Today, the majority of the Banaban community resides on Rabi Island, Fiji, with only around 300 Banabans inhabiting their homeland in the Kiribati Islands group. The traditional Banaban ritual of te kabwane eitei, also known as frigate bird snaring, has been lost due to various factors. These include the introduction of Christianity in the late 1980s, the arrival of te I-Matang's (Europeans) in 1900 following the discovery of phosphate, and the forced removal of Banabans from their homeland by invading Japanese forces in 1943 during World War II.
The importance of Te Kabwane Eitei within traditional culture
Te Aka, the indigenous people of Banaba believed that from nature, the sun was their main source of power and the very source of life itself. They invoked their sun totem when the need arose and during certain days of the lunar cycle. These particular rituals corresponded to the time of sports and certain cultural events, such as Banaban boxing, frigate bird snaring, tuna pole fishing and performing the karanga dance.
The totem of the Te Aka played a vital role in the initiation of young men. At puberty, the boys were sent to the house or quarters made especially for the purpose. The quarters belonged to the eldest male member of the clan, who was usually a great-grandfather or great-granduncle. He is respected as the tutor and teaches the customs of men, such as boxing, fishing, snaring frigate birds and kauti (magic rituals). The sun totem was the primary link to perform these rituals.
"This is one Banaban culture that was demonized by the missionaries due to its association with Banaban witchcraft of te Kauti magic. It is part of nurturing boys on their Atinikana where they can only declare your manhood when they can lower and tame a frigate bird." Terikata Teikabua
Although no one can identify who invented the game, Te Aka men practised frigate bird snaring for generations. Oral history recalls that Te Aka people were playing it well before the Auriaria and Anginimaeao clans arrived. The sport died out from the impact of phosphate mining on the island and the destruction of the bird’s natural habitat. Te Aka people have always believed that frigate birds, like themselves, were the first inhabitants of Banaba; therefore, they greatly respected these creatures.
The game of frigate bird snaring had two purposes. One was to gather the valued long black feathers for adorning the crinkly hair of Te Aka people and, after the arrival of Auriaria and the Battle of Tairua, feathers for adorning the war dance spears in te karanga and the dancer’s headpieces. However, the primary purpose was an exciting sport where men competed to snare and tame the most birds. The person who owned the most birds was recognised as the best and respected for that unique skill. The materials used in this sport were as follows:
1. Long sinews of coconut fibre twisted into fine, strong strings 9 to 12 metres in length. Each string was securely tied to a stone weight through a hole made at one end.
2. Te baobao (tall wooden frames) built high off the ground were a resting place for the tamed birds. A good supply of fresh fish was essential to feed the birds during the taming process.
The two main phases were first to catch and then secondly to tame the frigate bird. A competitor snared birds by swinging a long coconut fibre string, weighted down with a stone tied to one end, in a circular motion to build up speed and then tossing it high into the air to wrap around the bird in flight. The bird was then pulled down to earth.
Once snared, the wild birds were secured by the leg on a long string and attached to te baobao on the terraces around the seashore. Here they were well fed with freshly caught fish and continually handled until they became tame. The birds were marked with a string on their leg or their feathers.
Once sufficiently tamed, they were released every morning to fly off in search of food. The bird returned at dusk to its owner, who waited on the terrace. When wild frigate birds returned with them, the game of bird snaring began again. The men also knew the art of ‘calling the bird’ so that their birds returned on command.
Traditional knowledge known today
The following information was provided by Banabans, Teikata Teikabua and Takaniko Kaitetara Ruabete (Nov 2023).
There were three levels of frigate bird taming:
- Lowest level - Te Karoo
- Middle level -
- Highest level - Te Itabwere
"Eitei, frigate birds, were caught and tamed in an elaborate process undertaken only by men. Bringing down a frigate bird on the wing without hurting it requires great skill. Keeping a tethered frigate bird while it was becoming tame took several weeks and required feeding it a continual supply of small fish. When a village ran out of tamed birds they requested some from another village in order to lure others in. The birds were taken ceremonially, the men carrying and accompanying them oiled and garlanded with flowers. Speeches and feasting followed their arrival and the attachment of birds to their new perches. Nauruans also tamed frigate birds, and the people of both islands sent them back and forth, originally carrying fish hooks, and later with literacy, written notes: a frigate bird could take a message from Banaba to Nauru in four to six hours. They could also be trained to fish." Nadia Fomai 2023
Frigate Bird Taming Nauru
The main information for this article is from an excerpt of Te Rii ni Banaba: backbone of Banaba, Part One: Te Aka, Chapter 6: Sport, Te Kabwane Eitei (Frigate Bird Snarning), by Raobeia Ken Sigrah and Stacey M. King (1st ed. 2001; 2nd ed. 2019)
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About the Creator
Stacey King, a published Australian author and historian. Her writing focuses on her mission to build global awareness of the plight of the indigenous Banaban people and her achievements as a businesswoman, entrepreneur and philanthropist.