Polynesian Culture

by Sean N. Bennett

Tongan Culture




Tonga is the only Pacific Island nation that has never been colonized by foreign power. The monarchy and structure of the government still remains the most powerful thing in Tonga. Tongans still proudly hold to their culture and traditions, with the Polynesian monarchy dating back centuries it remains as close to the ‘true’ Polynesia as you’re likely to find [1]. Life in Tonga is close to the same as it has been for years. Walking around Tonga you may still likely find those wearing woven mats (ta’ovala) (tah-oh-vah-lah) or Sarongs (tupenu) (two-pen-ew), cooking in the ground, and drinking Kava (widely drunk through most of Polynesia). Many Tongans still live in village communities following traditional customs. In most villages, there is a special workhouse for the women to make their crafts, such as, the woven mats, and to communicate with each other while creating beautiful works of art [2]. Tattoos use to be the norm in Tonga but under heavy missionary disapproval it slightly disappeared, although not completely. It is still very common to see men decorated in small tattoos, for they show ones strength and tell a story [3]. Religion is a big part in Tongan culture. There are many denominations and one is not shunned for choosing one denomination over another. Sunday is deemed a day of rest and worship. Family is the central unit of Tongan life. Each family member has a role and the older persons command the most respect. A typical family unit may consist of adopted children, cousins, siblings, grandparents, and other distant relatives. Tonga is very much about its people and culture. Tongans are very welcoming, relaxed, and happy. They find any occasion big or small to get together and celebrate with family and friends. Tongans are perhaps most renowned for their girth, their musical talent and their inimitable sense of hospitality [4].

Values and Norms

Values of the Tongan people include, mutual respect, cooperating and fulfillment of mutual obligations, humility, generosity, loyalty, and commitment [5]. Respect: Many Tongans believe that respect is the most important value to teach and pass on to their children. From a very young age children are taught to be listen to their parents and do as they say. The ideal is that Tongan children will not challenge, question, or criticize the parents’ decisions and that children will not freely express their own opinions [6]. Humility: Every Tongan is expected to be humble. Even the King is expected to be humble before God. Some common practices of humility include self-deprecatory speech in which Tongans will usually describe themselves as lazy, foolish, or impatient. In families children do not receive praise for their accomplishments and parents do not discuss their children’s accomplishments with others as to promote humility in the family [7]. Generosity: Amongst family, Tongans are expected to be friendly and generous with their goods and services. Even poor families give freely of their time and whatever other resources they have. Tongans have also been known to spontaneously offer lavish gifts of money or food in times of celebration. They have also been known to [6]. Sexuality: For women to remain sexually chaste until marriage is the Tongan ideal and norm, especially among highborn women. On the wedding night, women were expected to bleed heavily, staining the bed sheets as a demonstration of her virginity. The next day the husbands’ aunt would. A woman who did not live up to this ideal was considered a “fallen woman” but was still accepted by her family and usually had no problems finding a husband [8].

Traditions, Beliefs and Attitudes

Tonga is a very tradition oriented culture. The extended family is the basic social unit in Tonga. In a traditional Tongan family, the father is considered to be the head of the family, and the mother his subordinate [9]. It is the opposite when it comes to brothers and sisters who are close in age. Brothers are subordinate to their sisters. In fact, a father’s eldest sister (mehekitanga) (me-he-ki-tayn-gah) is the leader (fahu) (fah-who) of the nuclear family in the highly organized extended family system. Children are regarded as not owned by their parents; they belong to the whole family. It is not unusual for a child to live in several households.

It’s tradition to give many personal compliments in Tonga. Although, it’s important to not compliment to one specific item to much because the host may feel obligated to give it as a gift. It is a terrible insult to decline such offers, which may include fruit, tapa cloth, or handicrafts. [9] Tongans will call acquaintances by first name but if they are meeting for the first time they often use titles and family names to show respect.

Mat weaving is a huge tradition in Tonga. Many woman gather round to weave mats and talk. Mats are traditionally given at births, weddings, funerals, and other special occasions. Tongans also wear mats around their waist and those are handed down from generation to generation, some dating back hundreds of years. The two biggest occasions for Tongans are weddings and funerals, where traditional tapa cloths and woven mats are given as gifts [10]. Tongan dance is also a spectacle that demands the involvement of spectators, and a gift of appreciation or fakapale (fah-kah-pale-lay) is a local tradition to reward a dancer [10]. Traditional Tongan dances tell about the history of Tongan history and legends. Most Tongan dancers traditionally wear a headpiece (tekiteki) (tek-ee-tek-ee), which enhances the head and is considered one of the most important actions in Tongan dance. Other common Tongan traditions include, tattoos, feasts, handicrafts, and drinking kava.


According to the 2011 Tongan census, 90% of the Tongan population participated in Christian religion practices [11]. The most predominant Christian religion being Free Wesleyan Church followed by Latter Day Saint, and Roman Catholic. In total there are 16 official churches running and operating in Tonga [12]. Christian missionaries first introduced Christianity to the Tonga people in the 1800’s. A missionary named John Thomas came to Tonga in 1825 and stayed for 25 years converting many Tongan’s to Christianity. A group of Free Wesleyan Church missionaries arrived in 1882 and converted even more Tongans to Christianity. There are several theories of why Christianity was so readily accepted by the Tongan people, several of the being Tongan’s believed that old Gods had prophesied of Christianity coming to Tonga and the destruction of the “old order”. Many Christian ideals were already valued by the Tongan people, such as Scripture study, honesty, and purity [13]. The Sabbath day is strictly observed in Tonga. Even Seven Day Adventists, who originally consider Saturday and the holy day, observe Sunday as their day of rest [12]. Sabbath day observance is even in the Tongan constitution. All businesses are expect to “keep the Sabbath day holy” regardless of the business owner’s religion [14]. Indigenous beliefs: before the entrance of missionaries into Tonga, the Tongan people believed in “pulotu” (pull-oh-two) which represented both heaven and hell and was a spirit world full of unseen people and animals. “Tevolo” (tev-oh-loh) were considered the evil spirits and ghosts. The only members of Tongan society who were believed to have spirits that could move on to the “pulotu” (pull-oh-two) were the clan chiefs. Each Tongan clan also had a spirit animal and if a can member killed and ate their spirit animal it was believed to bring bad luck upon him [11].

Since the introduction of Christianity into Tongan society, several things have changed, the “Tevolo” is now considered to represent the devil of the Christian religion, clan chiefs are not the only clan members believed to move on to the next life [11]. While something’s have changed, others have stayed the same. For example, many clan members still observe their clan animals. Also, a fear of traditional “tevolo” is still maintained in Tongan culture today and there are Tongan seers, mediums, and priests who preform rituals to protect the Tongan people from the “tevolo” [11].

Sense of Self and Space

Understanding Tongan sense of self and space is crucial to understanding the Tongan people. “Tongans do not tend to be close talkers. They will often shout at each other from across the yard or from the doorway of your house.” [15] It is not in the culture of Tongans to have close spaces with others. An arms length away is usually what is expected and opposite sex physical interaction in public is looked down upon. In fact, there is often little to no touching during talking, unless it among a group of close friends of the same sex. “Much of the ideology of sisters as having higher status remains, and this gives young woman a strong sense of their own identity as Tongan women. They can embrace change without having this sense of self threatened, whereas for men change can mean the loss of their power and self-identity as “chiefly” husbands and fathers.” [16] Tongan sisters are always held higher than their brothers who are close to them in age giving them the chance to gain their own identity of themselves, whereas men have to mold with the culture and identity of other men to be head of the family. Tongan ancestry plays a huge role in their sense of self. Things Tongan ancestors did or believed in often carry down to the younger generations. Spirituality is a huge part of Tongan culture. How a Tonga is spiritually will often show who they are as a person. The social status of a Tongan also plays a huge role in their sense of themselves. A human’s identity is how one sees them and what he or she can accomplish, with status being so important, it is important for one to have a good sense of self and belonging. They are able to see themselves and who they are in relation to others and their past.

Communication Style and Language

Tonga has two official languages, English and Tongan. Tongan is the first language and is used in informal and day-today communication. English is taught in school as a second language and is used mostly for business [17].

Tongan Greeting In formal settings and among adults and the elderly, Tongans greet each other by approaching each other as if they are going in for a hug but instead of hugging each other they put the sides of their heads next to each other and take a deep breath, not because they are actually trying to smell the other person, but because it is their custom [18]. Less formal greeting includes handshakes and nods of acknowledgement [19].

Body language communication A vast amount of Tongan communication is done through body and facial expressions. An eyebrow flick or a quick lifting of the eyebrows means, “yes” [18]. Same sex physical contact is not uncommon. Often boys will be seen holding hands and girls will play with each other hair and hold hands. Men will even give each other massages. Although same sex contact is socially acceptable, romantic displays of affection such as kissing is not common and makes Tongan’s feel very uncomfortable [18]. When measuring showing measurements of length, Tongans measure from the tip of their fingers and up their arm using the opposite hand. Holding both hands out wide or using fingers to show length is considered rude [20]. Tongans usually communicate and have conversations at least an arm’s length. It is not uncommon to have conversations yelled from a door way or across the yard [21]. In Tonga there is a very clear form of hierarchy. There is usually no direct eye contact between people of different ranks. For example, students will look at the floor instead of the teacher when answering questions [22].

Food and Feeding Habits

Tonga is notable for its high obesity rates with over 90% of the population being overweight. Consequently, many Tongan islanders have an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and other obesity related diseases, which place the nation's health service under considerable strain.[3] Much of this is related to the nation's cultural love of food and eating as well as the modern influx of cheap and high-fat content meat, with corned beef and lamb belly remaining firm favorites in Tongan cuisine. [23]

Drinking kava marks all formal occasions; kava is a drink with sedative and anesthetic properties, similar to alcohol. Kava is usually drunk nightly on the outer islands and only on Wednesday and Saturdays on the mainland (Tongatapu) (tonga-tah-pu) at kalapus (kala-poos)(Tongan for “club”). Kava is only drunk by men but served by females. [24] Other drinks that Tongans enjoy are soda, tea and coffee with tinned condensed milk. A common food that many Tongans eat a large quantity of is the topai (toe-pay) (doughboys), flour and water made into a paste then dropped into boiling water, then served with a syrup of sugar and coconut milk. Topai is often served as a funeral food to the mourners. In former times, there was only one main meal in the mid day. It consisted of taro, yams, bananas, coconuts, fish, and raw shellfish. The main meal was cooked in an earth oven and leftovers were saved for breakfast and dinner the next day. Tongans no longer make an earth oven daily. The meal schedule has changed to a more westernized schedule with breakfast, lunch, and a heavier dinner. Most cooking is done by women, who cook in large pots over open fires in the village, wood-stoves, or gas and electric ranges in some of the larger towns. [23] Pigs were killed and cooked only on very special occasions. In the 19th and 20th century, there were many new foods that were introduced from the western contacts and settlements.

Time Consciousness

The Tongan culture incorporates two different ideas of time. The common expression “Tongan time” is the idea that it is okay to be late and there is no specific time for meetings or events. The other perception of time is “Palangi (paw-lawn-gee) time” [25]. Palangi is a slang word for white people in the Polynesia islands [26]. Since white people from countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and certain European countries tend to be monochromic, “Palangi time” indicates that a specific event or meeting will start on time and Tongans are expected to be punctual [25].

Although the Tongan people tend to juggle polychromic and monochromic time schedules, the Tongan people tend to naturally be more polychromic. Some characteristics of polychromic time orientation that are consistent with Tongan culture include putting more emphasis on relationships than tasks and they tend to build strong personal relations ships [27]. Although Tongan people understand the concept and value of keeping a schedule, they do not understand why someone would let something as silly as a schedule negatively affect the quality of relationships [28]. Tongans feel that it is acceptable to be late or miss an appointment if time is being spent with family or friends. It is more important to maintain relationship than a schedule. Quite often people of polychromic cultures will schedule multiple appointments simultaneously so keeping all scheduled appointments is actually impossible [29].

Scheduled appointments and personal time are not necessarily important in the Tongan culture. Quite frequently Tongan’s will stop by each other’s houses unannounced. It is expected that the person being visited will stop what they are doing and answer the request [25].

Relationships and Social Organization

Relationships are very important to Tongans. Family is the central unit of Tongan culture so cultivating new and lasting relationships is very important to them. Dating is often very brief before marriage and it often takes place in the girl’s home under supervision of her parents. After marriage, the woman takes the man’s familial lineage [30].

The social structure in Tonga is very similar to how it was in former times. Traditional society had at its top the ha’a tu’I (Haw-ah-tool)(kings), followed by the hou’eiki (How-way-ee-key)(chiefs), ha’a matapule (Haw-ah-maw-ta-poo-lay)(talking chiefs), kau mu’a (cow-moo-awe-ah)(would-be talking chiefs) and kautu’a (Kaw-oo-too-awe) (commoners). All titles were heritable and followed the male line of descent almost exclusively. This hierarchical social structure is still essentially in place [31]. The King is still at the top and makes all the final decisions, and the high chiefs are now called nobles and everyone under them is just a ‘commoner’. This worldly power would be called status. A Tongan receives his status from his father. Although, status is not what places Tongans in society, rank is. Rank is gained from the son’s mother and that determines the place in the social order. High rank and high status always go together. A high-ranking woman will always marry a high-ranking man. Rank and status are fixed from birth. There is no way in Tongan society to climb up in rank [32]. Rank is fundamental to Tongan culture. No two people have equal rank; they may have to go back a few generations to determine their status. This determines how they will interact with one and other and is extremely important. Rank also determines responsibilities. Within the family, sisters are ranked higher than brothers, the fathers side of the family is ranked higher than the mothers side, and the older you are the higher you are ranked [33].

Education and Learning

Tonga has an extremely high literacy rate of 98.4 for men and 98.7 for women and more than 70% of men and women are literate in both Tongan and English [34]. This high literacy rate it due to the that fact that all children ages 6-14 are legally required to complete at least 6 years of school. Since school is mandatory the government has also made primary school free to the public [35].

Most primary school are run by the government, but religious groups, nongovernment organizations, and private schools provide the majority of all other levels of education, which includes, pre-primary, secondary school, vocational and educational training, and tertiary education. Tonga also has a long history of distance education [36].

Almost all-Tongan schools have a dress code. Smaller schools have a more relaxed dress code while others are stricter. For example, at the Tongan College Atele all students are required to wear a tailored, clean uniform or else they will be punished and sent home until the uniform is improved. Students are required to wear their uniform to and from school and are also not allowed to wear their uniform after 5:30pm and to change as soon as they arrive home. No jewelry or makeup of any kind is allowed neither is plucked eyebrows. Students who have plucked eyebrows may be sent home and not allowed to return until after proper regrowth has occurred. Hair coloring, and trendy hairstyles are also forbidden [37].

In the past, English was the primary language used in schools since very little educational material and literature is published in Tongan. But in 2012 the ministry of education created a new language policy for all Tongan schools. The new policy stated that Tongan will be the only language used in kindergarten and the first three levels of primary schools, after the 3rd level the use of Tongan will gradually decrease and the use of English will gradually increase so by the 7th level there will be an equal amount of English and Tongan used in the curriculum [38].

There is a fear of the Tongan education system declining because of the lack of qualified and experienced teachers. Many of these teachers go overseas where there are higher wages available [37].

Work Habits and Practices

Customs and traditions in Tonga tend to lead to a slower pace and less rigid work habits. Tonga’s pattern of economy comprises subsistence activity, cultivation of crops or fishing for sale and modern wage sector activities. [39] Tourism, construction and fishing are the three main industries that bring in revue and work in Tonga. Tonga has a small, open, South Pacific island economy. It has a narrow export base in agricultural goods. Squash, vanilla beans, and yams are the main crops. Rural Tongans rely on plantation and subsistence agriculture. Tongan households are multi-occupational. [40] The definition of being economically active includes farming, fishing and handicraft that are not combined with housework. Many women in the past were categorized as being economically inactive due to their engagement in housework and childcare. In fact by this definition only 58% of those who work are considered economically active.

The country remains dependent on external aid and remittances from Tongan communities overseas to offset its trade deficit. Tonga’s economy is a characterized by a large non-monetary sector and a heavy dependence on remittances from half of the country’s population who live abroad (chiefly in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States). The royal family and nobles dominate and largely own the monetary sector of the economy. [41] In 2007, the Tongan workforce was comprised of just fewer than 40,000 people. There is a 13% unemployment rate in Tonga. [40] There is no minimum wage law in Tonga, meaning there is no mandatory minimum rate of pay for workers in Tonga.


One of the most concerning health issues facing Tongans right now is the increasing number of death related to non-communicable diseases, especially cardiovascular, neoplasms, and respiratory. The increased occurrence of these diseases has caused the adult mortality rate and lowered life expectancy for both men and women [43].

The increase in non-communicable disease has been attributed to the evolution of the Tongan diet. Traditionally, Tongans believed the more one eats the better their health status. This practice has had a negative impact on Tongan health but this practice is changing as awareness of healthy eating habits increase [42]. Tongan diets have also changed from being full of fresh fruits and vegetables to the over consumption of prepackaged and processed foods as they are easy to prepare and are easily available [44]. Currently, over 90% of all men and women in Tonga are overweight [45].

All government provided health services are free of charge. Most people have access to healthcare, the only exception being the small population living on isolated islands. Western medicine is accepted into Tongan culture to treat what is considered western disease, such as diabetes and COPD, but traditional Tongan medicine is sought for what is considered traditional Tongan ailments [43].

Tonga has traditional healers, who are an integral part of Tongan culture. Healers are able to treat and cure illnesses by special powers or energy they possess. Being a healer is not a learned skill but healers must acquire their energy to be able to heal others. There are four different types of healers; healers who treat spiritual illnesses, some treat physical injuries, some treat metabolic and internal disorders, and healers who treat illnesses with unknown causes. The government does not formally recognize traditional healers as health care providers, but Tonga is estimated to have 1,000 traditional healers and according to a study in 2005, healers see 7 patients per month [43].

See Also

External Links


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