Long Way Home
Story by Catharine Lo
photos by Monte Costa
Isaac, dressed in a striped shirt and tie and draped in lei, greets arriving guests with a generous smile. For the last forty-eight hours the newly anointed juris doctor from the University of Hawai‘i’s Richardson School of Law has been working hard with his family—aunties, uncles, cousins and all—to prepare for the party, setting up the tables and cooking for a few hundred people. His spirits are high. You’d never guess he slept for only two hours last night.
Isaac and Te-kie trace their roots to the tiny Pacific island nation of Tokelau. Their grandparents were among the first Tokelauan migrants to settle in Hawai‘i in the 1960s, and tonight they are celebrating, Tokelauan style—with food, fun and above all family. The DIY extravaganza boasts a pride and personal warmth that distinguishes it from starchy catered events in hotel ballrooms. The emcee invites everyone to indulge at the püpü table: “coconut, ‘ulu chips, raw fish, pig, all the good stuff!” When dinner is announced, guests form a long queue to assemble a plate from a massive buffet of home-cooked favorites.
Sixteen-year-old Denielle Pedro is getting ready to honor her older sister, Tekie, who just earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from UH Manoa. This time it won’t be with a Beatles or Monkees tune like the ones they used to bellow together in the car, but with a traditional Tokelauan dance. Along with many of her younger relatives, Denielle is a student of Te Lumanaki o Tokelau i Amelika (“the future of Tokelau in America”). The class assembles every Saturday afternoon at a community center in Wahiawa to learn Tokelauan language, history and culture, taught by aunties and uncles and guided by elders.
“We learned the alphabet, numbers and body parts,” lists Denielle, who has attended Te Lumanaki since its inception eight years ago. Besides new vocabulary and verb conjugation, students are also taught legends of Tokelau. Often, Denielle explains, the older kids learn the stories and tell them to the younger ones. “There’s one about a tree that’s sad because people keep taking away its branches,” she recounts. “At first people needed the branches; then they just took them away for fun. The tree was all beaten up.”
Such legends are also embodied in song, and the students have been practicing numerous fatele (dances) for weeks in preparation for two graduation parties. Tonight the girls have donned royal blue dresses with matching necklaces and hair clips fashioned from lauhala and bright red anthuriums. The boys have traded their gym shorts for titi (grass skirts). Performing at family gatherings is standard ritual for the group, which is also frequently invited to dance at public venues, from the East- West Center to the Hawai‘i State Art Museum. “I’ve been practicing all day!” exclaims six-year-old Henua, the youngest student. Is she anxious about tonight’s performance? “I don’t get nervous when I’m dancing,” she replies, “because I know my cousins are all by me.”
Dr. Betty Ickes and Iese Su'a.
Dr. Betty Ickes and Iese Su'a.
“No, we’re Tokelauans!”
“Oh! Is that like Tongan?”
“No! Tokelauans are from Tokelau!”
“Like Palau. Is that like Palauan?”
“No, we’re Tokelauans from Tokelau Islands!”
Betty Ickes, the visionary behind Te Lumanaki, has had this conversation numerous times over the last forty years. Ickes is part of the Su‘a-Pedro-Tyrell puikaiga (extended family), whose settlement in Hawai‘i began in the early 1960s as Tokelauans who had been displaced to American Samoa from their home island of Olohega found work and opportunity in the pineapple fields of Central O‘ahu.
Tokelau, in case you’ve been wondering, is located just north of Samoa, about halfway between Hawai‘i and New Zealand. Its history is an ignominious tale of colonialism endured by four coral atolls— together, a tiny twelve square kilometers of (shrinking) landmass spread across two hundred miles of Pacific Ocean—whose populations were re-educated by missionaries, raided by slave traders and then forcefully relocated.
Today what was formerly recognized as the Tokelau Islands is politically partitioned: The island of Olohega, also known as Swain’s Island, was annexed by the United States in 1925 and assigned to the administration of American Samoa. The other three islands were placed under the management of New Zealand by the British government. (They were formerly part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands.) New Zealand eventually retained sovereignty over Fakaofo, Nukunonu and Atafu— modern-day Tokelau—in 1948.
In the 1950s a mass eviction of Olohegans to Tutuila, American Samoa, led to further cultural alienation. In the pineapple plantations on O‘ahu, families sought a new existence that offered hope for their future, something that Samoa’s depressed economy did not. Poamoho, one of the plantation camps outside Wahiawa, became the center of resettlement for Tokelauans who came to Hawai‘i.
Betty Ickes grew up in Poamoho. Her first home was a two-bedroom wood cabin that accommodated thirteen family members. She remembers the creaking floorboards, catching giant catfish and crawfish in the stream and occasional beach outings to the North Shore. From a traditional Tokelauan diet of ‘ulu (breadfruit), taro and coconut, they adapted to meals like her Auntie M’s “Poamoho Special”—“a mixture of ground beef, onions and tons of Van Camp’s pork and beans slopped over hot white rice topped with mayonnaise or ketchup”—food that was cheap and available. They also had to adjust to a new language that was filled with letters that weren’t part of the Tokelauan alphabet.
“At some point, I cannot remember the year, but I stopped thinking in Tokelauan and started thinking in English,” Betty recalls in her PhD dissertation about the diaspora of Tokelauans.
At Poamoho, Tokelauans resided among other migrant laborers—Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Koreans and other Pacific islanders. They were mislabeled as Samoans—likely because they were friends with Samoans, spoke Samoan and shared similar physical Polynesian traits. Some just accepted it; others, like Betty, started to feel a pressing desire to re-establish their cultural identity.
This experience, coupled with two organized visits to O‘ahu by Tokelauans from Nokonunu and Atafu, sparked an interest among the second generation of Hawai‘i Tokelauans in understanding their culture. Their curiosity gave birth to Te Lumanaki in 2004 and its supporting nonprofit, Te Taki Tokelau Community Inc., formed in 2005. Betty has served as the executive director of Te Taki since it was founded. The school has come a long way since its first class in a family garage. With a current enrollment of thirty students, Te Lumanaki’s headquarters is now the bottom floor of a two-story, cinderblock walk-up in old Waipi‘o Valley, the sunken neighbor- hood between Wahiawa and Mililani. Its location next to a garish pawnshop belies the significance of what is taught inside.
Denielle was part of a large delegation from Te Lumanaki that flew to New Zealand to compete in the 2008 Easter festival. “We were just a bunch of kids, basically,” Denielle says, recalling how nervous the Hawai‘i contingent was to dance in front of thousands of Tokelauans. “We all thought we were going to faint when we walked on stage.” But nobody fainted. They did their culture proud. And this past March, when Te Lumanaki competed in the 2012 festival, the twenty dancers came home with three trophies: best opening song, best finale and best dance costume. Not bad for a group of young Tokelauans 4,500 miles from their homeland.
Today the population of Tokelau hovers around 1,500. Five times as many Tokelauans live overseas, about a thousand of them in Hawai‘i. As Tokelau continues its political efforts toward self-governance (which includes the reunion of Olohega with its native family of islands), the Tokelauans who live abroad in New Zealand, Australia, Samoa, American Samoa, the continental United States and Hawai‘i are perpetuating their shared ethnicity. They might be separated by geography, but they remain united by language, song and dance and the enduring institution of kaiga: family.
“I’ve always known I was Tokelauan, but I was raised as a Samoan. When my wife and I got married, I met my Tokelauan family. And that was all she wrote. … I’m going full blast on it,” Thompson continues. “Family values are very important in both cultures, but in Tokelauan you get to mingle with family more. In Samoan culture it’s all about chiefs. In Tokelau there are no chiefs. It’s all elders. Nobody owns the islands. It’s community.”
A loud chant and the ascending beat of two hands on a pohiki, a plywood crate-turned- box drum, fills the tent. An accompanying rhythm is banged out on an empty rectangular biscuit tin with a pate (wooden log), giving the song an imposing sense of urgency. The performers are lined up in rows facing the crowd.
In Tokelauan fatele the choreography sometimes interprets the words in the song, telling the story of a canoe voyage or a harvest. Sometimes the fatele are more ritualistic: praising a deity, for example, or offering a fishing incantation. Tonight the boys wield long wooden spears that represent canoe paddles. They raise and lower them, point and spin them, stepping forward and back in unison as their voices provide the tenor and bass lines. The girls sing the melody, clapping and executing synchronized hand gestures as they make their way across the floor.
Betty watches from the corner next to other adults and musicians behind the dancers. She occasionally dances along, and others in the audience sing, too. The elders, seated in front of the dance space, clap in rhythm. As the song progresses, everything accelerates like a freight train approaching—the pitch, the pace and the flourish. The volume escalates, accentuated by shrill ornamental yells from the girls, until the song crescendos and then abruptly halts. A smattering of laughter melts the intensity, and all of the students beam.