings had a ridgepole (fakmanuka) that divided the chiefly side (seaward or eastward) from the common side. When minor chiefs sat facing the major chiefs they did so within the chiefly space. In district meetings today the 'umef agai sit in front of the commoners facing the first row of chiefs, those with major titles.

If a ceremony takes place outside, a temporary shelter (ri hapa) is built out of poles and thatch on the seaward or eastward side of the clearing (marä'e). The men with major titles and the high dignitaries sit under the ri hapa. If the occasion is large enough, additional ri hapa may be erected along the sides of the clearing for chiefs with minor titles and lesser dignitaries.

Alternatively, either inside or outside, places may be made for minor chiefs and dignitaries at the tables of the major chiefs after the food has been served. In this case, they sit facing the major chiefs and eat off their tables. [10]

When a ceremony is confined to a village, all the chiefs who live there are invited to participate. After the feast one of the serving boys must take a basket of food to the village chief (fa 'es ho'aga). If for some reason one of the chiefs does not come, the family hosting the occasion must send a basket of food (koua 'afa) to his house. On special days, like Christmas, each household sends a koua 'afa to their fa 'es ho'aga. When a contingent from the village (la'o) goes to a function elsewhere, the fa 'es ho'aga speaks for the village as a whole. He also must be present when groups (la'o) from other places come to the village for a function. It is incumbent on the village chief to make speeches of thanks and welcome when occasions call for it.

[10] The meaning of agai is 'to take up a position facing or opposite to' (Churchward 1940:173). Thus 'umef agai suggests a category of titled men who face those with higher titles across a feast table or at a meeting.

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