Community in Tokelau: Learning from ‘atoll life’

Community in Tokelau: Learning from ‘atoll life’

In November 2017 media producer Kate Whitley joined a Te Papa expedition to Tokelau. Reflecting on her journey, Kate explores the photos of Glenn Jowitt in our collection and talks with Paula Faiva about growing up in Tokelau and the importance of the inati (equal portions) system that underpins island life.

Atafu atoll, Tokelau, 2017. Photo by Michael O’Neill. Te Papa (106095)
Teenagers laughing on a boat. Palmtrees and the sea can be seen in the background
Teenagers on board the cargo vessel, Atafu, Tokelau, 2017. Photo by Kate Whitley. Te Papa (100218)

Introducing Glenn Jowitt (1955–2014)

Te Papa is kaitiaki (guardian) to an important collection of photography by Glenn Jowitt, a New Zealand photographer who spent time in Tokelau in the 1980s.

Jowitt’s photos provide a wonderful glimpse into the past –  they’re a time capsule of life on these remote Pacific atolls.

I love these photos because he turned his camera to the every day small moments that illustrate cultural practice rather than depicting atoll life as a ‘tropical paradise’.

Jowitt’s photos illustrate a community almost oblivious to his presence, going about their lives without posing for the camera.

The resulting photos make us feel part of the action, participants rather than observers.

Boats coming to land on an island - there are lots of children
Tokelau Islands, 1981, by Glenn Jowitt. Gift of Glenn Jowitt Estate, 2015. Te Papa (E.007344)

Arriving on Tokelau

Looking at Jowitt’s photos, it strikes me how little seems to have changed since his visit nearly forty years ago.

Like these photos, when we arrived children crowded the shoreline waiting for our small tin boat to ferry us from the larger vessel (which can’t dock within the reef). Goods were offloaded and everyone pitched in to help.

Colourfully-clothed young women shyly awaited us with coconuts and shell necklaces, and we were taken by the Tapulenga to be officially welcomed on each atoll.

It’s was a humbling experience we were honoured and made to feel like royalty.

Young girls holding coconuts. They're wearing bright floral dresses
Tokelau locals, 2017. Photo by Michael O’Neill. Te Papa

Modern Tokelau

Once I began talking with Tokelauans however, it’s clear life has changed since Jowitt’s visit.

I learnt that the arrival of regular deliveries of food to the local shop on each island, along with 24-hour power as a result of solar-power initiatives, has resulted in Tokelauans taking advantage of refrigeration with less need to go fishing meaning their traditional system of inati has changed.

A group of men sort fish on a beach
Food division, Nukunonu Atoll, Tokelau Islands, 1981, Nukunonu, by Glenn Jowitt. Gift of the photographer, 2012. Te Papa (O.041127)

Equal portions – the inati system

Jowitt’s photo above illustrates perfectly the practice of inati (sometimes referred to as enati), whereby each person in the community receives an equal portion of food. Small piles of fish are being laid out on the shore, ready for locals to collect.

From what I observed on the atolls, the practice of inati is still being observed, although rather than from the shoreline, it’s now done at the island shop. In Nukunonu, I saw locals queueing at the local store, where a ledger determined each person’s share based on the number of people in the household.

A man sitting on a woven mat portions out food
Inati ceremony – Food division, Nukunonu Atoll, Tokelau Islands, 1981, Nukunonu, by Glenn Jowitt. Gift of the photographer, 2012. Te Papa (O.041128)

An early ‘store’ perhaps, is depicted in Jowitt’s photo above. I find it amusing that Milo (NZ chocolate and malt drink) is being equally apportioned and recorded in a very thorough fashion.

Paula Faiva, Programme Manager of Climate Change at the Government of Tokelau, who grew up in Tokelau, explains how the concept of inati is still fundamental to Tokelau culture but has changed since her childhood:

‘The [inati system] is still very common and strong. What has changed over time are the goods that are now distributed. As a child growing up in Tokelau, the most common resources that I would bring home from the inati were fish and coconut very rarely that I would see, flour, sugar, and rice. The common practice now, while fish still dominates, [is that] flour, sugar, rice, tinned food, imported meat are very common to see… Along with the change of the goods for the inati, there is also a change in what people take to fetch their share with – people no longer take woven baskets to bring their share of the inati with, but are now taking big plastic containers.’

For me, the inati system is a beautiful part of island life and is the ultimate embodiment of community. To witness a culture and society that cares for all, and that has held on to this belief even with the advent of modern conveniences, is very inspiring.

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