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by  Carl Walrond

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.


Tokelau: a sprinkling of atolls

Lying midway between New Zealand and Hawaii, Tokelau’s three populated atolls – Atafu, Fakaofo and Nukunonu – are mere specks in the Pacific. Their habitable land area is about the size of a small New Zealand town.

Tokelau has been administered by New Zealand since 1925. In 1948 the Tokelau Islands Act married the two nations: New Zealand annexed Tokelau, and Tokelauans received New Zealand citizenship.

1950s–1960s: first arrivals

Culturally, the 10 Tokelauans recorded in the 1951 New Zealand census were probably more Samoan than Tokelauan. Until the early 1960s most migrants came via Samoa, sending back earnings so that others could follow.

From 1963 the government offered scholarships, helping 186 students to study in New Zealand between 1963 and 1982. Although they were expected to return, most remained after their education.

Ten young women arrived in January 1963 as the first government-assisted migrants. Early assistance was not yet a formal scheme; support was offered to unmarried people on a trial basis. Over the next two years 42 more single Tokelauans followed.

In the mid-1960s the government was concerned that Tokelau’s population of 1,900 was too high for the small islands, so it widened the scope of assisted passage to include family groups. Migration increased after a tropical cyclone in 1966 damaged the islands.

Resettlement scheme

From 1966 to 1967 the New Zealand government formalised its policy to assist Tokelauan immigration. Under the Tokelau Islands Resettlement Scheme 70 migrants arrived. They worked for two years at nominated jobs, repaying government resettlement grants. Women were employed by hospitals as live-in domestics, while men joined the timber industry.

Between 1966 and 1974, 60 families were resettled, mainly in Taupō and Rotorua where workers were needed in the forest industry. After a few years many had moved to Porirua, where a large Tokelauan community was forming.

When the scheme was suspended in 1976, 528 people had been resettled. Just as many had arrived without any government assistance.

Immigration decreased after 1976; the subsequent growth in population was due to a high birth rate. About 2.5% of Pacific peoples in New Zealand were Tokelauan in 2006. In 1976 there were already more in New Zealand than in Tokelau. By 2013 there were 7,175 people of Tokelauan ethnicity in New Zealand, compared to 1,383 living on the islands.


The importance of community

The Tokelauan ethic of maopoopo (unity) led to the formation of fakalopotopotoga (associations) and mafutaga (clubs) in New Zealand. Migrants identified firstly with their home atoll – either Atafu, Fakaofu or Nukunonu. The Atafu Association met fortnightly, raising funds for the atoll’s new church which opened in 1971. The Fakaofo Association also financed a church on their atoll. They paid for the casting of a bell – New Zealand’s largest at the time – that was then shipped to Fakaofo.

Porirua and the Hutt Valley

In 1968 several hundred migrants from the Nukunonu atoll were living in the Hutt Valley. Most of them had come without government assistance. As factory workers their weekly wages barely covered the rent, so families often lived together.

A hundred families from each of the three atolls (in roughly equal proportions) were living in Porirua by 1972. By 2001, one-third of all New Zealand Tokelauans lived there, earning it the nickname ‘the capital of Tokelau’.

In 2013, 49% of the country’s Tokelauans lived in the wider Wellington region, mostly in the Hutt Valley and Porirua areas.


Early Fakaofo migrants had Samoan links and settled near Auckland’s inner city. Many belonged to one of three overlapping kinship networks. As urban renewal pushed up rents, many moved to the southern and western suburbs.

In 2013, 27% of Tokelauans lived in the Auckland region.

Taupō and Rotorua

Families rather than single people were resettled in Taupō, where blocks of forest service dwellings formed a village atmosphere.

Other Tokelauans settled around Rotorua’s town fringes. In 1966–67, 32 single men arrived in Rotorua, some of them marrying Māori women.

Culture and custom

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


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.


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.

    • Mark Scott, ‘Tokelau – islands of the wind.’ New Zealand Geographic 24 (Oct–Dec 1994): 38. › Back

Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Tokelau.

  • 1956 census: 7
  • 1976 census: 1,240
  • 2001 census: 1,662
  • 2006 census: 1,587
  • 2013 census: 1,338

Ethnic identity

In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • Tokelauan: 6,819 (2006); 7,176 (2013)

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Carl Walrond, 'Tokelauans', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 August 2022)

He kōrero nā Carl Walrond, i tāngia i te 8 Feb 2005, updated 25 Mar 2015