The culture of the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati) is beautiful, complex and diverse but yet contains similarities through the thirty-three islands that make up the Gilbert Group. Gilbertese culture is of necessity, something that covers a broad scope both in range and topic matter. What I have done in this Web page is to concentrate on the similarities of Gilbertese culture that exists from island to island and including our Banaban community now residing on the island of Rabi. I have also used the traditional term "Gilbertese" interchangeable with the modern term I-Kiribati. On this page, I have tended to use the term "Gilbertese" as in most cases I am referring to those cultural matters that are traditional but are still relevant to the modern progressive Republic of Kiribati.
The maneaba or mwaneaba is in the centre of the village. Next to the war canoe, it is the masterpiece of Gilbertese culture. Like the houses, it is built in a rectangular shape with the two ends differing somewhat. The maneaba architect is usually an old man who has learnt his trade through experience and from traditions in his family. Of course, he is also something of a sorcerer, because an undertaking like building a maneaba requires invocations to the Anti (spirit), the observing of certain rites and following of rules which it would be foolish to forget.
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The maneaba is well adapted to the island climate and to its function. Its roof is supported on shoulder-high stone pillars and even the king has to stoop to enter. The wind can easily blow in under the low-hanging thatch, but if it becomes irritating mats can be put up to keep it out. The thick thatch is a perfect barrier against the heat and the rain. The maneaba is beautiful and somehow rather imposing and sometimes is more than forty metres long and ten metres high. Two and sometimes even four rows of pillars support the roof and enhance the cathedral-like atmosphere. Clearly, an intelligent and proud people had been responsible for this symmetry, the artistic arrangements of the beams and the skilful building.
The Gilbertese is very comfortable in his maneaba. It is wide, cool and airy. In it he feasts, dances and sleeps. Sometimes, all three activities are going on at the same time. Particular gatherings have particular rites and ceremonies, handed down from the time when the Beru warriors conquered the Gilberts. Ceremonies are similar in most of the islands.
Villages and district both have their maneaba. They are divided into two groups with different names for those in the south and the north. Some names, such as Maungatabu - sacred mountain - clearly indicate Samoan origins. Just like a war canoe or a village, each maneaba has a name, traditions and a personality. The stone pillar in the centre of the north side is the first one to be set up. This is the place for the Anti of the maneaba. Here, Tanentoa the chief of Beru, sat and still his descendants take that place. All the way round, the maneaba is divided into places and each family has its own place at official gatherings. A stranger who is a guest in another maneaba enters it under the same beam as he would in his home maneaba. Anyone who belongs to several families chooses the least cluttered place to sit. As far as official feasts are concerned, there is a strict code of etiquette to observe. One clan supplies heralds who announce what the shares of food will be; another family is responsible for distributing the food. The portion of honour belongs to such and such a family and in sharing out the food, a fixed order of precedence is strictly followed. The least mistake or the slightest forgetfulness is taken as an insult.
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The family has always been the basic cell of I-Kiribati society. Within the family, the woman was always the man's companion rather than his slave. The woman was not expected to do hard manual labour, she had only to attend to household tasks and those jobs she could do without over-exhausting herself - such as going with her husband to help with certain types of fishing, helping him to build the house or prepare the babai pits. Far from being bought from her parents, she came to her husband with her inheritance, less it must be admitted however than her brother's share. An only daughter was powerful and much sought after. She not only inherited her father's land but also his knowledge and skill and sometimes his office as well.
Women without husbands were beneath consideration. They were referred to as the waste of their generation and were often referred to as nikiranroro. Polygamy was rare. Even the chief recognise one woman only as wife though others might be tolerated around him. Most frequently these extra women were the sisters of the Chief's wife. Every husband also acquired a certain authority over women related to him, such as a brother's widow.
Divorce is not something simple or given to fantasies. Things can be arranged by mutual consent with some tact, but common sense and correct behaviour exact the maintaining of a great respect for one's spouse. To do otherwise would be greatly inconvenient. This was in fact the cause of a war on Maiana. Tataua sent back his wife Nei Tarua who was disfigured by a bad eye. Her mother was not pleased about this and got the relations together. A fight broke out in which Nei Tarua saw her husband defeated and also her mother killed.
Nowadays the law makes provision for divorce. Indeed this is the main cause of disagreement between the Government and the Catholic mission. Adultery, bad treatment or a three year separation are considered sufficient reason for breaking the marital ties. Too many of the less firm Catholics use this to their advantage.
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Adoption is another bane which breaks family natural ties, this time between parents and children. You can find instances where parents with only one child will hand it over to other members of the family or to some friends and then replace their own child with an adopted one. As the adopted child usually inherits land, adoption is a useful support for large family. Formally, the system had the advantage of extending alliances and increasing the number of those who would defend the family and clan.
Each island is cut up into parcels of land because of inheritances. There isn't a single piece of land that has no owner. On average each piece of land is eighteen meters wide by seven hundred meters long. Sometimes even the babai pits themselves are shared and may have a different owner from the one who has the surrounding land. This division of land dates back from very early times. Nor is there any idea of communism. Anyone who plants a tree claims it as his. Probably this was the earliest form of title deed to possession.
Gilbertese law is fairly complex but less difficult to establish than actual fact. When it was established, the Government found the situation greatly entangled by the aftermath of previous wars whose aim was the plundering of the defeated people. They decided not to become involved in old feuds. Every actual owner of property was protected by a law which in itself was carefully guarded. Throughout the Gilberts, where the rich or poor everyone owns land. The person who has no babai pit and not even a few coconut trees is rare indeed.
Usually the head of the family, the father, shares out his land before his death. Here he enjoys a great freedom of choice. Usually, he favours his eldest son and then the other boys but the girls also have their share. When it is the children's turn to share out their lands, they do about the same thing. If someone dies without children then a brother, a sister or nephews will inherit the land.
Custom, supported by law, makes sure that a man leaves some land to his illegitimate child. Indeed in former times, rape, murder, adultery and theft could be compensated for by the handing over of some land or a canoe. The same system was applied if an engagement was broken off after the relationship has been consummated. Often an adopted child received a piece of land. To make a present of some land to friends was a rather delicate matter. The family would oppose such an idea. Anyone who took care of an old person, or look after someone who was sick, could be rewarded by a gift of land.
Traditionally, apart from his land, the average Gilbertese owns very few things. The houses are of no great value. They fall into disrepair quickly and are just as speedily rebuilt. Something more valuable is the canoe along with a trunk, an axe, a cooking pot, a mosquito net, mats, and a few pieces of material. The Gilbertese copies the birds along the shore, who can count on low tide every twelve hours. When his stock of fish is exhausted, off he goes fishing; if he needs a coconut then he takes a walk around his trees; if he is hungry then he digs up a piece of babai. If there is to be a big feast or celebration, then he makes up a sack of copra which is weighed on Saturday. The price from this will buy material for a dress that his wife sews that night so that she can wear it for the first time the next day. It even happens that Mass is missed because the housewife only got the inspiration to wash the Sunday lavalava in the middle of the night.
Certainly the Gilbertese has some excuse for his carefree attitude. There are no seasons to regulate his work; no winter to force him to lay in a store. Planting babai, catching fish, making up a sack of copra, are all tasks which can be done tomorrow....or in a month. Only immediate hunger had an effect on him. It is difficult for him to make provision. A whole pig is eaten up in three days. Of course all the family will be there - but who can say where all the chunks of meat went. These fine animals are also most often sacrificed on feast days or for a birth or marriage.
THE DANCE (MWAIE)
Gilbertese dance (mwaie) is often difficult to define. It contains elements of dance, ballet, lyric drama, a chorus and a touch of sorcery. There are no musical instruments as a box or tin plate which someone hits is sufficient to beat out the rhythm. This produces a wild mournful sort of music and every human animal is moved by the poses and gestures of the dancers, the furious rhythm, loud moaning noises and the disturbing atmosphere offered by a half-naked crowd of dancers smelling of oil and various scents.
Let us look at a dance held in a big maneaba. The dancers are standing in a semicircle. The young men with well built frames at the front and behind them stand the women. Slowly, on low notes, the singing begins...then the pitch goes up and the pace speeds up as well. Gradually the dancers warm up. At first they simply move their feet on the spot, waving their arms to follow the rhythm. These controlled movements of their arms, legs and their heads reflect the movements of the frigate bird as it flies across the great ocean looking for its prey! For the time being the women don't imitate them but they are the ones who sing with most abandon and who speed up the rhythm. Dancing on the spot and clapping their hands they urge the dancers to a great paroxysm of movement. Nerves are tense, faces contorted and the voices become wild while eyes grow haggard.
The first time you see such a performance you feel really afraid. You might easily think these are madmen or demons who are about to leap on the crowd and devour them. Now the dancing is no longer on the spot: the semicircle advances and retreats and then in an even more frenzy burst the finale is reached. There is such a tremendous moral and physical tension that it seemed it must end in madness or death. Such a flood of passion is let loose and it is so infectious that even a man of another race had difficulty in calming his nerves and can hardly prevent himself from quivering in ecstasy with the rest of the audience and the dancers.
Mrs. R. L. Stevenson made the following comments when she saw Gilbertese dancing on the island of Butaritari. "I became hot and cold, tears welled from my eyes, my head was spinning and I had an irresistible urge to join the dancers". She noticed "bodies swaying together to the rhythm like a field of corn in the wind". R. L. Stevenson himself wrote of the dance te ruoia:
"Of all they call dance in the Pacific, the performance I saw in Butaritari was easily the best...Gilbertese dance appeals to the soul: it makes one thrill with emotion, it uplifts one, it conquers one: it has the essence of all great art: an immediate and far from exhausted appeal".
The Gilbertese are one of the proudest, the most formal and the most polite of Pacific peoples. The old men had the responsibility for matters of etiquette. For example, nothing must be suspended from the rafters of the maneaba; there must be no noise and no turning one's back to the company. Nor should you interrupt old people and cut them short. Each family had a special place in the maneaba and an inherited function in any ceremonies.
The sharing out of food followed a very strict system of priority. The Gilbertese are extremely sensitive in such matters. Certainly, the chiefs tried to be known for their politeness and genial nature. One very sacred thing for the Gilbertese is the head. "Watch it, or I will smack your head!" This is a supreme insult. There is no need for an actual blow - the words are enough and would lead to an immediate dual. To accept something past over the host's head is extremely impolite. Children are even ashamed when the missionaries put their hands on their heads. To place one's hand on an old man's head would be a near scandal.