Letter from Polynesia

Birth of a Nation?

by May 1, 2006

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LETTER FROM POLYNESIA about a referendum on the Pacific islands of Tokelau to decide whether to declare independence from New Zealand… The islands that make up the territory of Tokelau are so tiny and remote that their civil servants work out of an office in Samoa, thirty or so hours away, by boat. Writer visits Alan Shaw, the general financial manager of Tokelau in his Samoan offices, which had recently been flooded. “Economically, Tokelau shouldn't exist.” Shaw said. Tokelau has its own language and culture, but no earned income. It receives most of its annual budget from New Zealand. Tokelau is one of the world's seventeen remaining “non-self-governing” territories, mostly former colonial outposts such as Bermuda, Gibraltar and St, Helena. Tokelau, which has less than five square miles of land, would be the world's second smallest nation in population, after the Vatican... For the referendum, which took place in February, 2006, citizens were asked to choose between the current status quo and a level of self-determination that would preserve New Zealand's support, but grant Tokelau formal control of its affairs… Writer travels with the election officials to Tokelau. Among those on the ferry were Neil Walter, the Administrator of Tokelau, and Falani Aukuso, the civil-service chief as well as two observers from the United Nations… Their first stop was the atoll of Atafu. Tokelau has no cars, no cattle, or horses, but it does have electricity and land-line telephones. There are no cafes or restaurants. Writer discusses the referendum with a number of locals, including Lameka Sale, the atoll's physician, and Vaelua Lopa, a retired schoolteacher. There is no organized liberation movement in Tokelau. Describes the apathy of many of the islanders… Briefly tells about the history of Tokelau, which was first settled in the tenth century. The islanders were later converted to Christianity by missionaries. In the late 1850s, Peruvian slavers came and kidnapped many island men to work in Peru… Writer travels to the atoll of Nukunonu, and meets Luciano Perez the proprietor of Tokelau's only hotel… Describes the lack of an organized economy on the islands. The one store in each village is cooperatively owned, and opens for a few hours a day… Writer then travels to Fakaofo, the last atoll, where the inhabited island is no larger than 25 acres. He interviews Tino Vitale, a critic of the referendum. “I don't think there is a democracy here,” he said… Describes the counting of the votes and the result: no. Tokelauans had signed a declaration of dependence…

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Ian Parker, Letter from Polynesia, “Birth of a Nation?,” The New Yorker, May 1, 2006, p. 66

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