A Gift of ‘Atu

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While visiting the island Ha’ano in Tonga, I was told a Tongan legend of the abundant skipjack tuna that visit the shallow waters near Ha’ano every year. It wasn’t until later that I learned that there was a story behind this phenomenon. This is a story of love, betrayal, and courage.

The Tongan Legend of the Skipjack Tuna

Years ago, the daughter of a Samoan chief was known far and wide for her beauty. Her name was Hina of Aliepata (in Upolu, Samoa). The eldest son of the Tu`i Tonga (king of Tonga) named Ngana ‘Eikimeimu‘a (or just ‘Eiki) heard of her beauty and decided to sail from Tongatapu to Samoa. On his way, he picked up his youngest brother Nganatatafu, the chief of Ha’ano in the Ha’apai island group.

When ‘Eiki arrived in Samoa, he asked his brother to guard the boat instead of attending the feast fearing that Nganatatafu’s good looks would distract Hina. Nganatatafu said to his eldest brother, ‘As you wish.”

Hina asked her attendant to retrieve some water in order to make raw fish (skipjack tuna) for her guests. When the attendant went to the beach, she saw the beautiful Nganatatafu and became distracted. Annoyed, Hina sent a second attendant to find out what had happened to the first. She too saw the handsome boy. When they returned, Hina was still angry and ordered the first maid to be punished. The maid explained that she was distracted by the beautiful boy on the beach, Nganatatafu.

Intrigued, she gave the attendant her scented oil to give to Ngantatafu so that later that night he would be able to find her in the dark. When they met at last, they talked all night, and they fell in love. That night Hina offered her fish (the skipjack tuna) to Ngantatafu. She told him that it was a gift to remember her by.

The next day, the Tongans left Samoa. ‘Eiki was very upset with his younger brother. When near the island of Mo‘unga‘one, ‘Eiki stood up and told his brother and his Fijian attendant to swim to Ha’ano, which was 12 miles away. They both jumped in and started swimming to the island followed by Hina’s skipjack tuna, while ‘Eiki returned home to Tongatapu.

Finally, Ngantatafu made it to the inner reef of Ha’ano. He stood up waiting for his Fijian servant. Just as the servant made it to the reef, he died. Today this part of the reef is still named after him called Ma‘ukuomate, which means, ‘made it but already dead.’ Though sad Ngantatafu had made it home with Hina’s fish.

Every year it is said that Hina’s fish return to Ha’ano as an annual ‘love gift’ from Samoa. Before Ngantatafu left Samoa, Hina gave him specific instructions with regards to the fish. The fish known as skipjack or ‘atu are only caught using a specific method of fishing known as Ta’atu. Traditionally, when employing this method of fishing many people would enter the water with an au, which is a rope with palm fronds dangling off of it that acted like a shield. The people would herd the skipjack tuna closer and closer to shore. Today, they use a net called a kupenga.

Additionally, the instructions of the ritual say that the fish are not allowed to be speared or harmed in anyway. They are also not able to be sold. The fish are only meant for the people living on the island, the chief, high officials in Tonga, and the king. The king is sent the skipjack tuna that jump on the beach. The chief and other dignities also get a portion of the fish; however, the people of Ha’ano get the majority of the fish. If any of these rules are broken, then the ‘atu will not return the following year.

This Tongan legend has been passed down for generation to generation explaining why skipjack tuna arrive in their waters every year and how they should harvest them. Even today, the villagers of Ha’ano still practice the specific instructions given from Hina to ensure that the ‘atu return every year.

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