Tokelau communities in Aotearoa

A starting point for building your understanding of Tokelau culture. It includes some common concepts, terms and phrases that families in Aotearoa might use and value. Read it alongside the related page Pacific peoples and cultures in Aotearoa.

Land and people

Tokelau has a land area of 12 square kilometres and a population of around 1,500 spread across its 3 small atolls – Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo. Tokelau is administered by Aotearoa New Zealand.

More Tokelau people live in Aotearoa than in Tokelau, and more than half of those who live here were born here. Tokelau communities in Aotearoa keep Tokelau values of collective responsibility for the welfare of the (family) and community alive, but the high degree of integration into Aotearoa has affected Tokelau cultural identity – possibly more than for other Pacific cultures.

Gagana Tokelau (Tokelau language) is perceived to be under threat of loss. Gagana Samoa is the closest language to Gagana Tokelau and, due to the Samoa bible, most Tokelau are fluent in it.


Tokelau villages are made up of ancestral plots where family homes are built. Village affairs are governed by a patriarchal council of elders.


Fatupaepae is an honourable title given to elderly women or women of seniority descended from the female family line. The title is given based on leadership not hierarchy.

  • Fatupaepae are responsible for overseeing the fair distribution of resources to maintain the welfare and care of the entire extended .

  • They can influence key family decisions. They represent wisdom, compassion, justice, strength and decision-making.

  • The solidarity of the family group and the success of the day-to-day activities depend upon the fairness and authority of the fatupaepae.


The Matai is the head of the extended family. He is chosen by the extended family to represent his kāiga at the Taupulega (the matai council of elders).


The are the male elders. Like the female elders they are the keepers or guardians of tradition, knowledge and wisdom. They work alongside the fatupaepae to make decisions that affect the kāiga and communities.

A Tokelau gathering or meeting is without mana if there is no toeaina present. They are the ones who always open, watch over and close any gathering or meeting.

Family roles

Traditionally (males) and (females) have complementary roles in the kāiga. Males are responsible for providing and working for the benefit of the kāiga. Females are responsible for the distribution of food and resources provided by the males.

Children are expected to show respect to parents and elders. Recognising authority and meeting expectations for behaviour supports family harmony and wellbeing.

  • When children address their parents or elders, they show respect by sitting down or kneeling before talking. 

  • When children walk in front of a parent or elder, they show respect by bowing their head or body and saying “ ”. 

  • In most households children eat together with the parents or elders.

Typically in a gathering, children do not talk when elders are present. If there are visitors, the male head of the household begins the conversation, while his wife, sisters and children stay quiet. The male may then invite others to speak.

A child who misbehaves or has done something wrong is seen as disrespectful and may bring a loss of face for the family.

Vā o te tamatāne ma te tuafafine

The special relationship between brother and sister is the most significant and cherished relationship in Tokelau culture. 

The reciprocal obligations that underpin this relationship traditionally involve the brother taking responsibility for the needs and care of his sister until she is married. In turn, the sister would give her son to her brother, a custom known as . This continues even if the brother was to leave Tokelau. The sister’s son becomes the protector of his uncle to the point of death. Some Tokelau continue this tradition today.

The moral code of behaviour between brothers and sisters includes the observation of respectful language and behaviour between them and towards their children. Their children also commonly refer to their aunts and uncles as mother or father. Each Tokelau atoll will have its own concept of what this means.

Toto hau tokiga nei, aua na tupulaga e fai mai.

Plant a seed today, for our future generations.
(Tokelau proverb)

Culture and values

Vā feāloaki

Vā feāloaki means harmonious relationships. It describes and represents the relationships and connections that family members have with each other. Honouring these relationships is very important.


describes behaviour and language that honours and respects vā feāloaki. It is exemplified by mutual respect and fulfilment of roles and responsibilities that maintain peace and harmony in the kāiga.


means members of the community working as one for a common good. Every person has a role and responsibility to ensure the success of an undertaking. 

Fakahoa lelei 

Fakahoa lelei means the spirit of fairness involved in the equal distribution of communal resources. In the traditional context, this was illustrated by the fair distribution of a catch.

Family terms

Tokelau English

Common greetings and phrases

Tokelau English
Greetings, hello
Malo, hau ki loto Welcome, come in (to 1 person)
Malo, omamai ki loto Welcome, come in (to more than 1 person)
How are you?
E manuia fakafetai, ka ko koe? I’m fine thanks, and you?
Thank you
Excuse me
Tulou ni kupu kua hala ni Apologies, sorry

Working with Pacific peoples: Va'aifetū

Most of the information in this article comes from Va'aifetū, the Oranga Tamariki cultural practice tool for working with Pacific children and their families. Read it to find out more about Pacific cultures and building relationships with Pacific peoples.

Working with Pacific peoples: Va'aifetū | Practice Centre(external link)