Here are some facts about the tatatau:
Tatatau is made up of two Tongan words, Ta (to strike) and Tatau (similar, repeated); literally 'to strike repeatedly' such as a tufunga tatatau would do with the hau as he 'tapped' the tattoo onto a person. The word tatau has different meanings in other Pacific Island languages, and may differ greatly from the Tongan meaning. However, tatau is a word that used in everyday Tongan speech to refer to something that is the same or similar, e.g., 'Ai pe ke sipinga tatau - Just make the patterns the same. In its poetic or aesthetic form, ta also refers to time or a status of time, and tatau can invoke a sense of complete symmetry or both sides being equal inside and out. In this thought, tatatau could also be interpreted as the state of complete balance in all things.
Tufunga was a person skilled in a particular Tongan craft or material profession. Tufunga also referred to material arts manufactured mostly by men as opposed to nimamea'a which were fine arts mostly made by women. These professions could be hereditary or non hereditary. In Tongan, the word Tufunga does not take on the same intensity as it does in other islands like Samoa (Tufuga), Aotearoa (Tohunga), Marquesas (Tohu'a) or Hawai'i (Kahuna). The word tufunga simply designates a professional, societal role. For instance, there were:
- Tufunga Toutai ika - skilled Tongan fishermen;
- Tufunga Ta Maka - makers of stone vaults for the burial of chiefs;
- Tufunga Fo'u Vaka - canoe builders;
- Tufunga Ta Tatau - traditional tattooists, and so on.
1839 was the year that King Siaosi Tupou I began devising laws that would eventually outlaw and eradicate traditional Tongan tattooing. After his conversion to Christianity, many traditional practices that were not favored by Christian values were deemed unnecessary, heathenistic, or pagan; even though he himself had been tattooed in the traditional manner. Though the practice of tatatau quickly vanished in Tonga, Tongan chiefs, especially those of the Kanokupolu line, continued to travel to Upolu and Savai'i to get tattooed. Samoa had not abandoned the practice, and Tongan chiefs, because of their status, still felt somewhat exempt by the new laws/codes that now governed regular Tongan society.
Besides traditional tattooing, other cultural practices soon disappeared such as:
- Po me'e - celebrations that culminated in open sexual encounters;
- Tutu'u nima - the act of cutting off a finger after a ranking individual had passed away;
- Tumomosi - burning beauty marks on the body with pieces of rolled ngatu;
- Fangatua - social boxing and wrestling tournaments performed by men and women.
So how come Samoa was able to keep traditional tattooing alive and Tonga wasn't?
First let’s make it clear that both Tongan and Samoan cultures have lost many of their old traditions, but other traditions remain intact much is as it was in pre-Christian times. It's not so much a matter of which island is more traditional, but rather, what we can learn from each other to rekindle our lost traditions.
After a long period of civil war and infighting amongst ruling chiefs of Tongatapu, Eua, Ha'apai, Vava'u, and Niua were united under one national Monarchy in the 1800's, it became easy to control the infrastructure of Tongan society with laws that were enforced by district high chiefs and lower ranking village chiefs. These chiefs had hereditary ties to the ruling Monarch and were obligated both by rule and by deeply embedded Tongan values of service to the king (mateaki). These island groups were nationalized and established as a country under the name "Tonga". The work of missionaries to convert chiefs continued, subsequently converting the people of the new kingdom to Christianity. With the new reformed central government, Tongans adapted to suit the desires of the new Christian Monarchy and Christian values.
Samoa, on the other hand was never a unified country under one ruling dynasty since the Tui Manu’a reign prior to 900AD. Each village had a high chief that governed the people who lived within the village. Each village adapted to the introduction of Christianity and westernized ideas according to the desires of their chief(s). This made it hard for Christian missionaries to enforce widespread laws across all of Samoa. Each village ultimately shaped the new changes for themselves rather than it be governed by a singular lawmaker.
Ultimately, foreign imperialist powers intervened, and Britain and the US divided Samoa into two separate nations (Western Samoa [now independent Samoa], and American Samoa). Work ensued with various village chiefs to create a westernized, central government for each nation. By this time, Christianity had been adopted as the common religion of each village, but because high chiefs still maintained control, various cultural practices (such as tattooing) remained strong in certain villages, while in other villages they were no longer practiced or had evolved with the new Christian religion. By the 1900's, traditional tattooing was only practiced by several tufuga tatau families in Western Samoa, and became restricted to the sons of village chiefs rather than a rite of passage for every Samoan boy entering into manhood.
As cultures adapted to westernization and modernization, stories, values, and knowledge soon disappears from the framework of that society. This inevitably continues to the present day in the Pacific. It is a gradual process that fades with each generation. If it reaches the point of extinction, it then becomes easy for us to question if it really existed at all?
In 1999 I was fortunate to spend 2 weeks on Rapa Nui. I was amazed at the enormous Moai statues that were carved and spread out across the island's landscape. However, the Rapa Nui people had no recollection of how these were made, why some of them were made, and how they moved these huge megaliths across the island. One of these alter of statues (ahu) was called Tongariki, which an elder explained to me was built by a chief from Tonga. The Rapa Nui also had a written hieroglyphic language called Rongorongo which is no longer understood by its people. Even though the statues and the tablets of rongorongo still physically exist, all knowledge of these two distinct traditions has completely disappeared.
This is where Tonga is at with the tatatau. Many Tongans and non-Tongans now question whether it really existed despite documented proof and plain old common sense. As we now enter an era of globalization, what traditions will no longer exist in a hundred years? It becomes ever more important to utilize modern mediums such as the internet to promote and perpetuate anything and everything that is Tongan for future generations.