Tokelau - Sociopolitical Organization

Tokelau is a dependency of New Zealand. Its administrator, based in New Zealand, is appointed by the governor-general on the recommendation of the ministry of foreign affairs. The administrator delegates normal administrative responsibility to the official secretary, since 1987 a Tokelauan, who is head of the Tokelau Public Service and based in Western Samoa. General meetings of elected officials and representatives in the atolls are held twice yearly. Real governance is at the village level.

Social Organization. Tokelau villages are very tightly Controlled and basically egalitarian. This order is achieved by a dominating age hierarchy based on the precept that wisdom is acquired with years and therefore elderly people should decide, direct, and supervise. In short, authority comes with age, and in principle anyone will have authority in due course, if he or she lives long enough. Men ultimately have a wider sphere of authority than women, controlling the affairs of the village as a whole. But Tokelau matrons can be very domineering and are not easily dismissed by their male counterparts.

Political Organization. Each village has a ruling council made up of male elders and/or heads of recognized kin groups. Two elected officials are part of this body: a political representative of the village to the administration and the mayor or manager of village activities. In the villages, the council has very considerable authority—making local regulations and enforcing them and deciding, directing, and regulating all village activities. Numerous other groups operate in the village context under the direction of the council. The male work force, made up of all able adult men, maintains and improves village amenities, provides food for the village and/or its guests, etc., at the direction of the elders or at their own initiative. The women of the village complement the male work force, undertaking tasks and projects in the female domain such as mat plaiting and village housekeeping under the direction of the elderly matrons. For other purposes, each village is divided into two competing sides. Organized groups within the churches partially replicate the secular organization (e.g., deacons or elders and women's committees). More ephemeral groups are organized from time to time and are recognized by the elders as "clubs" of one kind or another. This scheme of village organization applies to all three Villages, but it takes particular forms in each. Interatoll political organization was virtually nonexistent until the 1970s. Gatherings at one village traditionally included ceremonial events such as church openings and cricket matches, and though these had political undercurrents arising from historical antagonisms, the antagonisms were muted by many specific loyalties based on kinship links between villages. Now that Tokelau has more say in running its own affairs, each village is watchful that another does not get more than its share of jobs, aid funds, etc. The twice-yearly general meetings rotate between the atolls, are chaired by the hosting village, and are true forums where the interests of the three villages are intensely negotiated. It is notable that atoll parochialism is just as intense, if not more so, in the New Zealand Tokelau communities.

Social Control. It is impossible in a small atoll village for any person's comings and goings to be unobserved. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing and speculates about what they are going to do. People's activities are programmed and closely monitored by the elders of the village and their elder kin. Self-serving and aggressive behavior is socially condemned, and public disputes bring immediate intervention.

Conflict. Since the establishment of the hegemony of Fakaofo in "ancient times," there has been little conflict between the atolls. Tokelau has no hostile neighbors. Internal conflicts are mediated effectively by the village councils. Conflict is also channeled into competition between the two village sides in various entertainments, including ongoing cricket matches and song-dance exchanges. When on occasion this competition becomes too intense and threatens to disrupt the peace, the competing sides are simply revised, so that enemies and allies are scrambled.

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