The Way the Learning Was Taught

In the ancient times, when people wanted to learn the ancient lore, the genealogies, the legends, they would prepare things to learn. They would raise pigs and grow food. These things were the payment to the tuhuna oono (the expert of the ancient knowledge). This is because the tuhuna oono would come and teach them.

When these things were prepared these people would be put under a tapu (restrictions to make them sacred). In the tapu they were restricted from certain things, like certain kinds of food, sexual intercourse, feeding themselves, etc. They would build a special house called an ‘oho au’. They would live in that house while they were being taught the knowledge.

The tuhuna oono would come and each day he would teach them. The way the knowledge was taught in ancient times is that the tuhuna oono would recite the genealogies and the legends. Then the students would recite the knowledge back to the tuhuna oono. Then the tuhuna oono would recite the knowledge to them again and they would recite it back. They would go back and forth, talking and listening, talking and listening. This is how they were taught the knowledge. During all this time the students were tapu. If someone broke a tapu the tuhuna oono could tell.

One time a woman had her menstrual period during the time she was participating in this learning. Because of the tapu restriction she was supposed to leave and wait until her period was over. But she did not. Byt this she was breaking the tapu. When the tuhuna oono came, he knew by his mana (supernatural power) that she was having her period so he sent her out.

Those people are all dead now.

It is said that Polynesians learn best by doing. (I presume, that is also true for everyone else). This is reflected in the way the knowledge was taught because all the students were required to recite the knowledge they had learned. This way they learned by their mistakes.

Once I went to the matapule of Koloa island to learn some stories of Koloa. He was a Tongan who was going to teach me Tongan things. However, because I knew about how the Marquesan knowledge was taught I approached him from the viewpoint of what I know about the old Marquesans. I brought food to him as a gift. Then after he recited a legend to me I recited the legend back to him. Because I did this, when I left his house, I knew those legends and I have not forgotten them.

When I take a class I make it a point to do all the homework. Sure, if I do the same kind of a problem ten different ways I take a lot of time, but in a way I am imitating the students in the oho au who also learned best by doing.

These people made themselves tapu before they learned the ancient knowledge. This was because they were making themselves sacred to receive the sacred knowledge from the past. But all the activities related to the preparation prepared the people’s minds to listen to the tuhuna oono. The preparation of the food to pay the tuhuna oono, the construction of the special house, the tapu restrictions: these things all worked to prepare the minds of the students to listen to the tuhuna oono. This was needed, because the learning consisted of listening for long periods of time to stories that you have heard being told over and over again by the tuhuna oono and by the other students.

If you have not prepared yourself to listen, you will be bored and you will never be able to get the knowledge. Because this knowledge was sacred, it could only be given to people who had the true desire in their hearts to learn. This knowledge could not be given to the people who did not have the true desire because those people lacked the concentration and the intensity to make the preparations, to put themselves under the tapu restrictions and to listen for long periods of time so that they could gain this knowledge.

I find that if I try to learn something like a really long story, that at the start I study with a lot of interest, but as time goes on my interest fades, I don’t have the desire. Perhaps if I observed tapus, I might maintain my interest for longer.


Some of this information on this story comes from ‘The Native Culture of the Marquese’ by Linton, and from ‘Marquesan Legends’ by E. S. Craighill Handy, some more of it also came from ‘Ancient Tahiti’ by Teuira Henry, in which Teuira Henry speaks of the Tahitian customs about teaching knowledge.

Revised: June 13, 1996

Copyright © 1996 Daniel (Taniera) Longstaff