Saving the Tokelauan Language

I don’t get a lot of news from the island nation of Tokelau. So when I do, I don’t hesitate to share. Recently, the New Zealand’s Minister of Pacific Peoples, Aupito William Sio, called on people to become champions of the Tokelauan language.


Where is Tokelau?

During the last week of October New Zealand celebrated Tokelauan Language Week, Vaiaho o te Gagana Tokelau, which was the last of the seven Pacific language weeks held throughout the country annually.

There are more than 7000 Tokelauans in New Zealand, five times the number on the atolls, but use of the language is falling with just 2469 speaking Tokelauan at the time of the 2013 census. Aupito said with nearly three-quarters of Tokelauans now born in New Zealand, protecting and preserving the language was more important than ever.

The gradual decline had caused the UN heritage agency UNESCO to put Tokelauan on the list of severely endangered languages, he said. New Zealand had to act now to prevent it being lost to future generations, the minister said.

A little about Tokelau…


The flag of Tokelau

Tokelau is a non-self-governing territory of New Zealand consisting of three coral atolls in the South Pacific: Atafu, Nukunonu, and Fakaofo. These atolls lie approximately mid-way between Hawaii and New Zealand and about 500 km north of Samoa.

Formerly known as the Union Islands, the name ‘Tokelau Islands’ was adopted in 1946 and then shortened to ‘Tokelau’ in 1976. Tokelau’ is Polynesian for ‘North Wind’.

Archaeological evidence indicates that the atolls of Tokelau were settled around 1000 years ago. Oral history traces local traditions and genealogies back several hundred years and details the origins of the social and political order that was in place by the 19th century. According to oral sources, the three atolls functioned largely independently while maintaining social and linguistic cohesion.

Vice-Admiral John Byron of England found Atafu on his 1765 voyage but saw no signs of inhabitants. In 1791, Captain Edward Edwards found Nukunonu while searching for mutineers from the HMS Bounty. The US whaling ship General Jackson reached the island of Fakaofo in 1835.

In 1889, the islands were claimed by Britain. They became part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (Kiribati and Tuvalu) in 1916, which was then renamed the Union Group. In 1925, the islands came under the administration of New Zealand. They became a New Zealand territory in 1948. Today, more Tokelauans live outside Tokelau than on the islands.

Over the past three decades Tokelau has moved progressively towards its current advanced level of political self-reliance. It has its own unique political institutions, including a national legislative body and Executive Council. It runs its own judicial system and public services. It has its own shipping and telecommunications systems. It has full control over its budget. It plays an active role in regional affairs and is a member of a number of regional and international bodies.

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