Tokelau consists of three main islands; Fakaofo, Nukunonu, and Atafu. Stretching over 93 miles halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, Tokelau's combined land mass is roughly 6.3 square miles. The name ‘Tokelau' refers to the north wind, which according to oral history, carried the first settlers to Polynesia.
Tokelau was colonized by Great Britain in 1889. In 1916, they became a part of the Crown Colony of Gilbert and Ellice Islands; now Kiribati and Tuvalu. Tokelau has been governed by New Zealand since 1925. Since Tokelau is part of New Zealand, islanders frequently travel to New Zealand for education, employment, and relocation. With a population of only 1,200 people (300-400 people living on each island), Tokelau is coordinated through the Tokelau Affairs Office in Apia, Samoa.
With no airstrip to land planes, Tokelau is one of the most remote places in the Central Pacific. Travel to the three islands is limited to passenger ships or freighters; a journey that takes 30-35 hours from Apia, Samoa (300 miles away).
History & Governance
Archeological and linguistic evidence suggests that the first people to inhabit the islands of Tokelau were voyagers from Samoa. The oral history of the islands tell of a period of warfare between the three islands, with Fakaofo establishing authority over Nukunonu and Atafu. With the coming of the church, inter-island warfare ceased. Today, the three islands are equal and governance is a cooperative effort.
Throughout the 19th century, British, French, and American sailors and missionaries visited the islands. In 1863, Peruvian ‘blackbirding’ slave ships abducted virtually all the able-bodied adult men to work in the guano mines and homes of rich Peruvians. Foreign diseases and a famine further reduced the population until, at one time, the total population of Tokelau was less than 300 people. Over the course of the 20th century, the population of Tokelau gradually rebuilt itself with locals marrying Polynesians, Americans, Scottish, French, Portuguese and Germans.
Tokelau Act of 1948
Their isolation and small population resulted in little interference (or help) from their colonial rulers or the outside world. Following the Tokelau Act of 1948, New Zealand took a more active role with Tokelau. The New Zealand government installed public infrastructure, set up a system of education, hospitals, and in 1963 began a policy of assisted migration.
In November of 2004, Tokelau and New Zealand took steps to formulate a treaty that would establish Tokelau as a “self-governing state in free association with New Zealand,” rather than a non-self-governing territory. At one time, many islanders advocated independence from New Zealand, but today the majority of residents prefer to retain their ties to New Zealand; particularly in light of the potential dangers of climate change.
Maopoopo and Inati
The people of Tokelau are Polynesians in language and culture. Islanders have developed a way of life that is based on the principals of community and kinship. Maopoopo is the guiding principal of Tokelau values and is best translated as “a unity of a common purpose that encompasses both body and spirit." This collective ethos is cultivated through communal activities which include fishing expeditions, construction projects, unloading cargo ships, sports competitions, and music and dance.
Maopoopo is best exemplified to this day through the practice of inati. On special days during the month all the men in the village fish together. Upon their return, they systematically and ritually divide the catch with all the family clans on the island. The inati system is distinctively Tokelauan and embodies deeply held values of equality and fairness. This inati system continues to this day.
The extended family is a core unit in village life with elders accorded the highest respect. With a total population of 400, islanders know each other by name, know their parents and their family lineage. All communal decisions such as land management, water supplies, collective labor, education, and social activities are made by the Taupulega or Council of Elders. Representatives of the Taupulega from every atoll make up the General Fono, or parliament of Tokelau.
Fishing governs the rhythm of life on Tokelau, with men and boys heading out every day in their small boats to spend long hours on the open sea. Generally, the boats are powered by an outboard motor and can hold 2-5 people. Traditional fishing requires close observation of the phases of the moon, the stars, cloud formations and the progression of lunar months. Fish is the most important food and in addition to being cooked can be eaten raw or dried. Common species include tuna, skip jack, scad, and flying fish. Residents report that varieties of fish are becoming depleted due to commercial overfishing by neighboring nations.
Christianity is of central importance to Tokelauans. Everyone looks forward to attending church services several times a week. While inhabitants of Nukunonu are nearly all Roman Catholic, most people who live on Atafu are members of the Christian Congregational Church of Samoa. Fakaofo has churches of both faiths.
Regardless of denomination, music and dance figure prominently in religious expression and permeates daily life. The London Missionary Society had prohibited old dances (in church contexts) on the islands of Atafu and Fakaofo, but endorsed the introduction of Samoan tales, music, and dances by Samoan missionaries. At the same time the Roman Catholic Church on Nukunonu used Tokelauan music and dance as a vehicle for religious conversion. Christians introduced hymns and multipart harmonies. Adapted over time today they are a part of the fabric of Tokelauan identity. This year, Tokelau celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Congregational Church of Tokelau. Atafu is constructing a new building to commemorate this important milestone.
On a night of festivities the atmosphere buzzes with communal excitement as a fiafia (evening entertainment) gets under way in the maneapa. Dancers have prepared their favorite fateles for weeks in advance. Groups take pride in putting together new ideas for songs, dance moves, and rhythms.
Music, rhythm and dance are inseparable in Tokelau. A fatele has very simple instrumental accompaniment. Men surround a low wooden box (pokihi) and beat the rhythm with their open hands. Those with special skills can draw complex rhythms out of a simple biscuit tin or apa.
It is common in a fiafia to have an informal competition of two groups. Each side loves to demonstrate their skills to the other and as many as twenty dances may be performed in one evening.
One unique feature of these fatele, common in Tuvalu as well, is the pattern of repetition. While each song/dance may be quite short, it is always repeated, normally 10-15 times. With each repetition the tempo accelerates, the melody modulates to a higher pitch and the volume increases. One never gets tired as the meaning deepens and beauty is revealed. The atmosphere of the maneaba is energized and the experience of performers and spectators intensifies. A collective climax and exhaustion signals time to end the dance.
Economy & Modernization
Tokelau is a subsistence-based economy with fish and coconut as the most abundant food sources. Dried processed coconut (copra) was exported through the 20th century and was used to pay colonial taxes. Efforts to export goods include postage stamps and handicrafts. In September of 2003, Fakaofo installed the first high-speed internet connection, and subsequently added more than 10% to its GDP through the registration of domain names.
With a GDP of $1000 per capita, Tokelau ranks among the lowest in the world. As a part of New Zealand, they receive assistance with education, transportation, health, and building. The parliament of Tokelau and the New Zealand government are committed to installing solar energy on all islands.
Migration to New Zealand has shaped the culture of Tokelau. By 1976, there were more Tokelauans living abroad than were on the islands. All government officials in Tokelau received their high school and university educations in New Zealand. According to the most recent census population, rates continue to decline at a rate of .09 percent. While New Zealand offers social and economic opportunities, some New Zealand migrants have returned home to the family oriented lifestyle of the islands.