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

Installation of a Chief

When a district chief (gagaj 'es itu'u) was installed, people held a ceremony called jöl niu, which literally means 'to pick nuts from the top of a coconut tree.' This metaphorically refers to the act of covering coconut husks with coconut leaves after the nuts have been picked and husked (fau so'ag henu). A man who had climbed coconut trees on someone else's land to obtain nuts for his family customarily did this. After husking the coconuts, he cut a coconut leaf into pieces and placed them over the piles of husks. The land-owners were not annoyed because they knew that the person who took the nuts would acknowledge his deed and come to apologize. The act of covering the husks thus symbolized a public responsibility to avoid disrupting peaceful relations. Likewise, the newly installed chief was expected to pacify any dispute among his people.

Jöl niu was a ceremony that was very important to the mosega whose turn it was to rule over the district until the new chief died or was sacked. It was also important to the whole district, because the ceremony ended the void in leadership that occurred when the previous chief died or was deposed.

The mosega concerned fixed the installation date. The female members of the mosega contributed mats for the seat where the new chief was to sit for hül asa (investiture of the district chiefly title) and jöl niu. The men of the mosega contributed food, including the cows and pigs to be roasted, fruit, and kava.

If possible, the elders of the mosega chose the new district chief prior to the death of the late chief, so that the new chief could be the messenger to break the sad news to the island's other district chiefs and the District Officer. [Today the meeting of the mosega takes place on the day of the funeral or before the teran lima, and usually a casting of votes takes place (adult women as well as men vote)—a modernized system. Much disagreement can occur if the younger generation ignores the wisdom of their elders.] After the successor was chosen, the elders of the mosega decided which title among those held by their ancestors he should take.

As soon as convenient after the successor was chosen (but after the teran lima), the newly selected chief was installed. The tonu (messenger, envoy) of the district[1] informed the subchiefs within the district of the installation date. Early in the morning on the installation day, members of the mosega brought uncooked food for the koua and mats for the päega. They provided breakfast for all the invited subchiefs and for all other visitors who came to witness the installation.

A päega was prepared for the man to be installed and placed in the centre of the front of the house (the seaward or eastward side). After the man was seated, along with any major chiefs in attendance, a girl from the mosega came forward to put a tofua (a girdle made of strips of sa'aga consisting of a wide woven band from which long strips are suspended) around his waist. He knelt and she tied the tofua on his side. After he reseated himself, she tied a tefui around his neck, put a white flower (tiere) behind his right ear [tieri, or gardenia (Jasminum sp)was always used on such occasions, but they are rare today so other scented flowers are used instead], and sprayed him with perfume.

The faufisi of the district came up to him, standing normally (rather than deferentially bent over, because the person was not yet a chief). He daubed mena on the man's cheeks, poured oil on the man's head, and said, "Gou ninia 'äe 'e 'i la 'äe Gagaj [new title] la sau pene'is het ne la faua so'ag hen ne itu' te'." (I anoint you today to be Gagaj [new title], a royal sweet fragrant flower, the aroma of which to provide peace [to cover the coconut husks of this district] to solve the problems of the people.) With the new title, he was expected to rule justly and honestly so that peace would prevail, and the social atmosphere would be as sweet smelling as the flower he wore. The feast was then prepared in the usual chiefly way under the direction of the mafua. The announcement of the koua differed only in the name of the ceremony, that is, "Hül asa te' . . .," "Jöl niu te' . . .," "Huliag asa te' . . .," or "Joliag niu te' . . . ." (Any of these phrasings were correct.)

While the chiefs ate their meal, other chiefs present made speeches pledging support for the new chief and expressing hope that he would lead the district wisely. The newly installed chief also made a speech in which he thanked the faufisi and other chiefs for coming and asked for their compassion and support. He thanked his relatives for choosing him to be chief and for the burden they undertook in preparing the päega, the feast, and so on. It was common for a newly elected chief to pledge to try his best to be a good and wise chief.

After the ceremony was completed, the päega that the newly installed chief sat on was presented to the faufisi to thank him for performing the installation ritual.

Notes to Installation of a Chief

[1] This is a formal position in the Rotuman social order. Each district chief selects someone to convey his messages. The tonu is freed from all community work involving village men in order to attend to the district chief's orders. back to text

To Homage to Chiefs