Tongan myths carry some of the most amazing tales of love, war and dreams of vast untouched lands only reached by canoe. The supreme Polynesian god known as Tangaloa was said to have come down to the island of Tongatpu and chosen a beautiful Tongan maiden. Tangaloa would then father a son with this beautiful maiden and he was named Aho’eitu. This boy would grow to become the first Tui Tonga, the very first king of Tonga. King Aho’eitu set forth vigorously, and throughout history the Tongan Empire would become known as one of the world’s longest uninterrupted dynasties. The history of Tonga is deeply rooted in traditions of their Polynesian ancestry and the 170 islands grouped together have continued to stand the test of time. This journey sets us off on a historical adventure of culture, traditions and true research of the so-called ‘Friendly Islands’.
The Tongan Empire is a highly stratified and centralized society within the Pacific Ocean. The flawlessly aristocratic way in which chiefs ruled the islands for hundreds of years cemented the Tu’I Tonga strength, and made sure colonization by a foreign power would ultimately never formally happen. Civil wars came to be in the 15th and 16th centuries with ensuing bouts of unrest and a depleted traditional structure due to the arrival of European influence and missionaries. The arrival on Methodist missionaries in the 1820’s had the greatest impact on Tonga. By 1831, Taufa’ahau the ruler of Ha’apai converted and became King George Tupou I, the leader of modern Tonga. The years following saw British involvement, challenge by European colonialism, and pressure for political reform. Tonga re-entered the comity of nations as an independent monarchy in 1970, and in 2010 elected their first Prime Minister Lord Tu’ivakano.
Within the United States there are an estimated 57,000 plus Tongans residing in numerous states. The end of World War II showed an uptick in Tongans who emigrated from their islands to the United States. The San Francisco Bay Area has the largest concentration of Tongans outside of the Tongan Islands, followed by Hawaii, Utah and Texas. Tongans are viewed as polite, religious and hard working individuals. The Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints organization often frequents the Tongan islands building schools and promoting education. Christianity and religion is the fiber that connects America to the Tongan people. Within the Tongan communities in Texas you will hear the traditional Tongan war cry, the haka at the beginning of every Friday night football game.
The Tongan Empire is a collectivist nation where their identity is based on a social system when they are placed into groups or tribes. All trust is placed within group decisions and protection is exchanged for loyalty. Tongan people are encouraged to adjust themselves to be a better fit for the group or tribe they are associated with. The emphasis of belonging to the Tongan Empire is ideal and they are socially interdependent. Tongan people are obedient, self-sacrificing, and traditional and lead a family first lifestyle. The Tongan Empire and all of the individuals within want connection with one another and believe that reaching for common goals builds a better and stronger Tongan society.
The Tongan people are deep in tradition and celebrate traditional New Years Day they call the Ta’u Fo’ou, where they sing for friends and neighbors. Tongans also celebrate Sunday School Day, better known as Faka Me, which is similar to a first communion celebration. Tonga Emancipation day is celebrated on June 4th in commemoration of the Tongans independence from Great Britain in 1970. Tongans created lakalaka, a formal traditional line dance performed by both men and women and commemorates lost loved ones, islands in Tonga and historical events. Tongans have a substantial heritage with poetry, and famous Tongan poets create new songs and dances for special occasions. Hiva kakala are love songs and women who perform solo dances are called tau’olunga. The war dance is the kailao, the ma’ulu’ulu is an action dance performed while seated and the me’etu’upaki is their traditional paddle dance.
Tongans sing harmoniously, having developed a high for of harmonization for hymns. Although there are plenty of amazing religious singers residing in the Tongan Empire, the most famous individuals from the nation are athletes who play rugby, American football, baseball and boxing. Some notable players in rugby are Sona Taumalolo, Malakai Fekitoa, Lopeti Timani and Fuifui Moimoi. The American Football players include Haloti of the Philadelphia Eagles, Ma’ake Kemoeatu of the Baltimore Ravens, Chris Kemoeatu of the Pittsburg Steelers and Deuce Lutui of the Arizona Cardinals. Quite possibly the most popular Tongan baseball player is San Tuivailala who plays for the Seattle Mariners and the most famous boxer is John Hopoate who also happened to be an accomplished rugby player as well.
Tupou College and the Moulton Memorial Chapel is by far one of the greatest architectural designs in the Pacific. It was designed by Lloyd Evans and George Moala in 1986 and resembled the very first chapel in Tonga dating back to 1826 construction. The Tu’I Tonga capital of Mu’a house the langi; a large, low pyramid that are made of stone. They are considered the best preserved and most accessable stone structures in the entire Pacific. Tonga houses the largest number of churches of all the islands and it is noted that the Methodist missionaries founded Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s largest city. The ‘fale’ is ubiquitous throughout the islands with traditional lashed-pole arrangements and thatched roof. A ‘fale’ is a traditional Tongan Empire house, which structures are rectangular and sides made of coconut leaves, reed, or timber.
Tongans are very skilled with what is available to them form the islands and their many handicrafts keep Tongan art traditional and untouched by technology. Mat weaving is said to be one of the most ancient Tongan handicrafts used for bedding and flooring within the fale. Mats are given as gifts on special occasions such as weddings, births and in death individuals are wrapped in mats as a gesture of reverence. The mats are passed down through generations and are considered a symbol of social status. The same mats are also woven and worn around the waist. The ta’ovala was revered as a sign of respect and the ropes weaved in belts were made of coconut husk. The akiekie is a fundamental woven rope resembling an outer skirt worn by Tongan women. Tapas, is the art of making clothing from the bark of trees and bone or wood carvings are the most valued pieces of Tongan handicrafts made.
The Tongan people are guided by means of four different essential core values. The four core values allow the native Tongan’s to direct a genuine welcome to outsiders visiting their Empire. Core value number one is ‘Fefaka’apa’apa’aki’; meaning mutual respect, and the second core value is ‘Feveitokai’aki’, which means sharing or cooperating and fulfillment of mutual obligation. The third core value is ‘Lototoo’; meaning humility and generosity, and finally ‘Tauhi vaha’a’, meaning loyalty and commitment. Family means everything to the Tongan people, with elders holding the highest standard of reciprocated appreciation. Sharing these core values with children solidifies the Tongan peoples direct reflection of respect towards not only their family, but the Tongan Royal Family as well.
Tongan religion is blatantly clear on their Nation’s flag. The vivid red cross signifies that the Sabbath day is forever sacred. No one is to work, play a sport, attend a sporting event or even trade goods on Sunday’s. Missionaries have been active in the Tongan Empire since 1791 and held such an influential imprint within the island that fiercely felt to this day. Tongan’s are primarily Christian Methodist’s, with almost fifty percent of the population belonging to the Free Weselyan Church. Sixteen percent of the population is Roman Catholic and a reported fourteen percent associate with the Free Church of Tonga. Nine percent of the population is Mormon and the remaining population is undecided. The basic belief most Tongan Christians believe is that there is only one god who eternally exists in three entities: The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit.
Discussing gender roles within the Tongan Empire was like taking a step back in time. The fierce Tongan male is the provider, the laborer and the hunter. Even still, this patriarchal society does not allow men to be cherished the way females are. Men are often ranked underneath women in status; do to their inability to restrain themselves. Young Tongan boys are not given adequate love or attention and are allowed to come and go as they please. Fights are often arranged to show toughness and boys are not punished for violent behavior. Never the less all males are required to become abstinent, as it is a key practice among Tongan society.
The male father is indeed the head of the household, but the brothers are not revered in such a way and are expected to perform all of the hard labor designated to them. Tongan women are seen as beautiful, virtuous and precious within society. Tongan women are homemakers with tasks such as cooking, cleaning and making clothes. The virtues possessed by Tongan women include superiority, dignity, sanctity, all of which are considered ‘chiefly’. Tongan women cannot go anywhere unaccompanied and must have an escort. Tongan girls are treated tenderly and kept at home for several years without access to the outside community. Young girls are expected to keep their virtue so any behavior regarded as inappropriate they are harshly punished.
The great Tongan Empire itself has assimilated to a more westernized society. To assimilate best with Tongan culture you must learn the religion first and foremost and traditions lamented throughout their history. The gender roles are extremely specific and breaking any rules would have drastic consequence. Changing your identity to best fit the lifestyle and culture of the Tongan people would ramp up the speed in which you blend in. You would no longer be living an individualistic life, rather a community oriented collectivistic participation. Learning the language would be fundamental as well as you would not be able to communicate otherwise.
In conclusion, the history of Tonga is deeply rooted in traditions of their Polynesian ancestry and the 170 islands grouped together have continued to stand the test of time. This journey has shown all of the historical adventure of Tongan culture. Tongan traditions have withstood over the years and the undeniably accurate depiction of the so-called ‘Friendly Islands’ is as true to life today as it was hundreds of years ago. The great Tongan Empire sustains itself in tradition whether you are Vava’u, Ha’apai or Tongatapu. The breathtaking islands with endless views and coastal abundance continue to captivate those willing to travel and submerge themselves within its culture and heritage.