Navigating agency in the diaspora due to forced migration secondary to Sea Level Rise

Navigating agency in the diaspora due to forced migration secondary to Sea Level Rise


University of Hawaii, Manoa, Maui, USA

My presentation will be on power point to illustrate my research. However, I will show a couple poems and songs as examples of how the Tokelauan population uses a different context to show agency in the diaspora. I will present research from my Master's thesis.  I chose to research Tokelau in Oceania because of their past and imminent need to relocate due to Sea Level Rise.  Tokelau constitutes three low-lying atolls and lies about 500 km north of Samoa.  I looked at the population in the homeland and also the two bigger populations in the diaspora, Aotearoa/New Zealand and Hawai‘i.  A lot can be said on the two populations that migrated out as they were able to implement a pathway for perpetuation of culture while in the diaspora.  I focused on two pathways of resilience, one is the educational platform for each geographic location; and two, the community and the events that were organized daily, weekly, monthly as a way to continue living the Tokelauan culture while in the diaspora.  The first drive of forced migration/relocation for Tokelau happened in 1966 due to a cyclone that devastated the three atolls.  Due to the damage of all crops and natural resources, an emergency declaration from New Zealand opened up their airports and citizenship to Tokelauans as a safe place of refuge.  Those that stayed on the atolls were forced to move inland due to the sea level rise and thereby enduring other issues such as water quality, crop damage and sustainability, and the cognitive aspect of losing their land in the near future due to these global environmental changes secondary to globalization.  In 2005, another cyclone hit Tokelau with waves crashing over the atolls and running through their homes and schools.  With an imminent danger of the water rising, strategies of relocating became a top concern.  More so for the elders, a concern over perpetuation of culture became the focus as an uncertainty of what the future held for their younger generations became an immediate problem.  My research looks at these core issues of forced migration that comes when a culture is cosmologically tied to the land yet due to forces unimagined and unforeseen will see these atolls uninhabitable within the next 7-10 years and out of site within the 50 years.  How does this affect a culture and a people that are tied to their land? The dynamics appear when migration and relocation becomes necessary to a group of people that have to leave their homeland for numerous reasons. For the population that continue to live in Tokelau, it is easy to exist in harmony because the cultural foundation exists where the language continues to be predominantly spoken, the landscape connects the people to the oral history and beliefs of their people through names, stories, and cultural practices that connects the land to the cosmology where there is an overall sense of who they are based on living in that environment.  For those that had to leave their homeland, that connection is hard to obtain while in the diaspora unless there is a conscious awareness of native agency and cultural perpetuation. They are forced to speak another language or language of imposition (Thiong’o 1981, 17), while living in someone else’s homeland and therefore, will start to learn another culture as oppose to knowing their own. The landscape is different and the stories that connect one to their cultural is not apparent as they live in a place that does not represent their people. What is desired is to once again be connected to the homeland while in the diaspora. The question that could be asked is how does a diasporic community reclaim and reconnect to the foundation of their culture? Therefore, cosmogony is an important area of knowledge to know as this connection ties the people to the foundation of the culture.

It is important to identify key and successful tools for the survivance of the native peoples in Oceania. “Native survivance is an active sense of presence over historical absence, deracination, and oblivion” (Vizenor 2008, 36). There is a consciousness today of recognizing Indigenous knowledge and is seen by native people as benefiting not only the native community but also non-native communities as well. “The nature of survivance is unmistakable in language, native stories, natural reason, active traditions, customs, and narrative resistance and is clearly observable in persons’ attributes such as humor, spirit, cast of mind, and moral courage in literature,” (Vizenor 2008, 1) and adds a new vision of seeing the world through different lens.  As I’ve mentioned, the first setting to focus on is the educational platforms.  By incorporating a curriculum that discusses climate change and the many facets that accompany this global event, an understanding of the ‘how’ in climate change is important.  Questions such as ‘How did this happen, how does it affect a culture and people, how do we resolve and find solutions?’ are important conversations to have amongst a community that is personally or non-personally affected by such elements.  Recognizing Indigenous education as a legitimate form of education is key for Indigenous peoples as this different context highlights and enhances traditions and languages that fall outside of the western concept of curriculum seen as reading, writing and arithmetic. By looking at the educational platforms, the many other facets became apparent to discuss such as living in the diaspora, migration concerns that often come with force driven issues, relations between the native people and the colonial government, pathways for native agency, and a shared and collaborative effort in perpetuating culture for generations to come.  With this shift towards implementing Indigenous models of education, this type of curriculum becomes pivotal in cultural reclamation and revitalization in the Pacific, an emphasis on replacing the educational platform becomes pivotal in this syncretic world that we live in so that the curriculum can be culturally appropriate for native people.  The second setting I focus on is the community and the events that were organized daily, weekly, monthly as a way to continue living the Tokelauan culture while in the diaspora.  The Tokelauan diasporic community has had to face multiple issues dealing with living away from the homeland.  I argue that while living away from the homeland, the need to reconnect and reclaim one’s identity becomes a necessity in ensuring cultural ties.  This community is forced to set up pathways to ensure continuity of culture while in the diaspora.  As native people living away from their homeland, the importance of community grew strong and soon the Tokelauan ethic of maopoopo (unity) led to the formation of fakaloptopotoga (associations) and mafutaga (clubs) in New Zealand (Ickes 1999, 145). “The initial act of leaving one’s parents, family, neighborhood, society and culture, and adopting a new life – and work-style is a crucial one” (Cowling 2008, 46). In a way to identify with their homeland and culture, community centers and churches served as a bridge for Tokelauans to identify with each other.   Through the diasporic history of Tokelau and because of the initiatives carried out by the first generation to Aotearoa/New Zealand, there are so many more programs and events that are being done today in a collective manner for culture perpetuation and strength in Tokelauan identity.  These pathways have led the community to recognize community centers and churches as a vehicle to native agency. These examples fall back on the structures that were used in the 1960’s and 1970’s when they were the only source of connecting to each other and those back in the homeland. Today there are many community centers and churches that speak Tokelauan language and share the values and traditions of their people back in Tokelau. Tokelauan agency is seen through many venues and contexts and can be seen and heard from radio programs, language weeks, and church and community centers all over Aotearoa/New Zealand.  A running dialogue on climate change in the schools and community events has also allowed the Tokelauan community to talk to the wider community in terms of raising awareness of such dynamics that are associated with the impacts of climate change.   Today, cultural formations and pride of origin are seen through different context such as poetry and music. This concept is not new to native peoples but rather reused again in a time that different contexts can better explain the emotions that come with living in a syncretic world.   These different forms of expression creates a setting where it reminds the participants of their origin by recalling such stories, histories, and heart felt feelings of longing, to a place that connects them to the foundation of recreating the sacred and oral world to the present moment in time. An optimistic approach known to come from Epeli Hau’ofa, a Tongan scholar, discusses another way of looking at the world from a native perspective and grassroots lens. Hau’ofa see’s discourse that ultimately leads to native peoples self-characteristics. Like Thiong’o, Hau’ofa sees that there are significant consequences when it comes to people’s self-identity and in what is projected out to the world. When we look at the world through our myths, legends, oral traditions and cosmologies, it becomes “evident that we did not see the world as a small island but rather a sea of islands” (Hau’ofa 1994, 7). To have the mindset that we are all connected via the many characteristics above, then there must be another way of looking at the world that can better enhance native peoples in Oceania and around the world.

Hau’ofa focuses on a vast ocean region and draws the people of the Pacific together to form a collective group called Oceania. The point is to band together because separate, we have no power or control, but if together, we could refer to the ocean as part of our domain and collectively be a force to reckon with when raising awareness for climate change. In this very mindset, scholars have critically analyzed and discussed the need to become one in order to be heard. Naturally the discussion leads to Pacific Islanders discussing such matters that will affect the future generations that will ultimately lead into a discussion of how a Pacific Islander studying other Pacific Islanders can be a useful tool in this day and age with a pan-pacific reach.



Lesley Kehaunani Iaukea is a Kanaka Maoli wahine (Native Hawaiian woman) and comes from the island of Maui (Hawai‘i).  She is from the Ahupua’a ‘O Hali’imaile and was born into a genealogy that is traceable and goes back sixty eight (68) generations to po (darkness).  Raised on an island, Lesley grew up as a competitive swimmer, canoe paddler, and sailor.  She also was raised in a community that practiced Native Hawaiian traditions where she danced hula, worked in the Lo’i (taro patch) and took care of the ancient fishponds.  She has her Bachelor’s degree is Human Geography with a focus on Sea Level Rise and Indigenous Communities; a Master’s degree in Pacific Islands Studies focusing on Indigenous curriculum as a platform to understanding climate change and the tools needed in perpetuation of culture due to forced relocation; and is currently a PhD student in Indigenous Studies at the University of Hawai‘i Mānoa campus and continues to write about Indigenous curriculum as an essential pathway in understanding climate change and force driven issues such as relocation secondary to sea level rise.  She uses the voyaging canoe as a vehicle in continuing traditional knowledge while in the homeland and/or diaspora, and  as a way to incorporate Western science with an Indigenous knowledge foundation.  She is also a lecturer at the University of Hawai‘i Mānoa and Leeward Community College and teaches on Indigenous knowledge, Sea Level Rise/Climate Change, Qualitative research methods, and Political philosophies/Theories.

Lesley is an active crewmember, educator, and presenter on the voyaging canoe called Hokule’a and authored a curriculum for Hawai‘i’s schools that incorporates Indigenous knowledge in a curriculum where children follow the canoe around the world via satellite on the 4 year Malama Honua: World Wide Voyage and learn about climate change, transnational relationships, Indigenous knowledge, perpetuation of culture, and sustainability. Lesley Iaukea is a member in Rising Voices, Oceans and Islands Topic for the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit Taskforce member, and Nationwide Tribal Climate Education Taskforce member.

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