20. Rotuma: Interpreting a Wedding
Alan Howard and Jan Rensel
[Published in Portraits of Culture: Ethnographic Originals, edited
by Melvin Ember, Carol Ember and David Levinson. Prentice Hall, 1994]
In most societies there are one or two activities that express, in
highly condensed ways, what life is all about for its members. In Bali
it is the cockfight,  among
the Australian Aborigines the corroboree, in Brazil there is carnival.
One might make a case for the Superbowl in the United States. On Rotuma,
a small isolated island in the South Pacific, weddings express, in
practice and symbolically, the deepest values of the culture. In the
bringing together of a young man and young woman, in the work that
goes into preparing the wedding feast, in the participation of chiefs
both as paragons of virtue and targets of humor, in the displays of
food and fine white mats, and in the sequence of ceremonial rites performed,
Rotumans communicate to one another what they care about most: kinship
and community, fertility of the people and land, the political balance
between chiefs and commoners, and perpetuation of Rotuman custom. After
providing a brief description of Rotuma and its people, we narrate
an account of a wedding in which we participated. We then interpret
key features of the wedding, showing how they express, in various ways,
core Rotuman values.
THE ISLAND AND ITS PEOPLE
Rotuma is situated approximately 300 miles north of Fiji, on the western
fringe of Polynesia. The island is volcanic in origin, forming a land
area of about 17 square miles, with the highest craters rising to heights
of 800 feet above sea level. From the air Rotuma appears a dark green
jewel, framed by a white garland of breaking surf, in the midst of
the vast blue ocean. On closer inspection one sees a far greater array
of colors and hues; the dark green of coconut trees that cover much
of the island are complemented by the softer tints of breadfruit trees,
banana plants, taro and yam gardens. The white sand beaches on parts
of the coast are offset by black lava rocks from ancient eruptions.
Tropical flowers and vines add even more variation to a kaleidoscopic
landscape of living things. The island is nearly as beautiful up close
as it is from afar, and one can understand why some early visitors
confused it with paradise. But after one experiences the sometimes
overpowering heat and humidity--Rotuma is only 12 degrees from the
equator and has an average 140 inches of rain per year--and the ubiquitous
flies and mosquitoes, illusions of paradise are likely to evaporate.
The island is divided into two parts joined by an isthmus of sand,
forming a configuration about eight miles long and at its widest three
miles across, with its lengthwise axis running due east and west. A
packed sand road, reinforced in places with concrete strips, circles
the perimeter of the eastern segment of the island and extends to coastal
plains west of the isthmus. Villages and hamlets are scattered along
the road, with occasional stretches of bushland in between. The interior
of the island is heavily cultivated with gardens of taro, yams, cassava,
bananas, pineapples, watermelons and other food crops. A few people
plant vanilla, cocoa or kava as commercial crops as well. Fruit trees
abound: mango, papaya, orange. Rotuman oranges--wonderfully sweet and
juicy--are justifiably famous in that part of the Pacific. Cattle and
goats are tethered to coconut trees adjacent to plantations, and pigs
are kept in stone walled enclosures.
Linguists have long debated the place of the Rotuman language in the
Austronesian family. Although sharing a significant portion of vocabulary
with Tongan and Samoan, Rotuman has some unique characteristics that
set it apart from others in the vicinity. The current view is that
an earlier form of the language was closely related to ancestral languages
in western Fiji,  but
that invasions from Tonga and Samoa resulted in a good deal of borrowing
and innovation. The product is a language that is unintelligible to
speakers of other Pacific tongues.
Politically Rotuma has been governed as part of Fiji for over one
hundred years. When the paramount chiefs of Rotuma's seven districts
ceded the island to Great Britain in 1881, for administrative convenience
the British decided to incorporate it into the Crown Colony of Fiji,
some 300 miles away. When Fiji was granted independence in 1970, the
Rotuman people decided to remain a part of Fiji. They also decided
to stay with Fiji, though not without controversy, following two military
coups in 1987.
The total number of Rotumans enumerated in the 1986 census of Fiji
was 8652, of whom only 2588 were resident on the home island. The remainder
live mostly in Fiji's urban centers where they are conspicuously successful
in professions, government service and private industry. Travel back
and forth between Fiji and Rotuma is facilitated by weekly flights
and cargo vessels that take passengers. A substantial number of Rotumans
have also migrated to Australia and New Zealand, and they, too, make
return visits on occasion. In addition to keeping in touch by mail
and radio-telephone, relatives in Fiji and abroad host visitors from
Rotuma and send remittances, household appliances and other manufactured
goods back home to enhance their kinsmen's standard of living.  For
their part, those remaining on Rotuma frequently send gifts of produce,
prepared foods and Rotuman handicrafts to their relatives living away.
Culturally, Rotuma clearly falls within the Polynesian orbit. Titled
chiefs are important to the social and political life of the island,
and Rotuman values and custom show strong resemblances to other cultures
of western Polynesia (especially Tonga, Samoa, Futuna and Uvea). At
the heart of the kinship system is the concept of kainaga,
which in its broadest sense refers to all one's "blood" relations,
that is, anyone who is descended from a common ancestor. In its restricted
usage, kainaga refers to common rights
in a specific named house-site. Rotumans say that each person ideally
belongs to eight kainaga, corresponding
to their great-grandparents' homes. At life-crisis ceremonies such
as first birthdays, weddings and funerals, relevant house-sites are
gathering places where members congregate to prepare food and materials
for the event. They then go as a group to make their presentations.
Also important for life-crisis events is the institution of name giving.
Prior to the birth of a child, someone with a special relationship
to one or both parents requests that the baby be named after him or
her. Name givers may or may not be close relatives, but when accepted
a special bond is formed between them and the newborn child. Name givers
are expected to bestow special gifts on birthdays, Christmas and other
occasions, and to champion the causes of their namesakes. At weddings
they play a special role, as we shall see.
PRELUDE TO A WEDDING
As recently as 1960, when Alan first began research on Rotuma, marriages
were often arranged by parents without their children's direct involvement.
Sometimes bride and groom met for the first time on their wedding day.
Arrangements for such a marriage were formal and complex. They began
with representatives of the young man seeking approval from the young
woman's parents for the match. If her parents agreed, a more formal
delegation was formed to approach the chief of the woman's district.
In Rotuman, this event is called süf hani.
The gravity of the proposal would be enhanced by each side's asking
titled men, perhaps even their district chief, to represent them. To
emphasize the seriousness of the request the young man's representatives
would bring a gift of a whole pig cooked in an earthen oven and a small kava plant. [Kava is
a plant of the pepper family, the roots of which are used to make a
drink with mild narcotic properties; it is an essential part of Rotuman
ceremonies at which chiefs and dignitaries are honored.]
In turn, the young woman's kinsmen would feed the young man's representatives.
The pros and cons of the prospective match would be discussed, and
if agreed upon, preparations would begin for the next stage, fai
ran ta, a ceremony at which the wedding date was set.
The following field notes, obtained by Alan from a participant in
an arranged marriage in 1960, provides a sense of what these negotiations
were like. The groom, Aisea, was a school teacher from the district
of Malhaha; the bride, Ieli, was the grand-daughter of Tokaniua, the
paramount chief of Oinafa district. Aisea met Ieli during the Christmas "play" season  and
decided he wanted to marry her. He went to Tokaniua and told him of
his intentions.  Tokaniua
was reluctant because of Aisea's reputation for drinking, but said
he would accept if Aisea would change his ways. Aisea promised that
When he left Oinafa, Aisea went back to his home in Malhaha and early
the next morning told his father the news. Immediately Aisea's father
went to the Chief of Malhaha [also named Aisea; we will refer to
him as Chief Aisea] and informed him. This was necessary because
Ieli, being a district chief's grand-daughter, should be asked for
by someone of chiefly rank. Chief Aisea decided on the best time to
go süf hani to ask formally for Ieli's hand.
Süf hani: Asking for a
Young Woman's Hand in Marriage
All the sub-chiefs in Malhaha were called on to join the delegation.
The only person of rank to stay behind was Aisea's brother, who remained
to supervise the preparation of food for the delegation, who would
have to be fed upon their return. In addition to Chief Aisea and five
sub-chiefs, Aisea's namesake and one other untitled man joined the
delegation; the latter was selected by Chief Aisea to carry the kava plant.
In keeping with Rotuman custom, the delegation left early in the morning.
The district messenger from Malhaha had been sent earlier to Oinafa
to inform Chief Tokaniua of the date and time of the delegation's arrival. [Each
district has a formal position of messenger responsible for communicating
the paramount chief's desires and intentions vis-a-vis other districts.] When
the süf hani delegation reached Oinafa
they were greeted at the chief's house by Tokaniua himself. This was
a sign of acceptance. If Tokaniua had not been there to offer them
greetings, this would have been a bad sign--a note of disapproval.
Even if a marriage does not directly involve the chief's family, if
the bride and groom are from different districts, proper custom requires
the chief of the young woman's district to receive the süf
hani delegation, provided the union is agreeable to her family.
After the delegation was greeted by Tokaniua they were asked into
the house and sat down. Already seated and waiting were Ieli's namesake
and members of her kainaga. Tokaniua opened
the meeting by welcoming the delegation and thanking them for coming.
Then, the oldest member of the groom's delegation, a man in his eighties
by the name of Hanfakaga, began to talk, and came straight to the point.
He took the initiative because he was related to Tokaniua and therefore
less restrained by barriers of respect. Hanfakaga talked very humbly
about Aisea. His job was made more difficult by Aisea's reputation
for drinking, but in any case humility is called for by custom.
The interaction between the two groups was essentially democratic,
with each person speaking in turn. Generally the young man's delegation "talks
down" his desirability as a husband and apologizes for his faults,
while it is up to the young woman's side, provided they are disposed
toward acceptance, to emphasize his good points. Eventually, after
each person on both sides had their say, Tokaniua gave an official
acceptance on Ieli's behalf. If necessary--if a verdict is in doubt--the
young woman's representatives may go into private conference in order
to reach a decision, but the final answer can only be properly given
by the chief. During all this time Ieli was not present, nor did she
have any official say in the scheduling or form of the wedding.
Tokaniua then advised the Malhaha delegation to tell Aisea to come
to Oinafa on the following day so that he could talk to him and Ieli
together, to advise them and instruct Aisea when to go to the government
station to post their marital bans (usually the day after such a meeting).
He also gave the delegation a date for their next meeting, the fai
ran ta, when the wedding date would be arranged. The date for
the fai ran ta is discussed along with
the other business of süf hani, but
the final decision is made by the young woman's side and announced
by the chief. After concluding their official business, tea and biscuits
were served to all who were present, following which the Malhaha delegation
returned home to inform Aisea and the rest of his kainaga of
the good news.
Fai ran ta: Appointing the
The same people who went on the süf hani formed
Aisea's delegation for the fai ran ta expedition.
One of the members provided the following account:
When we left Malhaha we had to take a kava plant.
A special person, Kaitu'u, chosen by Chief Aisea, took the kava. [He
was the same man appointed to take the kava for
the süf hani.] Arriving at Oinafa
at 7 in the morning, we were welcomed at the chief's house by Chief
Tokaniua and Ritia, Ieli's mother [daughter of Tokaniua]. When
we entered the house, some of Ieli's kainaga were
already there waiting. We shook hands with them and sat down on some apei [fine
white mats] that had been spread out for us. The first thing they
did was serve us with a coconut each. We had to wait until Chief Aisea
began to drink and then we each could drink. That is the Rotuman way.
After we finished drinking, Tokaniua gave the first speech. He's
the one to date the wedding. He gave the date for the wedding as
February 20th, 1960. He asked us what we thought about it. Chief
Aisea gave a speech and said that anything that Tokaniua and his kainaga think
best is all right with us.
It didn't matter that we came early. We had to wait for all Ieli's kainaga to
come before the meeting took place. Tokaniua gave his speech announcing
the date before the "meeting" took place, that is, before all the kainaga had
arrived. He should really have waited until all the kainaga were
assembled before giving his speech. After they all arrived, Tokaniua
told them he had already informed Aisea's contingent of the date
set for the wedding. We had nothing further to say, simply to thank
Tokaniua and Ieli's kainaga. Chief Aisea
gave that speech. Then they thanked us. First Tokaniua gave a speech
of thanks for Ieli's side and next Fakraufon, the Chief of Noatau,
who is one of Ieli's relatives. They told us everything was all right.
After that they prepared breakfast. First the higher ranking chiefs
from both sides ate breakfast together; the lesser ranking chiefs
ate at a second sitting with other members of Ieli's kainaga.
Right after breakfast we shook hands with all the members of the
Ieli's party and left. Ieli was not present at the meeting. We left
at 10 a.m. When we arrived back at Malhaha (10:30), Aisea's father
welcomed us and we entered the house and sat down on the regular
floor mats. They prepared a breakfast for us--coffee, cocoa, bread,
biscuits, butter and jam--the same things we had in Oinafa. When
we were eating Chief Aisea gave a speech telling Aisea's father and
his family the date of the wedding. Only Aisea's family (including
Aisea) were there. Aisea's father then gave a speech of thanks. After
breakfast we left.
Soon after the date of the wedding had been set each side would hold
a meeting to decide who would be responsible for providing the various
items such as pigs, fine white mats, mosquito netting and bedding for
the couple's bed, the bridal purse, and other paraphernalia required
at a proper wedding. Usually relatives and friends would volunteer,
but the man and woman designated to take charge of the preparations
might assign specific tasks.
MAIKA AND SUSIE'S WEDDING
Although in many respects life on Rotuma has not changed radically
since 1960, some things have.  For
one, arranged marriages of the type described above have all but disappeared.
More open courtship is tolerated and youths are given more freedom
in choosing their spouses. They also play a more active role in planning
their weddings. Nevertheless, the form of weddings has not changed
significantly, and Rotuman rituals are still performed in conjunction
with church and civil ceremonies.
The wedding we shall describe took place in the village of Lopta,
district of Oinafa (see map), on July 21, 1989. The groom, Maika, was
from nearby Oinafa village. He was a policeman in the Fiji constabulary,
assigned to duty at the government station on Rotuma. The bride, Susie,
whose parental home is in Lopta, was employed at the Rotuman branch
of the National Bank of Fiji, also situated at the government station.
Maika was 26 years old and had been previously married and divorced.
Susie was 24 and had never been married.
Fao Te: The Day Before
The day prior to a wedding is set aside for preparations. A number
of house-sites on the groom's side and bride's side are designated
gathering places where kinsmen, friends and neighbors bring their donations
of food, mats and other materials central to the wedding. Each grouping
is referred to as a sal hapa, a 'part'
of the bride or groom's kainaga. Although
theoretically there should be eight sal hapa on
each side, in practice convenience and social relationships often changes
this. Almost all Rotumans are related to one another, some in multiple
ways, so people can usually choose among several sal
hapa. The choices they make are an indication of social solidarity,
of who is getting along with whom at the moment.
Since we were living in the groom's village we participated in one
of his side's seven sal hapa. In fact
six of the seven sal hapa were located
in our village, the other was from the neighboring district of Noatau.
Food and mats at each sal hapa location
had been accumulating for several days previously. On this day, they
would be taken to the groom's home, or to be more precise, the groom's
father's home. The groom's father, Sautiak, is a greatly respected
sub-chief, second in rank only to the paramount chief of the district.
From early in the morning we watched as pickup trucks full of food--taro,
yams, squealing pigs and noisy chickens--headed for Sautiak's place.
At around 9 a.m. our sal hapa organized
and made its way across the village to the gathering throng. The women
carried mats in procession; those carrying fine white mats headed the
line, those with common mats followed. In deference to our curiosity
over everything taking place, Jan was asked to head the parade and
was given a quick lesson in etiquette concerning the proper way to
carry a fine mat. Some excerpts from her diary give the flavor of the
When we got there we went in the front door and into the
sitting room. Two or three women were in there--I recognized Manava
sitting in the doorway. [Manava played the role of designated elder
and announced each white mat brought indoors.] We all put our mats
down and sat around and said a few words. Then Vera and another woman
took the mats into the bedroom and the rest of us went out to the verandah
where they were serving bread and tea... I was trying to find Alan
with the camera because another group was arriving with mats, followed
by men with taro (carrying it in bunches with stalks & leaves upright).
Marieta was calling out nonsense like "Here we come," and afterwards
she explained that she'd done it to liven things up--"what is this,
a wedding or a funeral..."
I decided to ask Harieta how she was related (which sal
hapa) and found out that more people can come than just sal
hapa--Sautiak made an open invitation to everyone... People
were clustered in groups from Sautiak's house toward the beach,
on mats, under trees, playing checkers and cards, talking, eating.
The young men were singeing the hair off two pigs and then gutting
them, preparing them for the next earthen oven. The smoke smelled
Much of the day was spent preparing food for the wedding feast. A
large number of pigs and several cows were slaughtered and cooked in
earthen ovens, fashioned by digging large holes in the sandy soil,
placing kindling wood inside, covering them with lava rocks and lighting
a fire. When the coals are red hot, whole pigs (gutted and cleaned),
sections of beef, chickens and tubers of various kinds were wrapped
in leaves and placed inside. The contents were then covered with leaves,
burlap bags and finally with earth. This is how the ceremonial food
is prepared; it is allowed to cook from a few hours to overnight, depending
on its size.
Preparing ceremonial food is the work of young men, and they were
busy throughout the day. The young women spent much of their time setting
out lighter food for the people who had gathered--tinned corned beef
and tinned fish, tea and biscuits. Cooked taro and yams were also served
by the women. The work, and festivities, lasted into the night.
THE WEDDING DAY
Let us return to Jan's journal, amplified by our field notes, for
an account of the wedding day:
We woke early, dressed in our wedding clothes, ate breakfast
at 6:30 and Tarterani drove us to Lopta at 7 a.m. People had already
gathered, the band was playing and the female clown was at work. [At
large, proper, Rotuman weddings the bride's side designates a woman
to act as hostess and clown; she is formally in charge of the wedding,
and is given a great deal of license to joke, mock, tease and generally
raise havoc. Her antics are a major source of amusement for everyone
in attendance.] She was taunting people, especially the chiefs,
and making them dance. She soon seized on Alan and me since we were
going back and forth taking pictures. She snagged me and gestured for
me to sit down on her chair. I did but then patted my lap for her to
sit down. But she gestured for me to get up, and she sat down and I
sat on her lap and then swung around and put my arms around her neck
and laid my head on her chest. She got up, holding me, then sat down
and I got up and left. A little later she ordered Alan to come to her
and he ran to her with his arms open and sat/sprawled on her lap so
they both nearly fell over. She pretty much left us alone after that
but blew us kisses and announced that she wanted to take Alan home
Semesi [a cousin of Susie's, at whose house the wedding feast
was held] came up to us, saying he felt a little sick. He asked
Alan to videotape the events of the day with his, Semesi's, camera.
So I got charge of the still camera and photographed the clown and
others dancing as we waited for the groom's side to arrive. (They
were held up by a contingent from Faguta who were supposed to come
to Oinafa for breakfast at 5 a.m. but didn't arrive till seven. We
saw them as we left Oinafa. They had mats with matching yarn decorations--hot
pink.) I sat with Nina on the steps to the house, behind the päega [ceremonial
seat made from a pile of common mats topped with a fine white mat
and a colorful piece of cloth] where Susie was sitting. Nina
advised some men who were hanging a white mat above the päega as
protection against bugs dropping. But I spent most of the day running
from side to side taking pictures.
[In Rotuman custom, the bride initially takes her place on a päega provided
by her relatives. Then, prior to the formal arrival of the groom's
procession, his side brings mats to form another päega on
top of hers, but a fine mat provided by the bride's side is always
placed on top of the pile.]
We saw the groom's side assembling down the hill and walked down
to greet them. After talking with various people for a while we went
back up to the house to await their formal arrival. They finally
came up the hill at about 9:30, led by Maika (who because he is from
a chiefly family did not need an 'a su to represent/precede him). [At
a proper wedding, the groom's procession must be led by someone from
a high ranking family; usually the district chief selects a close
female relative to be 'a su.] Maika
and his best man wore their Royal Fiji Police uniforms.
Qwenda, the district chief's unmarried 19 year old granddaughter,
led the women bearing mats. There were so many mats brought by the
groom's side that there weren't enough women to carry them. I saw
three or four men helping out. Then came the men with baskets of
cooked food, pigs and cow, and finally the kava and sugar cane. All
the food was set down across the road from the ri hapa, a temporary
shelter built for the occasion to shield the day's dignitaries from
sun and rain. (The only problem was that there was so much food it
extended into the road, and every now and then a car or the bus had
to get through!) A portion of the food they brought was already cooked
and ready to serve; another portion was uncooked. The pile of uncooked
taro, leaves and all, was covered with mats after it was laid out,
along with a live, tied-up pig. The whole thing was topped by a fine
white mat. [This food represents the groom's own garden, even
though all the produce may have been donated by his relatives.]
When the groom's party got close they stopped, and assumed a crouching
position. A spokesperson for the group then called out the traditional
greeting, which was responded to by a spokesperson from the bride's
side. Maika then moved forward and took his place beside Susie. This
was followed by speeches of greeting. A couple of other women from
the groom's party unfolded rolls of cloth and hung them around the
perimeter of the shelter. As soon as Maika sat down, members of his
party came to congratulate the couple one by one. Each would kneel
or crouch in front of the päega to
shake Maika's hand and kiss the bride's cheek, sometimes pressing
an envelope into his hands or tucking a five or ten dollar note into
As soon as things settled down Fakrau brought a change of clothes [osi] and
presented them on behalf of the groom's side to Susie, who quickly
and unobtrusively changed on the spot.  (Later
on, before going to church, Susie went inside the house to change
to her wedding gown and veil.) After this, Fakrau draped and tied
traditional Rotuman garlands (tefui)
around Susie's and Maika's necks, then doused them with perfume.
Concurrently, several young women from the groom's side moved about
on their knees, dousing the chiefs, and others under the shelter,
with perfume or sprinkling them with sweet-smelling powder (Johnson's
Baby Powder is a favorite). After Fakrau had finished, a woman from
the bride's side presented Maika and Susie with garlands and perfumed
As the time for the [Methodist] church service approached,
Susie's uncle, Mekatoa, apologized that the church would be too small
for everyone to attend the service. About 11 a.m. Sautiak's flatbed
truck drove up to take the chiefs to the church. Alan and I realized
that we should go too, since we were the designated photographers,
and scurried to get on. Unfortunately it had rained a bit and although
they put a mat down (the clown had called for the mat and had added
in English, "Please," to the amusement of the crowd), it still puddled.
Both Chief Maraf's wife Feagai and I got our dresses wet and dirty.
At the church we were asked to sit up with the chiefs from the groom's
side, but in front of them (in deference to our roles as photographers).
Our pews were on the right hand side of the church facing across
to another set of pews where the chiefs from the bride's side sat.
While we waited for the bride to arrive some of the congregation
sang. Maika and his best man sat waiting. When Susie came in (veiled)
There were prayers, the service, vows, exchange of rings, a brief
kiss and speeches by the various chiefs. Some of them talked about
Susie and Maika's life histories. I nearly fell asleep during Reverend
Erone's sermon because it was so hot--I'd forgotten to bring a fan.
At the end of the service, Alan climbed out the window so he could
videotape the couple coming out of the church. I followed the couple
and the District Officer, whom I bumped as we got out and missed
getting a shot of the wedding party before they dissolved into a
reception line. We rode back to the house, this time in the front
of a truck. Tokaniua  brought
the couple back to the house in his car, which was decorated with
leaves, flowers and ribbons.
Both sides presented mats to make a new päega in
front of the one on which the couple already sat. Then the couple
moved forward and sat on the new päega and
soon afterwards they had the hair snipping ceremony. Susie's namesake
came with a pair of scissors trimmed with colorful ribbons and passed
them over her head. Maika did not participate in this ceremony, in
which his namesake would have passed scissors over his head. Nor
did he participate fully in the following ceremony , called fau,
in which the bride and groom are wrapped in white mats. [This
ceremony is performed only at big weddings, and only when the bride
is young and virginal. Only fine white mats are used to wrap the
bride, and the groom if he participates.]
Susie was wrapped in 3 or 4 large fine mats. Then groups of young
men carried both of them (Susie and Maika), with much joking and
laughter, from the bride's side to the groom's side of the shelter.
Maika's white mat was simply tied with a sash and carried over, along
with Susie's 'at fara , which was tied
with a blue ribbon. [The 'at fara is
a small woven purse made specially for the bride. Although people
now put money in it, in olden times it held a small container of
coconut oil, a supply of turmeric powder and a piece of soft native
cloth to hang at the end of the bridal bed. We were told that the
oil was for lubrication, the turmeric for medicine/antiseptic, and
the cloth to clean up with following intercourse. Elisapeti Inia,
a knowledgeable elder, told us that 'at fara translates
as "to beg soul", and explained that the man begs for the woman's
soul and she gives it to him in intercourse. The 'at
fara is carried by a representative of the highest ranking
person from the groom's side, in this case the district chief's grand-daughter,
Qwenda. After the fau ceremony, Qwenda
carried the 'at fara back to the central päega,
preceding the couple and carrying it over her head for all to see.
Soon after this each side brought out the fine white mats for display--about
13 from each side, not counting the ones used for the päega and
for the mat-wrapping ceremony. Then the kava ceremony
was held and dinner was served to the honored guests, including us.
We sat next to Kafoa, the catechist, and were served by Fanifau.
It was very hot and I thought longingly of Fiji Beer and ate only
two bites of beef, a little taro, half a banana and two globs of
Rotuman pudding (made by baking a pounded starchy root, such as taro,
yam or banana, mixed with coconut cream and sugar). When we finally
got home in the early evening we were so tired we could barely talk.
For most people the highlight of the wedding day is the feast, which
begins with the ceremonial presentation of food and kava.
When all the contributions of food (in coconut leave baskets) and kava roots
are assembled in front of the shelter, the men squat down and a spokesman
announces quantities of pigs, cows, chickens and baskets of taro, yams,
etc. It is customary to greatly exaggerate the numbers involved, perhaps
to enhance the prestige of the occasion.
After this announcement, food is distributed according to ceremonial
protocol. Chiefs on Rotuma eat off low tables called 'umefe (at
feasts, everyone including chiefs sit cross-legged on the ground to
eat). In times past there were carved wooden bowls unique to each chief. 'Umefe were
symbolic of the chief's title. Even today, taking a chiefly title is
referred to as "turning the 'umefe up," and
relinquishing a title as "turning the 'umefe down." At
contemporary feasts, although low wooden tables have taken the place
of these traditional food bowls, the tables are initially placed upside
down. Only when food is about to be served are they turned upright.
The designated elder calls out the names of persons in rank order,
and the young men bring baskets of food to each table in turn. The
first presentation of food is to the a'su,
and includes the best selections. The newlyweds are served next, then
the chiefs. Visiting dignitaries are fit into the order depending on
their status; a high ranking church official is likely to be served
before the chiefs, a lesser dignitary after them. Each table has a
young woman in attendance. She lays a covering of banana leaves on
the table, takes the food out of the basket, unwraps it, cuts or breaks
it up into manageable chunks, and arranges them on the table. If something
is missing, or if more food is needed, she calls to the young men who
are distributing the food and they do their best to accommodate her.
Once the food has been distributed the kava ceremony
begins. Each bundle of kava roots has
a spokesman who recites a short ceremonial speech relating heroic deeds,
often in obscure language not understood by the audience. Once this
part of the ritual is concluded, kava bowls
are brought forward, attended by three young women each. One mixes
the (previously pulverized) kava with
water and strains it through a clean cloth, the second assists by pouring
fresh water and filling cups, and the third acts as cup bearer. When
the kava is ready a designated elder announces
the persons to whom each cup of kava is
to be served. The order of serving reflects relative rank and is crucial;
mistakes are likely to be deemed intentional insults by those who are
passed over and in times past were grounds for war.
Following a Christian prayer said by a minister or priest, the meal
starts when the a'su begin to eat. The
attendants fan the tables with woven pandanus fans to keep the pesky
flies off the food. Everyone eats with their hands, although knives
are usually provided to cut up larger chunks of meat or starchy roots.
Commoners eat away from the shelter, wherever a level patch of ground
can be used. A "table" is prepared by laying down rows of banana leaves,
upon which the food is set by the young men, but there are no attendants
and all must fan the flies for themselves. During the meal speeches
are made by chiefs from both the bride and groom's side, thanking everyone
for their work and co-operation, and reminding the newlyweds of all
the labor that has been expended on their behalf. It is a way of impressing
upon them the seriousness of the commitment they have made to one another.
The feast concludes the formal rituals, but people may stay on for
some time afterwards. Entertainment is always provided. In the past,
the people from one village, or even a whole district, would be asked
well in advance to prepare traditional Rotuman group dances. The songs
accompanying such dances were composed for the occasion; they centered
on the bride and groom, their families and praised the location of
the wedding and associated chiefs and dignitaries. The dance group
would bring some fine white mats to the wedding and would be given
some in return, as a show of appreciation.  Nowadays
it is more common to invite one of several local bands to play instead.
Bands usually consist of 4 or 5 men, playing guitars and electronic
keyboards with amplifiers. They, too, may compose songs to honor the
occasion, but for the most part they play modern Polynesian-style music
with Rotuman, English or Fijian lyrics. Dancing to the music--in a
kind of adapted disco style--is one of two main forms of entertainment
throughout the day.
The other main form of entertainment is provided by the female clown.
On the wedding day she generally dresses in flashy clothes and carries
a stick, with which she mock threatens people, taps them to dance or
do various chores. In her role as clown she is permitted to act in
an outrageous fashion, such as ordering chiefs to dance, kneel and
otherwise humiliate themselves--actions that invert the usual social
order. In turn, people tease her, and taunt her with insults that she
On the day of Susie's and Maika's wedding, the clown was especially
active. Her name was (perhaps fittingly, perhaps ironically) Kava,
and she had been chosen, according to custom, by Susie's parents. Among
the observations we made of interaction between Kava and the crowd
on the wedding day were the following:
(1) Kava danced almost every dance throughout the day, mostly
in a humorous fashion, involving exaggerated motions, often having
sexual overtones (though nothing explicit). She sometimes danced on
her own, sometimes grabbed one of the chiefs or other dignitaries and
danced in a silly way with them.
(2) People in the crowd teased Kava about being dirty and black
(neither of which was really the case). One of our friends commented
after Alan's encounter with her, which involved a fair amount of
physical contact, that it would require bathing in hot water that
night to wash off the dirt; he jokingly promised to bring some Detol
(3) At one point a man handed Kava the jaw bone of a pig. Apparently
this was in reference to a standing joke between him and Kava. The
story is that he had some time previously suggested to Kava that
she get false teeth to replace her front ones, which had been extracted.
Kava's response at the time was, "Are you going to give them to me?" to
which the man responded, "Yes." Apparently this developed into a
standing joke, so that when the two met Kava would ask if he had
the false teeth and he would answer, "No," or "Not yet." When he
handed Kava the pig jaw at the wedding he apparently said, "Here's
your teeth." She laughed and played with putting the jawbone up to
her mouth, pretending to open and close it like false teeth, much
to the crowd's amusement.
(4) The wedding site was transected by the road, which was Kava's
main "stage." She created several amusing incidents with passing
traffic. When a bus came by she stopped it imperially and bellied
up to it, as if it had hit her, and recoiled as though injured. She
bantered with the driver for a few moments, then let him go on.
(5) Dr. Panapasa [Chief Medical Officer on the island] at
one point drove up in the Medical Department's vehicle and pulled
right up to Kava. He then got out of the car and grabbed her arm,
pulling her to the passenger's side and pretended to push her in.
He joked that he would take her to the hospital, or to a pig sty.
She resisted and adopted a mock begging mode, falling to her knees
and pleading not to be taken away. Dr. Panapasa relented and finally
got into the car and backed away.
The Day After
By custom, a married couple initially establishes residence with the
bride's family, although practical considerations may dictate otherwise
(in this case Maika and Susie took a cottage at the Government Station
where both of them worked). In order to affirm their commitment to
the groom's family, however, a day or two after the wedding the couple
go ceremonially to his parents' home, along with a contingent of her
relatives and friends. Formerly this took place the day after the marriage
was consumated; a piece of white bark with the bride's hymenal blood
was featured as proof that she was a virgin.
At the groom's home the couple are fed and entertained, and another
marital bed is prepared for them. They generally stay for a few days
before returning to the bride's family home. In this instance, Maika
and Susie came to Sautiak's home in Oinafa on the day after the wedding.
Jan's diary captures the mood of the gathering.
At about 5 p.m. we walked over to Sautiak's and were invited
to sit under the canopy they had strung up in front of the house. The
band was playing and people were dancing. After one dance, people (Vai,
Mekatoa) started asking me to dance, and I asked Maika and Reverend
Erone--it was fun. At 6 they announced dinner and we all shifted around;
Susie and Maika and their päega were
moved forward, her relations on the left, his (including us) on the
right. Her relatives and the couple, being treated as the honored guests,
were served on 'umefe; the rest of us
just ate on banana leaves. We were served taro, pork, tinned corned
beef, Rotuman pudding, and sugar cane. Tokaniua's wife cut me some
nice pieces of pork off a big hunk they gave us and I actually found
it quite tasty and still hot. I ate quite a bit (for me, especially
compared to yesterday) and caught the eyes of a number of women, including
Fanifau, looking on approvingly. Then we wanted to wash our hands so
went in the side door to the kitchen. Inside, Torike told us to go
have a look at the bridal bed made of mats--lovely with a ribboned
mosquito net above. She pointed to a pile of mats in the living room,
including five fine white mats which, she said, were not used in the
We came out and sat down again. The non-chiefs from the bride's
side were eating on banana leaves out on the grass; after they finished
the groom's side was fed. Maika's close relatives were served last,
and his parents told us later that they did not eat at all. Throughout
the feasting people were making speeches, praising the couple, acknowledging
the abundance of good will, and thanking all those who contributed.
Alan made a speech praising both sides for creating such a grand
event, and for contributing to the perpetuation of Rotuma custom.
The band started to play again and the dancing resumed. I danced
with Tokaniua, Dr. Panapasa, Reverend Erone and some little boys!
They started asking me after I saw [3 year old] Isimeli dancing
with a group of small children. I went over and asked him to dance
with me, making the gracious gesture I'd seen others making before
the bride and groom--bowing and holding hands out, with palms up.
He took me quite seriously and we danced. Alan said Maika and Susie
loved it. After that the children surged up for each song to ask
people to dance; the little girls asked the little boys, and the
little boys asked me, Susie, and Qwenda. Sometimes the whole group
of children surged toward the couple and seemed to be inviting them
The adult dancing continued without incident, although there seemed
to be a competition between the sides with regard to who could be
more outrageous. The Lopta people, including Farpapau [a school
teacher], Mekatoa [Susie's uncle] and Kava [who was
still playing the clown, although here in an unofficial capacity] would
dance in silly or provocative ways, and Sautiak [Maika's father],
Kaurasi and Vera [Maika's aunts] responded in kind. Farpapau
was crawling between men's legs and rolling on the ground (carefully
clutching her sarong). Mekatoa got me on a chain dance and was clutching
me tightly from behind, making faces and lifting me up.
There was lots of play around the couple's päega--people
taking the bride or groom's places pretending to be the ones who
had just gotten married (and by implication would occupy the bridal
bed that night). It ended up with Alan and Kava rolling on the floor
behind the päega. She had her legs
wrapped around him from behind, and when he tried to get away she
would let him get part way up, then draw him back down. People roared
with laughter at the suggestive display, and someone came up and
threw a mat over them, as if to afford them privacy. Someone else
brought over an empty plastic bucket, which also set Kava off. She
put it on her head like a hat. Then a woman came over and took it
from Kava; she motioned as if the bucket were full of water and doused
Alan and Kava with it, as if to cool their uncontrollable ardor.
After that, Tokaniua came over to make sure we understood it was
all in fun. Of course we did. We danced until our feet and knees
hurt [much of the dancing is in the Rarotongan fashion, requiring
bent knees]. It was wonderful--all together, old and young, dancing
and sweating together. The band had some trouble with static in their
amplifier/speakers but it didn't matter. Sometimes people even danced
without music. They kept saying, "too bad tomorrow is Sunday" [when
such activity is prohibited on the Methodist side of the island].
After dinner Mekatoa said that the Lopta people would stay for 3-4
dances only. About an hour and a half later he said they would stay
for only 2-3 more, but we went on until nearly midnight [when
the Sunday taboo on partying begins]. When Alan and I left people
thanked us profusely for participating so actively. At home we showered,
took Nuprin for our aching knees, and fell into bed.
Susie and Maika stayed for two days at Maika's home, then were ceremonially
returned to Susie's home in Lopta. Again a ritual presentation of pigs
and mats was required. That day Jan's diary includes the following
Tarterani dropped us off in Lopta and left, later bringing
Qwenda and some of the Malhaha High School kids. We waited till everyone
assembled, then proceeded up the hill with mats (I carried one) and
the ceremonial food. We deposited the mats in front of Susie and Maika
and later someone cleared them away (there was one fine white mat,
5 or 6 Fijian syle ordinary mats + 5 or 6 large Rotuman ordinary mats.
The band was playing in between speeches, although there was sometimes
a long time between songs and the dancing didn't get off the ground.
One of the speeches was about both sides winning through the wedding.
That was a nice ending to the mock competition that characterized
much of the dancing.
The clown was still active and at one point danced with an Indian
man who feigned pregnancy, making all sorts of lewd gestures; at
another she was the pregnant one; and later she dressed in jeans,
black tee shirt and black plastic sleeveless raincoat with a baseball
cap and swimming goggles. She also wore a belt of Fijian one dollar
A group of men from the groom's side also made a valiant and sustained
effort to get things moving--and the young men, who according to
Joe [Qwenda's brother] had been drinking beer and rum, eventually
showed up and joined in. The clown played with them, then jokingly
told the bride's side that she liked the groom's side better.
Like everyone else, Alan and I were tired and it was hot so eventually
we just sat. When dinner was to be served, Alan was gestured by one
of the men to go sit with the chiefs and honored guests. I just kept
sitting with the women. Just before serving began Vamarasi took my
hand and led me up to sit next to Alan. Then as the food was being
set out, Reverend Erone told Alan to take Maika's place on the päega.
Alan asked, "Why me?" and Erone said, "Because all the young boys
are too scared." He said it was Rotuman custom for someone to relieve
the bride or groom if they get too tired. Then he told me to go too.
Maika seemed quite ready to be relieved of the spotlight, but Susie
just shifted to one side. At first I was embarrassed to be sitting
so high, especially when I realized the best food had been put in
front of us. At one point a little girl, a niece of Susie's? came
and asked for some pork from her. The piece in front of her had been
pretty well picked over whereas the one in front of me (originally
served to her) was barely touched. I picked it up and put it in front
of Susie. I just knew that etiquette wouldn't allow anyone to take
it away from us even though we were "usurpers." The old lady who
sat behind us kept fanning us as the honor of the päega required
and I heard her say something to Alan about me having a good head
and knowing how to behave properly fak Rotuma [according
to Rotuman custom]. That was gratifying.
We talked with Susie a little bit and found she's going to work
tomorrow. Then we left immediately after eating as it was all breaking
up and a group were taking the couple to their home in Ahau.
Before we begin to examine the events described above for their cultural
meanings there is one point we would like to make: there is no such
thing as a "typical" wedding, in Rotuma or elsewhere. To describe an
event as "typical" is to decontextualize it, to treat it as if it were
unconnected to other events. In fact all such events are embedded in
particular histories that color them and give specific meanings to
their unfolding. In the case of Susie and Maika's wedding a number
of historical factors were involved. To begin with, the wedding was
the culmination of a healing process between Lopta and Oinafa villages
following some serious disputes. At the heart of the disputes was disagreement
over visits by tourist ships, which discharged visitors on the beach
at Oinafa.  The
people of Lopta disapproved of the tourist incursions, which disproportionately
benefitted residents from Oinafa village, and withdrew their cooperation
from district activities. Maika's father, Sautiak, was one of the main
advocates (and beneficiaries) of tourist visits; Susie's uncle, Mekatoa,
led the Lopta resistence. Hard feelings prevailed for more than two
years, so there were profound tensions in the air prior to the wedding.
However, it was clear that everyone welcomed the opportunity for a
reconciliation--in fact opposition to tourist visits had toned down
quite a bit following the initial furor. Speeches at the wedding focused
heavily on the importance of co-operation and on laying old grievences
aside. At one point during the proceedings Mekatoa, who was in the
position of host, declared the formal rules of protocol, which act
to keep the bride's and groom's parties separated from one another,
inoperative, since "we are all one family." As confirmation, the feast
was served without the usual formalities.
Other factors contributing to the specific form of this wedding were
Maika's status and the particular site at which it was held. As a member
of a chiefly kainaga, Maika's parents
chose not to have him represented by an 'a su selected
by the district chief. This was a matter of choice, and constituted
a political statement of sorts by his immediate family. The fact that
Maika had been married before also was relevant, since it rendered
two of the rituals irrelevant: the symbolic haircutting, and the wrapping
in mats. These rituals are reserved for individuals who are in transition
between unmarried youth to married adult, and since Maika had already
been through them once before they were inappropriate for him.
The choice of Semesi's house as location for the wedding also affected
events. Had his house been nearer the church, for example, vehicles
would not have been needed to transport people back and forth, and
the fact that the road transected the site affected arrangements in
several ways. In fact choices must be made in connection with any wedding,
giving each one its unique flavor.
A Note on the Process of Interpretation
As should be evident by now, Rotuman weddings, like ceremonies everywhere,
are rich in symbolism. Interpreting the meaning of these symbols is
no easy task, and is fraught with pitfalls. One can, of course, ask
people involved what the various symbols mean, and receive some perfectly
reasonable answers. For example, Rotumans will readily tell you that
the importance of the 'a su is to elevate
the event to a chiefly plane, taking it out of the realm of the ordinary.
But ritual symbolism is largely unconscious, or at least unarticulated;
it is therefore left to the ethnographer to make sense of it. Doing
so requires a great deal of cultural knowledge: a familiarity with
history, myths, language and patterns of behavior. The task is made
more difficult by the fact that key cultural symbols are polysemic;
that is, they condense meanings from many different aspects of experience.
They are also multivocal, suggesting different things to different
people. Thus the cross, for Christians, stands for a wide variety of
beliefs, values and institutions. It condenses an enormous array of
historical and cultural meaning.
Another complication is the fact that rituals originating in one historical
context are often perpetuated into another, changing the meaning of
some symbols and robbing others of their initial significance. On Rotuma,
most of the non-Christian wedding rituals had their origins in rites
associated with ancestral spirits and Polynesian gods. Conversion to
Christianity has certainly altered their significance in many important
respects. Nevertheless, we believe that they remain meaningful, and
that their current meanings resonate with their pre-Christian precursors.
To put this differently, we believe that some of the most important
values in pre-Christian Rotuman society remain vibrant today, and that
holdover symbols and rites still signify those values, although their
specific associations may differ. For these reasons we shall not try
to interpet the wedding described above ritual by ritual, symbol by
symbol. Rather, we shall proceed by articulating core values, then
show how various aspects of the wedding reflect them. Fortunately in
this instance we have an extraordinary resource to draw upon--the work
of Vilsoni Hereniko, a Rotuman playwright-scholar who has recently
completed a study of the role of the female clown at Rotuman weddings.  In
the course of his analysis, Hereniko offers compelling explanations
for much of the symbolism we witnessed; we make liberal use of his
insights in our analysis.
Value 1: Kinship and Community
As in most Pacific societies, Rotuma is organized primarily on the
basis of kinship relations. In any village most people are related
to each other, sometimes in multiple ways. Chiefs are chosen on the
basis of their kin connections to ancestral titleholders. Kinship considerations
therefore serve to organize interhousehold co-operation, productive
labor, and political activity. Reaffirming kin connections through
exchanges of food and labor is is central to being considered a person
of good character. The fisherman coming back from an expedition is
likely to share his catch with his neighbors/kinsmen; the woman who
makes banana jam sends jars to selected households. If someone needs
their house repaired, or help preparing for a family event, they can
generally count on their village mates for assistance. When times are
good and relationships strong people look for things to do for one
another; they use any excuse to hold an event that will bring people
together, no matter how much work is involved.
Weddings are prime events for celebrating kinship relations and community
co-operation. A wedding the size of Maika and Susie's, involving around
500 people, requires a great deal of effort and interaction. The men
must spend much time in their gardens producing and harvesting taro,
yams, and if in season, pineapples and watermelon. In preparation for
the wedding they gather pigs, and perhaps a cow or two, to be slaughtered
and cooked in earthen ovens. The women plait mats, which is also labor
intensive. To make an apei takes a skilled
woman a month or so of steady work. All of this effort, and the products
that result from it, are donated to the wedding. The total value of
donations adds up to thousands of dollars (a fine white mat has a sale
value of up to 400 Fijian dollars, or about US$268; a pig from 25 to
100 Fijian dollars depending on size; a cow around 400 Fijian dollars).
Thus the formal presentations of food and mats at a wedding are announcements
to the whole community of the work that has been done on behalf of
the bride and groom. It is as if each unfolding of a mat, each basket
of food presented, symbolizes the willingness of the presenters to
labor on behalf of those being honored. The speeches at a wedding focus
on thanking all those who contributed, and impressing on the bride
and groom the magnitude of effort expended on their behalf. The implication,
of course, is that the couple are beholden to a great many people and
owe it to them to make their marriage successful and fruitful.
Much of the time prior to the wedding is spent working with kin and
neighbors on the preparations. The choice of with whom to work affirms
certain relationships and possibly slights others. Which sal
hapa one chooses to join--people usually have a number of kainaga with
whom they could affiliate--is a statement about one's sense of closeness
to various relatives. Working together, and especially sharing food
at meals, signifies the very essence of kinship for Rotumans. It is
by sharing in the preparation of the wedding, and participating together
in the wedding feast, in fact, that symbolizes the new relationship
between the families of bride and groom--as much as the marriage itself.
The central role of namesakes in the wedding can also be seen as a
way of impressing upon everyone that there is more involved in a marriage
than simply joining two individuals, or two families. In a very important
respect namesakes represent broader kin rights and responsibilities--the
fact that parents are not the only ones with a central stake in the
fate of individuals. By acting as surrogate parents in this context
namesakes thus render the occasion communal rather than familial in
The institutionalization of the female clown can be understood in
this light as well. She is technically in charge of the wedding, given
that authority by the leading chief from the bride's side. The event
is thus taken out of parental or familial control and transformed into
one put on by the chiefs and wider community. As mistress of ceremonies
she is responsible for facilitating interaction between the two sides,
and for creating a jocular environment where everyone can enjoy themselves.
By serving as a focus of attention, she relieves the bride and groom
of the intensive scrutiny they might otherwise receive, and involves
a greater segment of the community in the activities of the day.
Value 2: Fertility of People and Land
The dominant theme in pre-Christian Rotuman religious rituals, and
in supporting myths  was
securing from the gods and ancestral spirits abundance here on earth.
Rites focused on insuring fertility of the land and perpetuating the kainaga through
the fertility of its people. The major religious figure in early Rotuma
was the sau, an office occupied for periods
ranging from six months (one ritual cycle) to several years. Men were
chosen as sau by the leading chief on
the island to represent the well-being of Rotuma. When not participating
in specific rites the sau did little but
sit and eat. Districts took turns hosting him, and each was obliged
to feed him to satiation. It seems that the sau was
seen as a temporary incarnation of the gods. To feed him was to feed
the gods, in return for which they were expected to bring prosperity.
Ceremonial feasts were dedicated to the gods, and involved sacrifices
to them. Sacrifice is a way of feeding gods, of infusing them with
life. The ultimate sacrifice, of course, is a human life. There is
no evidence that Rotumans ever engaged in human sacrifice, but their
myths make it clear that pigs are a substitute for human beings. (Reversing
this equation, pre-Christian Fijians referred to humans eaten at cannibal
feasts as "long pig.") It is not fortuitous, therefore, that pigs must
be cooked whole for a ceremonial feast, for they would lose their essential
quality as sacrificial animals if cut into pieces prior to cooking.
In contrast to pigs, cows, which were introduced by Europeans, are
not considered sacrificial animals and are butchered prior to cooking.
The formal presentations of food prior to the feast can be better
understood in the light of this cultural concern for abundance. The
food is assembled, drawing public attention to its volume, and the
ritual calling out of exaggerated quantities is a way of further increasing
the magnitude of the display. It is a way of demonstrating to the community
the beneficence of the gods (or contemporarily, the Christian God).
The food display is followed by the kava ceremony,
which in ancient Rotuma was a ritual form of communion, aimed at obtaining
divine blessings. Kava was conceived as
originating in the realm of the supernatural, and hence as a drink
of the gods. The chanted recitation prior to its being served traditionally
tells the story of its arrival in Rotuma. That the words of the chant
are not understood by most people serves to further mystify kava, enhancing
its ritual potency.  Finally,
just prior to eating, Christian prayers are offered in thanks for the
food to be eaten.
This central Rotuman concern for productivity of the land is matched
by a concern for human fertility. It is through the production of children
that families prosper. Barrenness is regarded as one of the worst misfortunes
that can afflict a Rotuman couple; it is considered a sign of divine
disfavor. In pre-contact Rotuma childbirth was dangerous for both mother
and child, and with the coming of Europeans, introduced childhood diseases
like measles and whooping cough took a terrible toll. This put an even
greater premium on having children (and keeping them alive).
Many aspects of a wedding allude to the fact that the couple form
a new breeding unit; one that can potentially contribute descendants
to each of the kainaga represented (since
they are all formed around ascendants of either the bride or groom).
In many respects the bride and groom are treated like gods on their
wedding day, perhaps because they are making a transition from a state
of presumed barrenness to a state of presumed fecundity. Through marriage
they are socially recognized as having the "god-given" capacity to
create life. They are seated upon a fine white mat, itself a sacred
symbol, and the shelter under which they sit, along with the chiefs,
is marked off as sacred by the rolls of cloth hung up by the groom's
party following their arrival. (In earlier days fine mats were used.)
Tiu Malo, a Rotuman who has written about marriage on the island, states
This 'screening' of the ri hapa [shelter] symbolically
creates a sacred atmosphere. The simple shed is now a temple, a holy
place for the marriage rituals. Hence the mafua [spokesman] refers
to entering the su'ura (king's house,
that is a sacred or taboo place).
Several of the rituals symbolize the change in status of the bride
and groom. The public change of clothes is one instance. The fact that
the bride and groom are both given clothes by the other side underscores
the claim each side has over the couple's potential offspring. Clothes
are perhaps the pre-eminent symbol of cultural conformity. To publicly
don the clothes someone else has given you is to symbolize your acceptance
of a new role, and in this instance, a new set of relationships.
Another instance is the hair snipping ceremony, in which the groom's
namesake symbolically cuts the bride's hair and vice-versa. In ancient
times youths grew a long lock of hair until they were married, so the
ceremony was conducted in earnest. Cutting the hair signified a shift
in status from that of youth, with minimal responsibilities to the
community, to that of an adult. It also signified community recognition
of the couple's reproductive capabilities. Today, since youths do not
grow a long lock, cutting is only symbolic, but the implication is
The ritual that most dramatically symbolizes the couple's new status
as breeders is the fau ceremony, in which
bride and groom are each wrapped in fine mats and bound with cloth.
They are then carried from the bride's side of the shelter to the groom's
side, where the cloth binding is removed and they are unwrapped. There
is much evidence to suggest that the act of wrapping the couple symbolizes
the binding of spiritual powers in the service of fertility. The carrying
of the couple from the bride's side to the groom's side dramatizes
the legitimate claims the groom's family has (in addition to the bride's
family) to the offspring of the union.
It should now be clear why Maika did not actively participate in these
rituals. Having been married before, he had already made the ritual
transformation from youth to adult. His reproductive capabilities had
already been ritually bound; all that was necessary now was to transfer
his virility to the service of his new wife and her family. This was
sufficiently symbolized in other ways (for example, the wedding vows
Fine white mats (apei) are key symbols
in many of the wedding rituals. They are carried by the highest ranking
women and formally unfolded for all to see. The bride and groom's seat
(päega) is topped with an apei,
and an apei is placed above them as "protection." The
uncooked food brought by the groom's side is covered with mats topped
by an apei. The bride and groom are wrapped
in apei during the fau ceremony.
Furthermore, apei are given in gratitude
to chiefs and other participants, such as the female clown, who contribute
to the success of an affair. The bride and groom's parents exchange
mats, as do their namesakes. Ultimately, most of the apei presented
at a wedding are redistributed among the main participants.
To understand the meaning of ritual transactions it is necessary to
have a good sense of the importance of apei in
Rotuman culture. One thing is clear--that apei are
the most important traditional valuable. Apei are
central to every ceremonial transaction, and are even used to influence
political events. A request backed by the gift of an apei is
nearly impossible to refuse, and an apei assures
a plea for forgiveness will be be accepted no matter how grevious the
offence. Why should this be so?
Vilsoni Hereniko has argued persuasively that traditionally apei were
conceived by Rotumans as "woven gods." He cites several lines of evidence
to support his assertion: that in a popular Rotuman myth malicious
spirits are domesticated by capturing them in woven nets; that in earlier
times women who were commissioned by a chief to make apei were
granted license to act outrageously, like unrestrained spirits, until
the task was completed; that an apei must
be consecrated with a sacrificial pig (thereby transferring the life
force of the pig into the mat). To give an apei is
therefore equivalent in Rotuman cultural logic to a gift of life. Since
the gift of life ultimately comes from the gods, an apei is
comparable to a god, and has divine associations. 
The importance of apei at weddings becomes
clear in the light of Hereniko's analysis. They represent the binding
of life forces, derived from the gods, in the service of human reproduction.
The clown's paraphernalia and behavior also underscore the importance
of fertility and reproduction. The stick she wields is more than a
useful prop for pointing and threatening people. It also reminds spectators
of the digging stick that men use to plant taro and cassava in their
gardens, and hence to the production of food. However its primary referent,
according to Hereniko, is the male phallus and its procreative function
in human propagation.  In
addition, the clown's sexual banter and lascivious innuendoes draw
attention to the theme of reproduction.
Value 3: Political Balance between Chiefs and Commoners
The role of chiefs in Rotuman weddings is central. Chiefs elevate
the status of events in which they participate; they lend dignity to
any proceedings. By representing the bride's and groom's parties they
transform a family occasion into an affair of state, implicating all
whom they represent. But they do more than this, for in pre-Christian
Rotuma chiefs were conceived as sacred beings--as conduits to the gods.
Although the ultimate source of prosperity was thought to reside with
the gods (including distinguished ancestors), it was the responsibility
of chiefs to act as intermediaries, to influence them to act benignly.
Conceptually the distinction between gods and chiefs was somewhat blurred,
in fact, since chiefs were thought to be transformed into gods following
their death. The presence of chiefs at a wedding therefore sanctifies
the event, increasing the likelihood that the couple will be blessed
with good fortune.
Since this is the case, the behavior of the female clown is something
of a puzzle, for she is granted license to badger the chiefs, to order
them around, to make them the butt of jokes. How can this be reconciled
with the notion of chiefs as sacred beings?
To paraphrase Hereniko's compelling explanation: Rotuman weddings,
like plays in the western world, provide safe arenas in which forces
potentially threatening to the well-being of society's members can
be acted out, diffused, displaced, or resolved. Clowning, in the frame
of a wedding, is an act of communication from the bottom up, from females
to males, from the bride's kin to the groom's kin, and from commoners
The female clown at a Rotuman wedding communicates through inversion.
Values of humility, respect and restraint--cornerstones of Rotuman
society essential for the maintainance of social harmony--are inverted
and replaced by their antithesis in her antics. Paradoxically, the
clown's violation of Rotuman values reinforces them at the same time.
For example, by dethroning the chiefs, she draws attention to the importance
of their normal role. For Rotuman society to function harmoniously,
submission to authority is necessary. The clown temporarily displaces
the chiefs and assumes their power in a parodied form. If everyone
in the community can submit to a clown, then submission to chiefs should
Furthermore, in a society where the chiefs are men, the public portrayal
of authority in female hands invites laughter, particularly when the
exercise of chiefly power is displayed in its extreme form. As the
clown is female but behaves as male, both male and female attributes
are indirectly communicated. The conjunction in one individual of male
aggressiveness and a presumed female lack of control results in chaos.
The destructive and chaotic world portrayed by the female clown is
the antithesis of harmony, testimony to the impracticability of a world
in which folly reigns. The model that the clown holds up for scrutiny
is therefore to be rejected. Through inversion, the clown affirms the
complementary but different natures of chiefs and commoners, of males
There is another message in the clown's outrageous behavior. The wedding
frame is an opportunity for chiefs to be made aware of what it is like
to be ordered about. The clown holds up a mirror to the chiefs, showing
them how they will appear if they get too pompous. Her actions graphically
remind them that although they may have divine sanctification for their
positions, they are still mere mortals who depend on their fellow beings
for their privileged status. A Rotuman wedding is therefore an arena
in which chiefs learn the importance of humility. 
Map of Rotuma
Perpetuation of Rotuman Custom
Legally one can get married on Rotuma simply by getting a license
at the Government Station and by having the district officer, or a
justice of the peace, perform a civil ceremony. In fact many couples
do so, or have a simple ceremony at home performed by their priest
or minister. By doing so they avoid large expenses and increased obligations.
Therefore full-scale weddings, like Susie and Maika's, play a special
role in perpetuating Rotuman culture and are valued accordingly.
As in most Polynesian societies many key features of the traditional
culture were suppressed or abandoned following European intrusion.
Methodist and Catholic missionaries attacked customs associated with
the ancestral religion; government officials undermined the traditional
roles played by chiefs; imported goods replaced those of indigenous
manufacture. The world was turned upside down, and like colonized people
everywhere, Rotumans faced a future which could have stripped them
of their unique traditions. But despite pressures to desist--missionaries
and colonial officials often chastized Rotumans for "wasting" so much
food and money on "useless" ceremonies--the people on this small isolated
island have persisted in adhering to those customs they see as central
to Rotuman identity. Even the most cosmopolitan Rotumans recognize
the value of an apei, the importance of
a pig cooked whole in an earthen oven, the significance of the kava ceremony.
They may criticize individual chiefs, but they support the institution
of chieftainship. They value these customs regardless of personal beliefs
because they have come to symbolize their unique cultural heritage.
In a full-scale Rotuman wedding feast, all of these key Rotuman cultural
symbols are highlighted. When Susie and Maika got married, therefore,
they not only celebrated their union. By adhering to custom, they celebrated
Rotuman culture as well. They provided a setting for the entire community
to affirm everything that is essential to their identity as a people.
 Clifford Geertz, "Deep Play: Notes
on the Balinese Cockfight," in Daedalus, 101 (1972): 1-37. [back
 Andrew Pawley, "New Evidence on the
Position of Rotuman," Working Papers in Linguistics, No. 56, Department
of Anthropology, University of Auckland, New Zealand, August 1979. [back
 For an account of Rotuman migration
and its consequences for life on the island see Alan Howard and Jan
Rensel, "Rotuma in the 1990s: From Hinterland to Neighbourhood," Journal
of the Polynesian Society (in press). [back to
 For about six weeks during the holiday
season Rotumans stop nearly all serious work and engage in a variety
of leisure activities. In the past, and even today, it was a prime
time for courtship. [back to text]
 If he were following Rotuman custom
strictly, he would have asked an elder to speak to the chief on his
behalf.] [back to text]
 For a general overview of changes see
Alan Howard, "Reflections on Change in Rotuma, 1959-1989," In Anselmo
Fatiaki et. al., Rotuma: Hanua Pumue (Precious Land) (Suva, Fiji: Institute
of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, 1991), pp. 227-254. [back
 Both sides present the couple with
new clothes at this point as well as later on in the ceremony. Formerly,
weddings took place over many more days, and these gifts of new clothes
would be donned each morning and afternoon. Today, the couple changes
less frequently; in this case, Maika wore his policeman's uniform throughout
the day's activities. [back to text]
 This is not the Tokaniua who had been
Oinafa district chief in 1960 but a prominent sub-chief who later succeeded
to the title. [back to text]
 Tiu Malo, "Rotuman Marriage," In Anselmo
Fatiaki et. al., Rotuma: Hanua Pumue (Precious Land) (Suva, Fiji: Institute
of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, 1991), p. 72. [back
 See Alan Howard, "Dispute Management
in Rotuma," Journal of Anthropological Research, 46 (1990). [back
 Vilsoni Hereniko, Woven Gods: Female
Clowns and Power in Rotuma (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, in
press). [back to text]
 For interpretations of Rotuman myths
along these lines, see Alan Howard, "History, Myth and Polynesian Chieftainship:
The Case of Rotuman Kings," in Antony Hooper and Judith Huntsman ,
eds., Transformations of Polynesian Culture (Auckland: Polynesian Society,
1985), pp. 39-77 and Alan Howard, "Cannibal Chiefs and the Charter
for Rebellion in Rotuman Myth," Pacific Studies, 10 (1986):1-27. [back
 Today most people do not know the
traditional chants, and often substitute stories or recitations of
their own. Even so, they remain largely unintelligible, either because
they are mumbled or because nonsense syllables are included. It appears
that intelligibility would undermine the association of chanting with
the mystified world of gods and spirits. [back
 Vilsoni Hereniko, Woven Gods: Female
Clowns and Power in Rotuma (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii,
in press. [back to text]
 Ibid. [back to
 Ibid. [back to
Fatiaki, Anselmo et. al., Rotuma: Hanua Pumue (Precious Land) (Suva,
Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific,
1991). A collection of essays, mostly by Rotumans, on various aspects
of their society and culture. Includes an essay by Tiu Malo on Rotuman
Gardiner, J. Stanley, "The
Natives of Rotuma," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 27
(1898): 396-435, 457-524. A comprehensive account of Rotuman society
in the 19th century.
Hereniko, Vilsoni, Woven Gods: Female Clowns and Power in Rotuma (Honolulu:
University Press of Hawaii, in press). A masterful analysis by a Rotuman
playwright, combining the intuitions of a cultural insider with the
theoretical insights of a sophisticated scholar.
Howard, Alan, Learning to Be Rotuman (New York: Columbia University
Teachers College Press, 1970). An account of Rotuman child-rearing
practices and character development in the context of culture change.
Includes an account of formal schooling on Rotuma and how it contrasts
with indigenous socialization.
Howard, Alan, "History, Myth and Polynesian
Chieftainship: The Case of Rotuman Kings," in Antony Hooper and
Judith Huntsman, eds., Transformations of Polynesian Culture (Auckland:
Polynesian Society, 1985), pp. 39-77. A symbolic analysis of Rotuman
myths focusing on the sacred role of chiefs, fertility, and the relationship
between humans and gods.