A Contemporary Polynesian Society

By: Bill Donner

Originally Published in 1984

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Sikaiana is located about 90 miles east of Malaita Island in the Solomon Islands (see Fig. 2). It consists of four separate islets sur­rounded by a coral reef about 6 miles across. Most people reside on the largest island, Hale, at the eastern end of the reef (Fig. 3). At present, Sikaiana has a resident population that fluctuates between about 200 and 250 people. Approximately 400 other Sikaiana people have emigrated from the island to live in other areas of the Solomon Islands, espe­cially Honiara and Yandina.

Since the early 19th century Sikaiana so­ciety has experienced dramatic cultural change through contacts with Europeans and their traditions. In the 19th century there was comparatively intense interaction with Euro­pean traders and whalers. In the 20th cen­tury, the Sikaiana people converted to Chris­tianity. and western bureaucratic institutions such as a court, local government council, and a school were established on the island. Moreover, large numbers of the population began emigrating to other areas of the Sol­omon Islands in search of jobs and a western education. The following discussion briefly outlines the history of social change on Si­kaiana and how outside influences have been incorporated into contemporary Sikaiana so­ciety.

Sikaiana in Regional Perspective

The Solomon Islands is a diverse political state made up of many different ethnic and culture groups. By some estimates, there are 60 different vernacular languages within its boundaries. In 1976, the total population was about 200,000. The capital and main port is Honiara, which in 1976 had a resident popu­lation of about 15,000 people. It is located ear the battlefields where Americans and Japanese fought during the Guadalcanal Cam­paign of 1942143.

Today, Sikaiana maintains contact with the outside world through a ship that arrives monthly, carrying both people and supplies. The ship for Sikaiana usually leaves at about 10:00 p.m. from Honiara. Early the next morning, the ship arrives in the small town of Aukli which is the administrative center of Malaita Province. The ship departs from Auld later in the morning, circumvents the north coast of Malaita Island, and arrives at Sikaiana on the following morning. There is also a wireless radio on Sikaiana that maintains al­most daily communication with Honiara. Other than this, direct contacts with the out­side world are sporadic.

Sikaiana is one of several island societies geographically Melanesian or Micronesian, where the inhabitants speak Polynesian lan­guages. Collectively, these islands are termed Polynesian Outliers (Fig. 2). They include: Nukuria, Takuu, Nulcumanu, Ontong Java, Si­karana, Rennell-Bellona Pileni, Taumako, Ti­kopia, Anuta, Mele-Fila, West Uvea, Aniwa, and West Futuna in Melanesia; and Kapingamarangi and Nukuoro in Micronesia (see Ba­yard 1976). Tikopia, due to Raymond Firth’s rich and extensive descriptions of its society and culture, is probably the best known of these islands.

Presumably, all of the Outliers were settled by peoples who emigrated west from Western Polynesia (Samoa, Tonga and Ellice Islands) into these fringe areas of Melanesia and Mi­cronesia after the formation of a Polynesian or proto-Polynesian language and cultural tradi­tion within their homeland. Some of these so­cieties have retained Polynesian languages, al­though they have assimilated the culture of neighboring Melanesians. Sikaiana, however, has retained not only a Polynesian language, but also Polynesian culture and social organization.

1791-1929: Whalers and Traders

Sikaiana was first sighted by Europeans in 1791 and was named Stewart’s Island. The 19th century was a period of fairly intensive contact with whalers and traders; this set the stage for the rapid social changes of the 20th century. In a comparative study of demo­graphic patterns in the central Polynesian Outliers, Bayliss-Smith writes:

Sikaiana was probably among the first of the islands in northern Melanesia to be regu­larly visited by European ships in the nine­teenth century and thus it has a far longer history of contact than the other outliers. (Bayliss-Smith 1975:297-298)

Bayliss-Smith goes on to give two reasons for this: first, Sikaiana was located in a conve­nient place along important trade routes; second, the population had acquired a reputa­tion as friendly and hospitable (1975:298­299). By the middle of the 19th century, Eu­ropean visitors report that outside contact was considerable: trade objects were a regular fea­ture of the material culture, some young Si­kaiana men had left the island to work on ships, and some Europeans were resident on the atoll. Europeans who visited Sikaiana during this time report that some of the people could speak ‘broken’ English. In the late 19th century, there was labor recruitment or ‘blackbirding’ of Solomon Is­landers to work on labor plantations in Queensland, Australia; but although recruit­ment was intensive on Malaita, it does not seem to have been widespread on Sikaiana. In 1893, in order both to regulate this uneth­ical practice and to further its own colonial in­terests, Great Britain established a protecto­rate over most of what is now the Solomon Islands. In 1897 the protectorate was ex­tended to include Sikaiana, Rennell, and Bel­lona Islands.

Although it had nominal sovereignty over Sikaiana, the colonial government of this pe­riod seems to have had little direct influence upon Sikaiana life. Nevertheless, by the early 20th century, there was continuous interac­tion with Europeans, and manufactured trade goods were essential in the atoll’s economy. Elder people remember tobacco, trade cloth, bush knives, pots, pans, steel tools, flint, flour, and even tinned beef as being available at several different locally managed trade stores supplied by European traders, By the 1920s, many Sikaiana men had worked for traders and on government ships. European visitors to the island during this time had no problem finding Sikaiana people who had traveled away from Sikaiana and could speak Pidgin English, which was developing into the lingua franca of the Solomon Islands.

Conversion to Christianity

In 1929, Anglican missionaries in the Sol­omon Islands sent their ship, the Southern Cross, to Sikaiana and left a group of mission­aries to carry out the island’s conversion. These missionaries were not European, but Melanesian converts who had taken religious vows to convert the pagan populations of the Solomon Islands. Within ten years the con­version on Sikaiana was complete.

There were several reasons for the mission­aries’ rapid success. Elder people claim that the Sikaiana people wanted to learn to read and write. This was partly the result of the desire for access to western material goods, but it was also a result of a desire to know more about the outside world. Conversion to Christianity offered access to the educational resources and employment opportunities in the outside world.

The rapid conversion also was due to the breakdown of traditional ritual life. Traditional religion is remembered as being separated into two distinct spheres. In the first sphere, a hereditary chief (aliki) and other officials performed ceremonies that ensured the is­land’s welfare and prosperity. The second ritual sphere was concerned with individual welfare and disease. In this latter system, in­dividual men acted as spirit mediums for their deceased ancestor. (aitu mate). Death and disease were often attributed to the su­pernatural revenge of the aitu mate who were angered by living men.

Sometime in the late 1920s, before the ar­rival of the missionaries, an overly zealous European trader convinced some of the Si­kaiana people to destroy all the sacred sites associated with the ceremonial work of the alibi. Elder people claim that without these centers the ritual for ensuring the island’s welfare was no longer effective. On the other hard, the personal ritual that involved the aitu mate remained unaffected. But this latter system is remembered as centering around hostility, disease, and death. Furthermore, not everyone had access to a powerful aim mate, and some families felt threatened by the aim mate of other families. Many people joined the church because their families did not have powerful aitu mate. In the thinking of many Sikaiana people, Christianity offered a devotional system that provided access to supernatural help, both in maintaining the is­land’s welfare and in providing protection from the malevolent spirits of deceased ances­tors.

Finally, the rapid conversion occurred be­cause Christian devotions came to be viewed as more efficacious than traditional ritual. There are two commonly repeated stories, known by most Sikaiana people of every age, that describe a confrontation between pagan leaders and the leader of the missionaries, In Kopuria. In one story, Ini Kopuria announced a Christmas dinner for those members of the community who joined the church. The pagan population decided that they would ask their aitu mate to make it rain to spoil the Christmas dinner. Ini Kopuria accepted the challenge as a test of whose religion had more power. People claim that at the time of the feast the sky was overcast. But the sun broke through and there was clear weather, proving to many that Christianity was a more pow­erful religious system.

In the second story, one of the mediums asked his aitu mate to search fin- the Christia deity to learn about him. Upon returning, the aitu mate said that he had approached a very powerful deity, but could not get close to it. The aitu mate advised his medium that the deity must he very powerful and that the me dium would be best advised to stop sum­moning the aitu mate and to worship this new Christian deity. As these stories suggest, during the island’s conversion to Christianity the traditional ritual and supernatural system was not viewed as inherently false; rather, Christianity came to be viewed as a more powerful and, in many ways, a preferable be lief system.

During the 1930s, the Anglican mission­aries sent a boat on yearly visits to Sikaiana. During these visits, the missionaries took many of the island’s younger people away to hoarding schools located elsewhere in the Solomon Islands. This policy allowed the missionaries to instill Christianity in those chil­dren and also contributed to an effective break with the island’s traditional culture. Many children matured away from Sikaiana, and they had only limited opportunities to learn traditional ritual, technology, and leg­ends.

World War II and After

The Second World War marked a wa­tershed in Solomon Islands history and was followed by more rapid change on Sikaiana and in the rest of the Solomon Islands. This change was brought about by the broadened experiences of the Solomon Islanders during and after the War. The church and later the central government provided opportunities for advanced education. Shortly after the War, a Sikaiana man was sent to Australia and or­dained as a priest; another man was sent to Fiji. to receive advanced medical training. 11w government also established many insti­tutions on Sikaiana, such as the local court, a local elected government council, a medical clinic, and a cooperative trade store.

By 1980, there were several Sikaiana people who had attended the University of the South Pacific at Suva, in Fiji, or the Uni­versity of Papua-New Guinea. Others had at­tended specialized training courses, most often in Australia and New Zealand.

During this period, the population con­tinued a rapid increase that had begun after the arrival of the missionaries. Although the population living on the island has been ap­proximately stable since the early 1900s, the total number of people whose parents are Sikaiana has almost tripled, partly as a result of the prohibition on abortion that was instituted by the missionaries. The present-day Sikaiana population is very mobile. and people fre­quently move between Yandina, Honiara, and Sikaiana. Most of the emigrants still consider the island as their home, and many Sikaiana people who live elsewhere in the Solomon Is­lands spend their yearly vacations on Si­kaiana. It is not uncommon for people to live on Sikaiana for several years and then leave to work for wages for several years. During my stay most people left the island for short periods, usually going to Honiara. They made these trips to visit relatives, attend weddings, participate in special training courses, or buy supplies.

Long-term emigration is related to several factors. Sikaiana has few resources, and younger people view it as a place with an easy life but only limited opportunity. More­over, some younger people who have ma­tured away from Sikaiana consider themselves to be lacking in the skills necessary for sur­vival on Sikaiana. Finally, the island is too small to support the total. Sikaiana population.

In the period since the Second World War, two demographic patterns have emerged. First, a large percentage of the population has spent long periods away from the island where they interact with people from many different parts of the Solomon Islands. Second, a generation of Sikaiana people have matured away from the atoll. These patterns have important implications for contemporary Sikaiana society. The following sections will discuss the continuities and changes that have taken place on Sikaiana during the lifetimes of elderly Sikaiana people.

Subsistence and Technology

As discussed above, Sikaiana material cul­ture became heavily dependent upon trade items in the 19th century. Imported manufac­tured goods have continued to be incorpo­rated into the local economy during the 20th century, and there has been a loss of tradi­tional handicrafts techniques and fishing tech­nology.

Subsistence on Sikaiana is based upon lo­cally grown swamp taro, fish, and imported food, either sent by relatives living in other areas of the Solomon Islands or purchased with money. Imported rice is a staple of the diet, and tea and sugar are taken with most meals. The diet is supplemented by shellfish; birds, pigs, chickens, bananas, coconuts, and seasonal fruits, all of which are available lo­cally.

Because Sikaiana people are increasingly dependent on a variety of purchased items, including trade cloth, batteries, kerosene, rice, sugar, tea, and steel tools, they are also forced to he increasingly committed to the production and sale of copra which is the main source of cash for most families living on the island (Fig. 5). (Copra is dried coconut which is used toproduce coconut oil.)

Sikaiana legends recount long-distance voy­aging in outrigger canoes (raka hai ama). The last outrigger canoe was constructed in the late 1960s, and there are none currently in use on the island. The standard canoe for transportation is a single hull dugout canoe (manaui), which is a recent innovation (Fig. 6). Occasionally, a man vacationing from Honiara brings an outboard motor, but there was no permanently operating motor on Si­kaiana during my stay. The last voyage (holau) across the open ocean without an engine oc­curred about 1920, when a resident European trader ran out of supplies and sailed to Ma­laita with some Sikaiana men. This voyage did not use an outrigger canoe, however, but the trader’s own dinghy. Because there are no outrigger canoes it is no longer possible to practice some of the open ocean fishing tech­niques such as catching flying fish (tae sasave).

Many of the traditional techniques of net fishing are no longer practiced because hand­held nets are not being manufactured any­ more. All fish nets currently in use were pur­chased in stores. Elder informants claim that in their youth fish weirs (tanaaika) were set up almost everywhere on the reef, hut only two weirs were built during my stay. One of the most frequently used fishing techniques became popular only as recently as the late 1960s. In this technique, men dive at night with waterproof flashlights and, using a homemade slingshot (catapult), spear fish which are resting in the coral.

About half’ the houses on Sikaiana have concrete foundations and iron roofs. The rest of the houses are made from local materials, with wooden frames and coconut leaf matting (see Fig. 9). Most construction is done with imported manufactured string instead of string made in traditional style from coconut fiber. Light is provided by kerosene lanterns and pressure lamps. Some people own kero­sene primus stoves and there are a few families with butane stoves, but most cooking is done with wood and coconut husks on a hearth or in traditional underground ovens (umu).

Sikaiana people say that they never made bark cloth or tapa cloth and that all clothing material was made on a backstrap loom (mea tau; see Fig. 7). By 1900 most clothing was made from trade cloth, although the loom was still used to make mosquito nets (toe nanw) and the belts (taakai) which were worn by women during and after pregnancy for cosmetic reasons. Today, the loom is rarely used, and most women under 50 years old need assistance from elder women on those few occasions when they are weaving with it. All mosquito nets are now bought in stores, and while some women still wear a belt during pregnancy, most do not. Traditional skills are used for making some items. Hand­woven pandanus sleeping mats (vase) are still made (Fig. 8), and most young women are expected to learn how to weave them. Both in Honiara and on Sikaiana it is a matter of pride to possess one of these mats.

Social Life and Expressive Culture

There have been marked changes in other areas of Sikaiana social life. Soccer, rugby, netball, volleyball, and cricket are popular sports. A traditional game, haiumu, which is similar to ‘kick the can,’ is still played, but apparently not as often as a generation ago. Some games that were popular in the child­hood of elder people, such as darts (tika) and wrestling (tautau), are played infrequently, while others, such as cards and marbles, are still played with enthusiasm. These latter two games were probably introduced by traders in the 19th century.

Traditional songs are still performed during holidays, at greetings for important visitors, and at other festivities (Fig. 9). Many younger people, however, do not know the words of these songs or the movements of traditional dances. Today, few songs are com­posed in traditional style. In the late 1960s, some younger men learned to compose for and play the guitar using neo-Pacific and western tunes. This became a popular comp°. sition style with younger people. These songs are composed in the Sikaiana language and reflect Sikaiana cultural and social values. Al­though they are very different in verse and rhythm from traditional songs, they retain strong affinities with the older songs in their use of metaphor and in the themes that are expressed. Shortly after the introduction of guitar music, young men and women began participating in western style dances. During the 1960s and 1970s, radios and tape re­corders were introduced onto Sikaiana. At present, most Sikaiana families have access to a tape recorder, although there is often a shortage of batteries. It is not yet certain whether Sikaiana guitar music will withstand the popularity of western and Pacific songs which are played on the tape recorders.

Education, emigration, and contact with other Solomon Islanders have had a strong impact on language use in Sikaiana. Elder people claim that the Sikaiana spoken by younger people, and elder people who have spent long periods of time away from Si­kaiana, is ‘incorrect.’ Many younger people, especially males, consider Pidgin English, rather than the vernacular, to be their first language. Some younger males told me that they think in Pidgin English, and most spon­taneous conversations between them are con­ducted in Pidgin English. Younger people do not know much of the vernacular vocabulary, especially in areas such as traditional tech­nology, ritual, and poetics. When speaking in the Sikaiana language, they often borrow terms from English or Pidgin English, even when vernacular equivalents are available.

Because it is isolated geographically. the government has established basic transporta­tion, trade, medical, educational, and admin­istrative services on Sikaiana. The Sikaiana people are committed to the successful opera­tion of these institutions. Most adult males living on the atoll are involved in the opera­tion of one or more of these institutions. The island also has a plethora of committees which support these institutions: a school com­mittee, a church committee, a kindergarten committee, several committees that support religious organizations, and two cooperative store committees (although only one func­tioned during my stay). Most of these com­mittees meet regularly, at least several times a year.

Christianity has been effective in mitigating some of the traditional prohibitions on inter­action between certain categories of kin, espe­cially in-laws and the mother’s brother. The church also was successful in terminating some practices that were abhorrent to the missionaries. For example, in traditional Si­kaiana society most marriages were arranged when the couple were children, but at present most marriages are made by personal preference. Traditionally, women were tat­tooed on their thighs and bellies. The last tattoo was applied during the Second World War.

Although the church effectively terminated the traditional ritual ceremonies of Sikaiana. many long-standing patterns of kinship re­main an important factor in personal relation­ships. Most Sikaiana people are committed to their extended bilateral kinship ties. This is expressed through mutual aid, shared resi­dence, contributions to marriage payments. and a very high occurrence of child fosterage. (In both traditional and contemporary Si­kaiana society, fosterage is a mechanism for reinforcing and emphasizing social ties, espe­cially those based on kinship.) Moreover, many traditional Sikaiana values, expectations about interpersonal behavior, and patterns of etiquette remain important in social relation­ships. Finally. there is an important sense in which the Sikaiana people form a distinctive and unique community, regardless of the changes discussed above. Although the popu­lation is rapidly increasing, Sikaiana people, whether living on the atoll or away from it, are known personally to each other and are interested in each others’ affairs. This in­cludes knowledge of a person’s kinship ties, foster parents, marriage, residence, work his­tory•, education, and participation in various community institutions. It also includes knowledge of previous interpersonal interac­tions and an individual’s personality or char­acter.


Sikaiana has changed more rapidly than many other communities in the Solomon Is­lands. This may be related to its small size which leaves it vulnerable to outside influ­ence_ But it also reflects the choices and de­sires of the Sikaiana people who wished to in­corporate western institutions and technology into their society and sought what they per­ceived to be the advantages derived from the incorporation of these outside influences. It is difficult to predict the extent to which Si­kaiana will remain a distinctive community. Certainly, through emigration and the devel­opment of western institutions on the island, it is becoming assimilated into a wider social and cultural system.

This raises an important issue about the de­velopment of a national culture within the Solomon Islands. Solomon Islanders from many different local communities share expe­riences in their conversion to Christianity, ad­ministration by a national government, working for wages, and attending national secondary schools, Moreover, the churches, government and schools are all centralized administrative systems that are attempting to integrate culturally diverse local communities. Although these institutions were introduced originally by Europeans, they have developed according to indigenous interpretations. Fu­ture studies of social change in the Solomon Islands should investigate two issues; (1) the traditional culture and the history of western influences within specific local communities, and (2) the extent to which different local communities in the Solomon islands are de­veloping shared institutions and values as they incorporate these outside influences.

Cite This Article

Donner, Bill. "Sikaiana." Expedition Magazine 26, no. 4 (August, 1984): -. Accessed February 29, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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