Tongan Culture


Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

ties have paramount importance in Tongan society. In the Tongan language, there is no word to refer to one’s . The term ‘fāmili’, which stems from English, is used to refer to one’s . Rather, people tend to identify with their kāinga (extended family). The fāmili consists of a married couple, their children and sometimes other family members under the same roof. The extended family consists of relatives who live in different households in the same or several villages. The close relationship one has with their extended family is reflected in the familial terms used to refer to family members. For example, a Tongan will usually refer to all their maternal aunts as ‘mother’ and all uncles as ‘father’. Cousins are also thought of as brothers or sisters.

Parents are the main caretakers of their children, although members of the extended family will contribute to raising the child. This shared parenting method extends beyond the village and may include Tongans abroad who send back to their homeland. Older Tongans often lack the education or formal skills needed to compete in today’s economy, so many stay at home and help care for their grandchildren while the parents earn money. It is also not uncommon for couples to adopt children. For instance, a couple may decide to give their child to a relative of higher social or economic position, or parents who work abroad may leave their child with relatives.


is extremely important to many Tongans and an integral part of anga fakatonga (the Tongan way). Many Tongan families keep a hohoko (genealogical relationship chart) where they record the names of their ancestors and descendants along with other information. Some may physically write the hohoko on a sail cloth while others may use a computer to record this information. Tongan ancestry often plays a large role in one's sense of self and belonging and regularly figures into the oral culture of Tongans.

Gender Roles

In accordance with the Tongan way (angafakatonga), gender, age and one's line of descent determine one's position in society. There are specific designated roles and obligations expected to be fulfilled depending on one's gender. At a young age, brothers are considered to be subordinate to their sisters, and typically there is an expectation upon the eldest daughter to be a leader.

Tonga is traditionally a society, meaning women hold higher social standing than men. This attitude is taught from a very young age. For example, boys and girls are traditionally raised separately to adhere to the brother's requirement to respect (faka’apa’apa) and avoid (faka’ehi’ehi) his sister. It is considered tapu (taboo) for any male that has passed puberty to be in the same room with his sister or girl cousins alone. Influences of anga fakapālangi have altered the degree to which this taboo affects some Tongan families. For instance, some families may designate separate bathrooms for boys and girls, while others allow the two genders to use the same bathroom.

Within the , the father is traditionally the provider of the family’s income. Men also usually inherit titles and land, meaning many tend to their bush allotments (parcels of agricultural land used for subsistence farming) and raise pigs to supplement their family’s diet. Meanwhile, the Tongan saying “ko e’api ‘a ‘fafine” (“home is for women”) summarises the traditional role of the mother. She is expected to tend to the children, do household chores and prepare food.

Regarding the extended family, the hierarchical positions and duties of gender roles differ. One’s maternal uncle (fa’etangata) is considered to be lower in ranking in the extended family because of his obligation to care for his sister and her children. In contrast, the highest-ranking member of the extended family is one’s eldest aunt (mehekitanga). She is considered to be the fahu (dignified leader) of the family, as exemplified in her role during special occasions for her brother’s children. The ideology of sisters having a higher position than men often gives young women a strong sense of their identity as Tongan women. Attitudes of gender equality in Tonga continues through the symbolic honouring of women through rank and the material honouring of men through land inheritance.

Dating and Marriage

Since Tongan boys and girls are generally kept separate beginning at a relatively young age, interaction between the two is limited until they are older. Tongan youth tend to meet at supervised activities in the church, the village or school. If a romantic relationship begins to develop at school-age, elders will usually tell the couple to wait until they are older before continuing their interactions. Traditionally, a boy is only allowed to date a girl in the presence of her family as it is considered inappropriate for couples to be alone before marriage.

It is generally crucial to reach an agreement and forge positive connections between a couple's families. However, it is not uncommon for young adults to meet others without the knowledge of their parents. Generally speaking, men are expected to marry those of the same social status, while women can freely choose whom they marry (see Tongan Social Hierarchy in Core Concepts for more information).

Marriages and weddings are considered to be a time of great celebration. A civil ceremony precedes the religious one and, by law, all marriages must be confirmed by a registered church official. During the wedding, the two extended families participate in an exchanging of mats and goods. The bride and groom will ‘wear their wealth' by being wrapped in their best mats, being rubbed with oils, and wearing flower necklaces around their necks and hair adornments. The ceremony is accompanied by a feast, singing, dancing and many speeches. The bride typically performs her last traditional Tongan solo dance (tau’olunga), signifying the end of her life as a single woman.

Although Tongans are free to marry whom they choose, the pronounced of Tonga discourages marriages between people of vastly different social status. As premarital sexual relations are socially unacceptable, couples who have a child out of wedlock are expected to marry. Once married, the bride will usually move in with her husband and his family, or they will move into their own home.

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