Atafu descendants gather to write genealogy
It’s been more than 50 years since the first men and women from Tokelau’s northernmost atoll, Atafu, began a steady migration, firstly to New Zealand and then onwards to other foreign shores.
The initial trickle from the three-atoll group was formally increased by the Tokelau Islands Resettlement Scheme instigated by the New Zealand government between 1966 and 1976. Of the 528 people the scheme resettled in that period, a number of Atafu descendants ventured further to Australia, to Hawaii and eventually to the mainland United States, Europe and other places.
Many who left were destined never to see, or set foot on Atafu again. But the pull of their heritage, anchored in Atafu has grown stronger over the years, especially with first and second generation born outside of Atafu.
Lehi Atoni has always felt the Atafu anchor pulling at him from a young age. As he grew up, he saw many of his kin harboring similar ties evidenced by the many re-unions taking place over the years.
“In past years, we have seen so many of our Atafu people from all over the world coming together in reunions – obviously it’s a costly exercise to hold those events, but they are committed to it,” said Lehi, who is also the President for the Atafu Community Group in Wellington.
“Seeing those reunions made us look deeper into what Atafu means to us as direct descendants. As a result of those inner questions, we realized that hey, our people left the shores of Atafu more than 50 years ago, isn’t it time we looked at holding one big gathering so that people make one travel arrangement to one place?
“It made sense to organize an atoll-wide ‘Fakatahiga’/reunion event to bring together the seven houses (family lines) of Atafu under one roof. It would be an event where those who haven’t seen each other for years would finally do so. It’s something that has never happened before in any of the three atolls.”
That was two years ago when the ambitious plan for what would be an historical event was put into action.
As fundraising and related activities took shape in the first year, it quickly attracted people. And with the booming support base developing, it wasn’t hard to build momentum and drive the message through to Australia, Hawaii and the US.
In a short space of time, the enthusiasm from supporters began to change what was initially just a standard ‘meeting of families’ event into a movement. One that increasingly started to call for more status, greater substance and meaning. For a platform not just to celebrate and commemorate Atafu, but also to look at its potential to be more transformative such as revive Tokelau’s dying culture and language in New Zealand.
At the same time the group was emboldened to aspire higher: why not explore avenues to bring the diaspora closer to the Taupulega, the decision making body of Atafu?
With renewed vigour and passion, the organizing committee fine-tuned their plan to focus on a smaller number of priorities, clarify desired outputs that would allow the Fakatahiga enough time to flesh out and negotiate a realistic vision that everyone would unite behind.
They settled on two foundational priorities: produce a document containing Atafu’s genealogy and history; and develop an ‘Atafu Community Group Strategic Plan’ – a guide/blueprint on how to construct closer relations with Atafu and bind it to a common vision beneficial to Atafu’s global community.
Armed with clarity and commitment Lehi and the organizing committee were unstoppable. On 30 December 2016, the official opening ceremony for the inaugural ‘whole of Atafu atoll Fakatahiga’ took place at Porirua’s Te Rauparaha Arena.
Critical was the involvement and participation of the large group from Atafu headed by Acting Faipule Kelihiano Kalolo and Pulenuku Faafetai Taumanu providing the endorsement that the Taupulega of Atafu is supportive of the Fakatahiga event and aspirations that conveived it.
On top of that, the inclusion of a combined event with the Ngati Toa tribe broadens not only the official stamp of approval by the Atafu Taupulega but honours the rekindling of historical Polynesian genealogy enhancing the importance of the Fakatahiga as significant to Tokelau’s current march to nationhood and self-determination.
It is that backdrop and stage on which the 11-day Fakatahiga is being showcased. An estimated 350 to 400 people from Atafu, Australia, Hawaii, US mainland, and various regions of Aotearoa New Zealand’s Te Ika a Maui (North Island) and Te Waipounamu (South Island) are involved.
They will participate in a strategically designed program that include various social, cultural and sports activities, all aimed to enhance the work required to smith the two main priorities: to record and document Atafu’s family genealogy; and endorse the ‘Atafu Community Group Strategic Plan’ to be launched on Wednesday at 10am.
Amongst those attending the Fakatahiga is 98-year-old Lagimaina. She came all the way from Hawaii. Currently the oldest living Tokelauan woman, her knowledge, guidance and wisdom will be highly sought after during the 11-day event.
Another is 76-year old Feleti Lopa, Atafu’s Law Commissioner. He traveled to Aotearoa in August, where his wife Vae resides in Porirua. Their daughter, Hatesa Kirifi is staying behind on Atafu to make sure the administrative wheels and cogs of the Taupulega (Council of Elders and Atafu’s decision making body) is well oiled and functioning – she is the General Manager for the Taupulega.
From small town New Zealand, Tanya Koro of Palmerston North brought all her children to Matauala, leaving behind her working husband to celebrate New Years alone. She is interested in the substance of the Strategic Plan. But even deeper, she’s hoping to come across a path or a place that clarifies Tokelau’s authentic cultural elements. All too often many of Tokelau’s culture, sayings, colloquialism, proverbs, traditions are indistinguishable from Samoa.
“I’m sure we have our own Tokelau cultural and traditional elements – but what are they? I’m hoping that this Fakatahiga is a start to a way or method to identify and distinguish our own unique cultural and traditional elements from others.”
Tanya Koro’s youngest daughter and sister Maima proudly hold up a first draft genealogy for one of the seven families of Tonuia and Lagimaina.
Such is the varied pull of this inaugural event, across generational gaps that many have come in search of that ‘something’ Tokelauan. Some say the ‘something’ is about pushing for recognition, of finding out more about what it is that’s unique about Atafu; others felt it’s an inner curiosity about identity, language and spirituality; while still others say its the Strategic Plan, what future direction does it point to, and what things will it unearth that young Tokelauans today may feel affinity to.
“We are clear that the priority focus of the gathering is to look at the Gafaor family tree of the original couple that first settled Atafu – Tonuia and Lagimaina,” emphasized Lehi.
“They had seven children hence the honorifics that mention the seven houses of Atafu. We want to ensure we now put that lineage and genealogy down on paper, something concrete for the generations to come.”
The second priority is to endorse the ‘Atafu Community Group Strategic Plan’ which can serve as a framework, for example, to guide and help Tokelau reinvigorate its dying culture and language in New Zealand.
“This gathering is an opportunity for us (outside) to work in a lot closer with Atafu. One of the areas where they in Atafu could help us here in New Zealand, is in terms of the culture, by sharing resources and knowledge.
“We have a lot of work to revive the language and culture here in New Zealand so we want to talk with our elders from Tokelau, from around New Zealand, Australia, United States, Hawaii in terms of recording some of that culture.”
Lehi said one of the main reasons their culture and language are dying: “We don’t have many articles published about Atafu in libraries, or resources such as traditional songs produced. Those aspirations are certainly something we hope this Fakatahiga could initiate as a process.
“We want to look at the history of our people in terms of migration from Tokelau to New Zealand. Especially our story here at Matauala for example as no one has written that in a book resource for our children to read and know about it.”
Matauala is a legacy started by the young men and women who migrated to Wellington in the early 1960s.
“It was their vision and hard work that gave us this piece of land and hall which became the first port of call for the many Tokelauans who landed single and alone in Wellington. It is now the focal point for our Atafu community here.”
Added Lehi, “This first Fakatahiga serves to also celebrate and acknowledge the Matauala legacy.
“It is now up to us to add to that legacy. To find ways not only to keep our culture and language alive outside of Atafu, but to also look at how we can help develop our community back home and preserve our heritage.”