In the atoll society of Tokelau, intergenerational transfer of wealth has occurred since approximately 1925 without much exchange of enduring material objects.
The one and significant exception is land, which I argue is inalienable in the sense proposed by Annette Weiner (1992). Land-based family estates (kaukaiga) are not transferred between generations as individual or even collective ownership. In the place of individual or collective ownership, intergenerational ‘inheritance’ takes the form of a transfer of what may more fittingly be called guardianship (McCormack 2020). This guardianship comes as sets of kin-related rights and obligations. The tasks, related to subsistence activities but also to leadership and relations of care, are gendered and ordered according to life stages and age.
To keep up this kind of temporary, transient guardianship involves a sharing of subsistence goods and other resources held in common. To have a place in the village community, to have a say in village affairs (pule) and a place to stand (tulaga), requires that a family representative takes up residence (nofo) in the atolls. That this person claims responsibility for the family homestead and represents the family (kaiga) in the village council (fono o taupulega) is seen as a service (tauhi) to the extended family and as fulfilling one's obligations to the village community (nuku).
Three atoll communities, Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo, comprise the self-governing territory of Tokelau, and are governed in close political association with New Zealand. Tokelauans hold New Zealand citizenship. Classified as a ‘non-self-governing territory’ and being on the United Nations list of decolonising countries, Tokelau has been in negotiations with New Zealand and the United Nations concerning its political status since the mid-seventies. Two referenda have been held but failed to achieve the stipulated number of votes set for an act of self-determination (Hoëm 2021). Tokelau is in the middle of the South Pacific, north of independent Samoa, close to the equator. Its total land area is four square miles, and since the Tokelau Act 1977 it has a 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zone. Around 1,500 inhabitants live in the three atoll communities at present. There is also a substantial diaspora in New Zealand, Australia and the United States, with a few smaller communities elsewhere.
In the following, I discuss how processes of ‘kinning’ and ‘de-kinning’, the handling of social inclusion and exclusion over time, are related to how particular social relationships are valued. I argue that the extended kin groups (kaukaiga) work as corporate groups, in a manner resonant of Lévi-Strauss’ (1982) concept of house societies, where a house is seen as a moral person. My argument here is that the agency of an estate held by kin, over generations, can be effective and continuous over time, even without material transfer of goods on death. I substantiate this argument by presenting three cases that allow us to see how valued relationships of care and respect are negotiated, through the giving and withholding of things of great and little importance. I draw on long-term research in all three Tokelau atolls, and the New Zealand diaspora in and around Wellington, from 1987 until the present. From earlier studies on the Tokelau language, oral literature and patterns of communication, to topics ranging from kinship to politics, and more recently anthropological history and relationships of dependency, my theoretical perspective throughout is that of a socio-cultural semiotics.1 Since the 2006 and 2007 first ever referenda held in Tokelau on its future political status, I have followed more closely the effects of a UN-led process of decolonialisation, and some of my observations of these are reflected in this article (see also Hoëm 2021).
Tokelau Customary Law, Inheritance and Transfer of Ownership
There are no concepts, practices or traditional common law in the atoll villages that support or encourage individual inheritance of material wealth on the death of a close relative (Angelo and Suveinakama 2016). The main occasion for transfer of wealth is marriage, and even then what is given is first and foremost items such as food, clothes, flowers and other decorations. In short, everything that goes into creating a big festive event. Fine mats (kie) gifted to the new couple and the pearl shell lure (tifa) customarily given to the bride are valued objects. These items may be old, but often they are made especially for the occasion. As the new couple move into the bride's natal residence, most commonly while her parents still live there, no formal transfer of the building itself is required. In short, very few material objects are under individual ownership, and those that are, such as clothes, are seen as of no value (mea tauanoa).
The more treasured material objects, such as land areas, boats, houses and certain species of fish (the ika ha, the species of fish that are under restrictions, and must be distributed equally to all), are under collective control and are held under some sort of communal or group stewardship. None of these rights of ownership and control are transferred on the death of an individual. As the rights are vested in the members of a collective, they are exercised through use and are regulated and negotiated in meetings, fono. Who holds the leadership and decision-making power (pule) in such a meeting depends on what kind of meeting it is – it is either within the extended family, in the villages or at the national level – and is also dependent on the character of the case being heard.
The assets that are held by an extended family are most importantly the people and the manpower that they can mobilise. Their value is in the company and potential for love (alofa) and joy (fiafia) that they represent, but also, and importantly, in the work that they can do, as gendered cohorts of kin form task groups – for example, when all able-bodied male kin, as ‘brothers’ (including classificatory cousins), go on a fishing expedition together. Second comes the land areas that make living possible. A kin group has access to two kinds of land areas: the village area where their family homestead is situated and their land where coconut palms grow, on the outer islets across the lagoon. Access to the sea, and fishing in the open ocean, on the reef and in the lagoon, is not regulated by this kind of ownership however, but being part of a landed estate is a precondition for being allowed by the village council to use these maritime resources. Access to land areas, for example to go on a boat trip to the kin-group's land on the outer islets to gather coconuts, must be granted by the village council. An extended family nowadays also has access to salaries and again, the family council meetings (fono) will, in cases where prioritisation is needed, decide how these monetary resources are allocated. Often this amounts to an elder announcing his or her decision to the family.
Judith Huntsman and Antony Hooper (1976) have pointed out that the defining criteria of who is eligible to be part of a kaiga is those who hold land together. Importantly for our discussion here, they show that land holdings can in certain cases be dissolved. For example, if a situation occurs where two people whose families hold land in common should wish to marry, the village council may rule (if everything else is favourable to the coupling – that is, if the couple are not otherwise too closely related for the marriage to be legal) to de-kin the prospective couple. This is done by breaking up (tatala or malepe) the estate by dividing the kaiga land. In this way they no longer share the same land and hence are not kin anymore.2
Elsewhere, Huntsman and Hooper explain that ‘the number of people counted as members of a kaiga varies widely, as does the extent of its land holdings’ (1996: 113). And they comment that both numbers of kin and extent of land reflect the temporal depth and continuity the kaiga has had as a unit, but add that, as the kinship system is cognatic, even more recent, smaller estates have access to productive resources beyond their current kaiga.
Apart from potential reallocation of land between kin, land is inalienable, in that it is forbidden to sell land by law.3 Historically, this has also meant that non-kin are dependent on affiliation with institutions such as the Church or the Tokelau Public Service, for a place to stay, and then only for a limited period. Individuals who marry into a Tokelau family, but from a different background, are dependants of the kin group that they are part of. While they are included, and expected to take part in village activities, they are not kin. Their children may be ‘kinned’, that is, in the terms used by Howell (2003) and Lien and Abram (2018), Abram and Lien (this issue), they are placed on a path that helps them on the way to acquiring a place as family, taking care of land and homestead. Affines from elsewhere do not share this privilege, at least not to the same degree, in that they are excluded from ever gaining tulaga, a voice and place in the community as kin. As this status is anchored in the kin group's relationship to a land area, they do not belong and will never become kin in this sense of the term. The inclusion through processes of ‘kinning’ thus has its limits in the connections to land, fenua.
The House as a Moral Person
As I have described elsewhere, so-called ‘house-societies’ (Lévi-Strauss 1982) are examples of how the tendency for a dispersal of clan property and personnel within systems of cognatic descent may be contained and managed in something ‘larger’ than the lineage or clan group, such as a house (Carsten and Hugh-Jones 1995). In Tokelau, the potential for dispersal of clan property and personnel that Carsten and Hugh-Jones note, is on the one hand what makes for the flexibility of Tokelau society, in that, as noted by Huntsman and Hooper, it is possible to cut off from a large extended family by dividing land holdings, that is, by a process of ‘de-kinning’ and start a smaller, new kaiga, by drawing on and cooperating with more distant kin. In short, cognatic descent makes for a multiplicity of lineages of kin to choose from. The tendency to dispersal is however counteracted by the experienced need for cooperation to gain sufficient resources to survive and thrive. Across households, cooperation is enforced by the division of labour between ‘brothers’ (tamatane, male and female offspring of a kin group's male ancestor) and ‘sisters’ (tamafafine, male and female offspring of the kin group's female ancestor). The kaiga is a contemporary extended family, as the temporal formation of kin over time is the kaukaiga (or earlier puikaiga, see Hoëm 2015a). The kaiga is in principle strictly exogamous, and, again in principle, though in practice with pragmatic considerations, the man leaves his family land and moves in with his wife's family on marriage. Even so, he still gives his service, his working capacity to his natal family, and offers the products of his labour (fish, root crops, money) to his sister. Her task is to share these resources out to their kaiga.
The senior female on the sister's side holds the position of a fatupaepae, that is, she is addressed as ‘the white coral foundation stone of the extended family's house’. Her task is to oversee all transactions between members of the extended family and to ensure that the distribution of food and other goods to all family members goes smoothly. The senior male on the brother's side holds the pule, that is, the authority to direct the work, such as fishing or small-scale gardening, maintenance work and so on, of all family members.
In this manner, a corporate group, with the agency of a ‘moral person’, in the legal sense, is created across households and maintained across generations. The kin groups who work well together and stay together over time, cultivating intergenerational relationships of care, have more legitimate authority and control over their own situation compared with groups who are not so well organised.
Even so, Tokelau being designated a house society is somewhat counterintuitive, as traditionally ‘houses’, at least in the European version of the term, are associated with landed estates and large-scale accumulation of material wealth. Politically, in terms of acquiring legitimate decision-making power, pule, ‘houses’ are still of relevance to the Tokelau world. In formal address, such as in opening speeches made at the important inter-atoll national political assembly gatherings, the so-called General Fono, delegates from each of the three communities are met and greeted by means of their ‘house names’. Atafu delegates are addressed by the name of ‘Fale-Fitu’, the Seven Houses. Nukunonu delegates are greeted by the name of ‘Fale-Fa’, the Four Houses, and delegates from Fakaofo are addressed as of the ‘Fale-Iva’, of the Nine Houses. These forms of titles and address resonate back to the social hierarchy of Tokelau prior to regular colonial contacts, that is, before the 1860s. Most commonly they signify the time prior to events of 1925, before a significant break with past forms of governance occurred when the then British protectorate intervened and changed local political institutions. However, and importantly, these forms of address refer to contemporary political relationships.
Two Kinds of Value and How They Are Articulated in Relationships
This brief historical background shows how kin-based estates exist beyond households, with agency and legal standing, and how they are generated and endure over time. In this section I describe how two different kinds of value are attributed to material objects affecting how they are treated and exchanged. This leads me to ask what role these two kinds of objects (alienable and inalienable) play in ‘kinning’ or ‘de-kinning’ relationships over time.
The anthropological understanding of economic behaviour has been profoundly influenced by the distinction introduced by Weiner between alienable and inalienable possessions (Weiner 1992; see also Dousset and Tcherkezoff 2012; Strathern 1988). Simon Harrison (1999) describes her approach as a critique of the centrality of reciprocity in anthropological theory. Weiner's distinction allows us to see beneath the surface manifestations of exchange to how value, and hence social identity, is created through processes whereby a material or symbolic object is attributed worth through being kept apart from the flow of ordinary exchange. This mechanism, which she calls ‘keeping while giving’, helps preserve and transmit valuable property that represents the identities ‘of the transactors’ (Harrison 1999: 239) over generations.
In the Polynesian parts of the Pacific, among such valuables are, famously, the fine mats (‘ie, kie), and in some areas, tapa (mulberry cloth) created by women, and which if exchanged are presented as mea alofa (‘gifts’, literally ‘things of love’) at life-cycle events. Land (fenua) is, as mentioned above, the inalienable property: it only enters the flow of exchange with great difficulty, as records from the court cases involving land rights across the Pacific bear witness. In addition to family (kaiga) land, the houses (fale) built on this land and the boats that are part of the family estate (vaka) are also treated as inalienable property.
In Tokelau, in contrast to this kind of collectively owned property that is part of a family estate, most imported goods and all local food are subject to different rules of distribution. These perishable goods and other things of no importance (mea tauanoa) are either distributed equally to all through what is called the village inati (‘share system’) or can be bought in the local cooperative store for money (totogi). They are property that is available to all, and of the alienable kind.
Weiner's perspective makes it possible to see how continuity in kin groups’ attachment to specific land areas, and partially dependent on this, the kin groups’ political status in village society, is achieved through a setting apart of certain kinds of things that are valuable in a way that makes them socially powerful. Such objects are frequently characterised as capable of retaining power (mana) by their own volition (e.g. Salmond 2013, 2014). Ethnographic descriptions of the creation and retention of value are dominantly focused on ceremonial exchanges, at life-cycle events, and on the role that these objects play in the creation and affirmation of social identities over generations.
In the following, and to complement this focus on ritual occasions, I present three cases taken from the everyday flow of events. These cases are chosen as they help elucidate how tensions between reciprocity (in Tokelau mainly in the form of what they call ‘sharing’) and of keeping objects out of circulation is enacted in contemporary society. Through these cases I also explore how a relatively sudden proliferation of things from overseas impacts on and entangles with local practices of exchange. The local practices of exchange take the forms of inati or the ‘equal shares to all’ system of distribution of collectively owned goods, the presentation of mea alofa or gifts and totogi or ‘monetary payment’. It is also possible to generate value through keeping things apart from circulation for shorter or longer periods of time, thereby creating treasured goods (taoga).
In practice, for people the most significant conceptual difference of value is between things that an individual can control and dispose of (‘alienable’) and things that groups hold the right to command over (‘inalienable’). However, even if shifting the focus from ‘kinds of objects’ to ‘kinds of action’, one remains within the realm of classification. Venturing into everyday life interaction, however, we shall see how in practice it is not always given whose perspective on qualities of actions, relationships and objects will prevail. Tensions between conflicting or competing perspectives may emerge equally in formal or informal contexts (for further examples, see Hoëm 2004).
Building Relationships of Care, by Not Placing Value on Material Objects. Case 1: The Grandmother's Stereo
Her house is small. It is one of the few remaining open-walled thatched Tokelauan houses, which dominated the villages on my first visit in 1986. The grandmother's fale is situated on her kaiga's (extended family) land, on the outskirts of the village. Just next to it, a large two-storey concrete building has been added. This building is mostly unlived in, except when visitors like me or family members from overseas need accommodation. On its first floor is a bakery that serves the needs of the village, and a satellite television that provides CNN viewing for neighbours and associates in the evenings. The grandmother is the fatupaepae of her kaiga. A fatupaepae is responsible for the wellbeing of the whole extended family, and her main responsibility and most important relationship is to her brother (the tamatane of the kaiga). I have seen this grandmother presiding over her brother's wife's funeral, commanding the many-day-long production and preparation of food for the funeral meals and making sure that all guests and mourners are entertained in a proper fashion.
I have also been present when she, as befalls a senior female, called her household's younger males to a meeting (fono) in her Tokelauan house. A situation had arisen that demanded her attention. The previous night, an adopted son of the family in his early twenties had showed up at her son-in-law's doorstep, asking for a drink of alcohol. The son-in-law, a few years older and a married man with children, became increasingly frustrated with his younger ‘brother's’ repeated requests. Torn between an expectation to comply with a request for a common object (of a ‘discardable’, ‘should be passed on’ (‘alienable’) kind) from a close relative, and a wish to keep the beer for himself, in frustration the son-in-law took (culturally appropriate) care to avoid a direct confrontation, but in so doing he instead hit a wall so hard that he fractured his hand. This resulted in a trip to the hospital and ended the noisy and potentially violent situation. Things of no account should be given freely on request. However, individual desire to keep good things to oneself may come into conflict with the dominant demand for sharing. In addition, noise and drunkenness is not tolerated. The grandmother sat the two men down at her table and looked at them gravely. She told them that this kind of behaviour was not tolerated in their family. The session ended with a prayer after the two had apologised in a most dejected manner. It is difficult to overstate her authority in this situation, and the matter was resolved by her intervention in the conflict.
A few days later I witnessed the demand for sharing, for passing on items when someone asks for it, in a quite different situation. Some of her grandchildren were playing in her house. They freely engaged in their play with the things – including clothes, books and stereo equipment – that were on the bed, on shelves and on the matted floor in the house. Becoming aware of my presence, she mentioned in passing that she was worried that they would destroy her stereo. I asked her why she didn't just lock it away, placing it in one of the cupboards where she stored things of value. She strongly rejected this idea, however, and seeing my puzzlement, she added by way of explanation that she did not want to be seen as a stingy person. To take care of a piece of stereo equipment to ensure that it lasts more than a few weeks is not to my mind akin to an inappropriate holding on to valuable objects. Yet to her it was. That is: to her it was clearly inappropriate to hold on to the stereo; whether she saw it as valuable is another matter. I certainly experienced the thing as valuable and worthy of care in a different way from how she did. These two cases speak of a need to set things on their way, a positive value placed on letting go of things (Perminow 2003).
By setting things on their way, I mean both in the sense of a cultural demand for passing alienable things on, in short, a stress on sharing, but also in the sense of not caring about what happens to things that are taken to be of no account (mea tauanoa). I saw a striking example of this latter attitude when a Tokelauan family I am familiar with were met with stricter enforcement of aviation policy at the Faleolo international airport in Samoa, as they were checking in to fly to visit family in New Zealand. Their many suitcases were counted as excess baggage, and they did not have money to pay for the overweight. What happened was surprising to me. They just discarded the excess luggage. ‘We just chucked it’, my friend explained to me. What was surprising to me was not that they abandoned their luggage. After all, they didn't have much choice if they were to catch the plane. What struck me was the clearly unemotional, matter-of-fact tone of her recounting.
This leads to the question of whether there are any appropriate, or at least possible, ways to hold on, to retain long(er) lasting relationships with things. Furthermore, if there are such possible ways to ‘keep while giving’ as surely we should expect from following Weiner, how do the plethora of new things enter the equation?
Cutting Relationships Outside of Extended Family by ‘Asking’ for Objects of Value. Case 2: The Birthday Party
The birthday celebrant was a family head in a part of a larger kaiga that is renowned for its high proportion of active and successful members. After a period of teacher's training in New Zealand together with his wife, they returned to Tokelau and worked in the school as headmaster and teacher for many years. During the first twenty years of my visits to Tokelau, running private enterprises (such as small shops) was explicitly forbidden by the village council. This man was the only visible entrepreneur on the atoll, and he worked slowly to build up capital, starting by renting out video films and selling small items for money. After years he was finally able to afford to extend his house. During the last decade, when the ban on private enterprise was lifted, he seized the opportunity and the couple now runs their home as a hotel. Fifteen years later, they are still the only paying accommodation for visiting officials and other visitors in Tokelau.
Sometime in the early 1990s, before the council opened for private enterprises, written invitations were sent out to all villagers to celebrate his 50th birthday party. To my knowledge, this was a one-time event, it has never happened before or since. The party took place in the open-walled meetinghouse in the centre of the village, and the celebration took – in most ways but not in all – the form of other festive gatherings in this main communal building. The villagers turned up, food was presented to all, speeches and dances were made, and the mood was convivial. The only irregular element was that every kaiga presented a gift to the host, and that many had chosen to make their gift a fine mat. Seeing this, I asked many people what they made of the event. The immediate response I got was unanimous and focused on the presentation of mats that I had found so unusual. ‘We don't like this’, people said, adding ‘it is like he is asking us for payment’.
This event is highly atypical, the celebrants’ actions highly innovative, and people clearly experienced it as such. The real anomaly was to celebrate an individual, not as a representative of a group, but as – in this case – himself. The inappropriateness attached to this focus on an individual was consistently downplayed by the guests, and this they did in the following manner. First, having received an invitation, by a person of high public standing (through his position as a Senior Public Servant), to come to the central meeting house of the village for a festive gathering, it seems that no one considered refusing. The high turnout confirms that people chose to act as if the event was akin to a gathering presided over by the village elders, who would normally be in command of such a gathering. Normally, if people are in the least doubtful about whether an event held in the meeting house is collectively accepted, they usually stay away, or come, but sit in a nearby house and wait to enter the meeting house until a prominent elder has been seated, thus giving legitimacy to the proceedings. Given that they all came, and aware that they by their presence acted as if (and confirmed that) the birthday celebrant represented the village as a unit not only himself, they also really had to work to make this a reality. This they did in the most obvious manner – by bringing the kind of gift appropriate for anybody who acts as a representative of a group. They therefore came with mats. However, most felt uncomfortable with this blurring of ceremonial gift-prestations and birthday party gifts. The ceremonial prestations are, as mentioned above, in the ordinary run of affairs only part of weddings and funerals but may occasionally also be extended to include high-ranking leaders and visitors at the closing of important political meetings. The custom of gift giving appropriate to birthday celebrations is familiar to most from experiences in New Zealand, but is uncommon in Tokelau.
If the party had been held at his home, it would still have been unusual and odd, but the tension would have been considerably less. It is also likely that if this had been the case, he would have received more ordinary, alienable things as gifts. As things stood, he managed to create an occasion that transcended the boundary between the ordinary and the exceptional. As a result, he managed to extract extraordinary things (in this case, fine mats) as well: those that people try their utmost to keep in their kaiga, but that they will have to part with if summoned by somebody having the right to command, representing the collective. Sometimes, as Weiner also describes, the strategy of keeping an object outside of the flow of exchange is impossible to sustain and a loss of wealth (transfer of the valued object outside of the group of owners) is the result.
Cutting Relationships by Paying (Too) Little Attention to Things of Value. Case 3: The Boat
The distance between Tokelau and its closest neighbour Samoa is considerable. Transport to Tokelau has been the responsibility of the New Zealand Administration since 1925. In the period after the Second World War, local travel between the atolls was forbidden, due to the great danger of perishing at sea.4 During the last thirty years, the issue of finding a safe and viable means of transport to Tokelau from Samoa has been debated endlessly. An airstrip has been suggested and repeatedly dismissed, running into insurmountable difficulties providing land when most land areas are inalienable, and the little that exists of communal land has been deemed too small and/or unsuitable.
In this period Tokelau was served by various boats of such low standard that they had been taken out of service elsewhere (such as the MVs Frysna, Cenpac Rounder and Wairua). Also, with this transportation offer, people were unable to travel between the three atolls, except on the boat that visited from Samoa every six weeks or so, only to return after completing the round. This meant that any visitor would have to either complete their tasks in a day or so on an island or stay approximately six weeks for the next boat. The situation improved somewhat in the early 1990s, when a relatively small vessel, the Tutolu, was purchased to run between the atolls for visits to relatives, sports events and political and other work-related meetings, and even to Samoa if the need arose. From that time until 2015, this vessel has been the main means of travel to and from Tokelau, with an additional chartered vessel for big events (frequently the Lady Naomi, a vessel that belongs to Tuvalu).
The National Assembly of Tokelau, the General Fono, has debated the issue of getting a boat repeatedly, throughout its existence as a political body from the early 1950s. As mentioned, Tokelau is still in what is called, by United Nations terminology, a colonial relationship with New Zealand. Being a so-called ‘non-self-governing territory’, the responsibility for providing overseas transport lies with New Zealand. New Zealand officials have repeatedly assured Tokelau, throughout this and much of the previous century, of their intention of providing Tokelau with a boat. The promises came to fruition when a commissioned boat, MV Mataliki, was completed in 2015, financed by New Zealand Aid, and began its regular schedule between Tokelau and Samoa in 2016.
During the period leading up to 2006 and 2007, however, as Tokelau held its first ever referenda on its future relationship with New Zealand, the boat came to symbolise the relationship between the two. In the two referenda, the side voting against Tokelau self-government won by a narrow margin. These voters expressed a strong suspicion that New Zealand wished to ‘cut the cord’, as they called it, and they wished for a continued mutual relationship of (inter)dependence. The relationship between Tokelau and New Zealand had been ‘kinned’, by many decades of ceremonial gift giving (of mea alofa, that is, mainly fine objects such as woven hats, fans and shell necklaces, but also the occasional fine mat or pearl shell lure) on behalf of Tokelau. These acts of care were appropriately met with financial investments by New Zealand over the years.
With New Zealand repeatedly placing stress on their wish for ‘independence’ for Tokelau, however, many Tokelauans became increasingly worried that New Zealand intended to terminate this reciprocal exchange relationship, to cut the cord and ‘de-kin’ the relationship. The most obvious object that identified the quality of the relationship between the two, linked over years in mutual obligations, as kin, was the boat.
A boat is, as mentioned, the prototypical inalienable object, besides land and houses, and this point was brought to attention when, in 2014, the then political leader of Tokelau, the Ulu (Head) Kuresa Nasau, made a speech to the National Assembly. He used the form toku vaka, that is, ‘this boat of ours’, the ‘inalienable’ form of the possessive pronoun, about the vessel that currently was under construction. In other words, he told the leadership that the boat is of Tokelau, as a function of the relationship with New Zealand. On the one hand, it can be seen as a means of transport only, and as an instrument in the development of Tokelau, financed by aid money. On the other hand, and this is the way he phrased it, the boat should be seen as an object that emerges ‘of Tokelau’ from the moment of its inception. And, had this boat been more than a vague promise at the time of the referendum, the perception that New Zealand wished to terminate the relationship with Tokelau would have been much harder to sustain (Hoëm 2015b).
‘Kinning’ and ‘De-kinning’ Over Time: Important and Unimportant Things
As we have seen, collective rights (of extended families) to specific land areas are transferred over time, intergenerationally. Oral and written genealogical knowledge concerns the rights to land, and through land to positions of leadership and authority. As I have argued, these positions must be exercised to carry authority (pule). If all members of an extended family should move abroad, chances are that they would forfeit their rights to land ownership and political participation, even their rights to vote in national elections, over time. Knowing this, all families strive to keep up a presence in Tokelau.
The mid-1990s until the present (Hoëm 2004, 2019) – that is, the last three decades – has seen an immense expansion of multilateral linkages to fora that representatives of Tokelau have gained access to, such as the South Pacific Regional Programme (SPREP), the Forum Fisheries Agency (SOPAC), and also organisations with global reach, such as the WHO and UNESCO. Countries and institutions that were previously counterparts for Tokelau's New Zealand administration are now potential political partners for Tokelau politicians and public servants. At the same time, people, institutions and things from the outside world have become increasingly entangled with life in the three atoll villages.
A concomitant increase in monetary wealth can, so far, not be seen to have any direct consequence for the intergenerational transfer of value (Hoëm 2019). However, the aid-funded investments in the construction of new and more permanent kinds of housing is worth a mention, and more studies. In the mid-eighties open-walled houses with thatched roofs dominated the village landscapes, but today two-storey walled houses made in concrete are the norm. Early housing schemes allowed families to take up loans, to make more lasting wooden structures, with water storage tanks in the foundations of the houses. As water has always been a scarce resource in the atolls, this type of housing was received with mostly positive attitudes.
A few families kept some of the open, older style houses as well, given that they are less hot in the tropical climate. The floors are softer to sit or sleep on than the concrete of the newer style housing, but the old fale need more work to maintain. The concrete housing is considered more hurricane proof compared with the old structures, and also, and importantly, can be markers of family wealth that endure, without the necessity of constant maintenance. All in all, these are seen as improvements to life in a beautiful but harsh environment. How these more permanent structures will affect patterns of inheritance and dynamics of ‘kinning’ and ‘de-kinning’ remains to be seen. The white corner coral stone of the house foundations, symbolic of the senior sisters’ status as the fatupaepae, is not a feature of this new kind of housing. The concrete houses may, with hurricanes coming more frequently, represent huge damage and loss of financial investments, whereas if the older house structures were destroyed, the loss was only accountable in hours of work.
Finally, and as mentioned repeatedly throughout, the most important inalienable possession in Tokelau is land. There is not much evidence that land is ever made an object of transaction, not even in transfer between individual family members.5 The cases that I have presented show that boundaries between kinds of objects that can be exchanged and those that should be kept may be challenged or even disregarded if a person (or a group) seizes the opportunity to remove distinctions between spheres, as we saw in the case of the birthday celebration. The most salient distinction in practice is the difference between things that should be cared for (for example, mats, houses and boats), and things that should be disregarded as of no importance (for example, stereo equipment, beer or luggage). Finally, the things that should be cared for are emblematic of valued social relationships between kin or people who are included as kin, that is, ‘kinned’ in certain contexts.
The things that require care are, in theory, those over which only collectives command, and the relational control and responsibility of care is the important valued matter, not the thing. The things that are of no importance, and which could (and often should) be let go, are those over which the individual has power.
To further substantiate this point, I have not found any sign that the provenance of the objects (whether they are of overseas or indigenous origin) overrides the kinds of relationships that they are integral to creating, as we have seen in the example of the boat. On the one hand, we have seen the situation where people (or even groups) engage as equal and independent, such as the two ‘brothers’ fighting over a bottle of beer. On the other hand, we have the situation where a hierarchical dependency relationship is dominant, such as when a family head, representing the kaiga, summons two men to a meeting. The attribution of agency, of causal responsibility, is qualitatively different in the two kinds of relationships. That of independence is treated as of no consequence, whereas that of dependency is valued highly. To be independent and equal is ultimately to stand alone, without support, and it is very difficult to gain much power from this position. In submitting to hierarchy, a more wide-reaching freedom of action, agency, is possible (see also Hoëm 2021).
To create conditions for Tokelau's independence, an object serving as a visible token of a commitment to long-term relatedness (as for example the boat could have been) was needed from New Zealand's side. However, the powerful binding force of certain kinds of objects was not understood as significant in this relational sense by the political engineers of the Modern House of Tokelau.6
In light of the massive investment that the atolls have seen in recent decades, there is one factor that can potentially be a game-changer. This is the threat posed by climate change, causing rising sea levels. These represent unprecedented challenges and Pacific nations are working to raise these issues internationally, and to explore and advocate solutions. Tokelau is in a unique position among its fellow nations because of its continued relationship with New Zealand. This association grants New Zealand citizenship and a place of refuge should the need arise. From Tokelau's current position of being rulers and caretakers of their own house(s), they can reach out to larger networks and even, should the need arise, offer support to other Pacific nations, such as Kiribati and Tuvalu. Those island nations, and others with no formal ties to the larger Pacific nations, have no granted place of refuge, if climate conditions necessitate migration elsewhere.
This brief foray into the Tokelau way of keeping houses and their way of placing more value on relationships than things has made it possible to see how, over time, what is transferred is a form of sociality, recognisable across generations. I have argued that this form of sociality produces corporate groups, with agency akin to a moral person in Lévi-Strauss’ use of the term. What is transferred are relationships of care, not ownership of material goods.
However, and as Tokelauans know, loss of land rights in the atoll society and the potential loss of the atolls due to rising sea levels constitute major threats – if not to the continued existence of the Tokelau people, to their self-governed way of life (faka Tokelau) as they know it. Valued kin relationships are invested in collective guardianship of named, small and inalienable land areas. The continuous investment in this guardianship is what allows people to remain kin over time, to include others in more transitory processes of ‘kinning’ and to insist on their right to cut relationships, ‘de-kinning’, if obligations of care are not properly observed or met by a counterpart.
My field research has been funded by the Norwegian Research Council, The Institute for Research in Human Culture and the University of Oslo. Altogether, my field visits amount to approximately three years.
Customary law stipulates how closely people are allowed to be related in order to marry. Illegality only covers first-cousin unions, but second-, third- and even fourth-cousin marriages may be prohibited by the village council, related to pragmatic concerns over access to resources and perceived historical closeness of family bonds. As mentioned, a potential issue of a couple being kin can in some cases be resolved by dividing up family land, whereby the two will then no longer be counted as kin.
‘Ownership’, that is, the right to live on and use a land area, is registered informally (by the elders in the village councils) and would most commonly be by the name of the male elder who is the family representative in the village council. If the family member given responsibility for the homestead is female, the same practice applies.
Divorce is rare, and often involves emigration of one or both of the divorcing couple. Upon divorce, the woman would in most cases remain in her natal household (where she usually lived anyway), and the husband would move back to his natal kaiga (his sister's household) or take up with a new partner. The nuclear family unit is not a socially significant unit and does not ownanything together. Two brief examples of cases of divorce that I have witnessed may serve to illustrate this point. One concerns a couple with grown children. The husband found another woman and was ordered by the village council to leave his wife and the homestead in which they lived. He subsequently moved in with the new woman and lived with her in her family's house, approximately two metres distance from his previous home. The divorce and his close proximity was a continuous source of shame for the children of his previous marriage. Another concerns a couple where, again, the man had an extramarital affair. The village council decided that he should leave Tokelau and he subsequently moved to Samoa, while his ex-wife lived on in Tokelau.
The law in question originates in a regulation from the High Commissioner of the Western Pacific in 1896, prohibiting the sale of land to non-native persons. The Tokelau Islands Amendment Act 1967 states that rights of ownership should be in ‘accordance with the customs and usages of the inhabitants of Tokelau’. While land disposal among Tokelauans is legal, procedures for re-allocation of land are overseen by the village councils. The New Zealand Parliament passed the Tokelau Amendment Act and transferred law-making power to the national assembly of Tokelau, The General Fono, commencing from 1 August 1996.
The atolls are 508.26 km from Samoa, and the distance between the atolls is 99 km from the northernmost atoll Atafu to Nukunonu, and 68.29 km from Nukunonu to Fakaofo, the southernmost atoll.
In the known history of Tokelau there is one notable exception, involving a shady character called Eli Jennings, some land on Fenua Fala in Fakaofo, and the fourth atoll of Tokelau, Olohega, that as a result became alienated from Tokelau. Such exceptions become legal matters.
Abram, S. and M. E. Lien 2023. ‘Introduction: Kinning and de-kinning: houses, heirlooms and the reproduction of family’ (this issue).
Hoëm, I. 2015a. Gendered sides and ritual moieties: Tokelau kinship as social practice, in C. Toren and S. Pauwels (eds.), Living kinship in the Pacific, 87–106. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Hoëm, I. 2019. Anthropos and pragmata: on the shape of things to come, in P. Harvey, C. Krohn-Hansen and K. G. Nustad (eds.), Anthropos and the material, 81–100. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Hoëm, I. 2021. ‘“Cutting the colonial cord”? Tensions of value and the relationship between Tokelau and New Zealand’, Oceania 91: 165–180.
Howell, S. 2003. ‘Kinning: the creation of life trajectories in transnational adoptive families’, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 9: 465–484.
Perminow, A. 2003. The other kind: representing otherness and living with it on Kotu Island in Tonga, in I. Hoëm and S. Roalkvam (eds.), Oceanic socialities and cultural forms: ethnographies of experience, 157–176. New York: Berghahn.