This small atoll’s story begins with a typhoon, a missionary ship and a lack of western influences. If we took away the missionary ship, we can only speculate the fate of the islanders.
In was sometime in the mid-19th century when the white man called on this tiny dot of land. We think the missionaries were from the London Missionary Society.
When the pale-skinned invaders pulled ashore, they were greeted by the hierarchy of the island and numerous discussions began as the skies began to give signs of an approaching cyclone.
First a bit of background: Polynesian society is determined in part by your family tree. Leaders and the ‘upper crust’ of society can trace their roots by oral histories to other leaders and so-called folk heroes who performed ‘beyond mere human’ feats. It is these families that, by heritage, are charged with not only their own welfare but all of those on the island. They enjoy perks, but at the cost of responsibility.
Typically an island is segregated. The ruling families, or might we say the upper class, lives in their own neighborhood and the remaining classes live in their respective areas.
As a missionary, you want to convince the upper class to convert to Christianity because the lower classes on the island will fall in line. You see, the ruling class does not need to rule by force, but they are respected as being the bloodline of previous great leaders, so it is felt that these folks have a more superior knowledge or wisdom to direct the whole island’s population for the benefit of every islander. The ruling class feels the responsibility for the welfare of all the islanders.
After a couple of days, the indications of a typhoon heading toward the island became evident. This represented a threat to the missionaries who needed to attempt to evade the storm and it brought fear to the islanders who realized their low-lying island would likely be awash in the storm, leaving a crusty salt deposit that would destroy their food supply.
With a bit of convincing, food, supplies and about 50% to 60% of the island boarded the missionary ship and set off to the nearest neighbor, Palikua, about 60 miles distant. This was a larger island with better elevation and the lagoon would offer better protection for the ship, especially since it was believed the path of the cyclone would go further east, sparing Palikua of most of the impact of the cyclone.
The plan was the remaining islanders would be picked up in a couple of days, just before the cyclone would hit.
The ruling class was the logical choice to transport to the nearest neighbor. They were the ones charged with getting permission from the ruling class on Palikua to evacuate to their island. If the lower rungs of society showed up, it is possible it might be interpreted as the beginning of a war.
As the story continues, the missionary ship and the islanders are granted sanctuary on Palikua. As the missionary ship prepares to go back for the remaining population, the weather suddenly deteriorates and it becomes evident the return trip cannot take place.
The cyclone was a big and powerful storm. It did indeed cause extensive damage on both islands and leaves the missionary ship in need of repairs to be seaworthy again.
The escapees joined in with the Palikua islanders in rebuilding, sharing the supplies and food brought along. In short, the evacuees were blended into the Palikua society, earning a portion of the island after all was said and done.
That leaves us back at Lanakila Mokupuni, meaning Victory Island. The eye of the cyclone passed close to the island with those who survived by holding fast to coconut palms, found their island washed by the waves, a destroyed food supply, no fresh water, no housing and loved ones washed to sea. A few perished from infections from the cuts received in the storm. Surely beaten, the islanders still had the fight remaining. They would get past this and survive.
Meanwhile, the upper classes of Lanakila Mokupuni settled on Palikua, never returning. The missionary ship continued without returning to Lanakila Mokupuni fearing the hapless souls there could have never survived the storm. Anyway, the ship’s repairs had taken several months, far beyond a reasonable time to check on the conditions on Lanakila Mokupuni.
The cyclone had changed life forever on Lanakila Mokupuni, but not just in the obvious ways. Certainly the devastation, death and hardship changed the people but more importantly, it changed their society. They had been the lowest rung of society, carefully orchestrated by the people above them. They were a group void of leaders.
Human nature has ugly little emotions. Power, greed, lust and others seem to have no positive value and the Polynesian society suffered from these human qualities. You see, if you are the upper society, you have the best and even those below them have it far better than the lowest rung. The lowest rung has the least in wealth, respect and value compared to those above them. If you were in this class, even walking through the village of the classes above you was done only with a purpose and you needed to show respect along the way. So, on Lanakila Mokupuni, the least of social status were left to fend for themselves.
It seems there was so much resentment of leaders that the islanders shut down any attempt at someone taking an upper hand. The tide had changed and they were intent on being a classless society. Naturally the lifestyle they had lived was all they knew, so with the exception of social structure, the Polynesian ways continued to flourish without outside interference. The lack of social structure led to community governance and some people were designated as leaders in respect to their skills and wisdom but not in the same way it had been.
So little is written of Lanakila Mokupuni that we have a singular account of a visit. A group of eight visited the island. Nobody knew the name of the island prior to this visit and there was no account of their lifestyle. Hust as we resolved there was no additional information another source came forward.
Mr. Braiden Oya is an expert on Lanakila Mokupuni. In his research, the concludes the inhabitants are the ‘lost’ Hawaiians. There is documentation that at some point in the distant past the Hawaiian people had come from other dots of land in the Pacific. While most were not lost a few were and as fate would render such, they simply blended with existing populations at the spot where they landed but Lanakila Mokupuni was uninhabited. It may have been simply a stopping point that became a permanent home.
As Braiden put it, the group that arrived on the island included some people of greater hierarchy than others, so the traditional social structure prevailed until the upper crust of society, so to speak was removed. That left the remaining population to ‘recreate’ their social structure.
Braiden noted many lost Polynesians dot the Pacific Ocean and are usually far flung. Nukuoro is a prime example. The scenario of Lanakila Mukupuni has been found at numerous spots.
While Lanakila Mukupuna is Hawaiian for Victory Island, and very much modern Hawaiian, the everyday language was obviously shaped over time to create a more distinctive local tongue although many of the cultural practices, although modified, are true to the Polynesian heritage.
Just how did Braiden come to his knowledge? His middle name is shared by the island, Lanakila.
We ponder how Lanakila Mokupuni became the name of the island and can only offer a guess. Obviously the group became separated from others, perhaps by unfavorable winds or sudden storm. Such a venture across the ocean was a risky and life threatening venture. Finding such a spot as Lanakila Mokupuni would certainly feel like a victory over the threat of peril such an ocean voyage presented. We will likely never know, however.
Lanakila Mokupuni is the best guess at the written name, as their language has never been written, so at best the name is matched to Australian English based on the name of the island.
The crew was met my both men and women who shuttled canoes out to greet them. They brought various fruits to the boat and marveled at the vessel. On shore, they were invited into homes, invited by numerous young ladies to have sexual encounters and generally welcomed into the fold. A feast near sunset and awkward attempts to communicate began. Mostly shy and smiling, the seemingly carefree islanders were not quite sure of the visitors and the crew felt the islanders expected them to stay permanently as a thatched hut was built for them and various utensils for everyday living were given to them.
They noticed that the men tended to go out in their canoes in early morning to fish and if someone came back with not much of a catch, those with a good number of fish would give some to the person. It seemed the men watched out for one another, making sure nobody was left without. Mostly the younger boys would scale coconut trees and gather the nuts, including drinking coconuts. The women tended the children, cooked, weaved and conversed through the morning hours. The young girls watched children and weaved as well.
By the time afternoon rolled around, people seemed to be more at leisure. It seemed more of a time for one-on-one visitation. As late afternoon came, cooking, an evening meal and as sunset began, the whole community tended to gather. Groups would split off to sing, tell stories and such while the younger men and women would joke and talk while some would vanish for a while with someone of the opposite sex. Eventually the group would slowly disband until the next morning.
The crew noted handsome men and beautiful women. The island was described as somewhat of a nudist colony. Nudity was very commonplace. Bathing in front of anyone was natural and pre-puberty children wore no clothing. Women typically wore no upper body clothing just as the men.
Sanitation seemed quite important as islanders frequently bathed and applied scented plants to their skin. Bathrooms were small roosts extending over the water so that any waste would wash away from the island.
In short, every adult on Lanakila Mokupuni is equal. There are no leaders. There is not a single adult who rates above another. Certainly there are those who are considered better suited to handle certain situations based on personal knowledge or their person’s life experiences but I must stress there is no leadership.
Children are not disciplined whatsoever. A child is left to do all they desire. An adult can request they stop, but the child can say no. The most effective treatment is to caution the child that their actions will upset their deceased ancestors. By this we mean thunder and lightning. Thunder and lightning, a frequent event here in the tropics, is believed to be spurned by ancestors living in the sky showing their displeasure at something that happened on the island. A child threatened with upsetting their deceased ancestors usually changes their behavior in an instant.
To make the ‘no leadership’ work, a few rules are in force. Nothing can belong to anyone. Anything grown or caught comes from the land and ocean and cannot be owned by a person. There is an obligation to care for the land and sea.
The belief system is simple. They believe their ancestors watch from a spot in the skies above. Only by being peaceful and living in harmony can they please their ancestors and enjoy good fortune. They are so intent on being peaceful and harmonious that they never show violence and rarely show anger. This is not to say some things are not hotly contested. Should things progress to the point of jealousy, animosity and dreams of violent acts, the person with these feelings is thought to have put the community in peril. He or she should separate from the group and work through the feelings.
Sometimes the people assemble to discuss the matter when bad feelings arise. The meetings can last for hours and center on learning how the issues came about. Typically the discussion involves breaking down the situation to show the community just how one can become entangled in the snare of anger. In most instances, the feelings both parties harbor are shown in such a light as to indicate the two parties were snared by the emotion through some form of trickery and that if they were thinking logically, they would not be angry. In short the sequence of events resulting in anger are highlighted to help both parties understand how the anger came about and this is done in a way where both parties feel shame at not being able to see how the anger came about and allowing these emotions to surface. The affected parties feel ashamed at lacking the personal self control to conquer these emotions before they become well rooted.
One violent act in the 1950s was an incident of causing one to fall from a tree, resulting in a sprained ankle. It seems one young man was angry at another over a young girl. The offender was ignored by the community at large. The offender made amends by providing fish for the family and caring for their garden until the sprain was healed. The unique feature is this was done in secret without the victim or his family seeing the acts. Certainly on such a small island there are no secrets and all knew what was going on, including the family, but nobody interfered with the plan of making amends developed by the offender.
Dreams of violent actions and anger toward another are seen as drastic decisions by their ancestors to bring the emotions to the attention of the offending person, so they can depart from the community to work the feelings out of their mind. Most who leave the community to ‘get right’, return at night to perform some kindness for the person they were upset with. It seems the acts of kindness or ‘favors’ whittle away the negative feelings on both the affected parties.
The social life is interesting. Men and women are considered married when they move in together sometime beyond puberty. In fact, the children sometimes ‘play house’ by spending the night with the opposite sex, having many partners before one partner steals the heart of the other. This is why boys, near puberty, build their own hut, sometimes with the help of others in the family or with their friends.
Couples are in love and very loyal to one another. Even so, it is not rare for both men and women to have other sexual partners after they marry. There is no emotional attachment on a marital level with these sexual partners. Even if a pregnancy occurs, the child belongs to the female and her family. Couples truly love their children and tend to have their leisure activities revolve around their children. Men and women only have one spouse. Divorce does occur. In most instances this happens early on as couple find themselves a poor match or in events where the couple ‘grows apart’. The percentage that divorce is minimal. In the event of divorce it is not unusual for the couple to remain friendly and to tend to the other’s needs until they remarry.
The villages function as somewhat of a big family. Everyone watches out for one another making sure no family goes without. In the event of sickness or injury, the chores that person might be expected to perform for the household are eagerly taken on by others in the community and while the culture tends to feel it best such duties are done without the affected family’s knowledge, some tasks will certainly be known, such as cooking meals, doing laundry, etc. The family who receives the help is not expected to repay the kindness but frequently at some point in the future the family might sponsor a feast or offer small gifts of thanks.
Homes are small grass huts or lean-to structures with mats that can be lowered. People of the island can come or go into any home as long as a doorway is open. It is considered polite to respect privacy if mats are lowered. If the mats are lowered and one needs to speak with someone at the home, it is the custom to call out the name of the person at the doorway and await them to raise the mat.
As anything in nature is considered the property of earth, so to speak, and cannot be owned there is a certain respect given. For example, if a family tends a garden, one would not collect any of the harvest without the permission of the family. While this may sound like ownership, islanders see a family’s garden as a piece of land lovingly tended by the family and to interfere with their care of the garden is not a polite and harmonious action. Some items can be owned. As a general rule, anything that must be made or created to be used, can be owned. Any item that is imported or not found in nature locally is owned. As a result, items at an island store are owned by the store owner and must be purchased by deed, trade or cash. People can hire individuals to perform work and services in exchange for cash or owned items. The irony is that foods not found on the island or nearby waters can be owned and must be acquired by labor, trade or cash.
From what we understand this ‘non-violent, harmonious’ lifestyle is unique among Polynesian cultures where leaders are always found. The fact the people of Lanakila Mokupuni have successfully resisted having leaders and evolving into classes is most amazing and somewhat against human nature. In addition, the non-violent approach is something one would think would be unsuccessful. We attribute its success to the belief system that indicates violence and anger can cause their ancestors to send mother nature’s wrath upon them, their family, village and island. In fact, striking or hitting another person in anger or to inflict pain is considered something only a deranged person could do. A person who would commit violent acts on several occasions would be purged from the island by being forced away in a boat and be instructed to never return after other attempts to rectify the actions failed, such as encouraging the offending person to go away from others to work out their anger and by being shunned by the community.
More recently, the Aussie visitors have helped the island get a radio transmitter to request help when needed and to receive important information affecting the island. A dentist, doctor, a couple of nurses and eye doctor recently visited the island to provide health checks and needed care.
There is talk of a party coming to the island to study the language. They hope to publish a dictionary.
The island, it is believed, has been visited by yachting families in the past few decades. A few English words are known by locals. Locals speak of a few small groups arriving over the past 40 or so years.
Lanakila Mokupuni is a mere 321 acres in land area with a tiny lagoon of only about 183 acres, having only a small opening to the sea. The unbroken island is some two miles by 1.3 miles in size.
The atoll has been called one of the most lovely atolls on earth. The palm fringed shores give way to shades of blue and green lagoon waters. The traditional thatched huts have not given way to more conventional housing and the white sand paths that take one from one end to the other are not marred by tire tracks. The island remains the vision of fantasies of tropical isles in a bygone day.
The people are tall, slender, lighter skinned Polynesians and among the most pure of Polynesian peoples. The population of Lanakila Mokupuni is 285, mostly residing in large families. Sometimes the family hut has several small ‘sleeping huts’ mostly for those in their teens or early 20s. Several generations form a family. The woman designates the family. As is the case, it is not uncommon for young girls to have a child and the older women embrace the child as the newest member of the family. Likewise, upon marriage, the male joins the female’s family although the couple may live near the male family‘s home. Even so, he might have a periodic affair with another woman and the female might do the same with another male. Like the pre-missionary days of Polynesian culture, the people of Lanakila Mokupuni view sexuality as a natural part of life that is to be enjoyed. There are no stigmas attached and children are taught from a very early age about their bodies. It is an obligation for older men and women to give the younger of the opposite sex among them a bit of practice while teaching them about lovemaking, a long tradition in Polynesian societies, largely lost within the past century. We should note this is not ‘forced’ and typically the young approach the adult, not by attraction but by respect of the adult’s knowledge. While both parties might not mind the lessons, the acts lack a perverse nature.
Another observation is the lack of alcohol and mind-enhancing or mind-altering substances on the island. We must conclude that these were outlawed, likely because the intoxicated might have less control of their emotions, leading to an increased chance of violence and anger. This must have been set down long ago as nobody today knows why. Simply put, a mind-altering or mind-enhancing substance is something entirely unknown to the islanders.
There is little resemblance of an economy although there are a few retailers on the island in the form of stores and sundries. It is not unusual for all inventory to be sold before the next batch of products arrive.
In more recent years, a pearl farm has been established in the lagoon and the first sale of pearls in 2010 brought the island’s first economic windfall. The amount of pearls sold was about 650 and the gross income was about $8,000 US. A pearling consultant is needed to teach the islanders the proper techniques and a group is shopping the $32,000 proposed plan among various agencies and non-profits that might offer a grant to the island.
In conclusion, we would like to thank Braiden Oya for his valued input in compiling this article. Without Braiden’s help we would have many more questions void of answers.
LANAKILA MOKUPUNI MONEY
As one might suspect, there is not a big demand for actual money. It is typical for a family to save coins for some time in order to purchase an item for the family. Daily spending of money is not rare but it certainly is a far cry from the typical western economy.
The coins are made locally.