Niueans are in the main a religious people – a legacy of the London Missionary Society’s activities on the atoll from 1846. Niue’s main church, the Ekalesia Niue (Christian Church of Niue), was founded by the society, which established a New Zealand branch in 1994.
In 2013, 66% of New Zealand Niueans (most of them older or Niuean-born) were actively involved with church groups. Major denominations were Presbyterianism (27%) and Catholicism (9%).
Between 1846 and 1890 missionaries on Niue formalised the alphabet, translating the Bible (Ko e Tohi Tapu) and a hymn book (Ko e Tau Lologo Tapu). Efforts to preserve the language continued in New Zealand in the 20th century with the publication of a dictionary and revised hymnbook.
In their own tongue
Unlike many Pacific peoples, Niueans did not initially give Niuean names to new objects based on the sound of English words. Instead, they invented names in terms that were meaningful to them. Examples include vakalele (flying canoe) for aeroplane, vaka-tavilivili (whirling canoe) for helicopter, mama pala (damp lungs) for tuberculosis, and mata-afi (fire fragment) for matches.
Retaining the language depends on the New Zealand Niuean population learning and practising it. Some New Zealand schools have had Niuean language materials since 1983. By the 1990s some early childhood centres and primary schools offered Niuean language programmes, and language guidelines were established for the New Zealand curriculum in 2003. Out among the community, pockets of native-language speakers flourished in Auckland and Wellington.
English has increasingly become the language spoken by New Zealand Niueans. Only 18% spoke their own language proficiently in 2013, down from 32% in 1996. Fears in the community that the Niuean language might disappear, even on Niue itself, led to the establishment of the Niue Foundation. Since 2001 it has lobbied for government resources to promote language and culture.
Sport and the arts
Although Niue has fewer than 500 rugby players, the nation competes keenly on the world sevens circuit. Many participants are based in New Zealand, and some play for their adopted country – the most-capped All Black centre Frank Bunce is Niuean–Samoan. Other popular sports include kilikiti (Niuean cricket), netball and softball.
From minnows to big fish
Despite being one of the world’s smallest rugby-playing nations, in 2003 Niue beat both Japan and the US. But their debut, competing in the 2001 Wellington Sevens, was inauspicious, as rugby union president Toke Talagi recalls:
‘The problem the boys had in Wellington was that they were awestruck in front of the 35,000 screaming fans. … If you assembled the whole of our nation’s population in one place, they would only make up one small section of the crowd. And they also knew they were live on TV back home in Niue. So they dropped the ball so many times because they were nervous and a bit unfit’. 1
School students practise Niuean dances and songs in the lead-up to Polynesian festivals. Women keep alive the traditional skills of weaving and creating adornments, often experimenting with new materials such as plastic bread bags and nylon. In the arts, John Pule has established himself as both a writer and a printmaker – his novel The shark that ate the sun (1992) describes the journey, difficulties and bonds of a migrant Niuean family. And popular hip hop artist Che Fu draws heavily on his Niuean–Māori heritage for inspiration.
Niueans have a foot in two nations. Concerns for their island’s future and the survival of its language and culture are keenly felt, both by those in New Zealand and the one in fifteen who still live on Polynesia’s ‘rock’.