Archaeological evidence indicates that the atolls of Tokelau were settled around 1000 years ago. Oral history traces local traditions and genealogies back several hundred years and details the origins of the social and political order that was in place by the 19th century. According to oral sources, the three atolls functioned largely independently while maintaining social and linguistic cohesion. Tokelauan society was governed by chiefly clans, and there were occasional inter-atoll skirmishes and wars as well as inter-marriage. Historically, Fakaofo held dominance over Atafu and Nukunonu. Life on the atolls was subsistence-based, with reliance on fish and coconut. There is no soil on Tokelau, and therefore the vegetables and fruit that provided staples elsewhere in the Pacific (such as taro and bananas) were not available.

Contact with Europeans led to some significant changes in Tokelauan society. Trading ships brought new foods, cloth and materials, and exposure to new information and ways of doing things. In the 1850s, missionaries from the Roman Catholic Church and the London Missionary Society, with the assistance of Tokelauans who had been introduced to religious activities in Samoa, introduced Christianity, which was readily embraced. Currently, the majority of the Atafu population are Congregational Christians and most of the Nukunonu population are Catholic. On Fakaofo the majority of the population (around 70 percent) are Congregational Christians and most of the remainder are Catholic.

In the 1860s, Peruvian slave ships visited the three atolls and forcibly removed almost all able-bodied men (253) to work as labourers in Peru. The men died in the dozens of dysentery and smallpox, and very few ever returned to Tokelau. The impact of the slave ships was devastating, and led to major changes in governance. With the loss of chiefs and able-bodied men, Tokelau moved to a system of governance based on the Taupulega, or Councils of Elders. On each atoll, individual families were represented on the Taupulega (though the method of selection of family representatives differed among atolls). Village governance today is squarely the domain of the Taupulega.

Tokelau became a British protectorate in 1877, a status that was formalised in 1889. The British Government annexed the group (which had been renamed the Union Islands) in 1916, and included it within the boundaries of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (Kiribati and Tuvalu). In 1926 Britain passed administration of Tokelau to New Zealand. There has never been a residential administrative presence on Tokelau, and therefore administration has been ‘light-handed’ and impinged to a relatively small extent on everyday life on the atolls. Formal sovereignty was transferred to New Zealand with the enactment of the Tokelau Act 1948. While Tokelau was declared to be part of New Zealand from 1 January 1949, it has a distinctive culture and its own political, legal, social, judicial and economic systems.

Over the past three decades Tokelau has moved progressively towards its current advanced level of political self-reliance. It has its own unique political institutions, including a national legislative body and Executive Council. It runs its own judicial system and public services. It has its own shipping and telecommunications systems. It has full control over its budget. It plays an active role in regional affairs and is a member of a number of regional and international bodies.