Volume 15, 1999
pp. 65 – 71
Section 1
Consolidated Notes From
Meeting/Interview With Emily Sikuli
No recording was made of Tom King’s interview of Emily Sikuli on July 15, 1999. The transcript reproduced here was compiled from the extensive notes taken by the researchers. Translations to and from Tuvaluan by Mr. Tofiga have been omitted.
July 15, 1999
Location: Residence of Foua Tofiga

Tom King (TK), Kristin Tague (KT) and Barbara Norris met with Mrs. Emily Sikuli (ES), daughter of Temou Samuela (the bone box builder), at 11:00 a.m. for approximately one and a half hours. The purpose of our meeting was to interview Emily regarding time she spent on Nikumaroro, her experiences there, recollections of her father and Gallagher and the discovery/recovery of the bones suspected by Mr. Gallagher of being those of American aviator, Amelia Earhart.

Emily began our meeting by agreeing that Niku was indeed a beautiful place. She gave us an opportunity to view photos of her mother and father and later photograph and photocopy them. A pleasant, spry woman, approximately 72 years old, Emily answered questions posed to her by Dr. King and interpreted by Foua Tofiga.

TK: Your father is kind of a famous man to us, because we’re trying to find that box he built.
ES: [smiles, gets photocopies out of a folder] Here is his picture, and a picture of my mother. [we examine, comment, Barb takes a picture]
TK: We are all interested about the bones in the box. Can you tell us something about the circumstances of that day?
ES:

The bones were found in the sea on Nikumaroro. There was a boat that was wrecked, but that boat belonged to New Zealand and that part of the island was named for New Zealand. Where the boat was on the reef. Not too far from there, is where the plane came down. [shown map at this point, she indicates area north of Norwich City on reef]

[Up to this point the interviewers had not said a word about an airplane, just the box, the bones, and her father. However, Foua Tofiga had talked with Emily, arranging for the interview, and later recalled that he had mentioned that we were interested in bones and an airplane.]

TK: Where were the parts of the airplane?
ES: Not far from where the ship was. Not toward the village but away from it. The struts were there. [holds up hands in circle, apparently indicating that the struts were round in cross-section, about 20 cm. in diameter] It was around that area were the bones were found. Could be bones from the ship or the airplane. During the westerlies, heavy swells took the rest of the bones away. There were not many that we found. Maybe 10 different people whose bones were found along that area. There were some with leather bottles and a pipe. I used to accompany my father to fish. Some people would not go to that area to fish because they were frightened. You would come up on the reef, then the beach comes up where the island shrubs start to grow. [with gestures and words, she and Foua indicated the storm surge line and first Scaevola line in from the beach] That is where the bones were found.
TK: What kind of things did your father make?
ES: My father made rings and combs, and things with inlaid wood. He made rings out of golden coins. He built things of wood. The box he made for the bones was not as big as a usual coffin size. I don’t know what timber was used. [To demonstrate the box size, Tom used his hands to get an approximate measurement of 12—15 inches deep and 24 inches in length.] I didn’t see the actual bones. I don’t know how many bones, but it must not have been many or the box would have been bigger. Many planks were used. Boards were nailed, stained and varnished. My father often worked with kanawa wood. [She walked clear around the island three times with her father, a great fisherman. This came out in the context of discussing how important her father was in the community, both as carpenter and a fisherman, and how close she was to him. She said she was raised like a man, because she was the oldest in her sibling set.]
TK: Did you see the plane fall?
ES: No, it was already there when I came. I came in 1938-1939, when I was 11 years old. I left in December 1941. The steel of the plane was there sometime before we got there. [asked specifically about aluminum, she says no] Fishermen found the bones. They were frightened and they brought the story of them to the Onotoa man.
TK: Was that Koata?
ES: [she smiles broadly as in recognition] Yes.
TK: What did Koata do?
ES: He sent people to bring the bones. People were frightened. Only people working for the government received the bones. My father had to look at the bones. Mr. Gallagher asked my father to make the box.
TK: What other kinds of things did your father make?
ES: My father had ceased making rings at that time [not done in the Phoenix Islands]. He was working for the government. He constructed houses, maintained the European houses, the hospital and he went fishing. He helped with the ministry. He took the lead in the systematic planting of the coconut trees. He brought the coconut seedlings from my uncle from Manra, in 1939.
TK: When did you get to Nikumaroro?
ES: We had not been on Beru Island a year when we were sent to Nikumaroro. Perhaps 1938-39. In less than 3 years, I left Nikumaroro.
TK: What caused your family to move to Nikumaroro?
ES: Instructions from the government to build houses and plant coconuts. Uncle Kemo went to Manra to build the hospital building and water tank.
TK: How old were you when your father built the box?
ES: 14 years old, not yet 15. I had been around the island three times with my father. I followed him and sometimes we would turn over turtles.
TK: Where were the turtles mostly?
ES: On the weather side. The government used to send people across the lagoon to pick up the turtles. [In an unrelated offering at this time, Emily commented that Niku was a pleasant place to live because of knowing Mr. Gallagher and Jack “Uncle Kemo” Pedro, who was also a singer and composer. Jack had three sons in the Gilbertese and Marshall Islands, one son now holding a senior position in the government of the Marshall Islands.]
TK: When your father was building the box was it special?
ES: It was special, but there was no real rush to complete the job quickly. I don’t know when the bones were removed from the island.
TK: Please clarify about the bones. Were the 10 skeletons/bodies separate from the bones that were put in the box?
ES: The bones of the 10 people were toward the shoreline, but these bones [the bones in the box her father made] were found on the reef near the remaining parts of the plane. People decided these bones were from the people from the plane. When I used to go to the place, the bones of the 10 people were still there. People who found the bones near the plane were frightened to touch them. They told Teng Koata of the bones and he told Gallagher. Koata had them collect the bones for Gallagher. Until I left the island, I hadn’t heard anything about what had happened to those bones. The government put restrictions that children were not to frequent that area.
TK: Did people use parts of the airplane?
ES: I don’t know for sure. When we got there only the steel frames were left, only the long pieces were there. We were frightened to go close to the plane. Where the shipwreck was—the remainder of the plane was not very far from there. The waves were washing it in low tide. The 10 people had complete skeletons. Looking at those people, they could be tall people. They were very long. People were afraid of all the bones in both places.
TK: With this map of Niku, can you find where you lived?
ES: We lived at the point at the government station. [She then confirmed the location of the carpenter’s house, the European house, the cook boy’s house, the police and the hospital.]
TK: Any other parts of the island where people went regularly?
ES: Only where they intended to clear and plant coconut trees. The trees had been cleared to the SE end [gestures over map down past Aukauraime].
TK: Do you know of any graves away from the village?
ES: Only those who died while we were there. [TK: it seemed to me she indicated that she didn’t know of any graves not in the village.]
TK: Were you there when Mr. Gallagher died?
ES: No, I wasn’t. [she has a brief conversation with Mr. Tofiga] NO! I WAS there. When I was picked up [to go to Suva to attend nursing school] he had already died. It was Sunday morning, we were getting ready for church, December 7th, when I left. [Emily traveled to Suva with Tofiga who remembers that she cried all night long and he felt helpless to comfort her.]
TK: What was it like when Mr. Gallagher died?
ES:

The people were very sad. They did a lot to show respect. The people gathered and made funeral arrangements. There was expression of respect because he was a good man. During storms and westerlies, he would go around and check on people’s houses. He made sure we had food. My father built his tomb. Fasimata O’Brian was the wireless operator then. He was a ginger-haired man.

[At this point Sarah, Emily’s daughter, interjected, “When mum gets homesick she talks about her father. My mother wants my sons to be like my grandfather. He cared about his family, was a good worker, a good provider. When he went fishing he would catch a lot and then share with everyone. My grandmother died when she was 89. My grandfather when he was 72.”]

TK: Any other Nikumaroro residents on Fiji?
ES: Nei O’Brian, the wireless operator’s wife is still alive. She lives in Suva.
TK: Any special areas the children were not allowed to go to?
ES: I never felt frightened because I always followed my father. Restrictions were placed by Koata.
TK: Did you ever hear about a place on Nikumaroro called Niurabo, or about Nei Manganibuka?
ES: [she gets rather stiff] We all were Christians.
TK: Where did kanawa trees grow?
ES: Here [points out location of Kanawa Point]. They were quite large.
TK: Were there other places where they grew?
ES: [shakes her head]
Emily said that when she left the island a canoe was sent through the surf near Kanawa Point where she was picked up and taken out to the ship.
Go to Section 2, transcript of videotaped interview.
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