Polynesian Culture

by Sean N. Bennett

Nieu Culture





Niue is a small Polynesian island near Samoa and Tonga. Its name, loosely interpreted, means “The Rock” due to its appearance from being formed by volcanic eruption.18 Its unique terrain makes it difficult to cultivate the land, so populations have remained small.18 For centuries Niue remained relatively uninfluenced by the outside world. The island was populated by tribes that each had their own chiefs until the early 1800’s when the first “king” was named. This change in governing was influenced by the arrival of Tongans in the 1600's.22

Then, in the early 1800’s the island was discovered by its first European visitor, Captain James Cook, who was not welcomed by the natives. The island natives scared him off by painting their teeth red to appear like savages, for which he gave it the name “Savage Island”.25 Niueans recognized that disease came from close contact and did not want any outsiders on their island.11 Visitors to the island continued to come and be rejected.

Gradually missionaries were received and Christianity was adopted as the island’s official religion. Although, to varying degrees, many Niueans still believe in the old religious ideas of the supernatural and spirits of dead ancestors as evidenced by the practice of certain traditional rituals.32

As Niue was exposed more and more to outside influences, their mode of government changed also. In 1887, the king asked Queen Victoria for Britain’s protection of their small island. Eventually Niue was annexed by New Zealand. Today Niue is an “autonomous self-governing territory with free association with New Zealand. New Zealand still handles all military and foreign affairs on the island, whose residents are full citizens of New Zealand.”22

The women of Niue spend a good deal of time weaving and crafting and often sell their goods to tourists who are more warmly welcomed today than in the time of Captain Cook. The men generally work more than one job and have more than one craft and multiple skill sets as a result of not having a large enough population to maintain a modern style economy with all its trades.11

Norms and Values

The Niuean [nyü-ˈwā-ən] culture has unique values and social norms. Some of the values that are important to the Niue [nyü-ˌwā] people include fakaalofa or gift-giving, generosity, reciprocity, and etiquette. Social norms include specific gender roles and statuses and the use of alcohol at cultural events. Other norms of this culture are that one should be respectful, hospitable, and a good host.

One value in the Niuean culture is the concept of fakaalofa [fa-k-aa-lo-fa] . This concept is a very important part of the Niuean culture and is a common practice. The word fakaalofa can refer to several things. It can refer to a hand-shake during a greeting. It can be used as the greeting itself, meaning "greetings to you." Most often, however, it refers to the offering of a gift to someone.27

Reciprocity, or exchanging things for mutual benefit, is another value in the Niuean community. It is common when a fakaalofa is received that an adequate return is expected, but not asked for. "The most common times for fakaalofas to be exchanged are at formal cultural events such as “haircuttings, ear piercings, weddings, funerals and festive or other activities”.27 But they are also exchanged at informal times as well. Gifts typically signal esteem and friendship.18

A third value in the Niuean society is the concept of generosity. This includes the sharing of food, alcohol, resources, and material goods. It is important for Niueans to share their resources and to help others in need.27

The fakaalofa system has existed for many centuries in the Niuean culture. This is particularly visible in the presence of alcohol and large amounts of food and significant cultural events as a social norm. Alcohol and food have become an integral component of the Niuean culture as they are used during social gatherings, celebrations, and festivities. Celebrations are considered to be incomplete if alcohol and food are not present as they are reflections of cultural values including “fakaalofa (gifting), generosity, respect, status and host obligations”.27 Host obligations and responsibilities include providing large amounts of food and alcohol to cultural functions. Another norm in the Niuean culture is the belief that drinking alcohol is a “symbol of being Niuean and being a real Niuean man”.27 Based on the cultural expectations of hospitality and respect, Niuean men typically drink alcohol until it is finished. It is a social norm that when Niuean people offer food, it is very impolite to refuse.

Another social norm of the Niuean culture is their beliefs about gender roles and statuses, which are that men hold a higher sociopolitical status in their culture than women do. However, women can achieve positions of authority within the culture through increasing age, education, and proving themselves in leadership positions.18 Etiquette is another Niuean value reflected in their gender roles. The niuean society is 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”.18

Traditions Beliefs and Values

The Niue people are very rich in their traditions, beliefs, and attitudes. Some of the significant traditions, beliefs, and attitudes are comprised of death, relationships, ancestry, and holidays.

Though not commonly seen today, it is worth of mention that the Niue people had a history of accustomed suicide. Many suicides were precipitated by feelings of shame or guilt. Many years ago, it was customary for conquered groups to commit mass suicides by jumping off cliffs.17 Suicide, however, is uncommon in today’s Niue culture.

Death was a significant event in Niue culture. Often times, if the deceased person was of great importance, the mourning phase, or “tagi” [tæ-gi] lasted anywhere from fifty to one hundred days. In earlier times of the Niue history, men would shave their heads with shark’s teeth and there were intense wailing and “singing of the dirges”.17 Today it is not uncommon for women with long hair to completely shave their heads as a symbol of mourning. Funeral services are typically held in a temporary house called a “fale-tulu” [fa-lé-tü-lü] where the family of the deceased gather together, called a “putu” [pü-tü], and then proceed to mourn.

The Niue people consider relationships with family and friends very important. Due to this attitude, it is a tradition and social norm to practice two-way gift-giving. Though the Niue people do not expect gifts immediately in return from others, as a visitor to a Niuean’s home, it is considered rude if you do not bring over a gift as it is a symbol of friendship, esteem, and respect.18

Lastly, uncommon to other Polynesian cultures, it is not a tradition for the Niue to keep a record of their ancestors through storytelling or reciting genealogies. Preserving historical artifacts is similarly not traditionally significant. However, the Niue people are very enthusiastic about their holidays and celebrations. In the month of October, a week is set aside for festivities celebrating the signing of the Compact of Free Association between New Zealand and Niue on October 19, 1974. Because of this contract, the Niue people were granted citizenship in New Zealand and also retained autonomy to govern how they wished on the island of Niue. The second important holiday is Peniamina’s Day. This celebratory day honors a Samoan pastor named Peniamina who initially brought Christianity to the island in 1846.28


The Ekalesia Niue Church in Mutulau village

Influenced by the missionaries from their beginning roots, the Niuean people are predominantly Christian. According to The U.S. State Department's International Religious Freedom Report in 2012, Christianity comprised 97.68% of the Niuean population. The other largest religious groups consisted of Agnostic (1.57%), Bahai (0.61%), and Chinese Universalist (0.20%) that same year.19

The CIA World Factbook broke down the Christian denominations into the Congregational Christian Church of Niue at 67%, other Protestant churches 3% which includes Seventh Day Adventist 1%, Presbyterian 1%, and Methodist 1%), Roman Catholic 10%, Mormon 10%, Jehovah's Witnesses 2%, other 6%, and no religion as 2%.33 The Congregational Christian Church – and largest Christian church by population – was founded by the missionaries from the London Missionary Society during the 1840’s and 1850’s.

Due to the high involvement in religion, the Niuean society’s connections are made primarily by its social interaction from church. Providing more than just moral guidance, churches among the Niuean people coordinate service projects and the redistribution of humanitarian needs and goods. Creating a culture of unity helps retain the religion and culture of the Niuean people.6

Nukai Peniamina

Even though the first missionary to come to the Niuean people was white, Niueans were surprisingly converted by one of their own.1 The Samoan-trained Christian, Nukai Peniamina, became the Niuean pioneer for Christianity and is still recognized as the greatest influential component in the origins of Christianity in Niue today. George Lawes was the first resident pastor, arriving in 1861 and found the Niue to be more than just agreeable. He found them to be welcoming, devout believers even though there were only eight inhabitants claiming to be Christians at the time.6

William George Lawes

Sense of Self and Space

The Niue people are very much like other Pacific Islanders such as those from Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. Niueans are a very humble, kind, and welcoming people.8 The family unit is given the utmost priority. Personal relationships within the family, including relationships with elder members of the family, are highly valued.

Niueans also share similarities with other islanders like Fijians, Tongans, or Samoans in how they regard their sense of self. Because family is esteemed so highly, it is not unusual to have many family members such as siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, in-laws, grandparents, and parents at various occasions, meetings, dinners, celebrations, etc. These people have large, yet tight-knit families that love each other and respect each relationship.18 Niueans have a “herd like” approach when it comes to how the family operates. Decisions are made and actions are taken based on the good of the family as a whole. Niueans may experience a diminished sense of self because they focus so closely on the needs, wants, and reputation of their family. For example, if a family member brings dishonor to the family through his/her actions, it is not uncommon for other members of the family to feel personal shame or guilt for those actions.8 Niueans work as team and typically, their “team” consists of members of their family.

Niueans may have a slightly different perception of space than typical Americans do. Because most Niueans come from humble beginnings, large homes with enough rooms for each family member is a rarity if not, unattainable. Due to small living quarters, personal space may be limited, and sharing of goods, personal items, food, etc is commonplace. Because Niueans live on a remote island, most destinations are relatively close.7

Communication Style and Language

Most Niueans are bilingual with English generally being the second language. Primarily, the Niuean people speak a language that is similar to other Polynesian languages, called Niuean. It is most closely related to Tongan but also comparable to Maori, Samoan, and Hawaiian.26 Niuean is spoken by the inhabitants of Niue as well as a minority of occupants of the Cook Islands, New Zealand, and Tonga. In fact, there are actually more Niuean speakers outside of the island of Niue than on the island itself.26 There are two dialects of Niuean. The older Motu dialect is from the northern part of the island and the Tafiti dialect is from the southern part of the island. The main difference between the two dialects is the differing vocabulary for some words.26

In regards to communication style, Niueans utilize many westernized modes of communication today such as postal mail, telephone, internet, press, and radio. The island of Niue offers free internet service through an organization called the Internet Users Society Niue.26 There is one printed newspaper on the island called the Niue Star which is published weekly and is distributed in Niue, New Zealand, and Australia.26 It is printed in both Niuean and English.

Since most Niueans are bilingual, English tends to be the language of business, while Niuean tends to be the language used within the family and village settings. Although, frequent switching of languages occurs in various settings.

Because most Niueans are born into large families, the element of socialization is introduced at an early age. Many children are “turned over for care to the other children of the household, who generally associated in a kind of amorphous playgroup with children of other families”.32 It is in this way that Niueans obtain a great deal of their socialization. Relationships between children and their grandparents are particularly warm, “often characterized by humor, bantering, and teasing, all of which provided vehicles for teaching traditional lore and providing technical training and sexual advice.”32

Food and Feeding Habits

Niueans cook in an umu

Typical Niuean food and feeding habits are consistent with those of other Polynesian cultures. Niueans rely heavily on agriculture. Although many Niue families can afford to purchase imported food, agriculture remains very important. “Subsistence activities not only raise food, especially highly prized ceremonial foods, but also symbolize the central values linked to work and identity.”4 Niueans raise both root crops and tree crops. Some of the most prevalent root crops they cultivate are taro, yams, and tapioca. The tree crops include coconut, bananas, breadfruit, mango, and papaya. Taro is a staple, and nearly all Niuean households have taro plantations.20 Niueans are also frequently found hunting and deep sea fishing, adding fruit bats, birds, crabs, and variety of fish to their diet.

Niueans often have celebrations and ceremonies that are centered around food and eating. Twenty-first birthdays, weddings, college graduations, and major community events are often times celebrated with feast foods that are cooked in an umu [ü-mü] (earth oven or cooking pit) and presented to guests along with other items. After the blessing, each guest gathers items for later consumption into a basket. There are some specific occasions where families like to display their solidarity, wealth, and status. These include a boy's first haircut, and a girls ear piercing ceremony. Because these events are symbolic of role transitions, they often involve gifts and cash donations to those who are being celebrated. The gifts are reciprocated by an elaborate feast for those in attendance. The extended family ensures that there is an abundance of highly esteemed foods rich in carbohydrates and proteins that include pork, fish, taro, and yams. At times, they use preserved foods including salt pork or canned corned beef.4

In the central town of Alofi, there is a local farmer’s market that takes place twice a week. Locals bring their home grown fruits, vegetables, and fish to be sold. Popular items at the farmers market include taro, breadfruit, yams, uga, and cassava.29 Celebrations aside, the village people typically consume only the local plants and fish, using an umu to prepare homemade food.

Time Consciousness

Time has been considered part of a silent language that “gives meaning to people and their behaviors”.16 The definition of time orientation in a culture is how the culture values time and their preference toward past, present, or future thinking.10 The informal patterning of time is one of the most consistently overlooked aspects of culture. It has been argued that time is very under-researched and that differences in time consciousness are overlooked. Niue shares some of the same time orientation cultural attitudes as other South Pacific Islands.10

Time orientation can be divided into clock time and event time. “The difference between clock time and event time orientation presents the most pronounced cross-cultural differences with respect to time orientation”.16 Niue is a very small island in the South Pacific that is not industrialized. Less industrialized cultures such as Niue, Polynesia, and the rest of the South Pacific Islands operate on event time instead of clock time. Event time orientation is described as people organizing their time around the natural flow of the events occurring in their day. The Niuean culture’s time orientation is not governed by scheduled appointments and the time on the clock. Rather, time is greater influenced by the natural course of events in their day. Another important aspect of time orientation is punctuality, which is the “degree of rigidity when adhering to schedules and deadlines”.16 Because Niue and the rest of the South Pacific Islands are event time oriented, their window of acceptable lateness is larger than those cultures that are more time-oriented. They typically have fewer stated start times for events and it is not uncommon for someone to arrive one to two hours after an event has started.16

Relationships and Social Organization

The island of Niue has a small population that has persisted throughout the decades. Never reaching more than five thousand, the intense farm work and subsequent famines seem to contain expansion or growth in population. The severe weather conditions also affect the concern of depopulation, sending people to New Zealand ever since 1971 when the airport opened. Today, about two thousand people remain on the island.12

Most “out-migrants” are single young adults or adult couples with small children who intend to stay away permanently. About fifteen thousand Niueans are represented 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”.3 Basic welfare programs such as free nutrition exist in the Niue country with specific concern for the malnourished infant, youth and elderly communities.2

Respect is heavily weighted based on a person’s age among the Niue people. Regardless of family background, experience, and life-long accomplishments, chronological age gives power over the opposing views.12 This emphasis placed on respect of the elderly is pervasive through all aspects of culture in Niue, economic, social, religious, and political. After marriage, a woman’s socio-political status may not be as valued as the man’s in this society, but she is still able to achieve positions of influence and authority. Those of greater experience through age and education often take positions as their leadership skills are exemplified.30

Endogamous communities existed previously in Niue, but the occurrence of endogamy was decreased by the combining of high school youth from all villages, including that of the Motu-Tafiti rivalry. “People live in extended family groups called magafaoa [mæ-gæ-fo-a], 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”.35

Mothers and grandmothers play a big role as caregivers in a child's life. Especially for the firstborn, grandmothers provide an additional resource to show the mother how to properly teach and raise her child. In Niuean culture, a child who begins to verbally communicate and crawl is thought to have the ability to understand. At one year of age, "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". The close unit of the family allows any member of a magafoa to care for the child. Therefore, the child becomes a responsibility to all members of that family unit. This may lead to the child temporarily staying with or permanently being raised in a different household. Through the growing up years, older siblings are often found as the caregivers at play with their younger siblings.35

In Niue, there is one high school and six elementary schools. School is free for ages five to fourteen. New Zealand school curriculum has been implemented and used as model teaching in Niue. People of Niue have to go overseas for university studies or education at a technical college. Students have the opportunity to apply for governmental scholarships and further training, given the expectation that they subsequently return and "take jobs such as physicians or nurses, engineers, technicians, administrators and managers, teachers, and mechanics."35

Education and Learning

Niuean Primary School Assembly

Early in known Niuean history, formal education was introduced by the Christian missionaries. This education was primarily the responsibility of the pastors. In 1909, the first government school was established.13 Over time, more government schools were established. Niueans valued the opportunity for education, particularly the opportunity to learn English, so enrollment was very high. By 1950, the schools in Niue had adopted the Curriculum from New Zealand and had developed secondary education schools.13

Children enter the education system into what is called the ECE (Early Childhood Education). Children can start this as young as their parents choose, but it is compulsory at age 4.9 After one required year at ECE, the children begin primary school. For the first 4 years of primary school, they are instructed in Niue language, but then English instruction is added during the later years.23 There is one primary school on the island. At one point there were eight schools, but due to the decrease in the number of children and teachers, these were blended together into one location.13 The original primary school was destroyed by Cyclone Heta, so in 2013 a new primary school was built further inland at Halamahga Alofi Toga along with a new ECE.22 The secondary school has approximately 200 students.21

Primary school is for children aged 5-10 and is 6 years. Secondary school is for ages 11-17. Primary school attendance has always been compulsory, but as of 2013 the first 6 years of secondary school is now also compulsory. The last year of secondary school is voluntary. Both primary and secondary education are free.9 Tertiary levels of education such as college and university are not available on the island and must be sought and obtained 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.”14

Work Habits and Practices

Deep sea fishing in Niue

Niue culture is characterized by a strong work ethic, however, opportunities to work on Niue are fairly limited. There is competition for scarce jobs. There are times when families have had little or no paid work, and instead tended their plantations, raising taro, tapioca and bananas to sustain themselves. “A Niuean proverb has it that if you keep your bush knife sharp – or stay motivated – you will clear yourself a bigger plantation”.24 Niue has always had a small population because of the strenuous work involved in crop production and the periodic famines. The demographic concern is depopulation. Every five-year census since 1970 has recorded a decline in the population between 15 and 23 percent.3 Now there is only an estimated 1600 people that live on the island, which is taking its toll on job opportunity and the economy.

On Niue, there is a newfound sense of optimism that has come with more tourism money coming in. Men, especially young men, are expected to undertake physically strenuous or dangerous tasks such as deep-sea fishing. Niue’s clear waters have attracted deep sea scuba divers, snorkelers and sport fishermen, and has become a big money earner, with the tourists who visit annually contributing around $1 million to the economy.3 Unfortunately, like the export trade, tourism is also vulnerable to disruption because of bad weather.

Older men and educated younger men typically represent the family or village in civic and spiritual affairs. A lot of older Niuean men work for the government. Recently, most Niuean government workers had their five-day work weeks reduced to four days at the same pay. The government says it helps people spend more time in their communities, but critics say it was because the budget is stretched and there was no money for promised raises.24

Niuean women are generally assigned tasks focused on the domestic domain such as cooking, weaving, sewing, and caring for old people or children. Mothers are the primary caregivers for infants. Grandmothers are crucial resources, especially for firstborn children, because they teach new mothers how to parent properly. When a child is around one year old, there is a heightening of the role that fathers play in parenting.

While jobs are scarce and can be hard to come by, there are still options available on the small island of Niue. There are occasional teaching opportunities at local schools, plantation work, and government jobs. With Niueans putting such emphasis on work ethic, success in business and careers in tourism are also great possibilities.


Children play at a former school in Avatele, Niue

In Niue healthcare is available through basic social welfare programs and change programs. Within these programs,"free nutrition supplements are available to ensure the health and well-being" of the people of Niue.18 The pensions for these programs are more readily available for young children and the older population.

Healthcare in Niue incorporates high-quality Western biomedical care. This healthcare is available free of charge to Niueans. The Lord Liverpool Hospital is located in Alofi, which is the capital of Niue.15 Alofi is the smallest national capital with a population of only 600 people. In the Lord Liverpool Hospital, emergency services and inpatient care services are provided. Patients who need more specialized care are transported to other nearby countries by airplane or helicopter.18 Most of the complicated cases are sent to New Zealand.34

Throughout Niue, there are several outpatient care clinics including a unique mobile outpatient care clinic that travels to each of the villages regularly. The healthcare system in Niue really focuses on public health surveillance and the prevention of disease through primary prevention methods. "This is accomplished through sanitary disposal of wastes, provision of potable water, rodent and mosquito control, and well-baby clinics and childhood vaccination programs".18 These are the key aspects to their health service delivery in Niue.

In Niue, there has been an official ban on herbalists and traditional healing of health conditions. However, there is underground support for these type of healers and they continue to treat psychosocial issues that have not responded well to other therapies as well as address diseases that "are deemed to be uniquely Niuean in origin and manifestation".18

Travelers visiting Niue have become aware of health risks in its natural environment. The CDC recommends most travelers get the Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccinations before visiting Niue because of possible contamination in water and food. The CDC also recommends Hepatitis B and Yellow Fever vaccines for some travelers. This may be if you may have sexual contact, receive a tattoo or piercing through contamination from blood and needles. If the country you are from is at risk for yellow fever virus (YFV), the Niuean government will require vaccination prior to arrival.5

See Also






External Links


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