TIKOPIA: A STUDY OF SMALL ISLAND SURVIVAL

HONIARA, Solomon Islands (Radio Australia, Jan. 8) - Cyclone Zoe has focused world attention on the culture of the people of Tikopia - who belong to the Solomon Islands’ small Polynesian minority.

For generations the Tikopia have learned to live with the devastating impact of cyclones, and have managed to find refuge on different parts of the island to minimize loss of life.

But other practices, such as abortion and infanticide, are also believed to be an integral part of traditional Tikopia society, where survival hinged on the ability to control population growth.

Dr Judith Macdonald, a lecturer in anthropology at New Zealand's Waikato University says the island is on the typhoon belt, or the cyclone belt, so every year they will deal with heavy winds, sometimes they will deal with cyclones every five or ten years.

A cyclone the size of Zoe, however – with winds approaching 200 miles per hour - comes along only once in a hundred years, weather experts say.

"But the techniques of leaving the seaside, leaving the houses and going up into the shelter of the mountains is something they have done for a very long time," said Macdonald. "So that that would have contributed to their survival."

"People say the population went into caves, but there aren't enough caves for 1,500 odd people. There is a very large cave on the weather side of the island, but 30 or 40 could get in there. It's more like rocky overhangs, big rocks that stick out."

"The reports suggest the people were actually moving around the island and the direction of the wind changed, and so they'd get behind a ridge here and a rock there," said Macdonald.

It would indicate though that whatever techniques they were using in avoiding the fury of the storm, the people of Tikopia were quite successful in doing so. After all, they didn't lose a single person in the course of what was such a powerful typhoon.

"Yes, it's marvelous that no-one has died. To survive a couple of days of winds of that intensity…they wouldn't have been able to stand up in that wind. So they have done incredibly well," said Macdonald.

Macdonald adds that the challenge for the islands is to get their economy and agriculture back on track.

"That's the greatest problem. We get a lot of publicity after the cyclone, then two or three months on, when food supplies have run out, there's no international interest. And that's when awful things can happen."

"In the 1950s, there were a couple of wicked cyclones and in the couple of months afterwards some people died of starvation."

"I fear in this case that the damage has been awful - I have seen the aerial photos and the gardens that were very fertile have been soaked with sea-water, and sand has gone across them as well. Tikopians say they think it will take them three years to recover."

According to Macdonald, the international community and the Solomon Islands government should assist Tikopia and other islands in the area, which has been affected.

"I think so. Personally, I think the best thing would be to shift some people off the island, to give it a chance to recover a bit more. After that one of the 1950s, the government made land available in another part of the Solomons and a whole village was set up there of people taken off the island to relieve the population pressure."

"I think there are now at least three large Tikopian communities in other parts of the Solomons and I think that if the government could assist some of the people who are maybe less productive…like older women and children - perhaps they could go and stay with relatives elsewhere, leaving abled men on the island to eat the food and replant it.

Macdonald says the other Tikopian communities elsewhere in Solomon Islands have been successful now that the resettlement program worked out.

"They've been tremendously successful. The Tikopians are very proud of their culture. Raymond Firth's book "We the Tikopia" was given that title because they were always saying, "We the Tikopia do this, and we the Tikopia do that."

"So, when they went to other parts of the Solomons, they took their culture with them, even though they were away from chiefs, and they were living among people who were very foreign to them, it didn't seem to bother them at all."

"I spent one year with a resettled group on San Cristobal, and they said to me 'this is just another piece of Tikopia, on another land," said Macdonald.

On a more political level, there is also the issue that a lot of people have suggested, that Tikopians who are Polynesians, are not receiving too much support from neighboring Solomon Islands and Melanesian countries, due also to a lack of ethnic solidarity.

"One has to take into account that the Polynesians on the Solomon Islands only make up about two per cent of the population. Therefore, they are not terribly well represented in central government, said Macdonald.

"And they are also in further outer reaches of Solomon Islands’ political body: Rennell and Bellona to the south, Tikopia and Anuta to the east, and Sikaiana to the North. Because of their small numbers, I do think that they don't have a very strong voice."

"But we also have to take on board the fact that that Solomon Islands government is quite bankrupt, and I suspect they wouldn't be able to help anyone at the moment."

Macdonald says the book "We the Tikopia," written by anthropologist Raymond Firth, has obviously had an impact on the way the world sees the islands. It was written in the 1920s and it is still stands up by today's standards.

"Yes, for the reason that I mentioned before: they are very proud of their customs, and they want to keep up their uniqueness, of being Tikopia rather than anybody else."

"I went to the island 50 years after Raymond wrote that book, to see how much change had occurred. And apart from the fact that the island was a third Christian when he was there, and had been entirely converted to Christianity when I was there, the old gods were still around," said Macdonald.

"And a lot of the traditional practices were still of great pride to them. Certainly, the traditional chiefly hierarchical structures were still there."

The book highlights several rather controversial aspects of Tikopian culture and society, such as its history of abortion and infanticide. According to Macdonald that is still relevant today.

"All small-scale societies have to cope with marginal environments, and traditionally have had ways of controlling their population."

"They know perfectly well the bad effect of letting the population grow unhindered, so they have all sorts of techniques."

"The Tikopia recognized very clearly that being on such a little island they did have to control their population. So, traditionally, only the oldest son was allowed to marry. Others were allowed to have sexual affairs, but they weren't allowed to produce children from them. That kept the population at the right level."

"Then, when the missionaries came, they saw these people who technically weren't married, having affairs. And they said, ‘naughty naughty, get married’. And that, in Tikopian terms, meant having babies. So, the population went up by 50 per cent between 1930 and the mid 50s. And that's why a couple of hundred people died after those bad cyclones in the 50s."

Macdonald also elaborated on how this particular Polynesian population arrives on the islands, which are surrounded by Melanesian countries.

"Well, true Polynesia is the triangle with Hawaii in the North, down to New Zealand and Easter Island. But it looks from the archeological record as though around 1000 years ago, small canoes went out from Polynesian islands like Tuvalu - probably driven out by population pressure or warfare - and they went back out to parts of Melanesia and either conquered people on outlying islands, or found unoccupied ones."

"But that would have happened about 1,000 years ago - that's when the Tikopians arrived."

According to Macdonald there is no evidence to suggest that Tikopia had been uninhabited.

"No, oral tradition suggests there were probably Melanesians on Tikopia, who were driven out by the Tikopia."

January 8, 2003

For additional reports from Radio Australia, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/Radio Australia.

Rate this article: 
No votes yet

Add new comment