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Aotearoa/New Zealand

Aotearoa/New Zealand is another Pacific island. Makerita Urale is part of a community
coming to terms with life in Auckland, the largest Polynesian city in the world.

Illustration by John Pule

The illustration above is by John Pule who adds: ‘This image draws on the structure of Niuean barkcloth.
Canoe forms refer to migration and settlement, a separation of knowledge and kin groups.
People wandering the landscape offer direction to sanctuaries.
Symbols of constellations, marine life, forest life, emerge to affirm collective energy.
‘I use these images to generate a positive energy, art that will travel the world and help cure the wider problems of migrants who lack a sense of place.’

When French artist Gauguin lived in Tahiti in the late nineteenth century, his painting Nevermore poignantly recorded, like carbon dating, the mourning of the Polynesian people for a world passed, a way of life lost forever by the arrival of the white man in the Pacific. Imagine then, 100 years later, what Gauguin might have painted of the Polynesian people now living in Auckland, the largest Polynesian city in the world. Gauguin’s canvas would have to be stripped of its colour, the grass huts replaced by rows of box-like houses, the palm trees by a network of electric poles and the winding frangipani paths by frantic motorways.

And the ‘tall golden natives’ from a ‘utopia’ where ‘bread grew on trees and palm trees supplied milk’? They face the highest unemployment rates in the country. Too many are in jail, with few or no qualifications. Many more sleep in overcrowded conditions with bad diets and bad health. It is a tragic reality for a people who come from a culture where even today, in their villages, they will hear with amazement that people can be hungry and poor in New Zealand, the land of the ‘wealthy white man’.

Gauguin might have seen the humour in an island joke one can now hear in Auckland. Question: What do you call a beautiful girl in Samoa? Answer: A tourist. Most islanders – including Samoans – find the joke hilarious, but at a basic level it says a lot about the perception of white people in the Pacific. For tourists are white and they come from a land where everyone is rich. Their ‘things’ are better than ours.

Born in Niue, John Pule is a successful artist and writer living in Auckland. His family immigrated in the early 1960s. He thinks the Polynesian urge to come to New Zealand can be traced back to the time of the early missionaries in the Pacific.

‘The missionaries believed that the best way to convert a savage was to teach savages to convert other savages,’ he says. ‘So the converted were sent away to train in other countries. When they came back to their villages they told everyone that it was much better in the outside world. When the first Pacific Island immigrants came to New Zealand they brought with them things from their island homes, like their knowledge, their traditions and their history. When they got here, those things had no value, so they hid them. With education and awareness, their children are trying to revive those forgotten things, like navigation, our oral history and our cultivation technology.’

New Zealand has traditionally been a land of immigrants, its islands ethnically and culturally connected to Polynesia. New Zealand has also become known as Aotearoa, which means ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’. These same clouds now lie across a hole in the ozone layer.

In his play Waiora Maori playwright Hone Kouka writes about his family, who left their tribal land in the North Island to find work in the forest industry in the South Island. ‘Maori people are immigrants in their own country,’ says Kouka. ‘We have faced the same sense of dislocation from our homes and from our land which Pacific Island immigrants face.’

Of New Zealand’s 3.5 million population, about 80 per cent are European, 13 per cent Maori and 5 per cent of the Pacific Island ethnic group. Of the 200,000 or so Pacific Islanders, 70 per cent live in Auckland, including 30 per cent in the industrialized and poorer suburbs of South Auckland.

In the 1960s and 1970s New Zealand was called ‘Godzone’ by Pacific Islanders. At the same time the island nations were achieving political independence. They faced a population boom placing pressure on land and resources. New Zealand beckoned like a Western paradise. For many immigrants Auckland was their first and final destination. Most found jobs in factories, cleaning and processing – mind-numbing work with long hours and minimal pay, but the money was better than in the homeland.

My own family emigrated to New Zealand in 1974, leaving behind our village on the outer island of Savai’i in Western Samoa. My parents were determined that their six children would get a better education in Niu Sila (Polynesian for New Zealand). My mother, an outspoken schoolteacher fluent in English and educated in the capital Apia, and my father, a ‘planter’ who sported tattoos of his children’s initials and a naked lady instead of a traditional Samoan pattern, never quite fitted into village life. When we left, 98 per cent of Samoans went to a Christian church. My family – full-blooded Samoans – inexplicably did not. We were part of the outcast two per cent reserved for sinners – ‘obviously foreigners’.

At the age of nine I discovered that Niu Sila was not the same as Heaven, not just a land of snow and fruit trees. The beaches were frightening, the colours were all wrong. The ‘island way’ was just as strong here. Our relatives wanted money for family occasions – Mummy would get mad and give only what she could afford. They too wanted us to go to church on Sundays. Mummy and Papa stayed the same, and just didn’t.

Polynesian society is based on the extended family, which can include anyone who is remotely connected by blood or marriage. This involves a range of financial obligations and duties such as funerals and weddings, or family in the homelands, creating financial stresses on already-poor families. Further social problems arise when children seek independence and freedom from cultural constraints.

We met relatives who had lived in Niu Sila since the 1950s, cousins born here who were New Zealanders and could not speak our own language. Again we were different. We were immigrant children and – worse still – we were heathens. We lived in my uncle’s house with his wife and five children, my family sleeping together in one bedroom.

We celebrated in our first week, when my father got a job in a factory. But it was far away and at night, from sunset till dawn. My father had to catch a bus, a train and then another bus. He received $60 for the week. It would have been undreamed-of money in our village. Niu Sila was a good place to live, but Papa was always tired.

After six months my unconventional immigrant parents moved us into a two-bedroom flat, gaining independence and more annoyance from our extended family. On one double bed I slept with my three sisters and mum and dad widthwise, my parents’ feet dangling over the side. Baby slept in the cot and my other brother in the lounge. My three cousin-aunties, who arrived in the same year, slept in the smaller bedroom.

At school we used our fists against taunts and bullying until we had command of the English language while continuing to speak our own. We went on school camps and trips, while other Samoan children stayed at home, because their parents couldn’t afford the fees or were ‘too strict’. My father continued to work in factories, my mother as a teacher, always pushing us out to experience all of New Zealand’s cultures, while retaining our own. Their demanding routine with schoolwork saw us passing exams so that we eventually studied at universities, moving further away from Samoan cousins and friends and knowing that we had now become even more peculiar and odd.

We grew up at a time when Pacific Islanders were trying desperately to hide their ‘islandness’ – the dirty, shameful identity which provoked such disapproval in Niu Sila. The economic downturn of the mid-1970s revealed the uglier side of New Zealand society as the vulnerable Pacific Island community took the blame for the country’s woes. Anti-Pacific Island anger was directed at the ‘overstayers’ and ‘islanders’ taking over jobs and ‘bludging off government handouts’. The infamous ‘dawn raids’ by immigration officers hunting for illegal residents became a national obsession and are remembered with loathing and resentment by Pacific Islanders today.

Philip Taito Field is Samoan and the first Pacific Islander in Parliament, elected for the Labour Party in 1993. He represents the South Auckland political zone of Mangere, once the constituency of former Labour Prime Minister David Lange. ‘New Zealand is still seen as a better alternative from the homelands where economies are very poor,’ he says. On a recent trip to Samoa he found a new factory that needed 300 workers: 4,000 people turned up to apply.

Detail from Nevermore by Paul Gauguin. Despite all this the 1990s is the decade of the Polynesians in New Zealand – and Auckland is leading the way. Polynesians are making a powerful presence felt in New Zealand culture. Polynesian youth is holding up its ‘island identity’ with rebellious pride. Polynesian success and contribution in the arts, music, fashion, theatre and sports have earned the term ‘Polynesian Renaissance’ during the last five years. Sports icons like young All Black rugby player Jonah Lomu – a Tongan from South Auckland – are helping to reinforce a positive image. Maori and Pacific Islanders alike are slowly finding solutions, tying together the unruly union of the Polynesian way and the Pakeha (white) way.

‘Polynesians have a huge amount to offer,’ says Pule. ‘We have a rich cultural heritage and diversity from the different Pacific Islands to offer. New Zealand has to accept that it is another Pacific Island.’

The growing positive presence of Pacific Islanders from independent nations has created some tension with Maori, who in effect are still colonized. Field recognizes this as a danger: ‘Although there is a fair amount of inter-marriage between Pacific Islanders and Maori, there is still an element of resentment on both sides, especially among young Maori, who see Pacific Islanders as overshadowing their place as the tangata whenua – the indigenous people – of Aotearoa. We must understand the historical and ancestral links between Maori and Pacific Islanders for us to work together.’

Despite the decades of adjustments Polynesians have undergone in their traditional homes and now in modern cities like Auckland, they are here to stay. The descendants of Polynesian ancestors who navigated across the widest stretch of water on the globe have the will to survive and make another island their home.

Makerita Urale ( [email protected] ) is a freelance writer in love with the arts, mainly theatre. She is currently writing a play, set in the future, about Maori and Samoans.

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