Questions for discussion
‘Eua and the problems of oral history
During our stay on ‘Eua we talked with Richard Lauaki, one of the oldest men on the island and a custodian of its oral history. Richard gave us his sometimes controversial opinions on subjects like the eruption of Niuafo’ou in 1946 and the subsequent movement of many Niua people to ‘Eua, the place of Niuans and their language in contemporary ‘Euan society, the raid on ‘Ata by Australasian slavers, and the failings of young Tongans. We also visited the grave of AE Yealands, the New Zealander who served as a coastwatcher on ‘Eua in 1942, and learned that the story many ‘Euans tell about Yealands’ death differs greatly from the way the soldier actually died.
You were given a copy of an essay about oral tradition by Sione Latukefu during your stay on ‘Eua. Latukefu talks about how careful attention to verbal accounts of the past helped him in his studies of Tonga, but notes that some other scholars have been led astray when they have tried to use oral history. We laughed about the way that Roger McKern, author of the first attempt at an archaeological survey of Tonga, was misled by mischevious locals into giving obscene names to some of the ancient sacred sites he tried to record.
Did your experiences on ‘Eua make you reflect on the value of oral traditions to the study of the past? Do you think that stories passed verbally down the generations can be relied upon to tell us about the past? If some stories about the past are false, does this make them useless, or can they still provide certain types of insights to a scholar? Does Richard Lauaki have qualities which might make him a more reliable source on ‘Euan history than Roger McKern?