Tongan communities in Aotearoa

A starting point for building your understanding of Tongan 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

The Kingdom of Tonga includes 171 islands. It is the only constitutional monarchy in the Pacific. It has a class structure written into its constitution which divides (Tongan people) into 3 classes: 

  • (the King) 

  • (nobility) and matāpule (chiefs)

  • (commoners)

All land belongs to the King. The nobility and matapule are stewards of the King’s lands. 

A significant proportion of Tongan children in Aotearoa speak Tongan, but this is not as common in New Zealand-born generations and ethnically mixed families.


Tongans are born into their place in Tongan society. Privileges, duties and responsibilities are associated with class. People address each other in language that is appropriate to their rank, for example, with different greetings for:

  • royalty “Mālo e Lakoifie”

  • nobility “Mālo e Laumalie” 

  • commoners “ ”.

Males have legal privilege over females in land inheritance and succession to the throne.

Family roles

Tongan family structure

Tongan family structure
Tongan family structure

In a traditional kainga:

  • the paternal often holds a higher standing in decision-making than the maternal kainga, depending on the situation, family concerned and context

  • the , the head of the paternal kainga, makes the final decision when a family cannot reach agreement

  • sisters take precedence over brothers in families.

First born sons and daughters have particular status. 

  • They link the families of the parents together as kin. 

  • They’re raised to be aware of responsibility and expectations from an early age, including looking out for younger siblings and, over time, the kainga. 

(paternal aunts) or (eldest paternal aunt in an extended family) traditionally have naming rights for their brothers’ children.

Family terms

Tongan English
child, boy
mother, maternal aunt
father, paternal uncle, father’s brothers and male cousins
maternal uncle, maternal male cousins
extended families
paternal aunt
eldest paternal aunt in an extended family
head of the paternal kainga (male)

Common terms and phrases

Tongan English
Greetings, hello
Welcome, come in (to more than 2 people)
Goodbye (to more than 2 people)
How are you?
I'm fine, thank you
(or) Thank you
Excuse me
Goodbye (to a person who is leaving)
Goodbye (response to ‘Alu ā from the person leaving)
Apologies, sorry
A non-Tongan

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)