A Feast, a Dance, and a Funeral: an Exploration of Contemporary Tongan Culture Across Three Christian Denominations

Howarter, Carolyn, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
McKinnon, Susan, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines a debate about contemporary Tongan culture that is unfolding across a range of arenas that force Tongans to contend with differing ideas of family, money, and bodies. At the center of this debate is a dichotomy over how people envision the future of Tongan culture: should Tongans adhere to “the Tongan way” or should they embrace “the palangi (white foreign) way” of organizing their families, managing their finances, and dressing their bodies. “The Tongan way,” or faka-Tonga, involves recognizing large, expansive networks of kin and submitting to the authority of key relatives, generous material care that extends outwards, and wrapping large bodies in Tongan textiles as an act of respect and indexing a long history of Tongan values and religion. “The palangi way,” or fakapalangi, refers to a set of values rooted in Western notions of individualism and capitalism that favor a nuclear family organization, individual self-sufficiency and capital accumulation, and non-wrapped slender bodies.
Christianity is a major factor in this debate as churches organize much of Tongan social life and have deep influences—or in many cases are the forums for discussion—over people’s ideas. Methodism is the most traditional Christian denomination in Tonga and heavily promotes a strict adherence to Tongan values, in part because these traditions are extremely beneficial for Methodist church leaders. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS or Mormon) in Tonga is at the other end of the spectrum and in many cases explicitly promotes ideas that align with “the palangi way”—particularly in regard to how people manage their money, which, in turn, is intricately linked to how people reckon their families. Finally, the Catholic Church sits between Methodists and Mormons; in some ways Catholics are very “traditional” in Tonga, and in other ways offer flexibility for congregants to shift between “the Tongan way” and “the palangi way.” I argue that rather than being completely separate spheres, family and money in Tonga are closely intertwined with one another so that changing an approach to one necessarily changes a person’s approach to the other; second that this debate over the shape of contemporary Tongan life is seen in people’s bodies and materially through dress that is used to symbolize different allegiances to Tongan or palangi values.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
kinship, exchange, bodies, dress, Christianity
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