Story: Tokelauans

Page 3. Culture and custom

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Acclimatising to New Zealand

Arriving in winter, some Tokelauan settlers suffered dysentery and respiratory illnesses. Nevertheless, they held fast to their traditions, initially wearing lava lava (long cotton skirts) underneath their coats. Culture shock was widespread – woollen clothing, electricity, chairs, knives and forks, bread, cheese, milk, and many fruit and vegetables were new.

The early arrivals knew little English, and children struggled to adapt from an oral tradition to a written culture. Few kept studying past secondary school, to the disappointment of their parents.

Marked by Kiwi life

With the majority of Tokelauans living in New Zealand, a visit to the islands brings its surprises – as one journalist found:

‘Tapeni Kalolo has an elbow rent by a great half moon of rumpled scar tissue … I wonder what sea creature disfigured his arm. A shark? The tail of a stingray? Could it have been a noosed wahoo [gamefish caught by lasso]? “Noosed wahoo, was it?” I ask, indicating his elbow. Tapeni Kalolo laughs a deep laugh. “It was a bloody car! The thing rolled on me between Levin and Palmerston North.”’ 1

Religion

Most Tokelauan Protestants joined the Pacific Island Presbyterian Church. The Catholic church halls in Petone and Porirua also became popular venues for community gatherings. In 2013, 83% of Tokelauans belonged to a religious group. Younger people were less likely to be religious.

Sport

Over Easter in 1979, the Porirua Rugby Football Club hosted five teams from Tokelau – its success meant that a mafutaga (club) was set up. The biennial Easter festival is now the major event in the Tokelauan calendar, attended by thousands. Activities range from netball to dancing.

Arts and language

Tokelauans nurture traditional skills such as wood carving and mat making. One Tokelauan family group in Porirua made adzes and built a full-size vaka (canoe).

In 2013, 32% of Tokelauans could speak the language (down from 44% in 2001), with those born in Tokelau twice as likely to be fluent. Tokelauan is often spoken at home and at association and club meetings. Since 1976 Tokelauan learning materials have been available in some schools. In the 2000s the Porirua Mafutaga Tupulaga Tokelau held evening homework classes that included an element on Tokelauan culture. Matiti Tokelau Akoga Kamata – a language nest for Tokelauan children – also served the Hutt Valley community. Tokelauan can be heard on Auckland's Radio 531pi and Wellington’s Access Radio.

Footnotes:
  1. Mark Scott, ‘Tokelau – islands of the wind.’ New Zealand Geographic 24 (Oct–Dec 1994): 38. › Back
How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Tokelauans - Culture and custom', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/tokelauans/page-3 (accessed 15 December 2019)

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