A Lifelong Mission to Save Banaban Culture and History
Updated: May 8
The efforts of the late Raobeia (Ken) Sigrah to pass on knowledge from his ancestors and homeland destroyed by phosphate mining
Raobeia (Ken) Sigrah was born in 1956 on Rabi, Fiji(1), the first of the Rabi born Banaban generation. He was educated at the local primary school and was then sent to a Fijian secondary school on nearby Taveuni Island(2) and furthered his studies at Fulton College on Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu. While Gilbertese (3) is the local language of the Banabans, at school Sigrah learnt to speak Fijian and was taught English. But in 1970 at the age of 14 years, another very important aspect of his education began. His maternal grandmother, Nei Tina (pronounced Sina) was one of the senior Te Aka(4) elders on Rabi and held certain responsibility in the island’s clan system. One of her important cultural roles was to attend and reside over clan meetings. She was an avid storyteller and upholder of the old Te Aka spiritual ways relating to ancestral worship and skills in sorcery.
The Te Aka are considered by the Banabans to be the oldest clan still in existence today. They are known as the ‘first’ Banabans who fought off hostile invasions and were reluctant to accept newcomers. Te Aka are a clan surrounded in mystery who conceal their spiritual rites and powers in the belief that secrecy is the very fortification of their identity. Even after the first known invasion of the te Aka on Banaba in the later part of the 16th century and the loss of the southern side of their island to invaders, the fear the te Aka could generate would become legendary.
Evidence of this is apparent with the introduction of the name Te Aonnoanne, meaning ‘that place’. The belief being that the mere mention of the word ‘te Aka’ was taboo and would unleash a terrible curse. These beliefs and customs still exist in today’s Banaban society. It is therefore not surprising for foreigners to be completely unaware of te Aka and the numerous other Banaban clans that play essential roles within the complex Banaban clan protocols. Up until the arrival of the missionaries on Banaba and the introduction of the written word via a Gilbertese(3) translated Bible, knowledge was passed on through oral history. Banabans inherited roles in society based on the cultural law of Te Rii ni Banaba(5) which is supported through family genealogy and inherited landholdings (Sigrah and King 2001;2019).
Under the direction of his grandmother, Sigrah undertook clan studies as a responsibility according to custom and as a male member of the clan. He began to attend clan meetings at Nei Tina’s side and listened as she recited oral history and instructed him in ritual training relating to the ‘old ways’. As genealogy is one of the major aspects of cultural law it is paramount that this knowledge is preserved by a family member who is responsible for recording and maintaining these vital records.
Previously this knowledge was orally recited and now written records have been introduced.
1925: The first documented genealogies in the Sigrah collection were those recorded by his great grand uncle, Tokinteiti (Genealogy Book 3).
1936: Another family record was begun by Sigrah’s grand-uncle, Kautuntake (Genealogy Book 4).
1962: Sigrah’s paternal uncle and adoptive father, Kaiekieki would add to the family’s history (Genealogy Book 2).
1970: Sigrah would record the genealogies given to him by Nei Tina (Genealogy Book 1).
BANABAN VILLAGES DESTROYED BY MINING
1996: Sigrah began important research on a project to retrace the original four Banaban villages before they were destroyed by mining. With the help of the following elders from each village he was able to take them back in time and build a comprehensive map of each village (Sigrah 1996: Book 1):
(Mr) Maata Tekairaba; born 1930, aged 67 years at time of interview
(Ms) Waumua Nabure; born 1928, aged 70 years at time of interview
(Mr) Kaitiata Takebwebwe; born 1928, aged 68 years at time of interview
(Mr) Timeon Tanaera; year of birth unknown by the informant
(Ms) Aii Touakin; born 1925, aged 72 years at the time of interview
(Ms) Terenga Aneri; born 1922, aged 75 years at the time of interview
The significance of this work is not only of historical importance but valuable in respect to landholdings and the role the clan system carries through to the village level.
On Rabi today the same original villages from the Banaban homeland have been duplicated and include all aspects of culture and customs relating to daily life. Finally, these completed village maps were approved and endorsed by the informants involved and published by the authors in 2001.
IMPORTANCE OF BANABAN DANCE TO PRESERVE HISTORY
In 1972 Sigrah became a member of the Banaban Dancing Group which officiated at cultural performances on Rabi and at the opening ceremonies of the Sydney Opera House in Australia.
In 1974 he toured with the group to Nauru, Banaba and Tarawa and in 1975 attended the South Pacific Festival of Arts in New Zealand. Singing and dance plays an important role in Banaban life and are used as a form of storytelling and for preserving important historical events.
Three examples of this are evident (Mahaffy 1910; Sigrah and King 2001; 2019):
1. Te Karanga – known as the stick dance because long wooden spears are an integral part of the dance. Originally te Karanga was a war dance to commemorate the first invasion of Banaba and imitates a full-scale battle. Te Karanga is the only dance that relates back to the separate existence of the te Aka, while some of the words used in the chanting are from the old Banaban language that has now been lost. The costumes and the use of ancestral wigs made from the crinkly black hair were uniquely te Aka.
2. Te Karanga Are e Uarereke – known as the short stick dance is a re-enactment of the land disputes that began after the first invasion of Banaba in the late 16th century. While the dance has an aggressive style it has no connection to the original Karanga, as it imitates fighting over land boundaries.
3. Contemporary mime dance performances were introduced after the Banabans arrival on Rabi and re-enact the stories of the past. From the discovery of water on Banaba in the subterraneous water caves to the European discovery of phosphate and the removal of the Banabans from their homeland.
These dances are an important means of preserving history.
COMPLEXITY OF BANABAN CLAN SYSTEM
At the age of 25, Sigrah was already representing his elders in small clan gatherings as part of his ongoing training. Five years later he would represent four Tabwewa village clans in a major inter-village meeting to resolve clan disputes.
In 1982 he represented te Aka clan at Buakonikai village during a large clan gathering where important issues were debated. Over the years European historians had never been privy to the complex workings of the clan system and incorrect information had resulted in the elevation of certain Banaban clans outside of time-honoured and hereditary laws.
This misinformation had resulted in inter-clan conflict and derision as some younger Banabans began to depend on the written word of European historians contradicting the teachings and customs passed on from their elders. According to the principles of Banaban traditional law via the clan system these inaccuracies were proven wrong and the idea to officially ‘set the record straight’ was first raised by clan elders.
This would result in Sigrah beginning work on the project with Stacey King in 1997. With the support of Banaban clan elders, and the University of South Pacific, Suva, they would write the first Banaban history book written from a Banaban perspective.
Sigrah and King believe that their combined research culminating with the publishing of their book ‘Te Rii ni Banaba, backbone of Banaba’, first published in 2001 and an updated second edition published 2019, has been one of their most important contributions to date:
1. First documented account of te Aka and Banaban life prior to European discovery.
2. Provided tangible links to Banaban origins for future generations.
3. To prove Banaban identity.
4. To correct anomalies in regard to aligning Banabans solely to Kiribati origins.
Their work has become a lasting legacy for all Banabans in the years ahead.
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Extract Conference Paper: Banaba-Ocean Island Chronicles: Private collections and indigenous record keeping proving fact from fiction. The Pacific in Australia - Australia in the Pacific conference QUT, Carseldine campus, Brisbane, Australia 24 to 27 January 2006 - Hunting the collectors; Pacific collections in Australian galleries, museums and archives - Collections
Chapter 17: Hunting the Collectors: Pacific Collections in Australian Museums, Art Galleries and Archives (Pacific Focus) by Susan Cochrane (editor), and Max Quanchi (editor). Cambridge University Press 2007.
1. The Banabans first arrived on Rabi Island, Fiji at the end of World War II, with exaggerated reports from the British government that all of the villages of the island had been destroyed, the Banabans were gathered and taken to Rabi in Fiji, over 3,200 kilometres away. On 15 December 1945, 703 ill-treated and weary Banabans, of whom 318 were children, and 300 Gilbertese arrived at their new home.
2. Taveuni Island, Fiji. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taveuni
3. Gilbertese is the language used by the Gilbert Islands, now known as I-Kiribati language used in the Republic of Kiribati today.
4. For more information on Banaban Traditional history and te Aka https://www.banaban.com/traditional-banaban-history
5. For more information - Ti Rii ni Banaba, backbone of Banaba, by Raobeia Ken Sigrah & Stacey M. King https://www.banabanvision.com/product-page/te-rii-ni-banaba-backbone-of-banaba
Raobeia (Ken) Sigrah
1956 - 2021
Banaban Historian, Author, Clan Spokesman
A Banaban, born and schooled in Rabi, Fiji. He is a descendant of one of the Banaban elders who signed the original contract in 1900 to mine Banaba. His elders educated him from an early age on Banaban genealogies, myths, legends, and customs and he was given the responsibility to represent and speak for twelve major Banaban clans as clan spokesman.
Stacey M. King
Historian, Businesswoman, Philanthropist
Called Nei Titeiti Naking by the Banabans, is an Australian with four generations of her family involved with phosphate mining on Banaba from 1900. Led by family interest, she conducted her own research, visiting Rabi for the first time in 1991. She began to publish Banaba/Ocean Island News in 1992 and in 1993 formed the Banaban Heritage Society Inc, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation of history and bettering of the lives of the Banaban people.
In 1997 they formed a personal and collaborative partnership to seek justice for the Banaban people and to see the rehabilitation of the Banaban homeland left destroyed by mining. They shared the belief that their lives and destiny are intertwined, bringing them together so they could try and right the wrongs of the past. With the establishment of Banaban Vision Publication, they have converted much of their writings and research findings into digital publications for future Banaban generations and for a broader audience keen to learn more about the plight of the indigenous Banaban people in the modern world.