Money Coil (Tevau)

Santa Cruz Islands

Not on view

One of the most remarkable forms of currency found throughout Oceania are tevau, feather money coils from the Santa Cruz Islands in Temotu Province at the eastern end of the Solomon Islands chain. The manufacture of tevau was localized to the island of Ndende (Nendö), but as valuables they were traded through the Reef and Duff Islands to the north.

The coils are made from the feathers of the scarlet honeyeater (Myzomela cardinalis), known locally as mungau. Throughout much of the Pacific, red feathers are revered as a sacred and spiritually charged material and as such they are a valuable exchange item. The production of tevau is the work of three distinct specialists. One man was responsible for trapping the birds and harvesting their feathers. Another would fix the red feathers into small plates by using tree gum to adhere them to structure of larger pigeon feathers. A third specialist would assemble the plates onto a woven base supported by a bark coil. The specialist knowledge involved in making tevau was held in certain family lines and tightly guarded. According to legend, the knowledge was first taught to humans by forest dwelling spirits, who warned that if the men shared what they had learned they would lose their good fortune.

The value of tevau is determined by its size and quality of the red feathers. A tevau of this size would likely contain the feathers of 300 or more birds and have taken hundreds of hours to make. The value of the coils would decline as the feathers weathered and faded so the most valued were those that were vital, red and fresh. A turtle shell charm placed inside this coil further adds to its value. The stings of coix seeds and small shells that are attached to the piece are a marker of time and labor involved in its manufacture, and are placed at the start, end and center point of the coil. For both spiritual and environmental protection, tevau would be stored wrapped in leaves and suspended from the rafters of houses, where the smoke from fires would ward away insects while wooden charms placed in the wrappings protected against malevolent spirits.

Tevau could be used in payment for high value items such as canoes and the pigs that are central to the village economies in many Pacific cultures. Tevau also played an important role in the payment of bride wealth – the compensation to the bride’s family for the loss of her generative potential as a mother and grower of crops. Other uses for tevau included compensation payments to settle disputes, presentations to ancestral spirits, and as payments for courtesans from the Reef Islands who were purchased to reside in the men’s house.

During the twentieth century, knowledge of how to make tevau largely diminished in the islands, as cash replaced feather money within the local economy. However, in recent years there have been attempts in Temotu Province to revive tevau, and in the year 2000 three men from Noipe village in Santa Cruz were trained in the sacred knowledge of tevau making.

Money Coil (Tevau), Feathers, fiber, bark, seeds, shell, glass beads, leaves, Santa Cruz Islands

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