Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Culture of Tokelau


Culture and Name: Tokelauan


Identification. "Tokelau" means "north-northeast." Its people also identify themselves by their atoll villages: Atafu, Fakaofo, and Nukunonu.

Location and Geography. Three unbroken rings of coral with a combined land area of somewhat over four square miles (ten square kilometers) lie along a 93 mile (150 kilometers) northwest– southeast axis, separated from each other by 37 to 56 miles (60 to 90 kilometers) of open sea.

Demography. The population is about 1,700. An additional estimated five thousand reside overseas, mainly in New Zealand.

Linguistic Affiliation. Tokelauan is a Polynesian language. Older people are bilingual in Samoan, which was introduced with Christianity in the 1860s; younger people are more apt to be bilingual in English through their schooling.

Symbolism. Homeland atolls are the preeminent symbols, denoting both place and ancestry.

History and Ethnic Relations:

Emergence of the Nation and National Identity. As a culturally distinctive dependency of New Zealand, Tokelau is a nation. After sixty years as a British protectorate and then a colony ruled with "benign neglect," in 1948 Tokelau became "a part of New Zealand" and its people became New Zealand citizens. Most people want to retain that status, which combines considerable local political autonomy with substantial external support.

Ethnic Relations. Virtually all residents are of Tokelauan ancestry. In New Zealand, Tokelauans are a minority population among other Pacific Islanders, Maori, and persons of Asian and European ancestry. Many conscientiously maintain aspects of their culture.

Food and Economy:

Food in Daily Life. Fish and coconuts are abundant; other local foods are seasonal or scarce. Stores stock imported food, mainly rice, flour, and sugar.

Basic Economy. Traditional economic activities center on the land, reef, lagoon, and sea. Fishing is strictly a subsistence activity, pursued with ingenuity backed by extensive knowledge. Coconuts rarely are harvested for uses other than subsistence since public service employment became the main source of cash. Handicrafts are more often produced as gifts than for cash.

Land Tenure and Property. Aside from a small portion of land used for communal purposes, all land is held by cognatic kin groups and managed by persons with recognized positions within those groups. Village houses are occupied and managed by kin group women; men manage and harvest plantation lands. Virtually everyone has rights to land and to a share of the produce from the land. Most people are members of more than one kin group and many receive produce from four or more.

Commercial Activities. All entrepreneurial activities are closely scrutinized by the Councils in each village.

Division of Labor. A major division exists between salaried public service employees who have job qualifications and wage-earning public service employees who do not. The distinction between paid and unpaid work has been partially eroded by village management of aid projects, for which all village workers are paid. Age determines who does what, who directs, and who labors.

Social Stratification:

Classes and Castes. An egalitarian ethic overrides differentials in wealth among a growing elite whose education and experience qualify them for better-paid employment or positions. They contribute generously to village and family enterprises and avoid ostentatious displays of affluence.

Gender Roles and Statuses:

Division of Labor by Gender. The adage that men "go"—fishing and harvesting—and women "stay"—managing the family—has been compromised by widespread public service employment. Both men and women work in skilled jobs; most unskilled workers are men.

Relative Status of Women and Men. Complementary equity predicated on sister-brother relationships has been compromised by Christian ideology and money.

Marriage, Family and Kinship:

Marriage. Virtually all residents enter into sanctified, lifelong monogamous unions. Individual choice is constrained by kin group exogamy.

Domestic Unit. The pattern is an uxorilocal, often expanded nuclear family, in line with the adage that women "stay" and men "go."

Inheritance. All offspring inherit rights from both parents.

Kin Groups. Members of each cognatic kin group reside throughout the village and interact regularly.


Child Rearing and Education. Infant care is indulgent. Children are closely disciplined and precisely instructed in increasingly complex tasks.

Higher Education. All children attend village primary and secondary schools; many continue their schooling abroad.


Deference and obedience to one's elders and restraint between cross-sex siblings is expected. Physical aggression is abhorred.


Religious Beliefs. Protestant and Catholic congregations practice a fundamentalist, puritanical form of Christianity.

Religious Practitioners. Protestant pastors, deacons, and lay preachers and Catholic priests, catechists, and elders direct their respective congregations.

Rituals and Holy Places. Churches are cherished sites with frequent masses and services.

Death and the Afterlife. A short wake, church service, and burial are followed by evenings of mourning and ended by a feast. Unusual events and encounters may be attributed to ghost spirits. The dead are fondly remembered.

To read more about: Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space; Political Life; Social Welfare and Change Programs; Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations; Medicine and Health Care; Secular Celebrations; and The Arts and Humanities visit the site.

"Culture of Tokelau". Every Culture. Posted: Available online:

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