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Weavers of Pacific languages, orators of our stories

May 12th, 2022, By Matirini Ngari

Migratory waves of Pacific peoples from the homeland have signalled a shift in the definition and boundaries of Pacific languages, cultures and identities. Read how stories can help preserve our Pacific languages.

Aotearoa New Zealand — the land of milk and honey

The land of opportunity.

A land where you can succeed with a good job, learn good English, and make good money so that you can have a good place in this world.

Or so the story goes …

Language, identity, culture

As we celebrate Gasav Ne Fäeag Rotuạm Ta | Rotuman Language Week 2022 (the first Pacific Language Week of the year), I can't help but admire the commitment and tireless effort of our Pasifika communities in nurturing these language weeks over the years. Their efforts have not been in vain as we now celebrate nine Pacific language weeks across Aotearoa New Zealand.

On that note, it has been awesome to see Aotearoa New Zealand acknowledging these language weeks as a taonga for Pacific Aotearoa. In doing so, Aotearoa New Zealand acknowledges its place in the past, present and future of the Pacific.

Disconnect from the language

Growing up in the Cook Islands, my parents would always speak about the importance of education, which included learning and mastering the English language. English is a compulsory school subject from year 1 through to year 13. It was compulsory for me to have enough English credits to be able to achieve entrance into the tertiary provider of my choice. This always meant that my te reo Māori Kūki 'Āirani was treated as a subject of lesser value.

The idea that indigenous languages were expendable transferred from the homeland to the diaspora — communities of people who have moved or been displaced from an ancestral homeland. This has most probably coexacerbated the decline in the use of Pacific languages (Pacific Aotearoa Status Report: A Snapshot 2020).

Keeping the language and our cultural identities alive

Sometimes I wonder — are we doing enough to keep our Pacific languages alive? What can we do to avoid losing them? How do we keep our mapu (youth) of the future from a life of lost identities and disappearing cultures? How do we keep sight of our goals and dreams for our languages to thrive for future generations?

One way is through storytelling.

Photo of Pacific peoples — showing a grandmother and her mokopuna holding hands.
Image credit: Generational ties: my mother and her mokopuna, 2019 by Mati Ngari. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Weaving the moenga (mat) of the past

Stories and the art of storytelling have been an integral part of Pacific cultures since ‘forever ago’. It is how we know the story of Io-matuakore (Io the parentless) and his creation of all that is in the universe, of Pele the temperamental and jealous goddess of fire and volcanoes, and of the sisters Taema and Tilafaiga who swam across the Pacific with the knowledge of tatatau (tattooing). The songs and chants that were mentioned alongside these stories tell of the hardships of voyaging across vast oceans, of mischievous gods and their human offspring, of battles, and offered prayers to guarantee safe passage, all part of a timeless, woven moenga (mat) that remains relevant today.

These stories have survived for decades and will continue to shape the direction of our languages in the future. Technology has allowed for a shift in the way we tell stories, but the essence of Oceania remains in the way these stories are told and the orators who tell them.

Adding the strand of the present …

Great digital storytelling sites are leading the weaving of Pacific Aotearoa's stories and in doing so have created the vā (space) for smaller Pasifika lead storytellers to be a part of this moenga.

2022 also saw a monumental shift in the way events were celebrated due to COVID-19 restrictions. Polyfest, the biggest Māori and Pacific cultural festival in the world, was broadcast to thousands of eager families watching from afar for the first time in its 47-year history. Virtual and online platforms allow for interconnectedness that wasn't possible 30 years ago and will continue to boost the languages and practices of Pacific cultures in Aotearoa New Zealand if maintained well.

The monumental shift of oral history into written history with the introduction of the printing press throughout the Pacific meant that knowledge and stories were easily retained in books for many generations. Recently, the momentum for retaining languages through story creation has seen the introduction of dual language books that are available through the Ministry of Education.

Pacific teenage fiction, short stories and poetry have seen a boost, with titles such as Afakasi Woman, Teine Sāmoa, Tama Sāmoa and the Telesā series gaining popularity amongst Pacific communities. These stories speak to our people because they are relatable. And with relatability comes the push for change amongst a young Pacific demographic.

Bridging the gap

When I started my journey through tertiary education, I was new to the student lifestyle and the culture shock was difficult. I had enrolled at university to study law but by chance came across the paper Pasi 101. It was through this paper I learned about the term ‘cultural identity’ and the problems facing Pacific communities in Aotearoa New Zealand — home to the largest Pacific diaspora in the world.

Coming directly from the islands, I never encountered the issue of cultural identity. It was a given that you were rooted in your identity. I was surprised to find out that this was not the same for people in the diaspora. For most students in that class, there was an expectation to exist within the labels of being a ‘real islander’ or a ‘real kiwi’.

One assignment I vividly remember from this paper was an art exhibition number created by a student. It was a cubic piece of plastic that had been framed and had the term ‘plastic islander’ moulded into it — a term they felt labelled with.

This imagined vā (space) that sits between people has become a contributing factor to the decline in languages. Our youth have lost confidence in regaining their languages because for so long society and the diaspora has conditioned them to think that their languages are not good enough. What I have learned from my past experiences is that the answers to problems we face at present almost always lie in the past.

There’s space on the mat

Mou I te kō mou I te ‘ere kia pukuru o vaevae e kia mokorā ō kāki.

Hold on to the spear, tie firmly to it so your feet may be like that of the breadfruit tree and your neck tall like that of a duck.

I never really thought about this proverb and its relation to language, culture and identity until I moved here to Aotearoa New Zealand. This proverb, like many others across Oceania, is a small part of a timeless story that our ancestors have left behind.

We must approach the issues of our declining languages as a collective. Just as the beating heart of the village relies on all its people, we too must work collectively to ensure a culturally safe future for our mapu (youth). These words remain to create a strong building block for Pacific futures — we must look to the past to shape the present.

Ko'ai au?
I am a daughter of the Moana.
Ko'ai koe?
I am a descendent of Tara Ariki Apaitoa o Ngati Putua.
Ko'ai to'ou tupuna?
I take shelter under the protection of Maunga Ikurangi — Rarotonga.
Ko'ai te mauga ei 'akamaru iakoe?
The rivers of my mountain run through the passage at Avarua
and connect to — Moana.
Therefore, I am a daughter of the Moana.
You are too.
We are daughters of the Moana.
Moana who ebbs.
Moana who is vast.
Moana who tosses.
Moana our infinite connector.
— Mati Ngari

E tū e taku iti tangata (take up the challenge)

So, I invite you all out there to support your Oceanic navigators, Oceanic orators, and people of saltwater realms. Encourage them to pick up their pens, microphones, cameras, keyboards and start.

Start their journey to reclaim their languages. Their identities. Their cultures. It's never too late.

Guide them in their vakas (canoe). The stars are aligning and the ancestors are waiting. Waiting for them, the orators of our stories.

Resources to explore

National Library resources

Topic Explorer and Many Answers

Topic Explorer has:

Many Answers has Pacific Islands.

Books in our school lending collection

Talk to the loan coordinator(s) in your school to access these titles. Use the skills of our librarians to curate a loan to suit the needs of your ākonga. You can find all the information you need in the lending service section of our website.

Other resources

Pacific Language Weeks — resources from the Ministry for Pacific Peoples for support each Pacific language week.

Digital Pasifik — Pacific resources and content from galleries, libraries and museums.

thecoconet.tv — Pacific content that encourages ‘connectivity and conversations for Pacific people around the world’.

Tagata Pasifika — Pacific news show that tells stories of the Pacific and its people.

Identity — E-Tangata — online stories and experiences of Māori and Pasifika in Aotearoa.

Pacific Data Fale o Aotearoa — data for and about Pacific people in Aotearoa, including Pacific languages.

Articles on the Pasefika Proud website about wellbeing of Pacific peoples and its connection to languages:

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