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Carving Space for Tokelauan Identity in Hawai?i

Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

If you build it, they will come. A tight-knit community of local Tokelauans are building a traditional canoe. They’re doing it as they would in their ancestral homeland – a small set of islands half way between Hawai?i and New Zealand. They’re hoping the project will encourage younger generations to learn more about their language and culture. HPR’s Ku?uwehi Hiraishi has this story.

Under a canopy tent in the old plantation village of Poamoho in Wahiawa, a half dozen or so men use traditional Tokelauan adzes called toki to chip away at a 35-foot long log of albezia. Women and children encourage the carving in song as the canoe is beginning to take shape.

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
The canoe carving project is about four weeks in, and halfway to completion. Men are seen here wielding Tokelauan adzes called toki.

Tokelauan master carver Vasufena Reupena says they’re about half way done. Carving should be complete in about five weeks.

Reupena traveled 2,500 miles to Hawai’i from his native Tokelau – a small island nation in the South Pacific. He’s here to lead the local Tokelauan community in constructing a traditional canoe.

“It is the wind in the sails of many of us,” says Bonnie Patelesio, a teacher and the co-director of Te Lumanaki, a Tokelauan language program in Wahiawa.

The carving project is the centerpiece of Te Lumanaki’s efforts to engage the younger generations of local Tokelauans.

A little over a dozen or so students some as young as 3 years old sit under the tent reviewing Tokelauan words for the different parts of the vaka or canoe. The lessons are taught by Reupena entirely in Tokelauan.

“It’s really hard,” says 16-year-old ‘Anela Ickes, “Because when he’s telling us and then we don’t really know what he’s saying, so then we’re like looking through our books to see like oh, let me see if I can find it.”

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
A tent set-up for canoe carving becomes a makeshift classroom for a dozen or so students of Te Lumanaki, a Tokelauan language and cultural program in Wahiawa.

Her classmate, 29-year-old Hita Tulano, on the other hand, is quick to speak up even if she doesn’t know the answer.

TULANO: Does it start with an “A”? (laugh)

REUPENA: (Laughs)

PATELESIO: Give me a hint, give me a hint.

“Yes, I have no shame,” says Tulano, “You gotta…put yourself out there and humiliate yourself because that’s the only way I can learn.”

Credit Te Taki Tokelau
Te Taki Tokelau
Local Tokelauan elders joined Reupena at a blessing ceremony for the future canoe.

Tulano and Ickes both have their roots in Tokelau – a remote group of atolls north of Samoa. About 1,500 people live in Tokelau today. An estimated 10,000 Tokelauans exist worldwide, including nearly 1,000 here in Hawai?i. Most are descendants of migrants who came here to work the pineapple fields in the 1960s.

“Our elders were getting to that point that they weren?t going to be around much longer,” says university professor Betty Ickes, the founder and Executive Director of Te Taki Tokelau.

Credit Te Taki Tokelau
Te Taki Tokelau
Betty Ickes (second from left) is seen here in a photo with Te Lumanaki students at the canoe carving site.

“We needed to continue building that bridge between Tokelau culture and our children and our grandchildren,” says Ickes, “And so that bridge has become Lumanaki school.”

Patelesio agrees, “It’s regenerating that energy that we need. That we’ve needed for so long.”

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at
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