Tokelau sees out 2023 Pacific Language Weeks series in New Zealand


The Atafu Tokelau Community Group perform at the 2022 Wellington Fatele Finale (Photo supplied)

Venu Menon
Wellington, 0ctober 26,2023

The Tokelau Language Week, which kicked off on October 22 and is set to conclude on October 28, is the final event in the 2023 Pacific Language Weeks series, aimed at highlighting the role of language in promoting the identity and wellbeing of New Zealand’s Pacific communities.

The series coincides with UNESCO’s International Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022-2032, which upholds and supports indigenous peoples’ right to “preserve, revitalise, and promote their languages.”

“Our final language week of 2023 is focused on the theme, Tokelau to Prosper Within its Foundation,” says Gerardine Clifford-Lidstone, Secretary for Pacific Peoples.

She says the language week is based on the premise that “understanding the past is crucial for the future of Gagana Tokelau [Tokelau language], which is recognised within the community.”

At the core of the efforts to protect, preserve and promote Tokelau language and culture lies the recognition that there can be no progress without involving the younger generation.

Clifford-Lidstone notes: “There is a collective responsibility to ensure the Tokelauan Fakavae – the community’s spiritual and cultural values and practices – continue to prosper for generations yet unborn, and more and more the mantle of cultural preservation and growth is increasingly passed to the younger generation.”

The Tokelau Language Week targets young Tokelauan language learners and aims to “inspire and provide robust support to these learners.”

UNESCO has classified the Tokelauan language as “severely endangered.” Though the language has recently been approved as an NCEA accredited subject, there are few opportunities to learn Gagana Tokelau within the community or through formal education in New Zealand.

New Zealand recognises Tokelau as its territory and one of the Realm countries. Tokelau is made up of three coral atolls:  Atafu, Fakaofo and Nukumonu. It has a total land area of under 12 sq km.

By convention, the Tokelau head of government, or Ulu-o-Tokelau, rotates annually between the leader of each atoll. Tokelau has representation in the New Zealand Parliament.

The people of Tokelau heritage, or Tagata Tokelau, are New Zealand citizens, with 85% of the population living in this country.

The 2018 Census notes that of the 8,676 people of Tokelauan heritage living in New Zealand, just 23% can speak Gagana Tokelau.

The census also notes that 13% of 15-year-olds and under are able to speak the language.

Gagana Tokelau has much in common with other Polynesian languages, especially Samoan.

Zechariah Reuelu, a member of the Atafu Tokelau Community Group, has lived in New Zealand for over 60 years and served the Tokelauan population settled in Porirua.

Reuelu is a crusader for putting Tokelau on the 6.50 pm weather forecasts of televised news programmes in New Zealand.

“One of the largest television viewings for weather is 1 NEWS, which can influence the narrative around the importance of our country to New Zealand,” he says.

Reuelu adds: “ For many years, our people have asked why is it that Tokelau is not on the weather map, if we are a New Zealand territory?

“The weather map on 1 NEWS covers the Chatham Islands, Stewart Island and the Pacific Realm, but Tokelau is not part of that.”

Reuelu believes recognising Tokelau on a weather map “will allow our people to make an instant connection and further raise our profile.”

A Palu (fish hook) and Tuluma (container) from the Tokelau Islands on display in the New Zealand Parliament (Photo supplied)

To symbolise the friendship between Aotearoa and its Pacific counterparts, the New Zealand Parliament houses gifts and cultural items, or taonga, which include a Palu (fish hook) and a Tuluma (wooden fishing box) from Tokelau.

As the curtain falls on the last of the Pacific language weeks, those communities who share a common heritage look back on their year-long collective effort, involving language learning through traditional dancing, singing, cooking, online videos, teaching, church services, youth, children-specific activities and more, to ensure that their language and culture are not only preserved, but continue to thrive and flourish in Aotearoa.

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington

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