The Culture And Traditions Of Kiribati

A dancer from Kiribati performs at the UN Convention for Climate Change. Editorial credit: dominika zarzycka /
A dancer from Kiribati performs at the UN Convention for Climate Change. Editorial credit: dominika zarzycka /

Kiribati is an island nation located in the central area of the Pacific Ocean. Its current customs and traditions have been influenced both by its history as a colony of the UK and by its relative isolation from the rest of the world. Its colonial history has influenced some of its major holidays and religions, while its geographical isolation has allowed it to keep some of its ancient traditions and customs alive. This country is made up of 33 islands and has a population of around 110,000 individuals, half of whom live in or around the capital city Tarawa. Only around 20 of these islands have permanent human populations. Approximately 98.8% of the population here identifies as belonging to the Micronesian ethnicity. The most widely spoken language throughout this country is Taetae ni Kiribati, also known as Gilbertese. This language belongs to the Austronesian language family.

The culture of Kiribati includes its: social beliefs and customs, religions and festivals, music and dance, literature and arts, and cuisine. This article takes a closer look at each of these components of the culture of Kiribati.

Social Beliefs And Customs

The society of Kiribati is characterized by its retention of traditional beliefs and customs. One of the most unique customs in this country concerns the issue of land ownership. Families of this island are organized by utu, a group of relatives and family. A single person may be part of more than one utu, depending on their familial ties. These utus are the root of the society here and dictate ownership of local land and property. Parents may leave property and utu membership to their children when they pass away. The center of the utu is referred to as the kainga. Whoever occupies the kainga space has more decision making power about how the familial property may be used.

Religion And Festivals

Today, the vast majority of the population (around 96%) of Kiribati identifies as a follower of the Christian religion. Of these individuals, 55.6% consider themselves to be Catholics and 33.5% attend the Kiribati Uniting Church. The latter church is classified as a Protestant sect and was founded in 1968, when Kiribati was still part of the Gilbert Islands. In 1916, the Baha’i religion was introduced to population here. Currently, around 2.3% of the residents of Kiribati report following the teachings of this religion, making it the second largest, non-Christian religion practiced on the island.

The biggest celebration in Kiribati is Independence Day, which falls on July 12th each year. On this day in 1979, Kiribati gained its independence from the UK. The celebration of this day is extended and takes place during the week running up to the official date. The festivities are primarily concentrated in the capital of the country, South Tarawa. Some of the biggest activities for this day include: parades, games, sports, competitions, beauty pageants, and dancing. On August 10th, the residents of Kiribati celebrate National Youth Day. The primary purpose of this day is to promote the involvement of youth in social and political issues. On this day, the youngest residents of Kiribati come together in several locations to brainstorm solutions for the challenges facing the future of this country.

Music And Dance

The music of Kiribati is considered a type of folk music and is unique in that it has maintained much of its traditional aspects over time. Songs from this country are centered around the vocals, which often take the form of chanting. Interestingly, music in Kiribati also incorporates a practice known as body percussion. This type of percussion produces a rhythm by clapping hands, snapping fingers, or bouncing feet on the floor. Music is often used in this country to accompany major life events, such as marriage, death, and religious observances.

Dancing in Kiribati is just as traditional as the music. Eight specific dances have been identified as originating in this country: Buki, Ruoia, Te Kabuti, Tirere, and Kaimatoa. Although distinct, each of these dances shares the common theme of mimicking the movements of the frigatebird, which is depicted on the national flag of Kiribati. These bird-like dance moves typically involve outstretched arms and jerking head movements.

Literature And Arts

Because of the relative isolation of this island nation, the exchange of stories and ideas with other cultures has been limited. This limited access to other cultures around the world means that many of the examples of literature and art from Kiribati rely heavily on ancient and traditional ideas. Handcrafted items are commonly created from locally sourced materials, such as reed and other grasses that can be woven together. These objects primarily serve a daily purpose, like sandals and baskets, and therefore may not be viewed as art by some individuals around the world. Other examples of art produced on this island include jewelry and carved trinkets, both of which tend to utilize seashells. These types of handicrafts are commonly sold to tourists as souvenirs and the money from these sales represents a large percentage of the national economy.

Kiribati is not known for its literary output. In fact, only one author, Teresia Teaiwa, is commonly associated with this country. She is not from Kiribati, however, and was actually born in the US state of Hawaii. She grew up in Fiji. Her mother is an African American from the US and her father is from Kiribati.


As an island nation, Kiribati lacks access to a number of food items that might be more common or easily obtained in the rest of the world. Additionally, this island is a coral atoll, which means that the soil is nutrient deficient. These harsh conditions make growing any sort of agricultural crop here quite difficult. Due to this factor, fishing has become a mainstay of the economy and of survival for the population here. Therefore, seafood is the primary component of traditional Kiribati dishes. Seafood may be prepared in a number of ways, including: baked, fried, and steamed. Bananas and coconuts are also able to survive here and so these two ingredients also make their way into traditional, Kiribati cuisine.


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