This Kiribati Language Week, we’re delving into the history of ‘Aia Karaki nikawai i-Tungaru. Myths and legends of the Gilbertese [Kiribati] people. 1942’, the first book on Kiribati culture published in Gilbertese [i-Kiribati]. This book highlights the impact of missionary press printing in capturing Kiribati language and culture, giving a glimpse into collaboration between missionaries and community knowledge holders, and presenting the richness of oral traditions appearing in print for the first time.

A London Missionary Society (LMS) printing press was set up at the Rongorongo Mission on the island atoll of Beru from the early 1900s, and presses on the atolls of Apaiang and Tarawa in the 1860s, so there had been publishing in the islands of Kiribati [formerly known as the Gilbert Islands] for well over over 80 years by the time this book was published. However, when reviewing the titles published over that period¹, there is an almost exclusive focus on publication for the purposes of conversion to Christianity and as a tool of colonisation. Bibles, catechisms, teaching aids, translations of classic fiction and colonial laws and edicts are numerous. There appears to be nothing focused on Kiribati culture prior to Aia Karaki nikawai I-Tungaru as a written expression of community knowledge, history and culture. Tungaru is the indigenous name for Kiribati which itself is a name adopted officially for the Republic of Kiribati at Independence in 1979. Kiribati is derived from ‘Gilbert’, Gilbert Islands being the former colonial name for the group.

In 1922, Miss Emily May Pateman (b.1893 – d. 1978), a missionary with the London Missionary Society, arrived in Rongorongo to work as a mission school teacher. Miss Pateman, who went by her middle name, May, soon became active in the community, involved with the Gilbert Islands Girl Guide movement and working with local elders and knowledge holders to create a number of works that were published by the London Mission Press at Rongorongo. The works include ‘English primer for the Gilbertese’, 1924; ‘The New School Reader,’ 1940; ‘Aia Karaki nikawai i-Tungaru’ (Myths and Legends of the Gilbertese People), 1942; ‘A Revised Gilbertese Grammar and Composition’, 1949 and a revised edition of ‘Children of the World and Their Homes’ 1949.
From her arrival, May Pateman began recording oral traditions and resources into te taetae ni Kiribati (the Kiribati language), so must have been sufficiently interested in the language to acquire the requisite proficiency. From 1934 we can see she worked with Pastor Bataeru to create a Gilbertese grammar and thereafter worked on the title we are highlighting in this blog, ‘Aia Karaki nikawai I-Tungaru’. May Pateman’s papers which include her original research notes relating to oral traditions featured in this book are held on microfilm by the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau at the Australian National University Library.

Pastor Bataeru was the first i-Kiribati to be ‘…ordained in 1915 after being trained at Rongorongo on Beru and assisting in teaching there from 1904 onward’ (Garrett)². Bataeru is recognised as a significant contributor to the development of the written form of te taetae ni Kiribati with the acknowledgement of his work by Eastman in his revised edition of Bingham’s i-Kiribati’s Bible translation.

Pastor Bataeru worked closely with the Unim'ane (elder) Tibwere, to collect the myths and genealogies for ‘Aia Karaki nikawai I-Tungaru’. Given that this is the first book published narrating creation myths and other cultural knowledge in the original language from the oral tradition of Kiribati, its importance as a record of i-Kiribati culture can not be overstated.

Click below to read the full publication


Currently we can write little about Unim'ane Tibwere and hope this article will connect with some who knew him or have knowledge of his life. I-Kiribati knowledge holders in New Zealand are delighted to have access to this rare publication as to date, the copy in the Auckland War Memorial Museum Research Library is one of only two copies known to be held in New Zealand libraries.
1. Kunz, E. F. 1959.  An annotated bibliography of the languages of The Gilbert Islands, Ellice Islands and Nauru. Trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales, Sydney.
2. Garrett, John, 1992. Footsteps in the sea: Christianity in Oceania to World War II. Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, Suva.

Written by Paula Legel, Associate Curator, Heritage Publications and Leone Samu, Associate Curator, Documentary Heritage, Pacific.

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