Tokelau - Orientation

Identification. "Tokelau" (Anglicized as "Tokelauan") refers both to the people and to their distinctive Polynesian language, as well as to their homeland which consists of three atolls: Atafu, Nukunonu, and Fakaofo. "Tokelau" means "north" or "northeast" in many Polynesian languages, including their own, but it was also the name of the preeminent god of the atolls, Tui Tokelau. The name "Union Islands" was coined in 1841 to label collectively the three atolls then known to outsiders as Duke of York (Atafu), Duke of Clarence (Nukunonu), and D'Wolf or Bowditch (Fakaofo). These names were never used by Tokelauans but were "Official" for over a hundred years until the three islands, with their local names, were collectively designated Tokelau Islands in 1948 and in 1976 simply Tokelau.

Location. The atolls lie along a northwest-southeast axis of about 150 kilometers between 8° and 10° S and 171° and 173° W. The closest islands of any size are those of Western Samoa, about 480 kilometers to the south. Together the atolls have a total land area of only about 12 square kilometers and are separated from each other by 60 to 90 kilometers of open sea. They are all true atolls: they have central lagoons completely enclosed by coral reef, which forms the base of islets of sand and coral detritus. Although rainfall is 250 to 280 centimeters annually, rain is apt to be scarce between April and September, causing drought, and tropical cyclones or the swells generated by them at a distance are a hazard between December and March.

Demography. Contact estimates of the population varied widely (500-1,000). Even the lowest figure was more than halved in the 1860s by the advent of slavers and dysentery. From that time the population of the atolls gradually and then rapidly increased, reaching a high of 1,900 persons in the mid-1960s. Thereafter it dropped and stabilized at around 1,600 in the 1970s-1980s following relatively heavy migration to New Zealand, where the population identified as Tokelau numbered about 3,400 in 1986. Although Tokelau people count among their more recent ancestors some other Polynesians and European-derived foreigners, only persons with (or married to people with) Tokelau ancestry are Permanent residents of the atolls.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Tokelau language is a member of the Samoic Subgroup of Polynesian languages and is probably most closely related to dialects of Tuvalu (Ellice). Until very recently, all Tokelauans were bilingual in Samoan, the language of Christianity and literacy, from which their own language has borrowed heavily for over a hundred years while still retaining its own distinctive features.

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