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Marquesans Pitek, Emily


The Marquesans are the native inhabitants of what are now the Marquesan Islands of French Polynesia. Six of the traditionally inhabited islands are Fatu Hiva, Tahu Ata, Hiva Oa, Ua Pou, Ua Huka, and Nuku Hiva. This entry focuses on the Te-i’i chiefdom of southwestern Nuku Hiva Island around the time of 1800, and uses the term “Marquesan” in reference to those living at this specific time and place. This entry relies predominantly on the work of Edward Handy (1923), who completed fieldwork from 1920-1921, and used accounts of early travelers and the memory of older informants to reconstruct the Marquesan culture as it existed in the past. At the time this entry focuses on, the Marquesans had contact with Europeans, however, contact with Christian missionaries did not begin until after this entry’s focal time; Christian missionaries did not start to have influence until about 1840. Consequently, this entry describes traditional Marquesan culture as it existed prior to changes as a result of outside influence. Traditionally, Marquesan society was comprised of many “chiefdoms”, each led by a chief who gained authority from the social prestige and power of heading a large, wealthy family and holding alliances with other powerful families. Although some ethnographers use the word “tribe” in reference to these social groups, the Marquesan’s political structure appears to be comprised of simple chiefdoms (see Thomas, 2011). These chiefdoms were not usually in clearly-defined territories, and had shifting alliances and competition, resulting in frequent warfare. In addition to a chief, each group had an inspirational priest (tau’a), who was also involved with political activity, and was just as influential as the civil chief. The tau’a was spoken of as etua (godly), and could enter a possession state to communicate with the tribal god (a deified ancestral priest or chief). The tau’a also had charge of caring for the dead, and presiding at tribal [chiefdom] ceremonials. Slightly lower in rank and importance was the ceremonial priest (tuhuna o’ono, tuhuka o’oko), who recited and led chants/rituals during religious ceremonies. The Marquesans had a variety of feasts and festivals, including those associated with harvest and subsistence-related activities, as well as the important events in a chief’s family (such as marriage, tattooing, and death). Religious performances held during these festivals included chants, dances, tapu, and sacrifices. The most important religious event was the memorial festival, which took place long after the death of a chief/chiefess, inspirational priest, or ceremonial priest, and was held for the deification of the deceased’s sprit. Marquesan gods (as categorized by Handy, 1923:224) include gods of myth and creation, departmental gods (gods of nature and the elements, occupations, sickness), tutelary deities (personal, family, and tribal ancestral spirits), and a class of demigods (legendary heroes and other characters). These categories are not rigid, and a god could belong to multiple categories. All gods of all classes are ultimately ancestral in nature. For the Marquesans, religion did not exist within a separate sphere of life. Religion was bound up with the functioning of society at large; this entry considers the religious group to be coterminous with the society at large.

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