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Tokelau: Education and the Preservation of an Island Language

My husband and I arrived on the atoll Atafu atoll of Tokelau feeling tired and seasick after a 36 hour boat ride. I walked to shore, dropped my backpack and lay down under a palm tree. Atafu is the northernmost atoll of Tokelau, a group of three island atolls in Polynesia and a protectorate of New Zealand. The language spoken on the island is Tokelauan, though most people also speak English and Samoan. The village of around 500 people operates largely by inati, a system of sharing. Much of the village work is communal, and catches of fish are distributed among the whole community. Isaac and I quickly found our fridge overflowing with fish, pork, breadfruit and coconuts - gifts from our neighbors. Although everyone spoke English, we asked our friend Latu if she knew anyone we could hire to teach us Tokelauan. She smiled and explained, “Just hang around with the kids and work with the adults and you’ll pick some up.” This sentiment reflects the cooperative concept of inati, or sharing. Whereas Isaac and I had the idea to pay for language classes, Latu reminded us of the importance of daily interaction and the resulting exchange of knowledge. Though Tokelau now has several shops and a money economy, the system of inati is still central to their way of life.

Children on Tokelau now learn both English and Tokelauan at school, but this wasn’t always the case. Missionaries who came to the island in the 19th century spoke Samoan and English, ignoring the native language almost entirely. Elesi Kerisiano Kalolo, 61, is the former director of education and lives on Tokelau with his family. He explains, “The languages of school were English and Samoan when I was in school. You go to church and you still hear Samoan hymns. I think it is time we stand up for our language. The missionaries never bothered to learn Tokelauan. The Bible only appears in Samoan.” Until 1986 the main language of instruction on Tokelau was English. However, Tokelauans noticed that their children could no longer speak fluently in their native language, and began to worry about its future. The department of education crafted a resolution in 1986 to make Tokelauan the main language of instruction in the classroom while continuing to teach English as a subject.

Teaching in Tokelauan presented many challenges for the teachers and community because few teacher materials and books existed in the native language. Some parents also worried that their children would no longer be as fluent in English and that this would affect their educational opportunities outside of Tokelau. Though a dictionary and other reading materials in Tokelauan are now available to teachers, teachers say they often teach in English or a mix of English and Tokelauan because of the variety of books, lesson plans and videos available in English. Kalolo, the former director of education, wrote his Masters thesis in Anthropology and Education on the Tokelau educational system (Changes in Tokelau Schools: Intentions and Outcome). In an interview he explained, “It is difficult to get qualified teachers. They are going to build a new school house here - they mustn’t forget the other side - the teachers.”

During our five weeks on Atafu my husband and I watched the kids walk to school in their blue uniforms each morning, and on Friday their voices floated through the village as they sang songs. We had many conversations in English, and kids were happy to help us learn some bits of Tokelauan. In conversation a mother told me proudly how her son was first in his class in Tokelauan language. We attended a traditional singing and dancing ceremony. The a capella singing was accompanied by dancers who moved as if they were fishing, cracking coconuts, squeezing coconut cream or imitating the waves in the ocean. The way they moved in unison, their voices rising and the pace quickening as the song continued - was timeless, calm, threatening, powerful and rhythmic as the ocean. The women remained calm, even when the rhythm picked up speed; the men were strong, beating their chests and sending their voices up to the sky, sweat running down their backs. Men and women wore crowns of leaves and flowers, and women were wrapped in leaf skirts that rustled as their hips swayed endlessly. Isaac and I heard a song so beautiful that we wanted to learn it ourselves. The song told the legend of Hina, a girl who paddles a Vaka (traditional outrigger canoe) into the reef and paints all the fish in the sea. With this song I close my article, hoping to convey the beauty of the language and culture of Tokelau. May the community work together for a bright, bilingual future!

Ta Ga Tatau
The Tattooing of the Fish translated by Elesi Kerisiano Kalolo

Ifo ifo naki
Going down
Ifo naki ki te ulu ulu
Going down to the reef
Tele vaka ofi faka tu The Vaka slides through the channel
Ki te kapa i matagi
And paddles to the eastern side

Ifo ifo naki
Going down Ifo naki ki te ulu ulu
Going down to the reef
Ko Hina tena
There goes Hina

O he ta ga tatau e o ika
Oh the tattooing of the fish
Ika liki ika o te namo
Small fish, lagoon fish
Ika foki mai moana
And fish from the sea
Fuli fuli ake, fakatafa ake
Rotate from side to side, flipping over
O te kau lelei
Oh, how beautiful
Ko mata lava o Hina
They are like Hina´s eyes


By Alice Driver

Alice Driver is a PhD student in Hispanic Studies at the University of Kentucky. Her travel writing has appeared in Transitions Abroad, Abroad View and the travel guide To Vietnam With Love. Her most recent academic article, an interview with Colombian film director Victor Gaviria, will be published in the Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies in January of 2009.



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