With nearly six times more Tokelauans here in Aotearoa than in Tokelau, preserving language and culture can seem near impossible.
Unesco says te gagana Tokelau (the language of Tokelau) is severely endangered, and this year the New Zealand government agreed it needs “urgent revitalisation”.
But the nearly 9000 strong community of Tagata Tokelau in New Zealand – who represent 85% of Tokelauans – are more than committed to protecting their birthright from extinction.
At the Auckland Museum on Sunday, as Tokelau Language Week began, a small but mighty group performed one of the island’s most important traditions: Inati, or the distribution of resources.
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The number of Tokelauans here who speak their language is dwindling – fallen 14% since 2006 to just 23%, the Ministry of Pacific Peoples reports.
For the youngest that number is even more dire: 13% of under-15s speak te gagana Tokelau.
Many Tokelauans also hail from other homes: 65% identify with multiple ethnicities.
The theme for Vaiaho o te gagana Tokelau – Tokelau Language Week 2022 is all about understanding the past, in order to plan for the future.
In Te Gagana Tokelau: “Halahala ki vavau, kae ke mau ki pale o Tokelau.”
Inati is the perfect collision of past and present, helping Tokelauans – and the rest of Aotearoa – protect not only te gagana Tokelau but also its culture.
Traditionally, each village would send its men off to fish for everyone. If a village didn’t have anyone to send, it didn’t mean they were doomed to starve.
Those who fished returned with their catch and the process of Inati would begin. Based on everyone’s village, and who lived there, the fish would be distributed fairly.
Cultural Advisor Neta Peau, who led the group’s performance, said today Tokelauan children are taught about Inati and equity.
“We teach our kids to look after those less fortunate than themselves,” she told the crowd.
“To preserve our language, it is important we know and understand our past,” Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio said in a statement.
“This will give our communities in Aotearoa the confidence and ability to plan and work together in harmony for the sustainability of Gagana Tokelau.
"But Tokelauans in Aotearoa won’t be alone in this challenge. The Government’s recently announced Pacific Language Strategy commits a whole-of-government­ approach to ensure that Pacific languages flourish, thrive and prosper in Aotearoa New Zealand.”
In the brand new Pacific Language Strategy for 2022 to 2032, the Tokelauan community has made its wishes clear.
They want te gaganga Tokelau to be protected with some kind of official status, owed to Tokelau as a realm country of Aotearoa.
They also want the language recognised and taught as an accredited subject in NCEA, with classes available at all levels of the education system and online opportunities to learn too.
“We hear the call for better pathways in our education system that draw on our Pacific languages as keys to success,” Sio said.
“It is up to us to get behind building Gagana Tokelau and developing it for future generations to use, starting with Tokelau Language Week.”
Try out a few words and phrases this Tokelau Language Week:
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