A very proud race, the Niueans were prone to commit suicide upon slight provocation. It was customary for the party defeated in war to jump off the cliffs, and not uncommon for the nearest relatives of a deceased person to kill themselves out of excess of grief. It is related that a father of a family having been drowned while fishing, his two sons waited until morning, and then jumped off the cliffs. Another story tells that the wife of a man named Tufonua died. His love for his wife was still strong, and he therefore determined to die so he climbed up a fetau tree thirty fathoms high. He leaped from the top, but landed unhurt on his feet. Tufonua thought that he had been saved by the interception of the gods, and he therefore went away in peace.
Shame was a common cause of suicide. Three women once made a suicide pact. One because she conceived out of wedlock, another because she was lame, and the third simply because she lived alone in the house of her brother. A young man committed suicide by eating fish which he knew to be poisonous. He did this merely because he had been “turned down” by some pretty girls. Suicide is rare at the present day.
It was a custom in the olden days to abandon the old in the bush. A temporary shelter was erected, and a small supply of food was left for the infirm person. This custom doubtless arose from the bitter necessities of warfare. This, however, is unusual. Nowadays, the old and sick are either cared for by their relatives or placed in the Governments hospital.
The Niue term for death is mate. The people usually say mate-popo (popo indicating putrefaction) since the word mate also indicates illness due to an accident or to warfare. The word gaogao also indicates sickness resulting from disease.
The mourning rites were held in a temporary house, called a fale-tulu. At the time of death all the relatives came together. This was called the putu. The relatives then held a tagi, or lamenting, which might last from fifty to one hundred days if the person lamented was of sufficient importance. During this time the relations from a distance came in and fought with the relatives close at hand.
In former times there was intense wailing and the singing of dirges and the men shaved off their long hair with a shark’s tooth. Nowadays the women have the long hair, and they often shave it off at time of mourning. Self immolation was never a custom but the people committed suicide through grief, as shown by the following story:
A man by the name of Ikihemata, in the olden days, had as wife Ligitoa. Once the man went fishing in the sea while his wife sought for snails on the reef. In the course of his fishing the husband caught a small fish [the telekihi]. This he brought up to his mouth in order to bite its head and thus kill it before placing it in his basket. But the fish managed to jump down the man’s throat, and commenced choking him to death. At this both the man and his wife lighted all their torches and attempted to relieve the situation. They were not able to do anything, and presently the husband breathed his last. Ligitoa was sorely grieved by the death of her husband, and she implored all her relatives to kill her, that she might die with her husband. Then her relatives killed her, and laid her beside her husband. It was thus that the woman showed the height of her devotion to her husband.
[#12] Edwin M. Loeb, History and Traditions of Niue. Honolulu, Hawaii, The Museum, 1926.