7 things you should know about Tokelau: Tokelau language week 2013

This week is Tokelau language week.  The theme for this year’s celebration is: “Ko te au o mātua, ko fānau: At the core of a parents heart, are their children.” With the  younger generation in mind, Te Papa staff will be blogging daily with stories related to Tokelau and its treasures from Te Papa’s collections.

To start the week off, here are seven things you should know about Tokelau…

Fakaofo Atoll in the Tokelau Group, photographed from 30,000+ feet on October 19, 2005.

Fakaofo Atoll in the Tokelau Group, photographed from 30,000+ feet on October 19, 2005. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fakaofo_Atoll.jpg

1. As I was reminded today, the first thing anyone should know about Tokelau is that it is made up of four atolls… “Atafu, the northern most motu [atoll], then the beautiful Nukunonu, the historical home of ‘Tui Tokelau’ on Fakaofo, and never forgetting the ancient communal lands of Olohega in the south.”(1) Politically, and as part of the processes of colonialism, Olohega is currently administered by the United States. Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo are administered by New Zealand.  However, historically and culturally Olohega is part of Tokelau.

2.  Low coral atolls like those of Tokelau are formed from a coral reef that has grown on top of a submerged volcano. The actual land consists of sand and coral that has built up on the surface of the reef. The atolls of Tokelau sit on extinct volcanic peaks.

3.  The coral atolls of Tokelau have no surface fresh water. The people had to dig wells to a lens-shaped natural reservoir of fresh water trapped beneath the sand. This precious resource is replenished by rain.

4. Environmental threats to Tokelau include cyclones, tsunamis, and drought. Rises in sea level erode the atolls. A rise of a few metres would make these islands uninhabitable. Seawalls and sand bags help keep the ocean back.

pandanus fruit

5. For food, Tokelauans in earlier times depended on the native pandanus and coconut trees, as well as introduced plants such as swamp taro (which they grew in ponds dug down to the freshwater level) and breadfruit. Marine resources were also vital. Tokelau people have developed a unique system of sharing out food among all members of the community. This is called inati.

Toki (hafted adze)

6. The only ‘rock’ in Tokelau is coral, so the people used shell and bone for tools. Occasionally they obtained stone tools from other islands, like Samoa.

The Tokelau flag depicting a vaka sailing toward the Southern Cross constellation of stars

7. In 2011, the population of Tokelau was 1411. In 2006, there were around 6,819 Tokelauans living in New Zealand.


Inati – a system of sharing out food among the community

Toki – a hafted adzing tool used for shaping wood

Atafu, Fakaofo, Nukunonu and Olohega – the atolls of Tokelau

Motu – atoll/island

(1) Many thanks to Nathan Pedro and Lily Pedro for their feedback.

If you enjoyed this blogpost test your knowledge about Tokelau in the 2014 Tokelau language week  FIVE MINUTE QUIZ

11 Responses

  1. Foai Suka Foai

    I’m looking forward with confidence when justice emerge only God knows.

    Foai Suka Foai QSM, JP

    • Sean Mallon

      Thank you for reading the blog and for your comment Foai.

  2. Tammy leimbach

    Our family is having Christmas and we were talking about uncle Nathan. Would you be Nathan Pedro that had been married to our aunt. If so we miss you.

  3. Nathan Pedro

    Malo ni Ioane and Lily,
    Io, te fakaalofa o to tatou fenua. Thanks for your invaluable input, alofa lahi atu. Ke manuia te vaiaho o te tatou gagana.


  4. Nathan Pedro

    Malo ni Sean,

    Fakafetai for acknowledging our 4th atoll. Ke manuia te vaiaho o te gagana Tokelau


  5. Ioane Teao

    Malo Nathan for expressing the sentiments about Olohega which many of our Tokelau people share. It is just another instance of the great injustice all colonised Pacific nations had suffered and will continue to be so at the hands of the colonial powers. Olohega will never fade away from the consciousness of our people and future generations of Tokelau and Olohega will continue the fight for unification and restoration of the relationship and Tu Fa status to pre-European time. Personally, reuniting Tokelau and Olohega is far more important an issue than the question about what colonial power they should be under.

  6. Lily Pedro

    Malo ni Sean,

    Thanks for the blog, I did enjoy it. But I just wanted to make a correction. The first thing anyone else should know about Tokelau is that we are made up of four islands. Atafu, the northern most motu, then the beautiful Nukunonu, the historical home of ‘Tui Tokelau’ on Fakaofo, and never forgetting the ancient communal lands of Olohega in the south. All are inextricably linked together. Ke manuia te vaiaho o te gagana Tokelau.

    • Sean Mallon

      Fakafetai ni Lily for your feedback on the blogpost. As I replied to Nathan, and as you point out, all four of the atolls of Tokelau are historically and culturally connected. I have amended the blogpost to address the issues that you and Nathan have raised.

  7. Nathan Pedro

    I want to point out a false and colonial-biased information disseminated through this site. A lie that has deceived and unfortunately bought by and engrained in the hearts and minds of many of our Tokelau people for many years; one that needs to be corrected for the sake of our future generations. Culturally and historically, Tokelau is a Pacific Island Nation of 4 atolls – Fakaofo, Nukunonu, Atafu and Olohega; though in its current political administration, it has jurisdiction over 3 atolls (less Olohega) – this is political rubbish which is another chapter in itself, thus the term Tutolu or Fenua e tolu (three islands). This term is a “slap in the face” for the Tokelau people from Olohega – in essence it should be a slap in the face for anyone who truly calls him/herself Tokelau. This term negates the existence of Tokelau people from Olohega, it reinforces and affirms the lies and deceptive spirit that fuelled the Tokehega treaty. In reality this term does NOT acknowledge those from Olohega as Tokelau people – if that is so, then WHO ARE WE? I’m speaking on behalf of Tokelau communities in the USA – remnant of Olohega. What are you saying to these communities when you make the claim that Tokelau is of three atoll? Are you claiming that these communities are not Tokelau? It saddens and disgusts me that our own Tokelau people (intentionally or not) add to the insult done by colonialism by the continual usage of this “Tutolu or Fenua e tolu” term. To the manager of this site: read our Tokelau history or ask any Tokelau elder about Olohega. The completeness of Tokelau is Tu-Fa (Four islands). Ke manuia te Vaiaho o te Gagana Tokelau

    Nathan Pedro, Son of Tu-Fa
    Fakaofo, Nukunonu, Atafu and OLOHEGA

    • Sean Mallon

      Fakafetai ni for your feedback Nathan. I have been aware of Olohega for some time. As we work in the Museum of New Zealand we tend to focus on Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo where the ties are strongest.
      Your feedback reminds us that that colonialism and the lines on maps can often obscure the deep historical connections that we as Pacific peoples maintain between ourselves. I acknowledge your point that the political status of Olohega is still contested, even among Tokelau people.

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