Tokelauan Diaspora Language Revival

The Far Outliers recently had the chance to attend a Polynesian music and dance performance by Te Lumanaki o Tokelau i Amelika ‘The Future of Tokelau in America’, and I’ve added a few photos of it to my Flickr account. They recently won the Po Fatele competition at the Tokelau Festival in New Zealand. One thing that appealed to me about the performance was the combination of vigorous dance and wonderful Polynesian choral harmonies at the same time. You don’t get that combination so much these days in Hawai‘i, although you can hardly beat the vocal harmonies at the Kamehameha Song Contest or the hula at the Merrie Monarch Festival each year. Two other nice features of the Tokelauan troupe were the youth of the performers, the youngest of whom were learning by doing, just as they would in a less formal village setting; and the atoll-authentic percussion instruments: a slit-gong (pate), a biscuit tin (apa), and a wooden box (pokihi).

The background story about how this group got started is chronicled by two linguists, Yuko Otsuka and Andrew Wong, in an article in Language Documentation & Conservation 1, no. 2 (December 2007), from which I’ll excerpt a few of the highlights:

Tokelauan is a Polynesian language closely related to Samoan. Together with English, it is an official language of Tokelau, an island territory of New Zealand, with approximately 1,400 speakers (Gordon 2005). The total number of speakers of Tokelauan is estimated to be approximately 4,000, including those living in American Sāmoa, New Zealand, and the United States. The first missionaries came to Tokelau from Sāmoa. Noting the resemblance of the language spoken on the islands to Samoan, they decided to use the Samoan Bible instead of translating it into Tokelauan. Thus, Tokelauans read the Samoan Bible till this day….

Like many other Polynesian peoples, more Tokelauans live outside their homeland than in it. The vast majority of Tokelauans reside in New Zealand. According to the 2001 census, 6,200 Tokelauan people live in New Zealand. That is four times larger than the population in the homeland. Sixty-six percent of them were born in New Zealand. In 2001, only 44 percent of those living in New Zealand were reported to be able to hold an everyday conversation in Tokelauan, down from 53 percent in 1996 (Statistics New Zealand 2005). These figures suggest that language maintenance outside Tokelau is crucial to ensuring the future of the Tokelauan language….

Tokelauans in Hawai‘i come from Olohega (also known as Swains Island), the southernmost atoll of the Tokelau island group, which lie three hundred miles north of Sāmoa. Geographically, the Tokelau group consists of four atolls: Atafu, Fakaofo, Nukunonu, and Olohega. Politically, however, only the first three belong to Tokelau, an island territory of New Zealand. These islands became a British protectorate in 1889 and were transferred to New Zealand administration in 1925. Olohega followed a separate course of history. In 1856, an American, Eli Jennings, came to Olohega with his Samoan wife and turned it into his private copra plantation. In 1925, Olohega was annexed to the United States and was placed under the jurisdiction of American Sāmoa.

Jennings’s son imposed forced labor on all residents of Olohega. In 1953, the residents of Olohega went on strike in protest to the violations of civil and labor rights. They drew up a petition and submitted to the American Sāmoa attorney general. In response, the acting Governor ordered a state-sponsored eviction of over half the population of Olohega. Many families ended up as refugees in Pagopago, American Sāmoa. Living there was not easy for Tokelauans. Even though they were American nationals by virtue of the annexation, Samoan law precluded them from owning land or businesses. The hardship of life in Sāmoa turned their eyes to the United States (Ickes 1999, 2002). In the 1950s, a student from Olohega, who was on scholarship at the Lā‘ie Community College (today’s Brigham Young University Hawai‘i), saw the opportunities in the pineapple plantations in Central O‘ahu, Hawai‘i. He sent for his brothers and they brought their families to live in the plantation labor camps provided by Del Monte (Ickes 1999, 2002)….

Since 2004, the Tokelauan community in Wahiawā, Central O‘ahu, has been making active efforts to revitalize the Tokelauan language as well as culture within the community. Two organizations play a key role in initiating and promoting the community’s efforts for language maintenance: Te Lumanaki o Tokelau i Amelika (The Future of Tokelau in America) and Te Taki (The Guide) Tokelau Community Inc.

In July, 2004, a youth group from Tokelau visited Honolulu on their way to the Palau Pacific Arts Festival. They performed for the Tokelauans who hosted them in Wahiawā. This encounter sparked a keen interest among the Tokelauan youth (teenagers and young adults) of the community in their Tokelauan heritage. They were deeply impressed by the richness of their cultural heritage and at the same time were shocked to realize that they knew very little of it. The children asked their parents why they had never taught them their own language and culture. It was a rude awakening not only for the children, but also for the parents, who had not seen any value in teaching their children Tokelauan, thinking that they would be better off with English.

This incident led to a sudden awareness among young members of the community that the language was gradually disappearing within the community. Deeply moved by the children’s yearning to learn their heritage, two young parents started a Saturday school to teach the Tokelauan language as well as songs and dances. This is how Te Lumanaki o Tokelau i Amelika came into being. The elders of the community welcomed the opportunity to share their knowledge of the language and culture. As it turned out, they had long been concerned about language loss, but had never voiced their concerns until then. Te Lumanaki’s Saturday morning gatherings thus brought together an intergenerational group of Tokelauans who were eager to share the language, songs, and dances.

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Filed under Hawai'i, language, migration, music, New Zealand, Polynesia, U.S.

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