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ETHNONYMS: Niue-fekai, Nuku-tulea, Nuku-tutaha, Motu-tefua, Fakahoa-motu, Savage Island


Identification and Location. "Niue" literally translates as "Coconuts Here!" and refers to an ancient renaming by two men returning from Tonga with that previously unknown fruit. Another variant is "Niue-fekai," which often is used in myth and song and is variously claimed to mean "Niue, All Around the World" and "Niue, the Wild Place." Four earlier names are attributed to Huanaki, a mythical progenitor of the Niue people: "Nuku-tulea" (Island That Grew up by Itself), "Nuku-tutaha" (Island That Stands Alone), "Motutefua" (Isolated Island), and "Fakahoa-motu" (Flowering Island). Another renaming occurred in 1774 when James Cook imposed the epithet "Savage Island" because of fierce resistance by its warriors to the attempts of the Europeans to land there. During the twentieth century the Anglicisms "Niue Island" (the place) and "Niuean" (the people and language) came into widespread use.

Niue's closest neighbors are Vavau (Tonga) 260 miles (420 kilometers) to the west, Tutuila (American Samoa) 370 miles (600 kilometers) to the north, and Aitutaki (Cook Islands) 590 miles (950 kilometers) to the east. Its geographic coordinates are 19°02"S and 169°52"W, and it is allegedly the world's largest uplifted coral atoll. Niue is roughly oval in shape. It has a land area of 100 square miles (260 square kilometers), a coastline of 40 miles (64 kilometers), and a high point 230 feet (70 meters) above sea level. The island's flattish surface is composed of coral rock outcrops interspersed with small pockets of soil and a covering of forest and scrub. Its climate is tropical, with distinct hot/wet and cool/dry seasons (respectively, November-April and May-October), a mean annual temperature of 75.5° F and an average annual rainfall of 80 inches. Fresh water is scarce, drought is a constant threat, and cyclones occur periodically. Trade winds buffet the south and east coasts for much of the year, making access to those parts of coastline particularly difficult.

Demography. In 1857 missionaries reported a population of 4,276 persons, very little sickness, and many three-generation families. Despite new epidemics and diseases, the kidnapping of more than 200 young men by Peru-based slavers in the early 1860s, and the absence overseas of many indentured laborers from the mid 1860s, a high point of 5,126 persons was recorded in 1883. By 1928 that number had fallen to 3,747, but after World War II both the total number of Niueans and emigration increased exponentially, so that by 1974 as many Niueans were in New Zealand as were in Niue. Census figures from 1991 showed 2,239 still on the island (including 200 Europeans, Tongans, Samoans, etc.) and 14,424 claiming Niuean ethnicity living in New Zealand.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language of Niue belongs to the Tongic subgroup of Polynesian languages and appears to have split from Tongan about 1,500 years ago. Some words suggest premodern borrowings from Samoa and the Cook Islands, and the presence of Samoan missionaries in Niue in the late 1800s influenced the modern language. By the 1990s Niuean predominated in domestic and village contexts, with English more common in business, education, and the media.

History and Cultural Relations

Niuean traditions claim that the island was built from a reef by two brothers, Huanaki and Fao, who swam from Tonga and became the ancestors of the inhabitants of opposite halves of the island: Huanaki of the northern moiety, or "Motu," and Fao of the southern people, "Tafiti." Other traditions speak of occasional contact with Tonga, Samoa, Aitutaki, and Pukapuka. They also suggest that about five hundred years ago Tonga succeeded in temporarily imposing a form of paramount chieftanship. However, by the late 1700s power was once more dispersed, warfare was common, and the island became isolated from the outside world. This changed with the establishment of Christianity and external trade in the mid-1800s. Niue was formally annexed by Britain in 1900 and transferred to New Zealand control the next year. During the 1950s and 1960s, major development programs were instituted and emigration to New Zealand was encouraged. The island became a self-governing territory of New Zealand and a member of the South Pacific Forum in 1974.


Traditionally, Niueans lived in small huts on family cultivation plots scattered across the upper plateau. After Christianization, fourteen villages were constructed at intervals around the coast, each centered on a church and a green and all linked by a network of tracks leading to the administrative center of Alofi. For the next century people divided their time between weekday economic activities in the bush and weekend religious and social activities in the village. The destruction of many of the island's houses in major cyclones in 1959-1960 and their replacement by New Zealand-donated fibrolite and concrete homes consolidated the role of the village in island life. However, after the opening of an international airport in 1971 and despite improvements in the water and electricity supply, even the new houses began to be abandoned. By the mid-1990s emigration had totally emptied the village of Vaiea, and the long-term viability of several other villages was in doubt.


Subsistence. With its relatively harsh ecology, Niue has never permitted its inhabitants a physically easy life. Nevertheless, in the 1990s subsistence activities continued to be economically and socially important for most households. The staple food and main crop is taro, which is produced year-round by slash and burn methods. More permanent plants such as coconut, banana, and breadfruit are also valued. While foraging for wild plant foods is much less common than it was in the past, hunting for land crab, fruit bat, and pigeon remains important, as does fishing by canoe and motorboat. Most households also raise pigs and chickens.

Commercial Activities. In the 1850s coconut sennit was produced to finance the printing of the first Niuean Bible. Soon afterward, fungus began to be exported to China, and copra and woven goods to Europe. During the colonial era the emphasis was on handicrafts, copra, banana, and sweet potato for exportation to New Zealand. Since the 1960s small producers have grown for export limes, passionfruit, and taro, while the business sector has focused on food processing, honey, coconut milk, timber, postage stamps, and tourism. Cyclones and unreliable air transport links have often undermined these initiatives. The main source of cash for most households during the late twentieth century was wage employment, especially in the public sector. A market where local produce is sold was established in the 1980s at Alofi.

Industrial Arts. Much traditional manufacturing effectively died out in the late nineteenth century, in particular adzes and other stone implements, weapons and most wooden utensils, four- and three-man canoes, fishing and hunting nets, woven feather and hair belts, and bark cloth. A half century later they had been joined by two-man canoes and wood and thatch houses. In the 1990s the only major traditional art still flourishing was women's weaving, particularly of mats, baskets, fans, and hats and the construction of one-man outrigger canoes by males.

Trade. No exchange links traditionally existed between Niue and other societies. The only true exchange between moieties, districts, or families occurred in the form of gifts and offerings for services rendered. Similar patterns continued in the 1990s, though often reinforced with cash payments. Prestige goods, especially foods, are still circulated between groups involved in ceremonies and feasting associated with political, religious, social, and life cycle events.

Division of Labor. Hunting and fishing and the making of the implements associated with those activities are quintessential male activities. Female equivalents include fine weaving and the gathering of certain wild foods. Many other tasks, including gardening, are shared, though men tend to do the heavy work, while women focus on cooking, housework, and childcare. Every adult Niuean is expected to be proficient in and contribute to a full range of productive tasks, though expertise in certain skills on the part of some individuals and families is recognized. Children are expected to help, and the wisdom of elders is valued.

Land Tenure. In the mid-1970s only 1 percent of the island was in Crown hands and 4 percent was held in the form of lease in perpetuity. Of the remainder, only 5 percent had been formally surveyed and registered, while 90 percent was listed as under "customary tenure." Much of the coastline, a few areas of forest, and church greens are under village control, but the bulk of the island is divided between specific family groups, or magafaoa. Every such piece of land, or fonua, has an ancestral "source," most often a male who lived several generations before the oldest living persons now associated with it, and each household controls and utilizes a number of fonua. Inheritance rights are granted to adopted children, and outsiders sometimes are given short-term use rights. Family members living away never totally abandon their rights.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is determined cognatically. A typical Niuean will belong to the magafaoa of his or her parents, which also implies those of his or her grandparents. The strongest links are usually with the group on whose corporate holdings one actively gardens. During the 1950s the Land Court initiated a process of recording magafaoa genealogies. Very few are more than six generations deep, including living members. Despite the cognaticism, there is a patrilineal bias in the allocation of land rights.

Kinship Terminology. A basically Hawaiian classificatory system prevails, although in practice it often is modified in the ascending and descending generations by the addition of the ordinary word "male" or "female." Within their own generation, a male and a female use different terms for "brother" and "sister," though both may apply the same age indicators for "elder" and "younger" to siblings of their own sex.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In the 1920s around 90 percent of marriages were between people living in the same village; seventy years later intravillage endogamy was still the norm. While marriage to close cousins is discouraged, it sometimes occurs. Marriage often begins as a premarital sexual relationship. With the arrival of a child or before, the union ideally is formalized and the couple is assisted in establishing an independent household. Arranged marriages, particularly between elite families, occur in a small minority of cases; they are likely to be accompanied by a public ceremony and, as appropriate, extollation of the bride's virginity.

Domestic Unit. Early European visitors noted that the typical household, or kaina, consisted of a mature couple, their children, and one or more of the couple's elderly parents or unmarried siblings. That pattern persisted to a significant degree through to the late twentieth century. Young children often visit or stay in the kaina of close kin. While officially the husband is head of the household, the wife may be its effective manager and even its public spokesperson.

Inheritance. Just as during their lifetimes family heads are expected to allocate land equitably to all the members who require it, at an elder's death her or his lands should be subdivided judiciously among the children or their descendants. The most common exception would be someone who was particularly caring in the elder's latter years, to whom additional property may be bequeathed. Portable possessions often are buried with the deceased.

Socialization. Babies are pampered and indulged. They tend to be born at two-year intervals and weaned at around one year of age. Often a baby is cared for by his or her grandparents, especially if the mother is unmarried or if it is a first grandchild. Sometimes infants are given to childless relatives or friends for adoption. Daytime care of youngsters frequently is entrusted to young female relatives. From the time they are young, all children are expected to undertake small tasks. Disobedience is not tolerated, and any adult can reprimand a misbehaving child, though only close kin dispense physical punishment.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In 1974 Niue became a self-governing nation in free association with New Zealand, which retains responsibility for external affairs and is constitutionally bound to provide ongoing economic and administrative support. Local magistrates and visiting New Zealand judges administer the law. Universal suffrage prevails, with triennial Legislative Assembly elections for fourteen village and six common roll seats. Three of these members are then selected by the Legislative Assembly to be ministers, and one to be the premier. Several women have been elected to the assembly and appointed as ministers.

There are no hereditary or chiefly titles. Advanced age and male sex are the primary qualifications for leadership at the village level, though all married men and women demand respect in appropriate contexts. In the late twentieth century people still strongly identified with their village of birthor, if they were born overseas, with that of their parents or grandparents. Religious, sports, and cultural activities often take the form of intervillage competition.

Political Organization. Although elected village councils have existed to administer government services since the 1970s, effective control of social life has continued to lie with local committees of Ekalesia Niue, the island's main church. Meeting each Sunday and attended by any married man who so wishes, this body makes decisions on a wide range of issues. A women's committee deals with matters specific to women and children, and a deacons' committee regulates religious matters. A strong egalitarian ethos pervades all political organizations, though in practice certain individuals or families often dominate the proceedings.

Social Control. Traditionally, a family or community could discipline disruptive members by sending them to sea or even killing them. During the missionary era order was enforced through the use of excommunication and forced labor. In the early twentieth century law courts introduced fines and imprisonment, though families and villages have often chosen informal methods, especially gossip, avoidance, and public condemnation.

Conflict. Since the last episode of intervillage/moiety war in 1852, there has been no major conflict. Warfare was replaced by competitive church activities and a version of cricket that incorporated many traditional warrior rituals. In the early 1900s several murders almost led to wider conflict, but each time village elders restored calm. Niuean men were enthusiastic volunteers for New Zealand army service during both world wars. When a brutal resident commissioner on Niue was murdered in 1952, the New Zealand government sentenced the three youths involved to death; only when these sentences were commuted to life imprisonment did the threat of open rebellion dissipate. Since the 1960s emigration has reduced the possibility of severe conflict.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Pre-Christian religious belief focused on Tangaloa, the god of war, and Hina, the god of knowledge, along with many localized deities. There were no idols, though there was a talisman, the tokamotu, which enshrined the mana of the island and has remained in a tapu cave for the last two hundred years. In 1846 a Niuean, Peniamina, began the conversion of his country to Christianity, and by the 1860s London Missionary Society (LMS) congregationalism dominated the island. Its dominance was challenged only after 1900 by the establishment of other churches. In 1991 the main affiliations were as follows: 76 percent Ekalesia Niue (ex-LMS), 12 percent Latter Day Saints, 5 percent Roman Catholic, 2 percent Jehovah's Witness, 1 percent Seventh Day Adventist.

Religious Practitioners. The main practitioner in modern times has been the Ekalesia pastor, or akoako. Every village is expected to have one, although after the depopulation that began in the 1970s this has not always been possible. Always from another villageand occasionally foreignthe pastor is supported by deacons and provisioned or paid by the congregation. In the 1990s a Niuean woman received theological training, but no village offered her a pastorate. Several expatriate Mormon missionaries and an expatriate Catholic priest have been based in the main town of Alofi since the 1950s.

Ceremonies. In the late twentieth century islandwide annual celebrations marked the arrival of Christianity in 1846 (Peniamina Day) and the achievement of self-government in 1974 (Constitution Day). As with all major occasions, these ceremonies incorporate religious ritual, speechmaking, feasting, and entertainment. Ceremonial events at the level of the village (White Sunday, a new building, a cricket match) and the family (a wedding, a boy's haircut, a girl's ear piercing) also involve various combinations of the same elements.

Arts. Significant social occasions always include dancing by organized groups, with the dances ranging from very traditional to more contemporary Tahitian, Samoan, and Western styles. The accompanying instruments may include drums, guitars, a tea chest base, and spoons. Singing is also important on such occasions, from ancient religious chants to modern satirical melodies. Hymns are an important aspect of ritual life. Some individuals, families, and villages are renowned as composers and performers. Clowning is common, especially among older women.

Medicine. Rudimentary Western medicine was introduced by missionaries in the 1860s and extended in the 1920s with the building of a hospital. Since the 1970s a well-equipped public health service has been staffed largely by Niueans and has been extensively utilized. For some problems people consult traditional healers who specialize in either herbal concoctions or massage.

Death and Afterlife. After a death, the church bell rings and the body is laid out in the family home. Wailing, speeches, prayer, and hymns continue for up to twenty-four hours, at which time the coffin is closed. After a brief religious service, burial takes place, usually on the deceased's family land. Over the following days a lonely or even vengeful spirit, or aitu, may be encountered in the village or bush before it finally moves on to a distant and undefined spirit world.

For the original article on the Niueans, see Volume 2, Oceania.


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Loeb, Edwin M. (1926). "History and Traditions of Niue." Bishop Museum Bulletin 32, Honolulu.

Ryan, T.F. (1981). "Fishing in Transition on Niue." Journal de la Société des Océanistes, 72-73: 193-203.

Scott, Dick (1993). Would a Good Man Die? Niue Island, New Zealand and the Late Mr. Larsen. Auckland: Hodder and Stoughton.

Smith, S. Percy (1902-1903). "Niue: The Island and its People." Journal of the Polynesian Society 11: 81-178, 12: 1-31.

Vilitama, Hafe, and Terry Chapman et al. (1982). Niue: A History of the Island. Suva: University of South Pacific and Government of Niue.