Pacific Curator Sean Mallon gives us seven facts about Tokelau – a country made up of four atolls that lies north of the Samoan Islands, and east of Tuvalu.
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.
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.
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.
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 sandbags help keep the ocean back.
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.
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.
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
Many thanks to Nathan Pedro and Lily Pedro for their feedback.