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Safeguarding Tokelauan culture through language education

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

Nikau Foundation supports Atafu Tokelau Community Group and its efforts to maintain the Tokelau language and support the local community.


The relationship between language and culture is deeply rooted. If culture is the baton, language is the heavily conditioned athlete sprinting to pass it over to the next teammate. So, when a language is threatened, there is an immediate danger that the values, stories and cultural practices that flow through it will also be lost.


“Nikau Foundation was thrilled to support this valuable asset for the Tokelauan community, issuing a grant for $8,000 to support key operating costs for the centre.”

Classed as ‘severely endangered’ by UNESCO, there are only 4500 Tokelauan language speakers worldwide. Of these, around 2400 live in New Zealand.


Atafu Tokelau Community Group President, Les Tenise Atoni, says, "without intervention, we estimate that the Tokelauan language will die out completely within the next 50-years. As New Zealand's largest Tokelauan community and cultural group, we see it as our role to ensure this doesn't happen."


And, with a diverse range of initiatives at play, Atafu Tokelau Community Group are well on their way to ensuring its survival.


Following the arrival of many Tokelauans to New Zealand in the 50s and 60s, Atafu Tokelau Community Group was founded to promote religious, social, educational and health and welfare development, and foster traditional cultural values within Tokelauan communities in New Zealand. Based out of a purpose-built premises, named Matauala, in Cannons Creek, where the largest population of Tokelauans reside outside of Tokelau, Atafu Tokelau works to spearhead cultural endurance through language initiatives.


Les says, "maintaining our cultural identity starts at keeping our language alive. We encourage people to speak in Tokelauan at gatherings at our hall and have launched several initiatives to ensure our language stays alive."


One such initiative included lobbying the Ministry of Education, Ministry for Pacific People’s and local MP’s to include Tokelauan in the NCEA language curriculum, which, after 2-years of discussion, will now be offered at Levels 1, 2 and 3. Another such project is the development of the first ever Tokelauan language app; a project which Les hopes will create an accessible way for youth to learn the language and encourage connections with their heritage. "By educating youth, we are ensuring that we can pass on the cultural baton," says Les.


Outside of educational initiatives, Atafu Tokelau also aims to keep the Tokelauan culture alive through connections and sense of kaiga/whanau at Matauala. Designed as a ‘home away from home’, Matauala community centre welcomes all members of the community, inviting them to engage in all aspects of Tokelauan culture; from arts to weddings and events.


Nikau Foundation was thrilled to support this valuable asset for the Tokelauan community, issuing a grant for $8,000 to support key operating costs for the centre.


“Unfortunately due to the financial impact of COVID-19, we required additional support from funders such as Nikau. We are immensely grateful for this funding, which will allow us to meet our operational costs and continue our work within the Tokelauan community,” says Les


Story was originally published by the Nikau Foundation.


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