views updated May 08 2018


Culture Name



Identification. The origin of the word "Niue" is obscure. Formerly, the island included two endogamous, warring factions that occupied separate territories: a northern region called Motu and a southern region called Tafiti.

Location and Geography. Sometimes affectionately called "the Rock," Niue Island is one of the world's largest coral islands and smallest self-governing states. Niue is a large coral island ten miles by seven miles (16 kilometers by 11 kilometers). Some 350 miles (600 kilometers) southeast of Samoa, Niue has no strategic or trade significance and was not annexed by one of the European powers until 1900, long after most other Pacific islands.

Formed by volcanic upheavals, the island sits atop 100-foot (30-meter) cliffs rising straight out of deep ocean. All fourteen villages are situated on a narrow terrace that encircles the island. The interior consists of a central saucer-shaped plateau, one hundred fifty feet (forty-five meters) higher than the terrace, covered in ferns, scrub, and second-growth trees. In the southeast quadrant, the remaining primary forest has been set aside as a conservation area protected by legislation and supernatural strictures.

There is no surface water except in a few caves with small, brackish pools. Rainwater is collected in tanks as run off from roofs. Despite fluctuation in annual rainfall, the tropical climate is conducive to agricultural production, although cultivation is difficult because of the terrain: a thin layer of fertile soil surrounding jagged limestone pinnacles. East-southeast trade winds give way during the wet season (November to March) to variable winds and occasional storms. Hurricanes have been massive forces of social change, occurring on average once every seven years and causing considerable damage to both buildings and agriculture.

There are no surrounding protective reefs or sheltered lagoons. The capital, Alofi, is on the western, lee side of the island at the only place where a wharf could be constructed. Until very recently, the monthly cargo ship had to anchor in deep water about a mile offshore and transfer goods to a barge or lighter for transport to the wharf.

Demography. Niue has always had a small population, probably never more than five thousand, because of the strenuous work involved in crop production and the periodic famines. The demographic concern is depopulation, not overpopulation. Spurred in large part by extremely adverse weather, outmigration on a massive scale has been a feature of life since the opening of the airport in 1971. Every five-year census since 1970 has recorded a decline in the population between 15 and 23 percent; in 1995, just over two thousand people remained on the island.

Most outmigrants are unmarried youths or adult couples with young children who intend to stay away permanently. Some fifteen thousand Niueans now live in New Zealand. The proportion of children in the population dropped from one-half in 1970 to about one-third in 1995, while the proportion of elderly people has increased from 6.4 to nearly 10 percent.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Niuean language is related to other western Polynesian languages, such as Samoan and Tongan, with slight pronunciation differences between the Motu and Tafiti moieties and different spelling conventions.

Most Niueans are bilingual. Niuean tends to be the language of family and village life, and English the language of business. Considerable switching between languages occurs in almost every setting.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. On attempting to land in June 1774, Captain James Cook and his crew were forcefully repelled by parties of fearsomely attired men uttering blood curdling screams and brandishing spears. Hastily leaving after little actual combat, Cook called the place "Savage Island," a name that appeared on maps into the twentieth century.

National Identity. Until around 1960, Niueans had a poorly developed concept of their island as constituting a distinct culture or nation. Between the mid-19th and 20th centuries, Niue was gradually but increasingly exposed to the outside world, resulting in inexorable change in ways of life and Niuean identity. External influences included mission activity, labor migration, colonization, development of a money economy based on agricultural exports and mercantile endeavors, service in foreign wars, and control by a rigid and rather unresponsive administration. People gradually began to develop an allegiance to a broader entity than their natal villages. That process began during encounters with colonial administrators. The process was accelerated in the early 1960s, when the general populace was able to work with and live next to a large and diverse group of white New Zealanders (palagi ) brought to help the island recover from hurricanes. Those workers came from a wide range of socioeconomic positions with varying aspirations and experiences. Outmigration in the 1970s also heightened a sense of national identity, as Niueans arriving in New Zealand felt a need to distinguish themselves from other Pacific Islanders and the Maori.

Ethnic Relations. Few outsiders reside on the island, but those who do are generally well tolerated, although competition for scarce jobs can lead to resentment. Most foreigners are expatriates who provide technical advice to the government or have married Niueans. In the early 1980s, about one hundred people from Tonga, where pressure on land was intense, mobilized kin ties and moved to Niue. Also present were a few dozen high school children from the Tokelaus, receiving education not available in their homeland. In the 1990s, a handful of people from Tuvalu settled in a deserted village, escaping the threat that rising seawater posed to their homeland.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

No area can be described as urban, but nearly one-fifth of the population lives in the vicinity of Alofi, a typical Pacific port town-capital. Villages are laid out around a central, flat open space, the village green (male ) which is used for meetings, sports events, and ceremonies. Most houses symbolically if not literally face the most socially important and visually dominant structures near the male: the church and the pastor's house. The church is a central feature of social organization, underpinning all social interaction, providing moral guidance, enabling the redistribution of goods and services from wealthy to less well-off members of the village, socializing children, and upholding traditions while spurring change.

Most buildings have been constructed within the past twenty years, using materials, styles, and furnishings imported mainly from New Zealand.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. Despite the fact that many families can afford imported foodstuffs such as canned corned beef, frozen lamb or chicken, and rice, agriculture remains important. Subsistence activities not only raise food, especially highly prized ceremonial foods, but also symbolize the central values linked to work and identity. Enough surplus food is produced to sustain only one small market each week.

Fishing results in a variety of deep-sea catches, such as yellowfin tuna, red bass, and sailfish. Despite the difficult terrain, slash-and-burn (shifting) agriculture is a major crop-producing activity. Niueans cultivate both root crops such as talo (taro), yams, and tapioca, and tree crops such as coconut, breadfruit, papaya, and mango, as well as bananas. Planting also sustains the production of pigs. Hunting of fruit bats, birds, and land crabs, and gathering of fern shoots and other vegetation occurs regularly.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. A boy's first haircutting (hifi ulu ) and a girl's ear-piercing ceremony (huki teliga ) are occasions for displaying family solidarity, wealth, and status. Symbolically marking role transitions, these ceremonies involve the donation of cash or gifts to the celebrants. Such gifts are reciprocated by an elaborate and public presentation of feast foods. The extended family does extra work to procure sufficient quantities of these highly esteemed uncooked foods, such as pigs, fish, taro and other prized root crops such as ufi (yams), and barrels of salt pork or canned corned beef.

Celebrations of one's twenty-first birthday, weddings, graduation from college, or major community events are less ceremonially intricate. Feast foods are cooked in an earth oven (umu ) and presented to guests along with other items. After the blessing, each guest gathers items for later consumption into a basket.

Basic Economy. The economic base of the island is foreign aid. In the early 1970s, the economic productive work base changed from agriculture to service provision. By the mid-1980s, more than 80 percent of employed adults worked for wages for the government. In 1990, restructuring and downsizing of the civil service took place. Despite the political and social upheaval this caused, the island's standard of living and economy did not plummet, in large part because of the aid still arriving from New Zealand and other international sources. Per capita aid remains among the highest in the world.

Land Tenure and Property. Land is inalienable and cannot be sold or deeded permanently to non-Niueans. There is a preference for patrilineal inheritance of real property such as land and an emphasis on primogeniture. Women have some rights, but these are not as strong as those of male claimants. Absentee landowners cause considerable tension in some families. The Land Court is probably the most important and contentious aspect of the judiciary. Major political struggles revolve around means to resolve the dilemmas posed by absentee landowners.

Commercial Activities. Tourism, based on deep-sea scuba diving and snorkeling, is the biggest money earner, with the two thousand people who visit annually contributing around $1 million to the economy. Like the export trade, tourism is vulnerable to disruption because of bad weather.

Other commercial activity is heavily agriculture-based: the manufacture for export of coconut cream, taro, passion fruit, limes, and honey. Plaited ware such as hats and baskets and other handicrafts are important export items. Earlier attempts to assemble hand-sewn soccer and rugby balls and similar light industries failed largely because of transportation problems. A small but significant proportion of government revenue is generated through the sale of postage stamps to collectors.

Trade. Niue generally imports approximately fifteen times as much as it exports. Usually, the primary trade item, taro, accounts for 85 percent of export earnings but is highly vulnerable to disruption from weather. In 1996, Niue experienced a 40 percent reduction in exports because of a severe drought; taro brought in only $90,000. In that year, imports reached a five-year high of $3.4 million. Along with food products and alcohol and tobacco, the major imported goods are consumer durables such as outboard motors, aluminum dinghies, refrigerators, and motorcycles.

Division of Labor. Men, especially young men, are expected to undertake physically strenuous or dangerous tasks such as deep-sea fishing. Older men and educated younger men represent the family or village in civic and spiritual affairs. Women generally are assigned tasks focused on the domestic domain, such as caring for old people or children, cooking, sewing, and weaving.

Social Stratification

Niue is characterized by a lack of hereditary rulers, a very flexible social hierarchy, an individualistic achievement orientation, and a strong work ethic. More than by speech patterns, dress styles, comportment, or social interaction, differentiation into fluid socioeconomic strata depends on personal charisma or accomplishment and material wealth, such as ownership of aluminum fishing dinghies or outboard motors.

Political Life

Government. There is a democratically elected parliamentary government. The premier is chosen by a vote by the twenty elected representatives in the Fale Fono (Niuean Assembly). The formation of distinct political parties has been more discussed than realized. Political cleavage exists between those who do and those who do not wish to change the infrastructure initially set up by the New Zealand administration.

Niueans over age 18 get two votes. One vote is to elect the village representative. These politicians tend to be older men with prestigious backgrounds, such as pastors, government officials, and successful planters and merchants. The second vote is used to elect six island-wide representatives or Common Roll members. These politicians often include women and tend to be younger than village representatives who have been educated abroad as teachers, doctors, or administrators. Hence, modern politics both conforms to a Polynesian tradition of gerontocracy by having elders represent individual villages and deviates from that convention by rewarding individual achievement and expertise in new arenas.

Social Problems and Control. A small police force consisting of a chief and a constable assigned to each village maintains law and order. Most criminal acts are relatively minor misdemeanors (petty theft, unsafe driving, allowing pigs to wander) and are dealt with locally by warnings or small fines. More serious crimes, such as assault, are prosecuted in the magistrate's court and may result in large frees or imprisonment.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

Basic social welfare programs exist. For example, free nutrition supplements are available to ensure the health and well-being of young children, and older people receive a modest pension.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

Various voluntary associations include a trade union for government employees, women's groups, sports teams, church choirs, dance groups, and youth groups.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Although women are not automatically accorded the sociopolitical status that men achieve after marriage, women can achieve positions of authority and influence, especially at older ages, through education and by demonstrating effective leadership.

As important as gender in assigning tasks and respect is chronological age. Those who are older are respected and deferred to not just because of family background, experience, and accomplishments but because they are older. Attention to relative age is linguistically signaled and bolstered by the social, religious, economic, and political organization of life.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Domestic Unit. In the past, villages were endogamous, somewhat matrifocal units. The mixing of youth from all villages at the high school has caused the breakdown of this tradition, and that of the Motu-Tafiti rivalry.

People live in extended family groups called magafaoa, which oversee land ownership and use. Villages are composed of related magafaoa. Households within a magafaoa occupy clusters of nearby dwellings. The head of a household is usually a married man (patu ) who represents his domestic unit in church and village politics. Also living in his household are his wife and unmarried children, any recently married children and their spouses, and some grandchildren. Frequently, a household includes a sibling of the patu or of his spouse, a widowed older relative, or a niece or nephew who goes to a nearby school.


Infant Care. Mothers are the primary caregivers for infants. Grandmothers are crucial resources, especially for firstborn children, because they teach new mothers how to parent properly. A child who crawls and begins to talk is thought to be capable of understanding. When a child is around one year old, the indulgent period of infancy gives way to intense training in social behaviors and a heightening of the role that fathers play in the lives of their children.

A child is the responsibility of all members of a magafaoa and may be fed, clothed, chastised, and cared for by any family member; the child thus may end up living in a different household temporarily or permanently. While at play, toddlers and young children are usually in the care of older siblings.

Child Rearing and Education. There are six elementary schools and one high school. Schooling is compulsory, secular, and free for all children age 5 to 14. At more advanced grades, instruction is delivered in English. The curriculum is modeled on that used in New Zealand schools but includes materials especially designed for a Pacific Islander context.

Higher Education. Postsecondary education at the university or technical college level is available only overseas. Students are selected for further training and supported by government scholarships and then return to take up government jobs, such as physicians or nurses, engineers, technicians, administrators and managers, teachers, and mechanics.


Niuean society is a gerontocracy based on obedience to and respect for those who are older than oneself, with special accord being given to males and those who are first-borns. Gifts (e.g., food, shell necklaces, money) are frequently exchanged informally as well as formally, signaling esteem and friendship, and are expected to be reciprocated at some later time.


The first missionaries to arrive in the mid-nineteenth century were Samoan. They were followed in 1861 by English representatives of the London Missionary Society. Most Niueans are Christian, with the majority (75 percent) being affiliated with the Protestant Church of Niue (Ekalesia Niue ). In general, pastors are men trained in seminaries in Samoa or elsewhere who play a central role in village life as spiritual and civic leaders.

To varying degrees, most Niueans still embrace older religious ideas, believing in a supernatural world inhabited by aitu, spirits of dead ancestors or ghosts. Aitu keep a close eye on behavior and punish with misfortune, illness, or even death upon individuals who transgress social norms or flout cultural conventions. Death implies movement from this world to a parallel supernatural world inhabited by ghosts and ancestral spirits. Death is not necessarily instantaneous but rather a gradual transition, as implied by use of the same word, mate, to denote states distinguished in other cultures as delirious, unconscious, dying, and dead.

Any location at which an unexpected or violent death occurs will have a fono or prohibition placed on it, distancing the living from the revenge of ancestral sprits. Until the appropriate time for a pastor to lift this tapu (supernatural edict), people will not visit or will behave there in a very circumspect fashion. Caves or chasms with a history of importance in human affairs are named and treated with respect because of supernatural associations.

Medicine and Health Care

High-quality (Western) biomedical care is available free of charge. Emergency services and in-patient care for surgical conditions are provided at Lord Liverpool Hospital in Alofi. Patients requiring specialist care are sent by air to nearby countries. Outpatient care is available at several clinics, including a mobile one that regularly visits each village. Public health surveillance and the prevention of disease are a key aspect of health service delivery. This is accomplished through sanitary disposal of wastes, provision of potable water, rodent and mosquito control, and well-baby clinics and childhood vaccination programs.

Herbalists and traditional healers (taulaatua ) address psychosocial issues that do not always respond well to other therapies as well as diseases that are deemed to be uniquely Niuean in origin and manifestation. Despite an official ban, there is underground support for and provision of this kind of care.

Secular Celebrations

There are two official days of celebration: Peniamina's Day and Independence Day. Peniamina was a Niuean who went to Samoa in the mid-nineteenth century and later returned with Samoan missionaries. He is credited with bringing the Bible and beginning the modernization of Niue. Independence from New Zealand was granted on 19 October 1974, a process begun fourteen years earlier. Niueans resisted being hurried to independence even when the United Nations applied pressure. At stake was the fashioning of the world's first Compact of Free Associationa model used subsequently in independence agreements by other Pacific societieswhich gave Niueans self-determination but continued New Zealand citizenship, monetary aid, and military protection.

The Arts and Humanities

Niueans do not have a strong interest in preserving their history by collecting artifacts or through oral storytelling or the recitation of genealogies. Traditional dances and songs are featured at important events such as weddings and official ceremonies. A recent surge of interest in history has resulted in the establishment of a small museum in Alofi and the revival of several handicrafts, such as the building of canoes by hand and the making of hiapo, a mulberry bark cloth.

Some returned migrants make a living through the arts, such as sculpture, writing, painting, and composing music. Such endeavors, however, are aimed more at an overseas commercial art market than at the local community. Most funding for the arts comes from overseas; the New Zealand government is interested in fostering and maintaining traditional Pacific arts and crafts.


Barker, Judith C. Social Organization of Health Services for Preschool Children on Niue Island, Western Polynesia, 1985.

. "Health and Functional Status of the Elderly in a Polynesian Population." Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology 4: 163194, 1989.

. "Home Alone: The Effects of Out-Migration on Niuean Elders' Living Arrangements and Social Support." Pacific Studies 17 (3): 4181, 1994.

. "Between Humans and Ghosts: The Decrepit Elderly on a Polynesian island." In Jay Sokolovsky, ed., The Cultural Context of Aging: Worldwide Perspectives, rev. 2nd ed., 1997.

. "Road Warriors: Driving Behaviors on a Polynesian Island." In Robert A. Hahn, ed., Anthropology in Public and International Health: Bridging Differences in Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Chapman, Terry M. The Decolonization of Niue, 1976.

Connell, John C. Migration, Employment and Development in the South Pacific: Country Report Number 11Niue, 1983.

Loeb, Edwin M. "History and Traditions of Niue." Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin no. 32, 1926.

McBean, Angus. "Niue Today . . . " South Pacific Bulletin October 1962, pp. 3337, 6064.

McLachlan, Sue. "Savage Island or Savage History? An Interpretation of Early European Contact with Niue." Pacific Studies 6: 2651, 1982.

Niue Government. Niue: A History of the Island, 1982.

Pollock, Nancy J. "Work, Wages and Shifting Cultivation on Niue." Pacific Studies 2: 132143, 1979.

Scott, Dick. Would a Good Man Die? Niue Island, New Zealand and the Late Mr. Larsen, 1993.

Yarwood, Vaughn, with photographs by Glenn Jowitt. "Life on the Rock." New Zealand Geographic 37: 56 86, 1998.

Judith C. Barker


views updated Jun 08 2018


ETHNONYMS: Niuean, Niuefekai

Niue is a 260-square-kilometer raised coral atoll. Culturally and linguistically it is very similar to Tonga. Niue is located at 19° S and 169°50 W, 385 kilometers east of Vavau, Tonga. There were 6,000 people on Niue and about 5,500 Niueans in New Zealand in the early 1980s. Niuean is part of the Tongic group of Austronesian languages. At present, only the narrow coastal fringe is inhabited and exploited; formerly, the island was more evenly settled.

Subsistence is based on marine exploitation, taro, arrowroot, coconuts, yams, and bananas; breadfruit is a relatively recent introduction. Fishing is difficult and catches are poor, due to the limited reef around the island. Chickens were raised in the past, but they have been replaced by wild rats and fish as the main sources of protein. There is a tendency toward a reliance on fishing on the coast and taro farming farther inland. Ramages are the landholding groups.

Kin groups include the Motu and Tafiti moieties, general bilateral kin groups, ramages, and extended families. Descent is ambilineal, with a patrilineal bias. Marriages are often arranged. Polygyny was common among chiefs in the past. Both moieties are endogamous. Households were very flexible in their membership, but they usually contained a core group of siblings or parents and children. In addition to the kin groups, Niuean society was stratified into three classes: the warriors, the warriors' retainers, and low people. A Paramount chief (patuiki ) formerly ruled over the entire island, and he could be ceremonially killed during drought or famine for what was considered neglect of duty. The Niueans were politically subordinate to the Tongans, whose leader evidently had a hand in the selection of their paramount chief.

The concepts of mana and tapu were primary among aboriginal religious beliefs. Nearly all Niueans are now Christian. The Niueans had many gods, organized into a Hierarchical pantheon.

See alsoTonga


Crocombe, Ron, ed. (1971). Land Tenure in the Pacific. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Loeb, Edwin M. (1926). History and Traditions of Niue. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin no. 32. Honolulu.


views updated May 17 2018

Niue Island territory in the s Pacific Ocean, 2160km (1340mi) ne of New Zealand; the capital is Alofi. The largest coral island in the world, Niue was first visited by Europeans in 1774. In 1901, it was annexed to New Zealand. In 1974, it achieved self-government in free association with New Zealand. The island is prone to hurricanes and tropical rainstorms. Its economy is mainly agricultural. The major export is coconut. Area: 260sq km (100sq mi). Pop. (2000) 2000.