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Story: Tokelauans

Tokelau’s three populated atolls – Atafu, Fakaofo and Nukunonu – have only a tiny habitable area. Life was not always easy in the tropical paradise, with limited resources for a growing population, and frequent battering by tropical cyclones. It is not surprising that many of its people came to New Zealand looking for prosperity and stability. But they found New Zealand’s chilly weather and modern conveniences a far cry from the rhythms of island life.

Story by Carl Walrond
Main image: Tokelauans leaving for New Zealand, 1966

Story Summary

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Tokelau has three populated atolls in the Pacific Ocean – Atafu, Fakaofo and Nukunonu. The nation has been administered by New Zealand since 1925, and in 1948 the Tokelau Islands Act gave Tokelauans New Zealand citizenship and the opportunity to migrate. In 1951 only 10 had arrived. But as the government began to offer informal assistance for travel, mainly to unmarried people, numbers increased.

In the mid-1960s the New Zealand government became concerned that Tokelau’s growing population would crowd the small islands. Emigration to New Zealand was encouraged under the Tokelau Islands Resettlement Scheme introduced in 1966. The scheme helped over 500 people emigrate. After 1976 immigration dropped, but the birth rate of Tokelauans in New Zealand swelled the population. By 2013 there were 7,176 in New Zealand, compared to 1,383 living in Tokelau.


The idea of maopoopo (unity) is important to Tokelauans, and meant that once in New Zealand they formed strong community groups. The largest of these is in the Porirua–Hutt Valley area, where over half of the country’s Tokelauans live. There are also communities in Auckland, Taupō and Rotorua.

Tokelauan culture in New Zealand

Many suffered culture shock when they first arrived. The climate, language, and the trappings of modern western life, were all foreign.

Religion remains an important part of community life for Tokelauans in New Zealand, especially among the older generations.

An Easter festival held every two years includes rugby, netball and dancing, and is a major event in the Tokelauan calendar. Traditional arts such as mat making and wood carving are kept alive. The Tokelauan language is still spoken every day by almost half of Tokelauans in New Zealand.

How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Tokelauans', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 March 2018)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 25 Mar 2015