Volume 52 1943 > Volume 52, No. 4 > Birth and allied customs in Aitutaki, by Drury Low, p 199-201
BIRTH AND ALLIED CUSTOMS IN AITUTAKI. (Cook Islands)
IN former years, when a daughter of the house had married and later became pregnant, it was the custom of her mother to make some native tapa 1 cloth. When finished, this would be marked in a certain way and worn over the shoulders by the daughter on public occasions such as settlement meetings. This was to make known to the whole island the fact that the daughter was to become a mother; it was really a form of showing off by the parents of the girl.
In olden times, and in fact up to the present day, all first-born children of good standing are born on tapa cloth. The first-born child is a mataiapo, and whether it be a boy or girl is looked up to by members of its own generation as the head of the family. With regard to this, a further point may be recorded. Suppose a man marries for the first time and his wife has a child, that child is a mataiapo.. Should the first wife die and the husband marry another wife who also bears him children, the first child of this second marriage is not looked upon as a mataiapo on his side. On the other hand, should the husband die, and his wife marry again and have children by ner new husband, provided the husband has not been married before and had children by another wife, the first-born child will be a mataiapo.
When the birth-or labour-pains start it is the custom to make the mother walk or move around as long as possible. As a rule an old woman and a man who have proved their skill in child-birth will both be in attendance. When the pains become very severe it is the man's work to hold the woman from behind. He holds her arms and very often presses her back. It is also his duty to prevent the mother from moving away or struggling. The old woman (or perhaps two of them if it be a first child), works from the front of the mother. It is customary for the man and the woman to use force to bring the child away quickly after the water has broken, for it is the belief that the child should follow soon after the water breaks. When it becomes known in a settlement that a woman is giving birth to a child, all the other women in the settlement will crowd around the house, as well as the young children. If the women are friends or relatives, they will crowd into the house and make a lot of noise by laughing and talking. As soon as the child is born it will be quickly made known whether it is a boy or a girl.
In the olden times, the navel-string was, and is sometimes even now, cut with a shell, the shell of a kai, a small shell-fish. It was always tied with a small thin strip of twine made from the outer skin of the banana-trunk of the kind known as purekaa. This was just stripped off green and used straight-away. Now-a-days European thread is commonly used.
After the birth of a mataiapo, the mother and father, together with their parents' friends and relations, kill a large number of pigs to celebrate the birth of the child. In olden times a wild root, not - 200 unlike a wild yam, was gathered in large quantities and scraped or pounded up after the outside skin had been removed. It was then thoroughly washed at least twice to get the sour taste out of it. After being formed into a kind of paste it was eaten raw in large quantities. The name of this plant or root was oi, but although it still grows wild on the island, it is seldom used, arrowroot having replaced it. It was formerly the custom to invite only close relative to the feast, but now anyone who brings a present of any kind is invited in and gets his share.
About six days after the birth the mataiapo, the mother, and father were taken on to the family marae. The mother and child, if of any standing, would be carried on to the marae on a wooden bed or seat. These seats, which were cut out of. a solid block of tamanu or tou wood, had four legs, and were very often from six to nine feet in length, and as a rule not less than two feet wide, some of them being very well carved. There are a few of them still to be seen on the island. On arrival at the marae the mother and the child would be placed in the middle, and the close relatives would form a ring round them.
In a speech the father would say how proud he was of his child and what big things were expected of it. If it were a boy he would promise that he would carefully train it and teach it all he knew so as to fit it in later life to take his place. As a general rule before the food was eaten the father would chant a number of the family's chants (akateniteni), telling of deeds of valour performed, and tracing back the family history. Now the pigs and other food would be eaten, after which all would return home. This was only done for the firstborn of a family of rank.
Soon after arrival at the marae the father gave the child its name. It was the custom to give the child only one name, and it was only after the Gospel arrived that two or more names were used. Such names as Maeva-kura, Maeva-rangi, and Maine-maraerua, were counted as one name and were never changed till death.
In olden times it was the custom as it is today for children to be given away to other parents at birth or when they were weaned. Very often a child was promised to another before its birth, but not a mataiapo—such a child being always kept by its proper parents.
Circumcision has always been practised among the Aitutaki people. Now-a-days it is usually done when the boys are from twelve to fourteen years old: in olden times it used to be done at from sixteen to eighteen years of age, and even later than that.
As a rule each settlement had two old men who used to perform this operation, the instruments used being the shell of the kai and an old piece of coconut shell. In olden days the brown-coloured native cloth (paoa) was used as a bandage after the operation. A wrapper would be made from the leaves of the rau-pipi which would be plucked, softened in the sun, and then covered with coconut-oil. A flat, dark, smooth stone would be heated in the fire and this would be put on where the cuts were or had been made. It was made only hot enough to just burn the skin. For three weeks this treatment would be kept up, each day the heated stone, fresh leaves, and coconut-oil dressings being used.
It was the custom in olden times about two weeks after the operation and when it was just healing, to mate the boy with some clean young girl, the idea being that from her was got some material - 201 that acted on the cut and allowed it to heal up without a scar or mark. This custom is dying out but is still firmly believed in by the old people.
An old Aitutaki custom believed in by young and old, and still carried out in many cases, is that on the fourth night after the first child is born, those looking after the mother must leave her to her husband. He must have connection with her on that night even if she objects, the idea being that if he does she will quickly get well and strong again. Should the rite be omitted she will make a slow and painful recovery.
In olden times a child when first born was never cleaned or washed in hot water, and even now the older people are very much against it. The baby was always cleaned with heated coconut-oil, the idea being that it kept the skin clear of disease and made it shiny and glossy for life.
In olden times, and even now occasionally, the mother was not allowed to nurse her child till at least four days after birth. The first four days it was fed on grated-up coconut from well-matured nuts, the milk being fed to the child out of cloth made from a plant called mauku, which grows in damp places. The stalks are pulled up by hand and the soft white part near the bottom it beaten with a pounder. This forms a kind of a cloth which is dipped into the coconut-milk and then fed to the baby which readily sucks it up. A new cloth is made each day, and fresh milk is prepared each time the baby is fed. As a rule the baby was fed three times a day and once at night—never more than four times.
1 The Aitutaki name for tapa is poa, though during the process of manufacture it has two names aoa and pokuru.