World Cultures

A Polynesian man wears a traditional costume at a ceremony on Tuvalu Island.
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip tour Tuvalu, which is still a British Proctectorate.
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Culture Name


Alternative Names

For most of the nineteenth century, Western navigators referred to this archipelago as the "Lagoon Islands," a name gradually supplanted by the "Ellice Islands." This latter term became official in 1892 when Great Britain created the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate (later Colony). The name and its Tuvaluan rendition (Elise) remained in use until the group separated from the Gilberts in 1975.


Identification. The name "Tuvalu" is deemed traditional and roughly translates as "eight traditions." There is no historical evidence of its use, however, until the rise of self-determination in the 1970s. Inhabitants assert their identity as members of distinct societies, referred to by the name of each of the eight traditionally inhabited islands.

Location and Geography. Contemporary Tuvalu is a group of nine small islands and atolls, including the historically uninhabited Niulakita. They lie in a northwest-southeast chain stretching over 250 square miles (645 square kilometers) of ocean in the western Pacific, north of Fiji, east of the Solomon Islands, and south and southeast of Kiribati. Closest to the equator is Nanumea, followed southwards by Niutao, Nanumaga, Nui, Vaitupu, Nukufetau, Funafuti, Nukulaelae, and Niulakita, the smallest. The first four constitute a compact northern subgroup, while the latter five form a more scattered southern group. The climate throughout is tropical maritime. Seasonal variations are slight, though wet and stormy conditions with strong westerlies occur from December to February. During the rest of the year, easterly trade winds predominate. Rainfall is heavier in the south than in the north, although it is generally adequate throughout. Limited storage capacity, however, means that water may become scarce even after a relatively short dry spell.

Demography. The 1991 national census enumerated 9,043 persons, but the total population of Tuvaluans was estimated at about 11,000, including those living in other parts of the Pacific, as well as those working on ships around the world. The separate island populations vary considerably, from over 4,000 on Funafuti, the capital, to fewer than 100 on Niulakita. The vast majority is of Tuvaluan ethnic origin, with a small minority of immigrants from other Pacific nations. A sizable group of advisers, officials, development workers, and volunteers from Western countries resides in Tuvalu at any one time, especially on Funafuti. Overseas, significant clusters of Tuvaluans are found on Kioa Island in Fiji (about 400), in Kiribati (about 400), and in New Zealand (estimated at several hundred). In June 2000, the Tuvaluan prime minister asked New Zealand to take another 3,000 migrants as a response to rising sea levels, but an agreement has not yet been reached. A few remain on Nauru (located northwest of Tuvalu), where they once worked in large numbers in the phosphate and supporting industries. In each case, Tuvaluans living outside their home nation adapt to the dominant culture, while retaining symbols of a distinct identity.

The best estimates suggest a precontact population of around 3,000. After European contact, most of Tuvalu escaped the depredations wrought by diseases and other factors elsewhere in the Pacific, but Nukulaelae and Funafuti suffered significant population losses in 1863 when Peruvian "blackbirders" (labor traders using a mixture of force and inducement) kidnaped several hundred natives. The population of these two islands has since more than recovered through natural increase and migration.





Linguistic Affiliation. The majority of people speak Tuvaluan, a Polynesian language, except for the inhabitants of Nui who speak a mainly Gilbertese (Micronesian) dialect. Although all varieties of Tuvaluan are mutually intelligible, each island community has a distinct dialect. Nanumea, Nanumaga, and Niutao form a loose subgroup, while the inhabitants of the four Southern islands speak closely related dialects. Tuvaluan is historically related to Polynesian Outlier languages in Melanesia, and is a more distant relative of Samoan and Tokelauan. Many Tuvaluans are competent in Samoan, which functioned as the language of church and (to a lesser extent) government until recently, as well as Gilbertese, the dominant language of the colony for seven decades. Samoan in particular has exerted considerable influence on the structure of Tuvaluan. Since the mid-1970s, Samoan and Gilbertese have declined in importance and English has become the prestige language and the medium of communication with the outside world.

Symbolism. While the symbols that relate persons to their home island are numerous, long-standing, and diffuse, those connecting persons to the nation-state are fewer, more recent, less well established, and comparatively self-conscious. National identity is symbolized by a flag, a national anthem, a seal, and an Independence Day celebrated every year. The flag, devised for independence, represents each of the nine islands with a gold star. It also sports the Union Jack in the upper-left-hand corner, symbolic of membership in the Commonwealth, and a reminder of the British colonial presence. This design has been contested, however: it was modified in 1995, entirely replaced in 1996, but restored in 1997. These changes followed partisan politics, heavily influenced in turn by kinship and island affiliations.

The only medium of popular communication for promoting national integration is the radio station, which broadcasts (highly sanitized) information and entertainment for several hours a day. Print media are confined to an intermittent government news sheet and an even more intermittent church newsletter. Both are difficult to obtain and consequently not widely read. There is no broadcast television technology in the country though videos are popular and have replaced film screenings as a mode of entertainment. The educational system exerts conflicting pressures on national identity. There are only two secondary schools for the entire group, but entry is competitive. Any nation-building that results is, as elsewhere in the Pacific, concentrated in the emergent elite.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. Tuvalu was probably settled as part of the backwash by which the Polynesian Outliers in Melanesia and Micronesia were populated after the main eastward historical wave of Polynesian migration. Lack of archaeological investigation makes original settlement dates difficult to establish. Ethno-historical evidence suggests that the islands maintained sporadic contacts with one another, as well as with invaders and other visitors, principally from Samoa, Tonga, and Kiribati. First contact with the world outside of the Pacific probably occurred in 1568, when Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira sighted Nui. Sustained contact did not take place until the early nineteenth century. From 1865 to the mid-1870s, Samoan missionaries from the London Missionary Society (LMS) established Christian churches on each island, and from 1892 to 1975 Britain administered the group jointly with the Gilbert Islands, first as a protectorate and after 1916 as a colony.

While the Congregationalist ethos and limited resources of the LMS left each island largely to its own devices, British administration fostered a sense of commonality among the inhabitants of the group, encouraged by and in contrast to the often absent colonial officers, but also in contrast to the Gilbertese. The founding of a boys' secondary school on Vaitupu in 1922 brought together children from around the group. The use of three atolls as bases for U.S. forces during World War II also brought islanders into contact both with one another and with Americans (enabling them to place British authority into perspective).

As Great Britain moved to divest itself of its Pacific possessions, Ellice Islanders decided against remaining tied to the more populous Gilbertese, who were judged to be culturally different and inferior. Britain reluctantly allowed the Ellice Islanders to secede in 1975. The newly renamed Tuvalu became independent in 1978 and its neighbor, renamed Kiribati, in 1979.

Ethnic Relations. Small numbers of migrants from other Pacific islands (particularly Kiribati) reside in Tuvalu, often through marriage, and their integration is mostly unproblematic. The only significant pattern of group identification revolves around a person's island of origin, which is reckoned according to one's kinship affiliations. When numbers permit, Tuvaluans use island of origin as an organizational principle for such purposes as exchange and celebrations, but it is not an ethnic marker as such.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Before Christianity, island communities probably consisted of dispersed hamlets. Under missionary influence, each island population became concentrated in one or two villages, spatially and socially divided into two or four "sides" ( feituu ). Membership in these is largely symbolic but serves as a way of organizing gift exchanges, games, fund-raising, and some fishing and communal projects. In the neutral village center are located the church building, the maneapa or meetinghouse, and the village green ( malae ). Government buildings (e.g., island office, school, first-aid station, rest house) are generally built on the outskirts. Until the 1970s, houses throughout the group were open rectangular structures supported by pandanus posts and roofed with pandanus thatch. Meeting houses were similar in design but larger, while churches and government buildings were and are built with imported materials. After a devastating hurricane on Funafuti in 1972, dwellings were rebuilt with imported materials (timber, wood-chip board, cement, and corrugated iron). Other islands gradually followed suit, and by the mid-1980s the only structures made of local material were small peripheral buildings such as cooking huts.

The only significant variation from the general pattern is on Funafuti, where space is more fragmented and diversely organized owing to the presence of the national government, the large number of residents from other islands, the greater population, and the airstrip of World War II vintage, which occupies much of the main islet.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. The most important cultivated plant is pulaka (swamp taro), grown in large pits dug into the top layer of a freshwater lens, and valued for its resistance to drought and high salinity. Also of importance to the daily diet are coconut palms (used for the collection of kaleve "toddy" as well as for the nuts), pandanus, bananas, and breadfruit. Fish was traditionally the main source of dietary protein. Today, particularly on Funafuti, imported rice and flour figure prominently in the daily diet, as well as canned and frozen meat. Weakly brewed tea has long been part of daily fare, often in preference to the nutrient-rich coconut toddy. Meals are consumed two or three times a day at home. The few restaurants are all on Funafuti.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Feasts consist of the daily staples, but in larger quantities, and with the addition of pork and fowl meat (the product of local animal husbandry), and occasional treats such as wild birds and turtle.

Basic Economy. The daily activities of the inhabitants of the Outer Islands (all islands other than Funafuti) remain primarily subsistence-oriented. Fishing, agriculture, and animal husbandry occupy most individuals' days, supplemented by craft production for local consumption (e.g., mat weaving, house building and repairing, boat and motor maintenance, tackle making, fishing, and net mending). On Funafuti, these activities have lost their prominence, as many inhabitants, particularly non-Funafuti Islanders, do not have access to land, and fishing grounds are not readily reachable. Many residents are dependent on the salaries of relatives employed by the government and the few other bureaucratic or commercial bodies. Even on the Outer Islands, remittances from relatives employed elsewhere have long served to supplement subsistence through the purchase of store-bought food, fuel, and clothing. Little is produced for sale on the Outer Islands; rather, surplus production is used to sustain networks of exchange between families and individuals.

Land Tenure and Property. The original form of tenure may have been communal, as this arrangement still exists and is accorded symbolic priority. From a system in which chiefs probably allocated land rights for use rather than ownership, more complex forms of title have evolved. Land may now be held privately, either by individuals or by groups, although this distinction is blurred by the fact that individuals are always members of groups that wax and wane as the individuals that constitute them are born, reproduce, and die.

Commercial Activities. Small cottage-industry ventures emerge from time to time. They target food needs (e.g., baked items, pigs and fowl, salt fish prepared on the Outer Islands for sale on Funafuti) or cater to the tiny tourist and export industry, through the sale of woven fans, shell necklaces, and model canoes. These efforts are marked by high rates of failure and turnover.

Major Industries. Large-scale ventures, such as the commercial harvesting of the bountiful marine resources, require capital investments (e.g., for harvesting equipment and storage facilities) and adequate transportation between the islands and to the outside world, both of which are currently unavailable. The group's Exclusive Economic Zone does generate revenue, however, through licenses for Distant Water Fishing Nations.

Trade. Trade before Western contact was confined to occasional interisland voyages, which may have been accompanied by exchanges, marriages, and political tribute. Foreign traders became interested in coconut oil and then in copra (dried coconut flesh for the food and cosmetics industries). Copra is still exported but has greatly declined in importance, owing to inefficiencies of scale and fluctuating prices on the world market. Tuvalu's current principal export is its manual labor: since the 1980s, international shipping corporations have employed Tuvaluan seamen, whose remittances make an important contribution to the economy.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, there was little full-time specialization, though certain people were acknowledged experts at fishing, navigation, defense, canoe making, house building, and gardening,

A Polynesian man wears a traditional costume at a ceremony on Tuvalu Island.

as well as curing and divination. This division was often formalized into bodies of knowledge jealously guarded by particular descent groups. Traditional chiefs were not necessarily exempt from working at the common range of pursuits, although today high-status individuals (e.g., the pastor, the island president) are expected not to engage in strenuous activities. Younger people, especially men, are expected to take on more physically demanding tasks, while older individuals attend to more sedentary work. Specialization has taken hold mainly in the church and in government.


Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. On most islands, traditional chiefs ( aliki ) headed the major descent groups and sometimes deferred to one or two paramount chiefs. In no case did chieftainship give rise to a caste system. The chiefs seem to have been as much religious leaders as political ones, but they shared religious authority with spirit mediums and diviners. While the latter were suppressed by missionaries, the chiefly system survived. Its power was greatly reduced under missionary and colonial hegemony but has never disappeared and is occasionally revived.

Embryonic class formation has appeared on Funafuti, caused by occupational specialization, the increasing importance of cash in the economy, and the fledgling development of business. Obligations to kin, however, continue to have a neutralizing effect on class-generated upward mobility.

Symbols of Social Stratification. Traditional chiefly status is said to have been symbolized by certain objects and prerogatives: pearl-shell fishing-lure necklaces, reserved seating against the head post of the meetinghouse, and the right to the head of all turtles caught. Many of these privileges are now bestowed on the village pastor. No clear markers of incipient class differentiation have emerged, other than the mostly subtle material and symbolic correlates of social achievement (e.g., material comforts, self-confidence, fluency in English).

Political Life

Government. The written constitution established a Westminster-style system. The British monarch is nominally head of state and represented locally by a governor-general, whose role is largely honorific. Each island elects one or two members of a twelve-member parliament (apart from Niulakita residents, who vote for a Niutao delegate). The leader of a parliamentary majority becomes prime minister and selects a cabinet from elected members.

Leadership and Political Officials. Achievement of national leadership positions follows quasi-traditional principles. It requires personal charisma, evidence of divine protection (e.g., educational achievement and fluency in English), enough wealth or income to allow generosity, and favorable kinship connections (including large numbers of voting relatives). As in Western parliamentary practice, compromises and informal deals occupy a central role in Tuvaluan politics. Political parties with agendas and policies do not exist at either local or national levels. Political alignment is best understood as loosely structured and potentially unstable factionalism, configured by local-level kinship ties. Politicians receive the same deference as other high-status persons (positive politeness, some avoidance, etc.), although these patterns are highly informal in comparison to larger Polynesian polities, as befits the relatively egalitarian ethos of Tuvaluan society, traditional and modern.

Social Problems and Control. A small police force maintains order on each island, where magistrate courts regularly sit to deal with drunken and disorderly conduct, breaking and entering, unpaid debts, and failure to keep pigs confined. More serious crimes, such as rape and embezzlement, are sent to the high court on Funafuti. Informal mechanisms such as gossip, shaming, and public admonition are effective. Tuvaluans place high value on the maintenance of harmonious interpersonal relations, and have long taken pride in presenting themselves as a peaceful and law-abiding society. This image began to come into question in the late twentieth century with rising crime rates, particularly in the capital, said to stem from increasing contact with the outside world, the greater availability of liquor, the decreasing power of traditional forms of social control, and the presence of returned seamen.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

Kinship groups and island communities continue to take primary responsibility for welfare and social services. Tuvalu has a strong tradition of volunteerism, whereby persons and families present food, services, and money to the community on occasions such as a child's educational achievement or a wedding. Feeding the entire island is also a common way of asking for communal forgiveness for a transgression (e.g., causing a serious fight). Competitive fund-raising and other forms of resource pooling occur frequently. The product of these efforts may be destined for a third party, such as a neighboring island in need or the island's pastor, or may be redistributed among the members of the group. Individuals, groups, and communities can gain considerable prestige from generous contributions to such efforts. Conversely, the system can place less fortunate individuals under substantial strain.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

Many types of organizations form and reform around specific identities and purposes: women's groups, dancing groups, religious groups, "development" groups. Their purpose is often to raise funds or pool resources. Some, such as village sides and choir groups, are more enduring than others. Individuals may belong to many different groups simultaneously or consecutively, and may thus negotiate their allegiances strategically.

While most groups are confined to particular island communities, some are part of national organizations with links to international bodies (e.g., the Tuvalu Christian Church and the Tuvalu Red Cross Society). A few international organizations, such as the Save the Children Federation and overseas volunteer agencies, have played a notable role in development.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. There was and is a general gender-based division of labor, more marked in ideology than in practice. Men engage in open sea and lagoon fishing from canoes as well as the gathering of coconuts and palm toddy and the more strenuous forms of cultivation. Women share the activity of reef fishing and collecting and take responsibility for weaving and infant care, as well as for harvesting some crops and preparing food. This division is less ideologically clear-cut in modern occupational fields, although in practice women are overrepresented in menial positions while men overwhelmingly control key positions in the labor market.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. In daily life, there is relative gender equality. The coercion of women by men is strongly condemned, although forms of it (e.g., domestic violence) do occur. Women's lack of power becomes evident in formal contexts. They are seriously underrepresented in local structures of authority and power (despite the occasional appointment of a female chief), as well as in the higher ranks of government, civil service, and the church.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. The choice of a marriage partner is today dictated by a mixture of kinship alliance and personal choice. Island communities differ in terms of their preference for endogamy (marriage within one's group) and exogamy (marriage outside one's group) but marriage between "avoidance" relatives (up to third cousins) is always strictly prohibited. Marriage is one of the most important rites of passage in Tuvaluan society, since it legitimizes children and establishes new kinship links in relation to land rights and the flow of resources. Very few people fail to marry. Polygyny (having more than one wife) was suppressed by missionization, and present-day attitudes concerning marriage, sexuality, and family obligation are strongly influenced by Christianity. Divorce and remarriage, rare until recently, are on the increase.

Domestic Unit. Marriage establishes a nuclear family that usually lives with the husband's parents (though sometimes with the bride's parents until after the first child is born). Households of one or more such families are generally headed by the most senior man or (sometimes) woman. Household composition can vary greatly over time and space, and may include distant relatives on long-term visits. Children are often redistributed among related families by different levels of adoption, allowing grandparents or childless siblings to maintain multigenerational domestic units.

Inheritance. Descent has an agnatic (male) bias, as shown in property inheritance. Thus, while the apex of a descent group is typically a founding set of siblings, and the estates that accrued to them could be inherited by males and females alike, eldest sons inherited most.

Kin Groups. Kinship is cognatic, with important links being traced through both parents in the construction of ego-centered kindreds. Extended families do not necessarily live contiguously. They continue to function as significant units as long as they share ownership of particular plots of land, from which they "eat together" ( kai tasi ), a condition that encourages the sharing of other resources (e.g., fish, money). When such arrangements are weakened because of genealogical distance or a breakdown in interpersonal relations, the various branches agree on a division of the property held in common and gradually cease to share other resources.


Infant Care. Mothers are infants' primary care-givers, but a wide range of kin may be mobilized if necessary. Infants are generally showered with attention and affection; but they are also socialized to be attentive to surroundings, as in being held facing the center of interactional groups, and adaptive, as in being expected to go to sleep in the middle of well-lit, crowded, and noisy households.

Child Rearing and Education. Children, especially girls, are involved in the rearing of younger siblings, who are expected to stop depending on the attention of mothers early. Physical punishment is used but it is rarely severe, with amicable relations restored almost immediately. Shaming and peer pressure generally prove more potent sanctions, and the peer group tends to play an important role in socialization. Education is highly valued, although most nonelite households do not provide children the space and time to study. Competence in English, a requirement for advancement in the educational system, is a major stumbling block for

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip tour Tuvalu, which is still a British Proctectorate.

many children who have few opportunities to practice the language, particularly on the Outer Islands.


Higher Education. Students who graduate from secondary school may attend tertiary institutions overseas (in Fiji, New Zealand, or Australia), usually with the financial assistance of donor countries. Few Tuvaluans have obtained tertiary qualifications, and those that have are guaranteed employment in the national bureaucracy.


Across all contexts, everyday interactions between most people emphasize convivial informality, positive politeness, and indirection. Importance is given to being attentive to the presence and needs of others, and on maintaining a jovial demeanor. Children are expected not to impinge on the social space of adult strangers, particularly those of high status. Lower status persons should not cross directly in front of higher status persons, stand above them, or touch their head.

Within the family, the most constrained type of interaction is between cross-sex first, second, and sometimes third cousins, who were traditionally expected to avoid each other's presence completely. Today, such pairs must avoid talking to one another beyond the absolutely necessary and should strive to orient themselves away from one another. Joking and speaking about bodies and bodily functions in the presence of such cousins is considered a serious faux pas. More relaxed patterns of avoidance characterize interactions between in-laws. At the same time, avoidance can contextually become the subject of jokes. Interactions between fathers and sons tend to be distant and undemonstrative, while interactions between grandparent and grandchild, between adoptive parent and adoptive child, and between mother's brother and sister's child, are generally warm and affectionate.


Religious Beliefs. Tuvalu is solidly Protestant with a Congregationalist flavor. Other sects and religions have few adherents. While some syncretic pre-Christian beliefs in magic and sorcery remain, the Christian deity is universally acknowledged, with the Tuvalu Christian Church giving equal prominence to Jesus.

Religious Practitioners. For several decades after missionization, the (mainly Samoan) pastors of the London Missionary Society wielded great power. The role of pastor became a prestigious career choice for Tuvaluan males as well, a number of whom were appointed to other parts of the Pacific. Locally, deacons (men and women) and lay preachers (men only) play important parts in religious affairs.

Rituals and Holy Places. Church buildings are important holy places on each island, and are among the most impressive structures in terms of size, cost, and design. Tuvaluans celebrate the regular Christian holidays and days of worship. Religious celebrations are often protracted; Christmas festivities, for example, can last several weeks and mobilize abundant resources.

Death and Afterlife. Christian ideology proclaims the existence of Heaven and Hell as the destinations of souls. Alternative views, if they exist, are not officially condoned, though the spirits of the dead are believed to have the power of action under certain circumstances (lack of filial piety, bad relations between kin, etc.).

Medicine and Health Care

Western medicine is practiced by trained doctors and nurses, but is not equally reliable or available on every island. Local curing practices are a syncretic combination of traditional, Christian, and scientific ideas: massage, herbal and other medicines, special foods or food prohibitions, faith healing, divination and magic, and prayer.

Secular Celebrations

Each island community celebrates events such as the return of land from traders or the repayment of a communal debt. The only salient government-related national celebration is Independence Day (1 October), celebrated on Funafuti with a state ceremony, the raising of the flag, and a parade of policemen and schoolchildren; and on the Outer Islands with scaled-down versions of these. Independence Day and all other celebrations are marked by several days of feasting, dancing, and games in the meetinghouse. Other nationally celebrated events not associated with nationhood include International Women's Day, Children's Day, and United Nations Day.

The Arts and Humanities

Literature. Despite the very high rate of literacy, there is no tradition of written literature.

Graphic Arts. The only production of graphic artistry is the decoration of mats, dancing skirts, and fans with dyed fibers.

Performance Arts. The major artistic traditions are performance-oriented. Action songs known as faatele reign supreme. Seated vocalists sing the repeated verses of a song faster and faster until they reach a climax and stop abruptly, while standing dancers act out the lyrics. Faatele may involve competition between different sides, be an adjunct to other festivities, or be an end in themselves, and may be composed and choreographed by anyone with the inspiration to do so. Tuvaluans also enjoy other kinds of musical activity, including hymn singing, Western-style dancing, and pop music. The verbal arts are confined to oratorical performances, which are the exclusive domain of older men.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

No significant local endeavors in this area have taken place.


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