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  • Writer's pictureStacey M. King

Banaban Culture, Customs and Tradition

Extract Conference Paper: "Essentially Being Banaban in Today’s World: The Role of Banaban Law 'TE RII NI BANABA' (Backbone of Banaba) In A Changing World"


Te rii ni Banaba (backbone of Banaba) is the foundation of Banaban traditional law that is used as a guideline in everyday life to settle conflicts over land ownership, descendant heritage, inherited cultural roles and other moral issues within families, clans or community. This ancient structure of regulation is the core of Banaban ethnic identity and based on three major principles:

1. Katearikim! Recite your genealogy!

2.Terataum? What is your family’s inherited role?

3. Arana am Kainga! Name your land!

The Banabans believe that to earn respect in society, one has to be acquainted with all aspects of tradition and culture. To achieve this knowledge a person has to know their family’s genealogy and the position and duty they inherited at birth, and therefore their identity within the complex structure of the Banaban clan system (Sigrah&King2001:56). These three interlocking fundamentals of knowledge provide the key to Banaban identity which undisputedly connects to their land.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, the Banabans were a disciplined and structured community and even though the island was divided under separate districts representing family kainga (hamlets) and clans, the Banabans lived in harmony as one people. Today with most Banabans residing in Rabi, Fiji the principles of traditional law relating to te rii ni Banaba are still applied and relate entirely to the land and customs of the ancestral homeland.

ANCESTRAL WORSHIP AND SACRED RELICS Banabans believe their culture originates from the ancient te Aka belief in the sun and ancestral worship, involving sacred relics such as ancestral skulls, and rituals based on the powers and skills of sorcery to evoke the spirits of their ancestors. Due to the sacredness of these beliefs the Banabans have set rules and protocols that they respect and classify as ‘taboo’ and sacred. In Banaban philosophy, to disobey these rules will invoke a curse. It was through this fear that the emphasis on the custom of respect evolved, mingled with the suspicion and fear these ‘taboos’ instilled in the minds of the people. It was because of these ‘taboos’ that the te Aka would become shrouded in secrecy and revered for their great skills in sorcery.


After the discovery of phosphate on Banaba the misinterpretation of traditional Banaban history began. One glaring example is Maude (1932) where important aspects of Banaban social organisation, especially in relation to sun worship, rituals, and ceremonial protocols were confused and incorrectly linked to the wrong clan and hamlets. His mention of ‘the black folks’, should refer to te Aka clan, but instead, he has called them the Mangati clan. What he assumed to be the people of Tairua, was in fact the te Aka. In Banaban history there were no such people or place called Tairua, but the name is well known in Banaban history as the name of the battle fought between the indigenous te Aka clan and the invading Auriaria clan. The word tairua means foreigner (Sigrah & King 2001:92).


Government officials such as Maude and Grimble would write reports back to the Colonial office in London as part of their work as Resident Commissioners in charge of phosphate mining on Banaba. Amazingly their work and future writings would become recognised as documented historical records that were being used to destroy Banaban ethnic identity while inadvertently aligning them to I-Kiribati culture.

The Banabans believed it had been written more for the purpose of Colonial Government propaganda than an original historical reconstruction. Another major misinterpretation of Banaban history was in regard to Albert Ellis’ original mining negotiations where he wrongly perceived he was dealing with a Banaba chief. Even though he would rectify his mistake at a later date he and other historians, especially Grimble and Maude, would endorse the theory of a Banaban chiefly system. Once again these historical accounts were solely based on a European system of governance and royal lineage, and not one at all recognised or accepted by the Banabans. Banaban traditional society was structured according to genealogical lineage based on a patriarchal clan system.


Banaban society was governed by clan elders under the protocols of te rii ni Banaba, and the system known as te inaaki, ‘a tier of thatch on a roof’ (Bingham 1908:16). The word inaaki also relates to the ritual building and structure of the thatch roofing on a village maneaba and under these protocols signifies the traditional sitting positions within the maneaba (see Figure 1.1).

An elder in the clan with his or her descendants would always be seated on the eastern side, which under custom recognises the power evoked from the rising sun (dawn). The bukiniwae (forerunner or herald) who had this inherited role within the clan would be seated on the western side signifying the sunset and end of the day.

The rest of the clan members would occupy the southern side while the northern side was reserved for the irua (visitors). This east to west placement was very significant as it endorsed the value the te Aka (indigenous Banabans) placed on their sun totem.

They not only derived their powers from the sun but also used it as their guide for important protocols relating to time (See Figure 1.2). The meetings always commenced in the morning with the elder speaking first and finishing at the end of the day with the bukiniwae, (herald) leaving to announce the news throughout other hamlets and villages.


In other Banaban villages, different maneaba protocols were observed in line with their ancestral heritage. The people of Tabwewa, Uma and Tabiang would use the te boti (See Figure 1.3), which in the Gilbertese languages is defined as ‘place assigned to an individual or claimed by him’ (Bingham1908:74), and relates to the support posts in the maneaba structure. This is the only system that has been recorded in the past and also created confusion relating to the very different protocols of te Aka’s maneaba system of te inaaki.

While the te boti maneaba system also relates to similar practices found in Kiribati (Maude & Maude 1995:43; Grimble 1989:115-129). These systems based on the structure and sitting places of the maneaba are the key to Banaban social organisation, traditional laws and the recognition of the respect and leadership given to elders within society.

The term Batua (pronounced Pat-u-are) is an old Banaban word meaning, Godfather or deity, the ancestral figurehead of society.


During Colonial rule on Banaba, an Island Court was established based on British law, but the Banabans were more inclined to observe their own traditional law than accept these new introduced foreign regulations. This created a predicament for the government who were trying to avoid upsetting the Banabans as negotiations between the Banaban Landowners and the British Phosphate Commission (BPC) to acquire more land was becoming an issue. So with this in mind, the island’s court system was altered to accommodate Banaban traditional law as its foundation for local law and order and presided over by a European magistrate. What the Banabans did not understand at the time was that this new system and the respect they had for own tradition laws would end up being used against them. Arthur Grimble in his book, A Pattern of Islands quoted:

The effect of the truly remarkable initiative wielded by the native courts and the representative’s nature of their constitution was to keep alive among them (quite independently of European supervision) a high sense of responsibility for their decisions, and maintain among the people at large a vivid and critical interest on the conduct of their own affairs. The Kabowi system was established by an extraordinary wise dispensation of the eighteen-nineties. ‘Wise’ is not to imply that the panel code was entirely devoid of flaws; for example, it forced monogamy, under pain of imprisonment, upon historically polygynous people and made criminal offences of certain sex relationships that were basic to the old moralities. That was itself a moral and anthropological crime of the first magnitude, which no British missionary body or government would have dared to attempt, even in those days, against a more powerful community. But for all that, the Kabowi system as a whole stood for an almost unique effort, in the heyday of Imperialism and thirty years before the publication of Lord Lugard’s Dual Mandate, to engage the genius of a subject race on a really big scale in the vital business of self-rule’ (Grimble 1952:97).

While Grimble was keen to emphasise the benefits of the Kabowi system in the times of Imperialism, the establishment and purposes of law had also been described as a form of control:

… when the law by means of its necessary agent, force, imposes upon men a regulation of labor, a method or a subject or education, religious faith or creed – then the law is no longer negative; it acts positively upon people. It substitutes the will of the legislator for their own wills; the initiative of the legislator for their own initiatives. When this happens, the people no longer need to discuss, to compare, to plan ahead; ‘it being intended that’ the law does all this for them. Intelligence becomes a useless prop for the people; they cease to be men; they lose their personality, their liberty, their property. (Frederic Bastiat 1850)


Conference Paper and Powerpoint Presentation: "Essentially Being Banaban in Today’s World: The Role of Banaban Law 'TE RII NI BANABA'(Backbone of Banaba) In A Changing World" written and presented by: Ken Raobeia Sigrah and Stacey King at ISLANDS of the WORLD VIII International Conference “Changing Islands – Changing Worlds” 1-7 November 2004, Kinmen Island (Quemoy), Taiwan

Ebook: Te Rii ni Banaba, backbone of Banaba by Raobeia Ken Sigrah and Stacey M. King


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.

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