- Echoes at Fishermen’s Rock: Traditional Tokelau Fishingby Elders from Atafu Atoll
To date, the UNESCO series “Knowledges of Nature” comprises four volumes and is dedicated to documenting and preserving local and indigenous knowledge. Another aim of the series is to “strengthen knowledge transmission across and within generations” ( unesco linkswebsite). Echoes at Fishermen’s Rock: Traditional Tokelau Fishingis a remarkable work, originally published in 2008 in Tokelauan as Hikuleo i te Papa o Tautai; in making it available in English to a broad audience, unescohas evidently succeeded across these laudable goals. Compiled over what must have been a lengthy period of time, this volume results from the initiative of a group of elders originally from the Tokelau atoll Atafu, resident in New Zealand. The group gathered in order to identify, document, and thus secure their collectively vast and highly detailed knowledge about the natural environment of their home atoll. They have expressed a desire to preserve their common stock of experience—from deep-sea fishing to fishing inside the lagoon, as well as techniques for catching various other species found in the reef environment [End Page 237]including shellfish and seabirds. The volume is a striking tribute to the intimate understanding these elders have of their land and seascape, about the habits of other living beings residing therein, and of seasonal variation and lunar cycles and how these effect the challenging and complex work of marine resource use. This well-realized volume may serve as a guide for local and extra-local researchers seeking to do the same elsewhere in the Pacific and perhaps beyond.
The techniques for the different kinds of fishing, hunting, and gathering practices are many, and they are precisely described in a manner that allows the book to be read as an instruction manual. Be not deceived, however, by the seemingly straightforward simplicity of the elders’ instructions. In many if not all of the practices detailed in the volume, it is striking how dangerous the detailed activities can be if appropriate caution is not exercised. Most of the kinds of “fishing” described here are collective ventures led by expert fishermen, called tautai in Tokelauan. It is essential that the most expert one takes the lead and that the others follow his instructions, both in order to ensure a catch as well as the safety of the fishing crew. In other words, while an instruction manual, however complete, may go some way to ensure that the information contained therein is transmitted to others, the practices described are normally learned by doing and especially by observing skilled experts in the process of carrying out exact procedures. One of the obvious added values of this volume’s approach is its reinforcing message that nothing can substitute for the experience of learning through apprenticeship in the company of one’s peers and elders.
It is also important to note that while reading this volume, the numerous qualities of the atoll landscape come clearly to the fore. Many distinct microenvironments—potentially every nook and cranny in subtly variable land and seascapes—are mentioned as possible hunting grounds for this or that kind of fish, on such and such a named night in the lunar cycle, and so on. One thing that stands out to this reader, a matter of significance that is not mentioned in the book, is the marginality and harshness of the environment. It is clearly an environment that harbors an abundance of fish, crustaceans, clams, octopi, and birds. However, the seasonal winds, rainy periods, and periods of drought must have sometimes posed quite a challenge for continued existence prior to the current situation, in which foodstuffs are imported from overseas and added to the local menu. This volume is a testimony to the survival...