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Vagahau Niue Under Threat


While the majority of our people were enjoying the Festival of our arts and culture, a smaller group were engrossed in a discussion regarding Vagahau Niue.

[Hereinafter I will refer to Vagahau Niue as Vagahau with capital V to distinguish it from vagahau]. Why the discussion? Well, for one thing, language specialists are firm in their view that it is only a matter of time before Vagahau will disappear forever, extinct, gone. For another, UNESCO has classified the language as definitely endangered.

For those who have grown up with the Vagahau, the thought that the language handed down through countless generations, the language that gives us our identity, the language that we learnt on our parent’s knees, is facing extinction, is unthinkable.

The experts are wrong; you cannot compare Niue to others who have lost their languages; it’s a load of academic hogwash. . .or is it?

Niue PreSchool children performing at the Vagahau Niue forum, 2019 Taoga Festival. The future Leaders and Custodians of the Vagahau. Pic B Vakaafi.

The fact is that it is not hogwash; the threat is real. Look at it this way. For the native speakers of Vagahau, in 10 or 20 years from now, when you are no longer here, how many of your immediate family will be able to speak and use the language?   

The one day meeting, organised in conjunction with the Arts and Culture festival, was appropriately held at the Ekalesia Kerisiano Niue’s Millennium Hall. And why was it the appropriate venue? Because when all else has failed, EKN will still be conducting its services in Vagahau.

At the meeting, in a keynote statement, Dr Colin Tukuitoga highlighted several points, one of which was that of all 20,000 plus Niueans in New Zealand only 22% can use Vagahau. 

Dr Colin was firm in his view that it is no longer acceptable to rely solely on Niue for the preservation of the Vagahau. The Niue Diaspora must be allowed to contribute. Where there are concentrations of Niueans overseas, they need to be encouraged to learn and speak Vagahau.

Participants presenting their ideas. It doesn’t look like we are short of answers, which is fantastic but the key is in the execution. (L-R) Sifa, Griz, Lyn, Moi, Nico, Aunty Loligi. Pic B Vakaafi.

The task of the forum, therefore, was to come up with a coherent intelligent plan that covers all sectors of the education spectrum from early childhood to secondary school to university. This will then allow the Realm countries of Niue, Cook Islands and Tokelau to jointly submit the plan to the New Zealand government. Dr Colin told the meeting that, as this is the year the UN has designated the year of Indigenous Languages, we should review what has already been done and devise appropriate strategies to build on that experience.

Minister Billy Talagi who opened the Fono  said that the government, through the Department of Education, is firm in its commitment to the Vagahau. The Minister went on to highlight the fact that the University of the South Pacific’s Niue Campus is now offering certificate and diploma courses in Vagahau.

Good participation from the people but what will the Vagahau be like in the next 20 years? – pic B Vakaafi.

The representatives from New Zealand for those groups and organisations who, in one shape or form, are teaching Vagahau gave the participants an overview of their activities. Some of the local residents who were present were learning first hand of the struggles and the commitment shown by these groups, ranging from early childhood to secondary schools. But while these endeavours are to be commended and encouraged, clearly a concerted approach is needed, given that some are working alone.

For the time being the Vagahau is still very much alive on the island. The effort by the Keepers of the Vagahau – The Department of Education and the Niue Language Commission – to ensure the survival of the Vagahau have been impressive. The production of a Niue-English Dictionary in 2004 was an achievement in itself, but in 2007, the compilers Funaki, Ioane, Tanaki and Early topped this by publishing a Niue-Niue dictionary. The published material is a vital step in the process of preserving the language, but it still has to be taught.

Contributions from Niue New Zealanders and 2 locals. (L-R) Io, Luc, Keti, Mele, Malc and Ane. Pic – B Vakaafi.

When it comes to working together, in the past, a sticking point for Niue had been the suggestion that the base for developing the Vagahau, should by logic, be relocated to where there is a large concentration of Niueans. Thankfully that issue did not surface at the meeting. Instead the focus was on developing a coherent plan.

And so what of the future?  

In some ways, for many of the people attending the meeting it was akin to preaching to the converted; they are already conversant with the challenges; they know what is at stake. For the younger people who attended, a good number of whom had travelled from New Zealand, it was a chance for them – if only for a moment – to hear the quiver in the voices of their elders, at the unthinkable prospect that a vital component of their heritage could disappear forever.

There are just two things that gives us our identity and sets us apart from anyone else on the planet – our language and our island-home. These two pillars of identity, these two inalienable taoga tell us that it didn’t matter if you live on the island or not, you still belong; it didn’t matter if you speak the language or not, you still belong.

But the pressures of a modern world is chipping away and weakening one of the pillars. Fixing it will require all the skills of the tribal leaders and the unwavering determination of the younger members of the tribe, wherever they may be. To do otherwise would be a betrayal of the trust of generations past.

From the Talaniue Editor:

The vigorous and often heated discussion on social media regarding the Vagahau is a healthy sign for it means that the language is still very much in hearts of the younger generation who no longer live on the island. It is time now to turn that passion into a commitment to learn and use the Vagahau.

We must now accept that in the long term the Vagahau will not survive purely on the skills of the native speakers. It must be taught in the junior and secondary schools as well as in the higher institutions of learning.

We must also accept that over time, with two dominant centres for the language, Auckland and Niue, there will be changes to the language. This is already happening; there are some expressions now in Vagahau that is strictly South Auckland. Some of the young ones speak with a noticeable palagi accent. That is all part of a living language as long as the basic building blocks are not violated.

[Next up – what is our Culture? Watch this space.]