Collection Description

Culture Name


Culture Description

The Republic of Kiribati consists of three equatorial Pacific island groups: the Gilbert (including Banaba), Phoenix, and Line islands. Most inhabitants live in the Gilbert (Kiribati) Islands, mainly on South Tarawa. Landholding residential groups composed of ambilineal descent groups are the traditional social unit, governed by councils of heads of descent groups (and, at times, led by chiefs); traditional island councils continue to supplement elected ones. Agriculture on most islands is limited to a few hardy root crops and trees due to porous soils and a dry climate. Fishing remains the mainstay of the economy, with most households relying increasingly on remittances from migrant workers and imported food.


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Oceania --Micronesia



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Collection Overview

Documents referred to in this section are included in eHRAF World Cultures and are referenced by author, date of publication, and title where necessary.

The Kiribati collection largely spans the period from the arrival of Christian missionaries in 1850s to the start of the 2000s; field observations are uninterrupted for nearly all the twentieth century, except for the decades before, during and after World War II. While the focus is on the Gilbert (Kiribati) Islands—especially the northern islands of Makin, Butaritari, and South Tarawa—by extension the collection also covers the Phoenix and Line island groups that are part of the Republic of Kiribati.

The first systematic description of traditional Kiribati culture and society is by Grimble (1989), a British colonial officer who lived among Kiribati from 1916 to 1932. Themes covered include oral history, clans and other kinship-based groups, village meetings, house types, religious ceremonies, dance types, and economic activities. In a separate work, Grimble (1921) reconstructs aspects of major Kiribati rites of passages celebrated prior to the arrival Christian missionaries and the establishment of British colonial rule. Based on fieldwork some four decades later, Koch (1986) presents a major descriptive work on Kiribati material culture, with particular focus on commonly used tools, utensils, furniture, ornaments, mats, and clothing.

Lambert often uses historical sources to supplement field observations made from the late 1950s to early 1970s on Makin and Butaritari islands when focusing on specific themes including: land tenure (Lambert 1971), economic activities of village chiefs (Lambert 1966 “The economic activities…”), social functions of adoption and fosterage (Lambert 1964), kinship groups (Lambert 1966 “Ambilinial descent groups…”), and demographic change (Lambert 1975).

The 1985 edited volume Kiribati: A Changing Atoll Culture has chapters by native Kiribati scholars, technical experts, and government officials that, taken together, provide a comprehensive account of a changing Kiribati, especially following independence in 1979; Mason (1985) supplies the background and a comprehensive bibliography. Coverage includes: national identity (Alaima Talu 1985); maternal and child care (Teatao Tira 1985); dynamics of kinship and family life (Iobi 1985; Teraku 1985); language and performing arts (Kirion 1985 “Composing songs”; Taoaba 1985); youth migration and the weakening of elders’ moral authority (Kirion 1985 “Beyond the reef”); religion and spirituality (Kirata 1985); the goals, curricula, and performance of public schools (Tautua 1985; Russell 1985); mass media (Bataua 1985); economic development related to fishing (Onorio 1985) and to agriculture (Tofiga 1985); the roles of household heads and village elders (Teiwaki 1985); and core cultural values (Taboki 1985).

Other theme-focused works fill in the later part of the twentieth century to the outset of the twenty-first. The main themes are: the effects of migration on health and nutrition (Thomas 2002); gender and family planning (Brewis 2001); the role of tourism (Milne 1991); and change and continuity in the social functions of village meeting houses over the span of a century (Kazama 2001).

For more detailed information on the content of the individual works in this collection, see the abstracts in the citations preceding each document.

Overview by

Teferi Adem

Boti – assigned clan seats in the village meeting house

Eiriki – category of affinal relatives with culturally permissible, but not always established, sexual relations among themselves

Kaainga – see "Kainga"

Kainga – site of ancestral home; also a residential clan segment recognized as a landholding corporation

Maneaba– village meeting house – use "PUBLIC STRUCTURES (344)" or "COMMUNITY COUNCILS (623)"

Mwaneaba – see "Maneaba"

Utu – kindred (bilateral consanguineal relatives)

Indexing Notes by

Teferi Adem

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