A group of three atolls in the South Pacific encompassing 10 square kilometers of land, the nation of Tokelau is home to about 1,400 people. Originally settled by Polynesian immigrants from surrounding island groups, the Tokelau Islands were made a British protectorate in 1889 and transferred to New Zealand administration in 1925. The islands were originally divided into three separate chiefdoms with their own separate dynasties, but these were abolished in 1916 upon the islands’ annexation to a British colony.
Today Tokelau is a non-self-governing colonial territory of New Zealand, but the people of Tokelau have drafted a constitution and are working toward the status of free association with New Zealand, following the example of such former territories as the Cook Islands and Niue.
Beginning in the 1840s, Samoan missionaries helped to shape the religious character of Tokelau. Today, nearly all of the inhabitants of the island of Atafu are members of the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa. On Nukunonu, all are Roman Catholic. On Fakaofo, both denominations are present, with the Congregational Christian Church predominant.
The people of Tokelau speak the language of Tokelau; many are also bilingual in English to some degree. Tokelau is a language similar to Samoan, and for centuries, the people of Tokelau used the Samoan Bible even though it did not always speak clearly to their hearts and minds. In the 21st century, this has begun to change. The Christian communities of Tokelau have come together to support the Tokelau Bible translation project. After six years’ hard work, the four Gospels in Tokelau were dedicated March 9, 2003. More than 3,000 Tokelau speakers worldwide now have access to God’s Word in the language they understand best. Reflecting on the experience of reading the Gospel of Mark in his language for the first time, a Tokelauan Christian in New Zealand remarked, “It’s like getting a new lease of life.” The rest of the Tokelau New Testament has now been drafted and translation of the Old Testament is underway.
Photo: UN/Ariane Rummery