Before the arrival of Europeans and Americans in Wallis and Futuna, the two islands were cut off from the so-called Western world. We can only feel admiration for our ancestors, who made use of everything around them to provide food, clothing, housing, healthcare, entertainment and transport.
Traditional thatched houses, fale or api nofo, are most commonly oval or rectangular in shape, with rounded ends. Although modern-style houses have now been around for a long time, the islanders still build traditional wood-framed houses.
The roof ridge of a house is called the tu'âpatû; breadfruit trees (“fuu mei”) are the most commonly used source of structural timber because their wood is both very hard and durable. Other species of wood used for the framework of houses includes “kafika”, “fao” and coconut palm “fui nui”.
“Poumuli” is known as the best wood for the main poles. “Kafika”, “toa”, “fuu niu” and “fuu mei” are all very hard woods and also very popular for use as bearing poles.
Coconut palm or pandanus leaves are woven and lashed together to make a thatched roof, with creepers - “kaui sipi” or rope woven from coir – “kafa” used as binding materials.
Tough creepers are used to make ties binding the poles to the roof.
Arts & Crafts
There are two types of crafts found in Wallis and Futuna: traditional crafts and production crafts.
Traditional handicrafts source traditional and local materials to make a variety of items such as mats, tapa cloths, shell necklaces, etc.
Production crafts refer to small businesses processing materials to produce textiles and food products (bakeries) and to provide services (printing).
Traditional crafts in Wallis & Futuna focus on the creation of handmade items such as:
- flower garlands and shell necklaces, created exclusively by women;
- mats – “fala” in Wallisian, woven from the leaves of “lau akau” and “laukie”;
- tapas (bark cloth) made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree - “tutu” - beaten, soaked, dried and cut to shape before being hand-painted with delicate, intricate designs. Tapa is used to create accessories, chequebook and passport holders...;
- gatu (giant tapas), generally used as offerings at customary and religious ceremonies;
- ta’ovala (cloth wrapped around the waist) worn, only in Wallis, by men and women at customary and religious ceremonies, or at presentations to the king or customary authority;
- scented oil extracted from the “tuitui” - the authentic traditional fragrance - and coconut oil;
- carved wooden items (most often in the shape of a turtle or a “tanoa”) mainly made by men;
- “pata” – tobacco carrot - and “kava” – the traditional island tipple - made from the roots of the kava plant. Men alone are responsible for growing the plants and producing kava.
What is a ta’ovala?
A ta’ovala is a cloth traditionally wrapped around the waist and worn at major events in Wallis. Some women still make ta’ovala today. Various materials can be used to make a ta’ovala: sea hibiscus bark - “fau”, “kafa” and “lau’akau”. The most popular is “fau” because it is long lasting and easy to work with. Plastic is also used but not recommended if quality is a priority!
Start by looking for enough sea hibiscus trees to provide sufficient material for your ta’ovola. Strip off the top layer of bark.
Soak your bark in the sea for at least five days and no more than two weeks, depending on how much bark you have and how big it is. Remove your bark from the sea, peel it and clean it. Leave it to dry and whiten in the sun (dye it if necessary). Now all you have to do is weave the bark strips to create your own ta’ovala!
What is kava?
Native to the Pacific islands, kava is a plant belonging to the pepper family, the roots of which are used in a drink prepared ceremonially in a traditional bowl known as a tanoa. Kava induces a sense of wellbeing and relaxation and plays a key role in Wallisian and Futunan custom. The roots are pounded and ground into pulp then strained with water through cotton tree fibre. There are various oral tradition stories about the origins of the kava plant.
In Wallis and Futuna, legend tells how the first kava plant grew on the tomb of a little girl, offered as a sacrifice to the king by a poor family. The king was displeased by what the parents had done and decided to give the young girl a solemn burial and to care for her grave until a tree grew there. This tree was named the “kava”.
The people of Wallis and Futuna have a great deal of faith in the remedies of traditional medicine. When sick, Wallisians and Futunans frequently visit the traditional healer before going to the hospital. Consequently, this approach to healthcare is very much a part of their cultural heritage.
As well as being accessible and affordable, traditional medicine is also often part of a wider belief system, and considered integral to everyday life and well-being.
Since time immemorial, medicinal plants have been used to cure human ailments. In Wallis and Futuna, the elders possess the skills and knowledge of traditional remedies but their wisdom is less and less often passed down to younger generations.
There are three types of remedies differentiated by how they are applied.
“Vai” (literally: water), health from plants
The traditional method involves wrapping medicinal leaves or roots in a coconut palm leaf “kaka”, then pounding them in cold or warm water contained in a coconut shell bowl. Nowadays, the medicinal leaves or roots are wrapped in muslin and soaked in a glass of water. In general – and this also applies to other types of remedies – treatment sessions are twice daily. Patients must complete a total of 3 sessions with the healer. “Vai” treatments are mainly used to cure children’s mouth infections, stomach pains – usually women, to relieve aches and pains due to carrying heavy loads and to soothe fevers and coughs, etc.
To make a liniment, medicinal leaves are pounded (unwrapped) in coconut oil or holy water. The liquid obtained is then applied to the skin to soothe pain. This remedy is mainly used in cases of insanity supposed to be of demonic origin, for serious injuries (fractures, open wounds) and for various allergies, etc.
Massages are usually performed using coconut oil or holy water, depending on the healer.
Farming & Agriculture
Farming – “gaue kele” – plays a vital role in the lives of both Wallisians and Futunans. Both Wallis and Futuna have a subsistence-based economy. The land produces taro, yams, sweet potatoes, cassava, and breadfruit. Commercial agriculture is still at an early and somewhat precarious stage.
Commercial farming involves a few local economic stakeholders and is restricted to market gardening, pig farming, chicken egg farming and bee farming. The vast majority of farms are mainly family-run smallholdings.
The main food crops grown are coconut palms – “niu”, taros grown in dry soil – “talo poulou” or irrigated land – “talo to’oga”, yams – “ufi”, banana trees – “fusi”, cassava – “manioka” and breadfruit trees – “mei”.
One special crop grown only in Futuna is a local variety of water taro known as “pakanuku” or “talo vusiga”. Please note that the term “pakanuku” only applies to water taros grown in the village of Nuku. The general term is “talo vusiga”.
What are “pakanuku” taros?
Futuna has a significant advantage over Wallis when it comes to growing water taros. Thanks to the abundance of water in Futuna, the island’s water taro plantations evoke rice paddies in Asia.
In Wallis, “talo to’oga” water taros are grown on furrows of firm soil irrigated by water channels.
in Futuna they are planted in terraces flooded by flowing water diverted from streams. The widely used term “pakanuku” actually applies only to water taros from the village of Nuku, which has the largest taro plantation in the Pacific. The general term for Futunan water taros is “talo vusiga”.
On both islands, fishing yields are mainly for home use and customary exchanges of gifts. Fishing in the islands takes two forms: fishing for the love of fishing, with local enthusiasts taking catches home for family meals or to present as offerings at customary and religious ceremonies, and commercial fishing. Commercial fishing remains relatively undeveloped in Wallis and Futuna. Professional fishermen view fishing as a business activity designed to generate a steady income.
A “tautai” – an expert fisherman, uses a variety of traditional and modern fishing techniques, such as:
- « Kupega » / « faka mamaha » – net fishing
- « Mata'u » (« Fakamoe ») – line fishing
- « Kalolo » – harpoon fishing underwater
- « Fakatele » ou « toho » – trolling
- « Velo » – spear fishing
- « Faga » – a method involving making little dams with woven coconut palms, kept in place by stones, which act as traps for fish. This method is no longer used for reasons of complication and difficulty, and because it is not community-friendly.
- « Fagota » – gathering molluscs and crustaceans (shellfish), mainly by women and children.
- « Ta tuna » – eel fishing, only done in Futuna.
- « Au kava » – fishing using the poisonous “kavasasa” plant, a practice now prohibited because of its destructive impact on the environment;
- « Lili » / « sisi » – fishing with a cast net
- « Tae nefu » – fishing for “nefu” - local anchovies. A fishing technique used only by the people of Gahi village in Wallis, where traditional traps made from natural fibres or large plastic basins are used to collect large numbers of anchovies.
- « Lamaga » / « Ta »: fishing with a knife - only done at night. In the past, coconut torches were used to blind the fish and make it easy to knife them;
- « Fakamoe »
- « Ina uo », « ina tupa », « huki feke » – crab fishing, octopus fishing, etc.
What is “lili” / “sisi”?
Cast net fishing - “lili” or “sisi” – is the fishing technique most commonly used in both islands.
Holding his cast net or “kupega”, a fisherman can spot fish as he walks by the sea’s edge and judge the right moment to cast his net.
The origins of this type of fishing are evoked in the legend of Tagaloa, the god who first founded Wallisian culture. Tagaloa came down to Earth carrying his fishing net. He threw out the net and when he pulled it in was surprised to see that he had not caught a fish but an island. He saw that the island was beautiful. Fearing that the island would disappear or break apart and be lost in the Pacific, he left the net in place to keep the island safe… Tagaloa had just created the island of Wallis and the net represents the coral barrier reef surrounding Wallis. (See the Legend of Tagaloa).
What is “fagota”?
“Fagota” means gathering molluscs, mainly clams and grisettes (tiny bivalves), and also crabs and lobsters on the rock plateau or along the reef when the tide is low. Women mainly gather molluscs and shellfish, accompanied by young teens and children. The women spend 2 or 3 hours in the hot sun looking for shellfish, using a knife to detach them and placing their harvest in a bucket or basket.
Plenty of patience and expert technique are the keys to success! Clams leave two holes behind on the surface when they bury themselves in the sand. Once you’ve spotted the holes, just dig carefully and collect your clam.
A dish of grisettes in coconut milk or stuffed clams is a luscious gourmet treat!
Past generations of Wallisians and Futunans certainly knew how to have fun. They thought up a host of great ideas: water sports like the traditional outrigger canoe race called “fakatete” in Wallisian and “kumete” in Futunan, land sports like “kilikiti” – traditional cricket, “pa ulutoa” – traditional javelin throwing with “kaho” wood javelins with pointed cotton tree wood tips, “pa sika” – similar to traditional javelin throwing but with light cotton tree wood javelins, and “soamako” – a traditional dance. Such traditional sports are a highlight at major festivals such as Bastille Day on 14 July and the Territory Festival on 29 July. Festivals provide all Wallisian and Futunan sports fans with the chance to show off their skill and strength and impress the audience.
Today, such traditional sports are giving way to modern sports: there is now a multi-sports stadium with two large gyms for volleyball, basketball, badminton, indoor football and table tennis; a weight room; a bowling alley; a multipurpose room for zumba, CrossFit training and boxing; and an athletics stadium. There are also sailboat, catamaran, kitesurf, stand-up paddle and “va’a” rowing facilities.
What is “kilikiti”?
“Kilikiti” – traditional cricket, is a uniquely Wallisian sport.
According to oral tradition passed down by the elders, “kilikiti” originated in the village of Vailla. In the early 19th century, Tongans who lived to the north of Hihifo were the first to play this version of cricket. It then spread throughout the island of Wallis.
Each village on the island gets a team together. The host team indicates the total number of players allowed to the opposing team. Contests between the villages are held at sites with plenty of space (in front of the church of Saint Joseph in Malaefo’ou; the football field in Fuga’uvea; in front of the oratory of the Virgin Mary in Ahoa – Holo; in front of the Royal Palace).
On the eve of a cricket game, the members of both teams and the villagers perform acts called “tu moe”. A kava ceremony, known as the “kava ka hui” is held at night. Each team chooses one or more “sea” – a person bringing luck, to help the team claim victory for their village. The “sea” can be a dignitary or a high-ranking customary or religious personage.
The captains – “kapiteni” of each team are chosen from amongst the players.
Player positions include:
- bowlers – “tagata malomu / tagata teka”: with 4 in each team
- fielders – “tali tua”: most of the team play as fielders
- batsmen – “fakalogo ta”: 2 in opposition on the pitch
- judge – “tagata fakamau”: 2 in each team, they decide whether the rules are being obeyed
On the day of the match, each team runs a lap round the pitch, then heads towards the customary chiefs – the “aliki”. Greetings and speeches then begin. These rituals all take place against a background of whistles, foot-beating, conch shell blowing and drums.
The game can then begin, with the rules the same as for normal cricket.
+ Photo of kilikiti
Tales and Legends
When homes in Wallis and Futuna had no television or internet, children’s evening entertainment was provided by “fagana” – tales told by their grandparents.
Enter the magic world of our ancient tales and legends…
List of well-known island legends:
- The Turtle of Mount Puke
- The Legend of Tagaloa – the creation of the island of Wallis
- The Origin of Kava
- The Turtle of Mount Puke
Once upon a time, the island of Futuna was divided into two camps: Tu’a and Sigave (1), who fought each other in endless inter-clan battles. One day, they came to discuss where the border should lie. They needed to know which side could claim ownership of Mount Puke (2), the highest point on the island. They had almost come to blows when, on both sides, the warrior chiefs decided that the matter would be settled by a fishing contest. Those who caught the biggest fish of its species and were the first to carry it to the top of the mountain would be the overlords...
No sooner said than done! And all the island’s outrigger canoes were pushed out to sea. But the people of Sigave got to work fast. They caught a whale, said to be the biggest one ever seen in Futuna. Without delay, they began to drag it up along the Vainifao river (3). They were sure of their victory since they saw no footsteps along the way and heard no distant voices. The old encouraged the younger men to pull, pull harder and harder. They were all proud of their exploit and Mount Puke was there, in front of them, ready to bow down to them…! “Courage! Courage!” they cried “we’ve won it!”.
But just then, they heard a clapping of hands coming from the mountain, the signal for distribution of a Kava (4). It came from the mâlô (5) or the people of Tu’a who were holding their Kava ceremony (6) at the top of Mount Puke to celebrate their victory. They had caught a turtle, apparently the biggest one ever seen, and had carried it to the top of the mountain.
And so, since that day, Mount Puke has belonged to the people of Alo. As for the whale abandoned by the people of Sigave, it is said that you can still see it today, turned into stone, at the foot of the mountain!
(1) These opposing camps are the reason why Futuna now has two kingdoms: Alo and Sigave.
(2) “Puke”, the highest peak in Futuna, rising some 740 m above sea level
(3) River flowing across the island, dividing it into two kingdoms - Alo and Sigave.
(4) In Futuna, when a Kava ceremony is held, everyone present claps their hands when the king drinks his bowl of kava.
(5) The Tua camp or malo, i.e. the victors, formed the present kingdom of Alo.
(6) The roots of Piper methysticum or “kava”, a plant belonging to the pepper family, are used to make the “feel-good” drink also known as "kava".
- The Legend of Tagaloa or the creation of the island of Uvea
This story goes back to the dawn of time…
Once upon a time, Tagaloa (1) suddenly had an irresistible desire to eat some fish. So he went down to Earth, taking a long wide net with him. He immediately spread it in a place where he knew there were plenty of fish. He had just finished spreading his net when he saw it vanish into the depths.
“That's a good sign!” he said.
After a while, he tried to pull the net towards him. Impossible! It was too heavy.
“I must have got a good catch!” he thought.
Then, taking his courage in both hands, he pulled. He pulled, then pulled harder and harder! He had enormous trouble bringing his net back to the surface, but at last he succeeded! He couldn’t have been more astonished because he hadn’t caught a big fish but a country...
Irritated, Tagaloa jumped on it and began to trample all over it. He trampled so hard and so well that the country was completely flattened. When Tagaloa saw the newly levelled island, because it was indeed an island, he suddenly realised how beautiful it was.
Fearing that pieces of this new land would break up and scatter over on the ocean, Tagaloa left his net behind and went away, delighted with his discovery but a little disappointed because he was still hungry… However, without realising what he had done, he had pulled Uvea (2) up from the ocean floor. It is said the net Tagaloa left behind formed the coral barrier reef which now surrounds the island of Wallis (3).
(1) The creator of the universe and chief of all gods in Polynesian mythology.
(2) The native name for Wallis.
(3) Name of the English Captain Samuel Wallis who discovered “Uvea” in 1767.
- The Origin of Kava
Once upon a time, a man and woman lived alone on a remote island marooned in the vast waters of the Pacific Ocean. They were desperately poor. Nothing grew on their island: no food crops, no breadfruit trees, no banana trees! There were not even any farm animals! There was only a single “kape” (1) plant which had taken root and grown right next to their hut.
They had only one child, a little girl who, by ill luck, suffered from leprosy. The family’s only means of survival was the shellfish and coconut flesh they gathered.
Then one day, an outrigger canoe suddenly landed on the island and the king of the country stepped ashore!
His majesty had set himself the task of paying a visit to every subject in his kingdom, even those who lived in the kingdom’s most faraway places.
Just imagine how the poor couple were overcome by distress and dismay. What could they do to welcome their distinguished visitor? What gift could they offer him? The hapless husband had no idea what to do.
He went to find his wife and said: “I'm going to light an oven to cook our child! ”.
Imagine his poor wife’s anguish! Her love for her child was put to the most unbearable test. But after a while, she nodded her head as she smothered a sob…
No sooner said than done! The man heated up an oven and carried out the horrific deed. He killed his daughter and tore out the “kape” plant to cook them together. When he had removed the earth and uncovered his “umu” (2), he presented his “offering” in a basket woven from a coconut palm leaf.
Bowing before his venerable host, he sat down and said: “May his majesty forgive me! This island belonging to him is devoid of everything. I have nothing else to offer him!” The king was distressed and horrified, and ordered the man to go and bury his daughter. “You will watch carefully over the burial place”, he added. “If, one day, a tree grows on this spot, you will take every care of it. When it has grown tall, you will bring it to me”.
The man obeyed and began carrying out the king’s orders as the royal pirogue set off on the journey back to the mainland.
A few days later, a shrub never seen before in the kingdom put forth shoots from the soil where the little girl had been buried. The man tended it every day. And the shrub grew taller and stronger before his very eyes.
After several moons had waxed and waned, the man uprooted the shrub, loaded it onto a canoe and set off for the mainland. On his arrival, the king called for the “lali” (3) to be sounded to gather the people together. He asked the islander whether this tree was the one which had grown on his daughter’s grave: “Yes, sire” answered the man. “And I bring it to you as you ordered me”.
The king ordered the tree to be prepared to see if it was good. So the roots and pieces of the tree were cut up, then cleaned, crushed and mashed up in water to make a sort of drink the people named “kava” (4).
According to the local rules of etiquette, the king was given the first cup, but one of the “matapule” (5) clapped his hands and said: “Let me drink this cup. If the “kava” contains poison, it is better for me to die instead of the king”. When a second cup was poured, another “matapule” did the same thing. Seeing that neither showed any signs of being poisoned, they offered the king the third cup. Thereafter, the people prepared another “kava” which was passed to everyone gathered there. Seeing that no-one had died from drinking the “kava”, they offered the final cup to their king. This is why the first, third and last cup of “kava” has so much significance.
The story goes that from that day, “kava” has been drunk in the island countries of Oceania. It truly symbolises the gift offered by the people to their king.
(1) A variety of tuber like a taro but much bigger.
(2) A traditional earthen oven.
(3) A hollowed out tree trunk which resonates when hit, used to call people to a “fono”, a meeting with their chief.
(4) Piper methysticum, a plant belonging to the pepper family, the roots of which are used to make the “feel-good” drink also known as "kava". The shrub and the drink made from it are both known as “kava”.
(5) Matapule: a member of the king's personal guard.
Wallisian – “Faka’uvea” is a Polynesian group language, closely related to Tongan. As a result of Tongan invasions of Wallis in the 15th century, the Tongan language had a significant influence on Wallisian, with many words borrowed from Tongan.
Futunan – “Fakafutuna” is also a Polynesian group language, closely related to Samoan and also to Wallisian.
When Marist missionaries set up missions in Wallis and Futuna in 1837, they contributed to social, political and religious upheavals which also led to changes in the local languages. From the outset, the missionaries were committed to imparting the Gospel by mastering the native languages. They introduced many sacred words derived from Latin now firmly anchored in the vocabulary of contemporary Wallisian and Futunan.
When the Americans landed in Wallis during WW2, with troops stationed on the island from 1942 to 1946, they also had a lasting influence on the Wallisian language.
In the past, oral tradition was the only way to preserve and pass on history, stories and skills to future generations. Nowadays, writing has become a necessary tool to ensure customs and traditions are preserved and kept alive.
Learn a few words and phrases in Wallisian and/or Futunan with the help of the lexicon.
Music plays an integral part in the daily lives of Wallisians and Futunans. The territory of Wallis and Futuna creates and produces an extensive and diverse range of music, from traditional unaccompanied music, known as “hua lau”, to contemporary pop. Most songs are written in Wallisian or Futunan and accompanied by wooden percussion instruments and guitar. The islands have their own radio station and recording studios.
Traditional songs take diverse forms and draw inspiration from a variety of themes: love and lovers, war, key historical events, death...
Musicians perform all kinds of music:
- « Hua lau » – a traditional song performed unaccompanied
- « Hiva tuketuke » ; « Hiva laukau » – a love song
- « Hiva laulausiva » : a song written and performed as an introduction to major festivals and events
- « Hiva mate » / « Hiva tauhi ofa » – a funeral song
- « Hiva maholo » – ambient music
- « Hiva fakatauka » – a competition song
- « Hiva lotu » – a religious song
What is a “hiva lausiva”?
A singer/songwriter composes a “hiva lausiva” - a special song to introduce dance competitions, major events (such as the induction of the king or bishop…) and religious festivals (Labour Day, National Day, Territory Day, Assumption, Feast of the Most Sacred Heart…). As its name suggests, the song is performed before the show to present respectful greetings to the king and his customary chiefdom, elected representatives of the Territory and members of the Higher Administration. It is performed by the “foi lologo” – dance choir; the dancers are all seated and accompany the singers.
Even if you don't understand the language, watching a “hiva lausiva” performance is an unforgettable experience shared with the local community.
What is a “hiva mate, hiva tauhi ofa”?
A “hiva mate, hiva tauhi ofa” is a song of remembrance, written and performed a few weeks or even months after the death of a family member, by a local musician commissioned by the family. The song is performed during the endless wakes held by the family. Once only performed for chiefs and members of the island aristocracy, such funeral songs are now seen as keeping alive sorrowful memories of someone who has died unexpectedly. These “hiva mate, hiva tauhi ofa” songs can last up to an hour and recall the life of the deceased, listing the people he or she was close to during his or her lifetime, evoking significant undertakings achieved by the departed and his or her qualities… These songs are often recorded and broadcast on local radio during the three weeks preceding All Saints and All Souls Day, celebrated every 1st November.