Niue: Tug of the ear kicks off culture lesson

By Jim Eagles

Jim Eagles attends a practice run for Niue High School's fundraising foray into tourism.

Ear-pulling song at Niue High School's cultural experience. Photo / Jim Eagles
Ear-pulling song at Niue High School's cultural experience. Photo / Jim Eagles

Timothy Magao strikes a chord on his guitar, says a few words in Niuean and the boys clustered around him grin and grab their ear lobes.

As he swings into the tune, they join in singing a local song, tugging their ears and laughing as they go. Some get right into the spirit of the song and start pulling each other's ears ... gently by the look of it.

Afterwards Magao explains that particular tune would once have evoked groans of pain.

"It was a punishment song. If a group had done something wrong they would be made to pull each other's ears while they sang. If they didn't pull the ears hard enough to satisfy the chief the song would be played again until they did. It was very painful."

I'm sitting in on a boys' craft class at Niue High School, watching a sort of dress-rehearsal for the Talatalai Lalaga Cultural Experience, a gentle foray into tourism aimed at giving visitors a feel for the school's role in preserving the island culture ...

and hopefully raising a bit of money from donations.

As you'd expect at a trial run, especially one involving youngsters, not everything goes smoothly. The girls' tutor is off sick and her class can't be found. But the boys fill the gap well, some shyly, others with smiling enthusiasm, putting on a charming demonstration.

The walls are decorated with examples of carving, mainly weapons, but the boys in this class are making miniature outrigger canoes. Some of the canoes are fairly rough, while others look nearly as good as the canoes on sale at the Tuesday and Friday markets in the capital, Alofi.

"There are only a few people who do traditional carving now," says Magao, who is one of them, "so we're trying to give the young people the skills they'll need to keep it alive. But it's very difficult. I had one boy last year who was really outstanding, the best I've ever had, but he moved to Australia."

Following the carving session comes singing practice with several Niuean songs - including the ear-pulling song - and one in English. Then the boys throw themselves into a meke, or ceremonial challenge, which, Magao is quick to explain, "is not a war dance". Then we move outside for a tika, or spear-throwing, contest.

Spears played an important part in Niuean warfare - several people have told me how spearthrowing warriors repelled an attempted landing by Captain James Cook in 1774 - but these are spears with harmless heads.

"In Niuean tradition this was how disputes were settled," says Magao. "If two people had a disagreement they would throw tika to decide who was in the right."

Suddenly the girls appear so there's a final singing session. "When we do this properly," Magao says, "the girls will also demonstrate weaving and we'll have coconut husking and make coconut juice drinks for the visitors. I'm sorry this has been a bit makeshift but it is only a practice. We'll be much better when we start in two weeks."

Actually I thought it was quite delightful, entertaining as well as providing interesting insights into Niuean education and culture.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand has a weekly service to Niue, which runs on Saturdays.

Where to stay: The 22-room Matavai Resort can be contacted at matavai@niue.nu.

Further information: To check out things to do see niueisland.com.

Jim Eagles visited Niue with help from Air New Zealand and Niue Tourism.

- NZ Herald

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