Wry Comment From the Outback: Songs of Protest From the Niua Islands, Tonga
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I ask leave from the poets and orators of Tonga, whose inherited metaphors I am about to describe in the plain language of English. My work is the product of many years of joint endeavor with Tupou Posesi Fanua. The Kingdom of Tonga consists of a group of scattered islands in western Polynesia. In the far north of this group are three isolated islands, Niuafo'ou, Niuatoputapu, and Tafahi, known collectively as the Niua Islands. In the late 1960s, while conducting ethnographic research there, I began to understand how the colonized people of these islands made use of songs to speak ruefully about the hardships of their lives and to assert their independence of thought in the face of political and economic rule from the south. In formal Tongan discourse it is unseemly to speak directly of one's subject or intention, and so poets embellish their poems in order to distract the audience's attention in such a way that their meaning is discerned only by those for whom it is intended. This paper examines three songs, one from each of the Niua Islands, in which poets practice this art. In these elaborate songs there are two levels of meaning, one intended for outsiders and one for the poet's own people. Complex irony, skillful metaphors, and witty play upon convention allow the poets to present their messages with appropriate indirection. To appreciate the content and roles of these songs, one must understand something of the historical background.
Oral Tradition, 5/2-3 (1990): 205-218.
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