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Nanumea

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Nui

Vaitupu

Nukufetau

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Niutao is roughly rectangular in shape and has a tiny land-locked lagoon in the middle.  It was believed in former times, and the story is still told, that the two women, Pai and Vau who made Nanumea, also made Niutao.  They came from Kiribati with baskets of earth which they scattered around to form islands. 

The first inhabitants of Niutao were half spirit and half human beings who lived at Mulitefao.  Their leader was Kulu who took the form of a woman.  The first human settlers came from Samoa in a canoe captained by a man called Mataika. He settled at Tamana on the eastern side of the island, where winds sweep the spray of the surf over between the people of Tamana and the beings who dwelt at Mulitefao. Mataika had many children. Later, a man by the name of Faitafaga with a party of ten lesser chiefs, followed Mataika from Samoa. He, too, was accepted at Niutao where he built a village named Savaea, a little to the north of Mulitefao.

As in other islands in the Atu Tuvalu, only the first male child and the first female child of a marriage were permitted to live. Later children were held beneath the water of the small lagoon until they were dead. This was to ensure that the population did not grow out of proportion to the resources of the island. To assist them in the conduct of their affairs, the people offered prayers to, and sought guidance from, the moon and sun and the spirits of their ancestors. From these spirits certain elders, of whom Fakaua was the most famous, obtained magical power which enabled them do such things as calm the sea before fishing expeditions, cause death or insanity and to bring rain. When turtles were caught at sea or on the steep sandy beaches their heads were ceremonially presented to the chiefs, who sat at the southern end of the large fale-kaupule or meeting house.

According to our tradition the early inhabitants of Niutao enjoyed a pleasant, easy life, undisturbed by strife, although this did not last indefinitely.  From the north one day came three canoes carrying Kiribati warriors determined to make war on the peaceful island of Niutao.  Unskilled at arms, the people put up little opposition.  In the battle the chiefs and their male descendants were slain. 

Shortly afterwards the I-Kiribati departed, leaving behind a grieving people, and an unstable authority system.  From among the survivors on Niutao, a man named Papau became chief.  Before he died he appointed his kinsman Kiali to succeed him.  His widow, however, resented the succession of a man not of her family, induced her relative, Kiolili to depose Kiali and to make himself chief.  This in turn aroused the ambition of Fuatia, a man of the same line as Papau who had supported Kiali, to whom he was also related. 

Since Kiolili was an unpopular chief, Fuatia sailed to Nui where he persuaded a number of warriors, to help him overthrow Kiolili.  Landing at night, they joined forces with Fuatia's lieutenant, an ambitious young man with Kiribati blood called Pokia who had stayed behind when Fuatia went to Nui.   While Kiolili and his family were sleeping they attacked and killed Kiolili but spared his family. 

Thus being unchallenged as the leaders of the community, Fuatia and Pokia then divided the island between them.  Fuatia, the elder chief claimed all lands in the interior of the island and on the eastern coast while Pokia, the younger, held the land above the western beaches.

Neither of them wanted to take an active part in the Government of the island, so each appointed a sub-chief to represent them.   Following that, the people living in the hamlet of Tamana on the eastern coast moved their dwelling to the west, with the result that the settlements of Mulitefao and Savaea were merged into the one large village where everybody lived. 

Vaguna, assisted by Lito, was the ruling chief of the island when Christianity was introduced.  The people had already learned something of this new religion from Mose a man from Vaitupu, but it was only in 1870 with the arrival of missionaries that they became seriously interested in it. 

The chief welcomed the missionaries and after hearing them expound their message agreed that the people could become Christians.   Most did so.  Indeed, among all the people of Niutao only one family did not accept the gospel.  This family, led by a man called Galiga continued to worship in the old way and, in defiance of a ban on nakedness, refused to wear a skirt or lavalava when swimming in the lagoon. 

While much has changed on Niutao over the last century various traditional beliefs have survived.  For instance, Taia Teuai, an old woman who died in 1892 was generally recognized as having inherited from her grandparents the power to make rain.  Even today the people of Niutao still believe that Taia Teuai possessed this power.  

Niutao

Click on the above map for greater detail

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Jane Resture
(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 17th October 2003)