Today is the end of Tuvalu Language week – Vaiaso o te Gana Tuvalu.
The island group is categorised as ‘definitely endangered’ by UNESCO with only about 11,000 speakers of their language remaining worldwide.
A group of small coral islands in the Pacific, midway between Hawaii and Australia, with Fiji to its south and Kiribati to its north, Tuvalu is part of Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, precariously only a few feet above sea level.
Administered by the British as a protectorate from 1892, Tuvalu became a UK colony in 1916 and the Japanese occupied the islands from 1941 to 1943. Only given back its name Tuvalu in 1970’s, when it also became independent - becoming the world’s fourth smallest country.
Prior to this the inhabitants of Tuvalu were known as Ellice Islanders. In 1819 an American Captain of the sea, Arent de Peyser, was passing by. His ship was owned by Englishman and poitician Edward Ellice, and so it was named Ellice Island.
Peruvians arrived in 1863 and loaded 450 Tuvalu onto their ship as slaves, dropping the male Tuvalu population by 80 percent. Then, in typical British fashion, George Frederick Ernest Albert decided in 1916 that the Gilbert Islanders should be part of the Ellice Islanders, even though they are very different people.
Gilbert Islanders are Micronesians while Tuvalu is a part of Polynesia. Gilbert Islanders also outnumbered the Tuvalu six to one. It would be like merging the British and the Russians as one people. Then the British decided that Tokelau should be part of the Gilbert Ellice mix -making a complete colonial mess. In 1926 Britain handed it over to New Zealand to run.
The name Tuvalu means eight standing - tu, to stand, and valu, eight, (the number of islands). In the 1950’s Niulakita island was added making it in actual fact nine (iva) islands. The language is very similar to Māori.
As with the Tuvaluan language, Tuvalu the country is also endangered, a nation home that is gradually disappearing. Waves are washing over Tuvalu and salt water infiltration has spoiled many kai pits and gardens. Sea levels have risen and are continuously on the rise due the impact of climate change.
The future of Tuvalu is in the hands of global leaders. Rains, winds and storms were a seasonal thing around November, but now besiege the country all year round. Tuvalu’s past Prime Minister Saufatu Sopo’aga says he ‘is deeply dismayed that industrialised nations do not share their concern’.
Tuvalu, a country without traffic lights, is placed in an unjustified position by the large powers of the world. These major powers, with all resources of the world to build themselves up and maintain themselves as an economic base, have done so at the expense of others. Tuvalu has not created this situation, yet the people there face ‘imminent evacuation’.
A perfect tropical Pacific Island postcard, the true Tuvalu picture is now far from perfect.
Tuvalu, he mihi tangi, he mihi aroha.
Published in Hawke's Bay Today on on 1 October 2022 and written by Te Hira Henderson, Curator Taonga Maori at MTG Hawke’s Bay.
3 October 2022
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