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Pa Atu ma Kahoa: The pearl-shell lures and pendants of Tokelau

As part of Tokelau Language Week, Curator Pacific Fuli Pereira discusses the importance of pearl-shell fish lures in Tokelau culture and how these are circulated in the most egalitarian of communities

In 1990, I made my only visit to my mother’s birthplace of Atafu, Tokelau. I would finally visit places my mother had reminisced about throughout my childhood – Fale, the island on which the Atafu village is situated and the name of the administrative centre of the village; Palehau, her family’s traditional residence; Te Oki, the neighbouring large islet from Fale where many day trips and picnics were had, and balmy nights were spent “camping” with extended family.

So many stories, and so little space. However, I will restrict myself here to the importance of pearl-shell fish lures in Tokelau culture and how these are circulated in the most egalitarian of communities.

In pre-contact Tokelau, pearl-shells were the single most precious item. So valuable they were taken from Atafu and Nukunonu as gifts to decorate the god-house of Tui Tokelau, the supreme god of Tokelau, at Fakaofo.

Horatio Hale of The United States Exploring Expedition wrote in 1846 upon inspecting the god-house, “Around the inside of the eaves, a row of mother-of-pearl-shells was suspended…” Twenty years later in 1889, J. J. Lister observed during his 10-day stay on Fakaofo that prestige gifts continued to be presented by Atafu and Nukunonu, of the pearl-shells he writes, “…the pearl-shells were placed along the eaves of the house sacred to the god…”

These quotes are indicative of cultural continuity and change over time. Tui Tokelau has now been abandoned; the god-house is no longer; it has transformed to become the falefono (the village meeting house); Fakaofo no longer requires ‘gifts’ of fine mats and pearl-shells from Atafu and Nukunonu; but the tifa (pearl-shells) continue to be a most treasured resource to this day.


Top image: Pa atu (fishing lure); AWMM 1970.208, 43860.
Bottom image: The Tui Tokelau and god-house at Fakaofo. Painting by Agate, artist on the The United States Exploring Expedition, 1841.

As classic atolls the Tokelau islands of Atafu, Fakaofo and Nukunonu, are formed on long submerged volcanoes with coral islets built up on the irregular peaks ringing a central lagoon.

The calcious nature of the coral land masses means topsoil cannot be supported and so there is no fertile land except for the tuber pits made by the people. Their lives and livelihoods therefore are centred on the surrounding Pacific Ocean where they must fish to live.

Of course, this means many hours are spent by the men of the kaiga (extended family) in deep discussion about tides, cloud formations, absence or presence of birds, the types of bait fish running and deliberating the many and various fishing techniques. Unlike game fishermen or anglers who fish as a hobby or pastime, for Tokelau fishermen, their lives and the lives of their kaiga and nuku (village) depends on their knowledge and ability to catch fish.

Made from sectioned curved half of a pearl-shell, the lure is cut to include the hinge part of the shell as a hole is drilled here to attach the line. The hinge of the shell can be seen along the bottom right edge of the pearl-shell on the right. Men spend many hours assessing pearl-shells and lures judging them by colour, lustre, hue, and the potential kaina (ability to ‘excite’ bonito) of each. To the left is a diagram by a famed tautai (master fisherman) from Nukunonu, Peato Tutu Perez, indicating how to cut sections for the making of pearl-shell lures and the names of the sections.


Top image: ‘Ko te koloa a Tokelau’ by Peato Tutu Perez, 1992.
Bottom image: Pearl-shell (authors own). Photo by J. Evans, 2021.

Alo atu, skipjack/bonito casting from vaka (canoes) is the preeminent type of fishing in Tokelau. The vaka is paddled by four or five men while the tautai casts from the back of the vaka. A tautai is known who had a catch of over 100 bonito in a single day. The binding of pearl-shell lure is a delicate undertaking and can take many years to learn and perfect.

When not in use pearl-shell lures are often unbound, that is the feather, hook, snood and shank are taken apart and stored in a tuluma (tackle box). In this form the lure becomes a kahoa (pearl-shell pendant) and it is also in this form that lures are passed from one family to another through the institution of marriage and the wedding ceremony.


Tuluma (fishing tackle box); AWMM 1970.208, 43778.

At the beginning of the marriage ceremonies the bride is adorned by her mother’s brother with kahoa as deemed appropriate by the tautai of her mother’s kaiga. Her mother’s brother because the brother/sister relationship is characterised as a feagaiga (a covenant) imbued with rights and obligations. It is one of the most significant relationships in the Tokelauan culture.

One of the obligations of a mother’s brother is that he cares for and nurtures his sister’s children. Therefore, from him and through his sister’s daughter (his niece and the bride) the pearl-shell lure will pass from her kaiga to her husband’s kaiga, thereby ensuring the continued care and nurture of his niece and her children and thus continue to fulfil his obligations to his sister’s children by assisting the groom to care for the new family with the potent gift of a pearl-shell lure.


Pa kahoa (pearl-shell pendant/unbound pearl-shell lure); AWMM 2004.78.8, 56166.