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Eric H. Larson


Success in any venture, so folk wisdom tells us, almost always car­ries with it problems that the successful never dreamt of before embarking. So it is with the relocated Tikopia community in the Russell Islands. (See map 11.) Like other relocated communities described in this volume Tikopia emigrants had to cope with the inevitable problems of recreating an infrastructure and a social system in a novel environment. They appear to have been more than reasonably successful in dealing with these problems. Yet their success in adjusting to life in their new environment has brought with it a great deal of frustration and insecurity that seem to permeate community life. This chapter is primarily concerned with the nature of this frustration and insecurity, how these feel­ings came to be, and how the Tikopia have attempted to deal with them.

Although Tikopia have been emigrating from the home island since 1904, the patterns of migration have changed considerably since 1956, when the resettled community of Nukufero was estab­lished (Firth 1931; 1936:42; 1954). Prior to 1956, it was mainly single males who left Tikopia to seek work or a change of scenery in the Central Solomon Islands. Since the resettlement of Tikopia in the Russell Islands, it has been larger groups, mainly nuclear families, that have emigrated. By 1964, approximately one-quar­ter 243of the total Tikopia population resided on Lever’s Pacific Plan­tations and in the resettled community in the Russell Islands (see tables 2, 3, and 4).

Map 11. Movement from Tikopia to Russell Islands.

A basic reason for Tikopia emigration is the scarcity of re­sources on the home island. Tikopia measures only 2.5 by 1.5 miles in size and is physically isolated from main lines of commu­nication. The distance from major population centers and the lack of marketable goods with which to establish trade cause the Tiko­pia to depend almost entirely on local resources. Given the small size of the island, population increases and natural catastrophes compound subsistence problems. Firth (1959:51–53) notes an in­crease in people from 1,300 in 1929 to 1,750 in 1952, a gain of about 35 percent in twenty-three years. He also describes the ef­fects of a hurricane that swept Tikopia in 1952, causing extensive damage to fruit-bearing palms and flooding of the sea onto gar­dens close to shore. The hurricane brought near famine to the is­land, and the British government was forced to provide food to offset shortages. The anthropologist James Spillius estimates that possibly seventeen of the ninety deaths in 1952 and 1953 may have resulted from the effects of malnutrition, if not starvation (Firth 1959:59). 244

Table 2 Tikopia Migrating to Russell Islands, by Sex, Number of Visits, and Duration of Stay: 1949–1964

Number of Visits
Number of Visits
of Stay         5 or           5 or
in Years    1    2   3   4 More     1    2   3   4 More
7+   22    0   0   0   0   17    0   0   0   0
6    7    0   0   0   0     5    0   0   0   0
5   36    0   0   0   0   21    0   0   0   0
4   51   31   3   0   0   31   15   0   0   0
3   87   62 23   0   0   62   51 18   0   0
2 123 147 93 63 36   92 102 72 41 18
1 110 172 87 51 23   84 111 63 36 10

Note: The table shows individuals who have gone once or more to the Russell Islands and who may have remained for varying periods depending on the visit. Thus a given person may be represented in several of the cells shown in the table, since some people make more than one trip and stay for different extended periods.

Table 3 Tikopia Migrating to Russell Islands, by Age: 1949–1964

Age of Migrants
in Years
Total Migrant
Population (%)
0–9   20
10–19   19
20–29   28
30–39   25
40–49     5
50 and over     3

Note: The percentage in each age category is computed on the ba­sis of the chronological age of persons living in the resettlement and the duration of the stay for each visit. For example, if a person migrated to the Russell Islands for one year at age twenty-three, category 20–29 was scored one point; if the same person visited again for two years at age thirty-three, category 30–39 was scored two points, and so forth.

The British government adds to pressures on the island’s limited resources by declaring illegal or immoral certain of the traditional population controls. In precontact days, elder heads of families reduced the birth rate by discouraging young men from marrying. Coitus interruptus was practiced in an effort to reduce the number of pregnancies. Abortion was not common but did occur among unmarried females who hoped to avoid giving birth. Population growth was also checked by infanticide (burying the face of in­fants in the sand), by people being lost at sea, and by interisland warfare (Firth 1936:373–374). 245

Table 4 Tikopia Populations in Russell Islands and on Tikopia: 1964

  Russell Islands   Tikopia
Age Male Female Total (%)   Male Female Total (%)
0–9   62   50   26   158 134   29
10–19   42   37   19     99 143   24
20–29   82   46   31     80 103   18
30–39   53   24   19     73   85    15
40–49    9    4    3     37   36    7
50 and over    6    2    2     25   38    7
TOTAL 254 163 100   472 539 100

The internal pressures of population and scarce resources on Tikopia would themselves have been sufficient causes for the even­tual mass movement of inhabitants to other areas, but the specific migration to the Russells is largely the result of encouragement given by the British government and Lever’s plantations. The need for cheap labor is an attribute of the large-scale production of tropical crops on plantations (Courteney 1965:2–7; Myint 1965: 54). Since the indigenous population of the Russell Islands is nei­ther sufficiently large nor willing to provide the necessary man­power to work Lever’s estates, the company recruits outsiders. Thus Lever’s plantations, with the government’s cooperation, made special efforts to entice Tikopia to come to the Russells. Fol­lowing the advice of Spillius, the company altered recruitment practices and improved working conditions on the estates, thus opening the way for Tikopia not accustomed to regimental labor to adjust to a new life (Spillius 1957). Lever allowed Tikopia re­cruiters and not outsiders to interview prospective workers on the island. As a result, only those the recruiters thought would be hap­py and productive on the plantations were selected. The Tikopia chiefs were also included in the selective process. This decision 246tended to stabilize the flow of migrants to and from the island, since the chiefs desire to maintain a balance in population be­tween Tikopia and the Russells.1 Segments of extended families may locate both at home and abroad at the same time, keeping up properties in the two locations. Finally, the company agreed to be flexible in assigning jobs on the plantations. Tikopia were thus able to organize into small groups of their own choosing and to cooperate in labor tasks following traditional patterns of work or­ganization.

The government for its part stimulated emigration by recom­mending that Lever offer Tikopia free land in the Russells. Togeth­er the government and Lever’s representatives met with Tikopia chiefs and other influential men of the island and agreed to send a reconnaissance group of six Tikopia, including one chief, to in­spect areas for possible resettlement in the Russells. The Nukufero site was later chosen, and the government and Lever provided the initial migrant contingent with food, seed for planting gardens, tools, and supplies to begin village construction. The government and plantation management promised eventual relinquishment of legal rights of the land to the Tikopia, and the migrants were led to understand that the government would allow resettlers full auton­omy in what Tikopia regarded as the normal run of village affairs.

The favorable conditions of emigration as seen by Tikopia have continued over the past two decades, and in 1964, at the time of this investigation, 417 Tikopia people were residing in the Rus­sells. In that same year, the number living on Tikopia was reduced to 1,011, or approximately 58 percent of the figure reported to have been on the island in 1952.

Tikopia in the Russells live in two plantation labor compounds, Semata and Pepesala, and in Nukufero village on Pavuvu Island (map 12). Pavuvu and neighboring Banika Island are the main land bodies of the Russell group, which also includes a number of smaller, low-lying islets. Banika Island is more developed than Pavuvu: European management and the main Melanesian labor force number approximately a thousand in residence, and there is a store, an elementary school, a small hospital, an airstrip, and a police station. Pavuvu is the larger of the two islands, but with the exception of 3,700 acres of coconut estates, it is covered through­out with thick tropical forest. Tikopia constitute the main popula­tion on the island and are charged with sole responsibility for 247maintaining Lever’s estates in the area.2 Contacts with the small Melanesian settlements on Mane and Karamaloun Islands are in­frequent, and migrants generally leave the resettlement only for special reasons—to receive medical attention, purchase items in the store, or make travel connections on Banika. On the other hand, the Tikopia form a tightly knit society, and communication between Nukufero and the labor compounds is easily maintained by close physical proximity. Nukufero village, built and developed by the Tikopia alone, is the hub of activity with thatch houses, a church and mission school with three elementary grades, a dispen­sary, and surrounding gardens. Migrants residing in the labor compounds own or have access to houses and land in the village.

Map 12. Tikopia settlements in the Russell Islands.

Thus Tikopia in the Russell Islands have their own village, which is politically and socially autonomous. Contact with Euro­peans and Melanesians is periodic and minimal. Even the work on Lever’s plantations is organized almost wholly by Tikopia them­selves. The Tikopia, in other words, are more or less left to run their own affairs as they see fit. Given these facts, a curious feature 248of the resettled community is the continual and explicit stress that residents place on their ethnic uniqueness and on the maintenance of their traditions in their interaction with one another. It is com­mon in both public and private meetings to hear people harangu­ing one another about maintaining Tikopia ‘custom’. The extent to which people consciously pursue this subject is curious for sev­eral reasons. One would think that since Tikopia interact almost exclusively with one another in the village they would simply as­sume the relevance of their ethnic identity and talk about what­ever is current at the moment. Their harping on the maintenance of custom would be more understandable if there were Melane­sians and Europeans constantly present and in contact with them, but this has not been the case. There is no other ethnic group con­tinually present to serve as a model for alternative life-styles.

It is obvious that the Tikopia are aware of their ethnic unique­ness and of the fact that they have an ancient tradition to main­tain. Firth (1936) noted this long ago. Yet their continual refer­ence to the subject raises several questions: Do the Tikopia believe that, all other things being equal, they will lose or forget their traditions without conscious safeguards? Do they really believe that their traditions are in fact brittle? Do they fear the influence of outsiders as powerfully subversive even with minimal contact? Are there circumstances peculiar to the Nukufero situation that pose a threat to the maintenance of Tikopia tradition?

The answers to these questions lie in the ways that Tikopia con­ceive of three things: themselves as an ethnic unit, their traditions, and their situation in the Russell Islands. I shall demonstrate that because of the ways in which Tikopia conceive of themselves as an ethnic entity and their traditions, they perceive their situation in the Russell Islands to be highly ambiguous. The continual ha­ranguing about maintaining Tikopia custom can be seen as a re­sponse to the ambiguities with which they must live. I shall also demonstrate that the major conflicts in the Nukufero community are all manifestations of the ambiguities of their situation.

I shall demonstrate the nature of the ambiguity in the Nukufero community and how it arises in the following way. First, I shall describe the organization of the community, its relations with Le­ver’s plantations and the colonial government, and its relationship to Tikopia. Second, Tikopia ideas about their own ethnic charac­teristics and about their historical tradition will be presented. I 249shall then relate these data to those presented in the previous sec­tion to show how ambiguity arises in the resettled community. In other words, I shall show how Tikopia concepts of ethnicity and tradition structure their perceptions of Nukufero. Finally, I shall show how the ambiguity structures conflict in the community and how the Tikopia attempt to resolve it.


Nukufero village consists of approximately 200 acres of land near the shore of an inlet of West Bay on Pavuvu Island. An advance party of nineteen men, including a headman appointed by the four Tikopia chiefs, began the work of clearing land, building houses, and planting in May 1956. The advance party was joined throughout 1956 and 1957 by other men from Tikopia and from two other plantations on Pavuvu Island (Semata and Pepesala). Once a communal sleeping house had been constructed, work on gardens began.

Each resident chose his own garden plot in consultation with the village headman and worked on it independently. Plots vary from 2 to 8 acres in area. The major crops planted have been tapi­oca and sweet potatoes; taro, bananas, and breadfruit are of less importance. This pattern contrasts with the Tikopia resource base, in which taro, breadfruit, coconuts, bananas, cyrtosperma, sago, and yams (in that order) were major crops (Firth 1939:65). The reasons for this shift in emphasis seem to be that tapioca and sweet potatoes require less trouble to cook and coconuts are al­ready plentiful and are collected for use from plantation land (with Lever’s permission). With the exception of the first six months after founding the village, Nukufero residents have been able to subsist entirely on village resources.

The ownership and use of land in Nukufero more or less repli­cate that on Tikopia. Chiefs are the titular owners of the land on Tikopia, and this is also ideally the case for the original land allot­ment (of 75 acres) in Nukufero, though the supplementary allot­ment of 125 acres seems to be owned by people other than chiefs. The actual control of land both on Tikopia and in Nukufero is vested in patrilineages. Although it has been mainly individuals that work each land plot, plots are claimed for the individual’s lineage. Control and inheritance of plots follow the rules of patri­lineal 250 succession and inheritance that are characteristic of Tiko­pia. As on Tikopia, exploitation of land is carried on jointly by people who are related as cognates or as friends. Such joint use is more frequent in Nukufero than on Tikopia for two reasons. First, newly arrived emigrants often have no agnates living in Nukufero, so they stay with people to whom they are related cognatically, us­ing their relatives’ land until they can establish their own garden plots. Second, the abundance of arable land in Nukufero relative to the low population density allows each person more options in land use than on Tikopia.

Once families began to emigrate to Nukufero, in 1957, family dwellings replaced the communal residence house. By 1965 there were thirty-one houses with several more under construction. Households consisted mainly of nuclear families, often with a sib­ling or parent of either spouse (67 percent of the households). Other households contained adult cognates or siblings or families with one spouse dead or absent (see table 5). Their composition reflects the structure of the Nukufero population in that the cate­gories of kin with whom one would normally live on Tikopia are often absent in Nukufero, necessitating various relationships in ar­ranging residence (see Larson 1966:70–72). The household orga­nizes the daily activity of its members, such as work on Lever’s plantations, work in the family’s gardens, cleaning, cooking, and the like. As on Tikopia, the household is the major unit of econom­ic production and consumption. The location of households gen­erally follows the major paths traversing the village: houses tend to cluster in a line along the paths as on Tikopia (Firth 1939:50– 51; Larson 1966:16).

Table 5 Composition of Tikopia Households in Russell Islands and on Tikopia: 1964

    Russell Islands   Tikopia
Composition   Number %   Number %
Married couple only     6    7      7    3
Nuclear family only   29 34     79   29

Nuclear family plus sibling(s) of spouse(s)

    8    9     26   10

Nuclear family plus parent(s) of spouse(s)

  10 11     68   24

Nuclear family plus sibling(s) and parent(s) of spouse(s)

    7    9     18    7

Family with one spouse dead or absent

    3    3     27   10
Other*   24   27     45   17
   TOTAL   87 100   270 100

*This category includes several kinds of households that are found only on Tikopia and dormitory housing on plantations at Semata and Pepesala in the Russell Islands. A more de­tailed listing of household types and their distribution is presented in Larson (1966:72). 251

By 1965, there were two schools in Nukufero. A boarding school for boys, built by students, teachers, and a few men in the village, drew its students—who numbered forty-four in 1965—from the plantations in Semata and Pepesala and from the village. The boarding school was staffed by three Tikopia, all of whom were trained in Melanesian mission schools. The headmaster, a 25-year-old man of high rank in a Tikopia clan, had been trained in a government teacher’s college. The school has its own garden plots (worked by the students) from which the students’ and staff’s subsistence is drawn. The normal school day includes morning prayer and breakfast, followed by work in the gardens, morning instruction, the noon meal, physical education (usually soccer games or relay racing), garden work, evening prayer, the evening meal, and, finally, evening leisure and study. The curriculum in­cludes English, arithmetic, health, geography, and religion. The girls’ school, which had just begun in 1965, had two Tikopia women as teachers; students came from the village and the Semata plantation for two hours each morning. Subjects taught were En­glish, arithmetic, and religion. Most instruction was conducted in English, though teachers used the Tikopia language to explicate difficult material.

The boys’ school has played an important role in village affairs almost since its inception. The boys constitute a well-organized labor force that has participated in church construction, road con­struction, the laying out of a soccer field, feast preparations, and lending sundry aid to visiting dignitaries. The school headmaster, a talented teacher and organizer, exercised an influential position in Nukufero village affairs. His influence was based not only on his education and talent but also on his position as a religious leader of the village.

The political organization of Nukufero village represents signif­icant departures from but also continuities of Tikopian tradition. 252While the four clan chiefs and their ‘high-ranking kinsmen’, the maru, wield political authority on Tikopia, a village headman, ap­pointed by the chiefs and representing them, has charge of the af­fairs of Nukufero. He acts as an arbiter in community problems and is the Tikopia spokesman in relations with the outside. There have been three headmen since the founding of the village. A male from any of the four Tikopia clans, regardless of his traditional rank, is eligible for Nukufero headship, although experience with Europeans and Melanesians and an ability to speak Pidgin English or English are considered important assets for those aspiring to the position. The first and third headmen, for example, worked on ships that toured the protectorate, the first headman having trav­eled as far as New Zealand. The third headman had also worked a year as a domestic servant in a European home. Both men speak good Pidgin English. The second headman, in contrast, made few contacts with non-Tikopia and spoke little Pidgin English. His charisma and close kin relationship to a chief should have ren­dered him effective as a leader by traditional standards; instead he proved least competent of the headmen who served in Nukufero.

As indicated, the headman serves as a mediator, a link between the local community and the Solomon Islands. The headman, for example, met periodically with government officials in 1965 who, through visits to Nukufero and developing rapport with the Tikopia, hoped to change negative attitudes toward participation in a Russell Islands local council and payment of taxes to the coun­cil. The headman received his visitors, listening to their arguments and graciously providing them with special foods and drink, but refused to support the government’s proposals. Such support would be irrelevant, he contended, because of his people’s loyalty to the chiefs, their desire to maintain Tikopia traditions in the resettlement, and the counterarguments that would materialize if he were to try to convert them to the government’s side. The head­man met also with government representatives on San Cristobal to discuss representation of Tikopia Island in the local council of the Eastern District, but he advised the chiefs present at the meeting against participation.

The headman does cooperate with the government when func­tionaries come to Nukufero to dispense innoculations, check on the incidence of tuberculosis and other diseases, and advise on proper methods of garden cultivation. He may act as a host to the occasional European visitors who wish to observe Polynesian 253dances and ceremonies or to Lever’s managers who consider it good policy to show token interest in the development of Nuku­fero. Any Melanesian wanting to trade in the village is expected to seek the headman’s permission first.

The headman is responsible for allocating land to those Tikopia emigrants arriving in Nukufero or the labor compounds who own no property in the area. The Tikopia were given 200 acres on which to develop their village, and the usual procedure is for mi­grants to select the location themselves and later inform the headman of their choice. Since land is presently abundant, with sufficient area in the surrounding bush for expansion, the head­man’s approval of a site follows, and no Tikopia has had trouble settling where he wants.

The headman is responsible for supervising the construction of community facilities and keeping them in good repair. Such proj­ects as laying footpaths with coral stones, removing overgrown weeds in the vicinity of the church, school, and houses, and repair­ing water lines are performed by volunteer labor from Nukufero and the labor compounds. The headman blows a conch shell each Wednesday afternoon, alerting adults and children to their half-day obligation, and a typical turnout brings together between twenty and forty people. The Tikopia take pride in the appearance of Nukufero and point to the success of their village work projects as an example of what is possible if they are left to their own de­vices.

Additional duties of the headman include the maintenance of law and order in the community. In this capacity, he is expected to function similarly to headmen representing local councils throughout the protectorate. In one case, a Nukufero headman im­posed a fine on two intoxicated men who had been fighting in the plantation. The money was not turned over to the Russell Islands authorities but was given to men collecting for the Tikopia Devel­opment Fund. Serious crimes such as murder, rape, or assault are supposed to be reported to the police stationed on Banika Island. No crimes of this nature were said to have been committed in the resettlement, and jurisdiction over these matters is claimed to ex­tend beyond the control of the headman. Given the detachment of the Tikopia from Russell Islands affairs, however, it is not certain whether a Tikopia alleged to have committed such a crime would have been reported to the authorities.

A group of men known as “the committee” functions as an ad­ditional 254 political force in Nukufero. The committee, a loosely structured organization with no permanent membership, holds to no regular schedule, convening only when the need arises to re­solve community problems. Any male wishing to participate on the committee may attend meetings, although the most active in deliberations in 1965 were the Nukufero headman, the foremen employed on the plantations, and individuals with formal educa­tion. These men formed the nucleus of recognized leadership, but none attempted to monopolize discussions, and no person presided as formal head of the committee.

Committee issues receive a thorough analysis, occasionally with strong rhetorical arguments backing various points of view, but in the end a consensus on action to be taken is generally reached. Topics coming before the group vary, but financial con­siderations were very important in 1965. The committee had decided that each wage-earning Tikopia should raise his annual contribution to the Tikopia Development Fund from A£3 to A£4. A group of educated Tikopia created the Fund in 1962, after the idea gained the approval of the chiefs. The Fund serves as a substi­tute for Russell Islands taxes. The Tikopia opposed taxation in 1965 but recognized the need for money to improve and expand community facilities at home and in the Russells. Initial expendi­tures from the fund would be used to build and staff a small dis­pensary on Tikopia and to buy additional supplies for the school in Nukufero. Only two men were said to have failed to pay into the fund, and the balance deposited in Honiara amounted to A£1,500.

The near unanimity of Tikopia financially supporting their own projects indicates their solidarity as an ethnic group. It follows that enforcement of committee decisions rarely becomes a prob­lem. There were times when a designated person of the committee talked personally to dissident individuals, and a few people re­fused to pay any attention to committee programs of action. These people were the objects of private ridicule but were not subjected to overt sanctions to force them to conform. The minor disagree­ments with committee policies are insignificant since the commu­nity recognizes the legitimacy of the present leadership and pro­grams developed by the committee reflect closely the sentiments of the majority.

The relationship between the Lever Company and Nukufero is both economic and social. The importance of the village to Lever 255cannot be underestimated, since one of the company’s major prob­lems has been that of securing and maintaining a dependable la­bor force on its plantations. Without the Tikopia, Lever would have to rely almost exclusively on Malaitan laborers, who were rather restive during the 1960s. It was James Spillius who influ­enced the Lever Company to introduce drastic changes in its re­cruiting and work organization policies, thereby shaping the company’s relationship with the villagers (Spillius 1957).

The company has used Tikopia persons to recruit laborers from the home island since the mid 1950s, following Spillius’ advice. The recruiters select families whom they believe can best profit from wage work and educational opportunities and best adapt to conditions in the Russell Islands. Recruiters include the advice and consent of Tikopia chiefs in the selection process. Tikopia are also employed as foremen on the plantations, and they organize the work of planting, clearing underbrush, harvesting and husking coconuts, cutting the meat from the shell, transporting copra, and running the company’s motor launch. Much of this work is done by small groups rather than by lone workers (formerly the com­pany policy), and jobs are rotated on a daily basis, cutting down on the boredom usually inherent in such work. Both men and women can be employed in some of these tasks, thereby increasing the labor force and also the incomes of village families.

Besides leasing 200 acres of land to the Tikopia, Lever also sup­plied them with seedlings, cuttings, and several experimental vari­eties of food plants. The management permits villagers to plant short-term crops in plantation groves and has granted them unlim­ited use of coconuts for drinking and cooking. Occasionally the company has petitioned the local government on behalf of the vil­lagers to get them supplies of sago thatch and other needed items. When the villagers built their church, the company supplied roofing material, milled timber, and cement at cost.

The European plantation manager has taken an active, if at times paternalistic, interest in the growth and welfare of the vil­lage. He has encouraged the founding of the village schools and church, and he was instrumental in forming a local soccer team which competed in league play on several islands. While he has not taken an active part in the internal affairs of the village, he has expressed his concerns about village education, economic growth, and morality to the headman. This man has been rather sensitive 256to Tikopia interests in social contacts, being careful to show defer­ence to visiting chiefs, the headman, and his foremen. The Tiko­pia, for their part, are particularly sensitive to the behavior of Eu­ropeans in personal relationships, and the care that the local manager takes in cultivating personal relationships with villagers is noted and appreciated (see Larson 1966:42–47).

The relationship between Tikopia and Nukufero is rather com­plex and involves a good deal of ambiguity. Tikopia characterize the relationship by a deceptively simple statement: “Tikopia and Nukufero are the same.” Tikopia regarded the colonization at the outset as a move to extend the home island’s landholdings to the Russell Islands, and they still believe this to be the case. The found­ing of a Tikopia village on Pavuvu Island was, then, simply a mat­ter of replicating Tikopia social organization on newly acquired land. The whole colonization scheme depended on the consent of the Tikopia chiefs for its implementation, and the original grant of land was under their titular ownership. This is, of course, true of land on Tikopia. Political authority in the new colony, moreover, is conceived to be ultimately in the hands of the chiefs, so that disputes which cannot be settled by Nukufero villagers, for exam­ple, are referred to the chiefs and ‘high-ranking clansmen’ on Tikopia (for examples, see Larson 1966:65). Ideally, then, “Tiko­pia and Nukufero are the same” means that Nukufero is Tikopia replicated in miniature.

To even a casual observer, it is quite clear that Nukufero is not a replica of Tikopia; the two communities are in many respects quite different. The division of the Tikopia community into dis­tricts and the various kinds of district-oriented activity have not been replicated in Nukufero. The chiefs are titular owners of only some, but not all, of the land in Nukufero. Exchanges based on re­lations with chiefs are absent in Nukufero. Political organization, and the social stratification on which it is based, is quite different in the two communities.

To the migrants, the arrangements of plantation labor, kinship relations, land tenure, community work, and frequent contact with the home island are concrete manifestations of the Tikopia culture abroad. Nukufero and the satellite plantation labor com­pounds represent extensions of Tikopia, but the resettlement situa­tion being what it is, the entire Tikopia culture cannot be fully replicated in the Russells. The reason is, basically, that a certain 257measure of fluidity is necessary in confronting problems in the de­velopmental stages of a new community and in responding to pol­icies and directives of the protectorate government and Lever’s plantations. The irrelevance of traditional rank in selecting head­men and the importance of overseas experience and ability to speak English or Pidgin English are examples of the recognition by Tikopia of the need for flexibility in the new situation.

There is, then, an implicit contradiction between the notions of the equivalence of Tikopia and Nukufero and flexibility to cope with contingency. This contradiction, theoretically, could make a difference in how people regard their situation. Whether the con­tradiction is important or trivial, attended to or ignored, perceived or not perceived, depends very much on how “equivalence” is per­ceived. If, for example, novel ways of coping with a new situation are perceived simply as alternative means for maintaining tradi­tional relationships, then there need be no contradiction at all—“equivalence” would consist in maintaining a certain relationship rather than in how that relationship is maintained. If “equiva­lence” is perceived at the level of means (that is, specific ways of acting in a given situation), then the differences between the two communities become more important; “equivalence” and “flexi­bility” can pose a contradiction. I shall demonstrate that the latter possibility is in fact the case for Nukufero.


Tikopia have a well-developed image of themselves as a distinc­tive, unique people. Ethnic solidarity among Tikopia has been ful­ly documented in the literature. The title of Firth’s book, We, the Tikopia, deriving from the native expression tatou nga Tikopia, speaks to the keen sense of esprit de corps and respect for tradi­tions. As Firth (1936:xv) describes it, [the expression] “is constant­ly on the lips of the people themselves [representing] that commu­nity of interests, that self-consciousness, that strongly marked in­dividuality in physical appearance, dress, language, and custom which they prize so highly.”

Pride in being a Tikopia has been sustained over the past four decades. At the core of present Tikopia culture is arofa ‘love’, a concept which embraces hospitality, generosity, respect for social status, and sensitivity to the opinions and feelings of others. ‘Love’ 258is a guide in social interaction wherein appropriate initiatives and responses in a variety of situations change according to the tem­perament, kinship relationship, and rank of individual partici­pants. The value is expressed in one’s contribution to the tasks at hand, performances seen not only as ends in themselves but also as obligations of group living. ‘Love’, in short, is believed to be pecu­liar to Tikopia life and lacking in other cultures.

Folklore and concepts of self lend further support to the idea of Tikopia ethnic superiority and prowess. Tikopia distinguish them­selves from other groups as faua kiri mero ‘brown skin people’, tau reka reka ‘handsome’, makeke ‘strong’, and fai fekau ‘hardwork­ing’. A number of tales describe Tikopia courage and superiority in waging war against invaders of the home island. One myth tells of the original ancestors emerging from the land of Tikopia itself. Only later are immigrants said to have arrived from elsewhere in Polynesia and Melanesia.

The Tikopia concept of themselves inheres not only in their no­tion of ‘love’, the personal concern which people relate to one an­other, but also in their notions of ‘tradition’ and ‘custom’. The Ti­kopia have objectified their patterned ways of doing things, their ‘customs’, in their concept of ‘tradition’. Tradition is regarded as the entire body of customs that characterizes Tikopia and distin­guishes it from other communities. Their concept of ‘custom’ is very much like the old anthropological concept of “culture trait” or “culture element” (e.g., Steward 1941, 1943; Stewart 1941). A custom may be an entire ceremony or any of its parts—a way of making artifacts, a way of inheriting property, and so forth. On Tikopia, for example, people periodically contribute labor to com­munity projects as the need arises. In Nukufero, building and maintaining the village has required a more regular schedule of communal work, usually every Wednesday. One high-ranking man in Nukufero consistently refused to participate in this en­deavor on the grounds that a regimented work week was contrary to Tikopia custom (Larson 1966:99). The Tikopia concept of tra­dition is, then, very much like the anthropological concept of a culture trait list.

The Tikopia distinguish themselves from other ethnic groups not only by their physiognomy and language but also in terms of differences in custom. Thus, for example, Tikopia contrast them­selves with Melanesians on the basis of the latter’s matrilineal 259transmission of property, lack of hereditary chieftainship, low sta­tus of women, and “unclean” personal habits. They interpret the Melanesians’ emphasis on competitive exchange as greed and their treatment of women as contemptible, here evaluating customs in terms of their own concept of ‘love’. The concept of tradition, therefore, serves the Tikopia both in defining themselves as a unique people and in contrasting themselves with other ethnic groups. Physiognomy, language, and customs are, for the Tikopia, the diacritica of ethnic identity.

The Tikopia insistence on maintaining physical and political separateness from other ethnic groups stems from at least two sources. One is their feeling of superiority and corresponding de­preciation of other ethnic groups. For example, when it was sug­gested to the Tikopia chiefs that they join with Melanesians in a government council, the result was the following:

In my preliminary conversation with the Ariki Tafua he expressed himself graciously, though patronizingly, on the subject of Melane­sian politics. When I mentioned what the Government had in mind the atmosphere became more chilly. The chief maintained that the black men were numerically superior, they knew nothing of the cus­toms of the Tikopia, and if any decisions were to be made they would favour their own kind. I was informed that if I was a friend of the Ti­kopia, I would tell the Government that it was not right to put them with the black man. [Cochrane 1969:4]

Second, the Tikopia believe they have a body of tradition to main­tain, and such maintenance is most easily accomplished in relative isolation from outside interference.

Given the Tikopia definition of tradition and its maintenance, the statement that “Tikopia and Nukufero are the same” must in­evitably assume the status of a fiction to the Tikopia in Nukufero. It is obvious to Tikopia adults that the list of customs that make up their tradition is far from complete in Nukufero. Moreover, most of the innovations that have replaced traditional customs cannot be said to have been forced on the Tikopia by outsiders. The Tikopia do live and work mainly in isolation from Melanesians and Europeans, and the latter have kept out of the internal affairs of the village and plantation communities. Yet the Tikopia insist that Nukufero is an extension of Tikopia and that they are simply replicating Tikopia tradition on an extension of Tikopia land. The contradiction between ideology and fact, which is made inevitable 260by the way in which tradition is defined, is not lost on the Tikopia. Their situation in Nukufero is ambiguous, and they are aware of the ambiguity. Is custom being maintained or is it not? This ques­tion is implicit in the continual harangues and admonitions to maintain Tikopia custom in Nukufero both in public and private conversations.

Adding to the ambiguity in the Tikopia social order in Nukufero is the question of the status of certain innovations. For example, the British colonial government has pressed the Tikopia in Nuku­fero to pay head taxes to the local government council, made up of Melanesian leaders. To avoid paying what they considered tribute to non-Tikopia leaders, the Tikopia created the Tikopia Develop­ment Fund as an alternative. Money is paid into the fund by an­nual assessment on all Tikopia adults in the Russell Islands. The money is used for community projects both on Tikopia and in Nu­kufero and is controlled by the ‘committee’ in Nukufero. The com­mittee and the headman secured permission from the chiefs before starting the fund in 1962. They regarded this innovation not only as a way of getting around colonial government pressure but also as satisfying the government demands in a manner consistent with Tikopia identity and tradition. There is, then, a notion that one may be consistent with Tikopia tradition in one’s innovations. What remains ambiguous is whether or not such consistency in in­novation constitutes maintenance of tradition as does, say, repli­cating particular customs. This constitutes a paradox in which the very definition of tradition is at stake. As the question remains un­resolved in Nukufero, the ambiguities raised by it persist.

Residents of Nukufero manage to live with the ambiguities of their situation, though their awareness of them is often expressed in their vociferous insistence on maintaining custom. But it is not only public harangues or the anthropologist’s probing which makes these ambiguities apparent. They are manifested either ex­plicitly or implicitly in every major conflict in Nukufero. These conflicts, some within the community and some between the com­munity and outsiders, are examined in the next section.


The most serious conflict in Nukufero concerns the constitution of political authority in the village as regards the headman vis-à-vis 261the men of traditional high rank on Tikopia. ‘High-ranking clan’ status is conferred on men who are closely related by patrilineal ties to a chief. An effective ‘high-ranking man’, by Tikopia stan­dards, is one who articulates well at ‘council’ meetings and moves people to action. Most important, ‘high-ranking men’ act on be­half of the chiefs. However, since chiefs do not normally reside in the resettlement but have chosen headmen to represent them in their absence, ‘high-ranking men’ in the Russells have lost consid­erable power and prestige. On matters related to Nukufero devel­opment and relations with outsiders to the community, the chiefs prefer to rely on men with knowledge of the wider affairs of the Solomons, be they high ranking or commoners. The chiefs particu­larly oppose ‘high-ranking men’ who would undermine the new leadership for apparently personal reasons. In one case, a head­man of low traditional rank had been appointed by ‘high-ranking men’ in Nukufero and later confirmed to the position by the chiefs on Tikopia. Following the confirmation, a ‘high-ranking man’, out of dislike for the headman, sought to have him dismissed and replaced by someone of high status. The man of high rank argued before a large gathering of the ‘committee’ that the headman was an egotist who was trying to amass personal power. Significantly, he buttressed his argument by stating that the headman was con­solidating his own position by ‘tearing down Tikopia tradition’. Although the community took no action on the matter, the head­man felt compelled to return to Tikopia, where he was received warmly by the chiefs and reconfirmed to his position. The same ‘high-ranking man’ attempted a second time to oust the headman, failing in his argument this time before the chiefs themselves. Fur­ther animosity between this ‘high-ranking man’ and the headman led to an actual fight between the two. Most of the community blamed the former for this outbreak of aggression.

Disagreement between men of high rank and the new leadership may emerge for reasons other than personality conflicts. In one case, several ‘high-ranking men’ expressed resentment over a group of low-ranking men collecting money for the Tikopia Devel­opment Fund, complaining that such responsibility should fall on those of high rank. One ‘high-ranking man’ opposed the formality of community work projects instituted by the Nukufero headman on grounds that work in the village should be performed sponta­neously, as on Tikopia where people volunteer labor without being 262told. This ‘high-ranking man’ contended that the headman, in re­cruiting help, exceeded the authority invested in him by the chiefs, and the chiefs themselves would not expect people to work on a prescribed schedule.

The question of legitimate political authority in the Russells is less a result of conflict between factions openly competing for power than an unresolved ambiguity in the relevance of tradi­tional rank to the supposed replica of Tikopia society in Nukufero. That it is an ambiguous rather than a factional situation is demon­strated by the fact that the lines of controversy were not clearly drawn. While there is no question that certain ‘high-ranking men’ resented having authority vested in others, the grievances they ex­pressed were directed only to specific issues and then stated in private conversations with friends or others of high rank. As a group, those of high rank did not constitute a loyal opposition; outwardly, at least, they were leading spokesmen for maintaining Tikopia identity in the resettlement. Still, the position of high-ranking persons in the power structure was ambiguous both to them and to the general community.3

The contingencies of resettlement have raised questions con­cerning not only the internal political order but also relations with the protectorate government. The British have encouraged Tiko­pia and chiefs at home to support the traditional authority system, recognizing that Tikopia are one of the few people in the Solomons who have held onto their traditions. However, in an apparent change of policy toward the migrants, the government sought to involve Tikopia in the Russell Islands Local Council. Local gov­ernment councils, established throughout most of the protectorate but not on Tikopia, administer communication facilities, rural health clinics, and schools. Except for headmen, who are ap­pointed by the high commissioner, council representatives are elected by the people. Headmen are responsible for carrying out orders laid down by European district commissioners and ensur­ing compliance with council bylaws. Council revenues derive mainly from a head tax levied against all males residing in the pro­tectorate (BSIP 1965:7).

The government, by 1964, had urged Tikopia in the Russells to elect representatives to the council and had imposed the require­ment of local tax payment. The migrants, for their part, resisted both representation and taxation, interpreting them as devices to alienate them from the chiefs’ authority and retractions of earlier 263agreements reached at the outset of settlement in Nukufero. As in­dicated above, migrants were led to believe they would be allowed to maintain normal controls over the internal affairs of Nukufero; in the process of village development, they could see no immediate advantage in seeking community welfare through a council domi­nated by Melanesians. They recalled the early days of resettlement when native Russell Islanders refused to help clear the land and build houses; moreover, they regarded taxation in support of coun­cil activities as personal tribute to a Melanesian headman they knew only by reputation, held in little respect, and would mistrust with funds. As one Tikopia put it: “Why should we donate money to a government official? He is not a chief.”

A year later, however, the government had apparently decided to take a harder line by imposing fines against six of the Nukufero community leaders and threatening incarceration for failure to meet the obligation. When the men continued to ignore the gov­ernment demand and officials came to make the arrests, a substan­tial number of Tikopia submitted themselves for charges and cus­tody, protesting that they should be arrested along with the lead­ers. At this point the authorities, seeing the difficulties involved in transporting the large number by small craft for arraignment on Banika Island, withdrew the charges (Firth 1969:355).

What is significant in this conflict is the solid response of the Ti­kopia community in its confrontation with the government, which the Tikopia knew had the power to jail them. The threat seemed somehow to foster a militant response rather than capitulation to the government’s demands. This response becomes even more in­teresting when compared to another confrontation with outside authority, in this case with the Lever Company.

In 1964, Tikopia and workers throughout the Solomons joined in a strike against Lever’s plantations. The demand made by the BSIP Ports and Copra Workers’ Union was a wage increase for workers employed by Lever. The issue seemed clear enough, but to Tikopia the strike created a situation of ambiguity. While Tikopia would have happily accepted a pay raise, many of them who struck had been reluctant to join in the walkout because they mis­trusted Melanesian union officials residing at headquarters in Ho­niara and, moreover, misunderstood the function of the union it­self. Several believed that union officials were corrupt and regu­larly stole union funds to support families and friends. Others thought the strike had been called not to raise wages but simply to 264halt all copra production because union officials and other Mela­nesian laborers were either too lazy to work or simply were raising unnecessary trouble. Although Tikopia understood the walkout was intended to bring workers more money, the exact amount could not be stated. The union had demanded a flat 45 percent in­crease across the board—a raise, however, which no Tikopia fully comprehended, since they knew little of percentages. To many the strike was less an expression of grievance against Lever than a time out in which to carry on traditional ceremonies. During the week of the layoff, five weddings with great feasts and gift ex­changes were held. This represents more than half the weddings celebrated that year.

The ambiguities inherent in the strike, as perceived by Tikopia, reflect also the status of the migrants as workers. The average Tikopia earns the equivalent of around $25 a month. Such wages do not draw him into full-time employment, since he sees no possi­bility of accumulating personal savings adequate for making sub­stantial purchases (notwithstanding pay increases through collec­tive bargaining and the strike). A Tikopia views plantation labor not as a permanent job but as a periodic occupation enabling him to earn a fixed sum of money with which to buy inexpensive com­modities such as clothing, hand tools, and tobacco. The purchases are consumed in the Russells or brought to Tikopia upon repatria­tion. A worker regards a return home as a welcome change from routine plantation activity and a chance to enjoy the limited fruits of his labor. A Tikopia is willing to accept a low wage because he regards it not as compensation for an alternative full-time occupa­tion but merely as a source of income supplemental to subsistence activities carried out in the Russells and Tikopia.

The migrants, in other words, hardly represented a hard core of militant strikers hoping in desperation to obtain an adequate wage for survival. They did, however, support the strike until Lever made the crucial decision to repatriate all striking migrants to Tikopia. As the impact of this threat reached throughout the com­munity, the back of the Tikopia phase of the strike was broken, and workers returned to the plantations immediately. The mo­ment of truth had arrived when the Tikopia realized they stood to lose the land and possession of Nukufero.4

The Tikopia, to some extent, perceived both confrontations in terms of their own interests as an ethnic group. The confrontation with the government involved what Tikopia regarded as a threat 265to their ethnic and political autonomy and to the traditions that define that ethnicity. To pay tribute to a Melanesian headman is to negate the authority of the chiefs and deny the traditional rela­tionship between people and chiefs—not only is Tikopia tradition threatened, but so is the dictum that Tikopia and Nukufero are the same. The militant solidarity of the villagers can be seen not only as a show of determination to maintain their ethnic autonomy but also, and even more important, the integrity of the tradition that defines ethnicity. The very militancy of the display is highly sym­bolic of the Tikopia situation: all at once the ambiguity of the Nukufero situation disappeared in resolute action, almost ritual in its communicative form. The chiefs rule on Tikopia; Tikopia and Nukufero are the same; therefore the chiefs rule on Nukufero. The affirmation of this syllogism in the face of government sanction dwarfs the contingencies that require innovation and all its in­herent ambiguities in one dramatic moment. For that moment and afterward, there is no ambiguity. Tikopia and Nukufero are the same.

The strike displays a pattern which is almost the reverse of the confrontation with the government. The Tikopia were aligned with other ethnic groups in a confrontation where issues were not very clear to the Tikopia. The leaders of the strike were Melane­sians, none of whom was trusted by the Tikopia, and a raise in wages did not affect the Tikopia interests in the same way as that of other groups. The loss of their land, moreover, would have threatened their autonomy, forcing those remaining in the Russells to be totally dependent on Lever for subsistence. The uneasy alliance with Melanesians collapsed when the interests of Tikopia themselves were threatened. Moreover, rather than resolving am­biguity, the outcome of the strike served only to exacerbate it by adding a new dimension: the ambiguity as to whether or not the Tikopia would ever hold title to Nukufero and hence the insecurity over tenure on the land. It is perhaps significant that the strike oc­curred approximately a year before the confrontation between the Tikopia and the government.5


Tikopia define themselves in terms of distinctive physique, lan­guage, and, most important, a body of tradition unique to them­selves. Because their tradition is composed of customs, regarded as 266ideal and behavioral elements, the failure to replicate the entire body of customs in the resettled community of Nukufero has given rise to a good deal of ambiguity concerning the kind of community Nukufero really is and therefore the kind of people the migrants really are. Since the migrants must deal with contingencies of re­settlement in novel ways, such failures at replication of custom have been inevitable. The Tikopia are aware of this inevitability, and the efforts of some to innovate in a manner consistent with ideal Tikopia custom have introduced the possibility of redefining custom. This possibility in itself implies further ambiguity, how­ever, in the meanings of custom and tradition.

The ambiguities implicit in such innovations as landholding (chiefs as opposed to others), the organization of communal ac­tivities, and political authority in one way or another underlie the major conflicts in the community. The internal conflict over polit­ical authority reflects ambiguity in the relevance of traditional rank to the resettled community. Confrontations with outside authorities have had to do with alignment of Tikopia with other ethnic groups as opposed to independence and isolation.

With the eventual departure of the British from the Solomon Is­lands and the growth of Solomon Island nationalism, we might well expect these ambiguities to be further exacerbated and the conflicts intensified, not only in Nukufero but also on Tikopia, as political independence for the protectorate becomes a reality. The Nukufero experience becomes crucial to all the Tikopia in light of this potentiality as a kind of experiment in adaptation to the in­evitable increase in relationships with outsiders. The adaptations the Tikopia can make and the extent to which their social order and definition of themselves are jeopardized by the adaptations depend very much on the resolution of the present ambiguity as to what constitutes tradition and its maintenance.


This study is based on fieldwork conducted in the Russell Islands and on Tikopia from June 1964 to August 1965. The research was supported by the University of Oregon on a grant from the National Science Foundation. Thanks are due H. G. Barnett, director of field research, and Michael D. Lieber for helpful suggestions on the writing of this chapter.

1. The involvement of chiefs in the selection of recruits is reported in a commu­niqué 267dated 10 July 1956 and dispatched by the director of Lever’s planta­tion to the senior assistant of native affairs: “In the past it has been the ac­cepted practice that we recruit up to 70 men from Tikopia …, but it was only with great difficulty that [we] managed to obtain 30 of the required 70 men, and [the recruiter] states that the number one chief was very arrogant and did not wish him to have even these.” Two of the chiefs stated explicitly in 1964 that they would limit the number of emigrants to no more than forty nuclear families. To exceed this number, they maintained, would reduce the population on Tikopia and seriously undermine community work projects, household maintenance, garden cultivation, and ceremonial activities. Labor recruits by practice seek permission from a chief to emigrate, and al­though a chief usually grants temporary leave of the island, the interchange checks against a hasty decision by someone who has not thought out the im­plications of a move.

2. A small number of Rennellese lived on the east shore of Pavuvu in 1964, but the lack of roads and the rugged interior made cross-island contact with the Tikopia infeasible, and no relationship between the two groups had devel­oped. The Rennellese crossed a narrow channel to work Lever’s estates on Banika.

3. The ambiguity of political control in the Russells has been produced not only by the replacement of those of high rank as an unchallenged leadership but also by the absence of the chiefs themselves. Although each chief had made at least one visit to Nukufero, and two had stayed over six months, they were regarded more as honored guests than as permanent residents in the reloca­tion. As perceived by the migrants, the home of the chiefs is on Tikopia, where they are said to hold titular ownership of the island and ultimate con­trol over the behavior of the inhabitants. In contrast, the rights and obliga­tions of chiefs and the people in the Russells could not be stated with any pre­cision. An arrangement among the migrants had been made in 1964 wherein 75 of the 200 acres of Nukufero would be deeded in the names of the chiefs, once the land was legally transferred from Lever to the Tikopia. Yet, while the chiefs were said to “own” the 75 acres with houses, gardens, school, and church located on the land, it was also said that chiefs would not intrude on the private rights of individuals and families who used these possessions. When asked about ultimate rights to the land, informants either could not answer the question or said the relationship of chiefs to the Nukufero site dif­fered from that to Tikopia. True ownership, they maintained, resided with individuals and families in the Russells, unconditionally, whereas on Tikopia chiefs became involved in issues of property rights. It may be concluded, then, that land titled to chiefs would be symbolic in the people’s minds of the ties between Tikopia and Nukufero.

4. It is worth repeating here that the government and Lever had promised the legal transfer of the land, but by 1964 title had not been put in the names of the migrants. The delay was attributed by the government to the absence of a qualified surveyor in the Solomons capable of demarcating accurate village boundaries. The government, in the meantime, had assured the Tikopia of the forthcoming title change, but the threat of repatriation by Lever brought 268into bold relief the vulnerability and insecurity of the migrants’ rights to land in the resettlement.

5. The government confrontation, however, brought Lever into the dispute. The company may have feared that a continued disagreement over tax pay­ment would result in mass arrests or an exodus of Tikopia to the home island. Lever would suffer a loss of valuable manpower if the Pavuvu estates were stripped of the only work force on the island. The company decided to pay the fines imposed on the Nukufero leaders, and apparently convinced the migrants liable for taxes to honor their obligation. Lever would have been prepared to deduct the sum due from each worker and remit it to the govern­ment, but all Tikopia at this time are said to have submitted to the tax de­mand. It is conceivable, although not stated by informants, that Tikopia again felt the pressure of the company regarding rights to land, for at this point Lever still held a 999-year lease on the Nukufero site.

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