Damon Salesa

Damon Salesa, associate professor of Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland, was the first Pasifika Rhodes scholar to Oxford. In this kōrero with Dale Husband, he talks about his new book, Island Time: New Zealand’s Pacific Futures. His Samoan-Pālagi upbringing in Glen Innes, Auckland. How it is that, despite the negative stats, Pacific people are far and away the most satisfied people in New Zealand. And why we should banish the concept of ‘half-castes’.


Talofa, Damon. Your latest pukapuka, Island Time: New Zealand’s Pacific Futures, is challenging and provocative. Can I start by asking: should academics, and should PI academics in particular, be provocative?

I think PI academics should be engaged. There’s no point doing work and creating new knowledge if you can’t share that knowledge with the people concerned. So I don’t think that you should be provocative for the sake of it, but you should be engaged in a conversation, or even leading a conversation, that matters for our communities.

And, of course, when you shine a PI light on New Zealand’s history, there are shortcomings. Do you think that Polynesian people in Aotearoa have been taken advantage of as factory workers, as providers of sporting talent and the like, and have you ever considered how this country might have ripped off or profited from Pacific Islanders?

There’s no question that Pacific people were brought to New Zealand — and Māori brought to the cities — to be the labourers of the New Zealand economy. That’s incontrovertible. It’s simply what the point of those migrations was from the New Zealand government’s perspective.

My father was one of those people who came to New Zealand and worked in a factory his whole life. But the Pacific dream was that that sort of work was a stopgap, the work of one generation to make way for the next: like in Samoa, when you clear land or plant breadfruit trees to feed not yourself but your grandchildren.

Pacific people always had much greater ambitions than working in factories, and since coming have sought a path out of labouring into occupations, businesses, homes and communities where Pacific people would have ownership, belonging, and leadership.

It takes enormous courage and belief to make the kind of journey Pacific people made to come to New Zealand. They did this to make new and better lives — ambitions for themselves and their families that were not shared by others or the government.

But the game changed even as Pacific ambitions were beginning to be realised in the next generation. Now, even as Pacific families work hard to get their children educated, to reach the Kiwi dream, it’s become harder and harder to get there.

It’s now harder to buy a home in Auckland as a Pacific lawyer in 2018 than it was as a Pacific factory worker in 1978.

What concerns me today is that we might be in a position where we have qualified Pacific people — often very gifted people — who aren’t being put in the places, or given opportunities, where they can make the most of those talents.

That’s a loss to the Pacific community — but one of the arguments in my book is that the biggest loss is actually for New Zealand, because these talents are being wasted.

I use sport as an example. A multibillion-dollar New Zealand industry is significantly built around Pacific talent on the field. If you have a gift for playing rugby or league, someone in the industry will find you, whether you’re in school, in Samoa or Tonga, or even in prison.

But off the field, Pacific business nous, leadership, entrepreneurship — which is abundant — finds no opportunity, appointment, or recognition in the same industry.

Pacific people labour on the rugby field, but don’t get to lead in the franchise board rooms, or the other places where decisions are made. The game of rugby ensures that the playing fields are level, but this is very far from the case in the wider industry.

So sport is a metaphor for the many parts of our world where Pacific people are prevented from the full expression and recognition of their abilities, talents, and innovation.

So it’s the r-word, right? Or, to be more polite, I guess it’s “structural discrimination”, nei?

Simply put, yes.

There’s no shortage of capable Pacific people who are fully equipped to lead. It’s no longer convincing to say there are no appropriate, qualified Pacific people — they’re all around us.

What is missing is the courage and wisdom from those in established positions of influence and power to choose a new path that embraces Pacific possibilities, rather than turning to the same sources of leadership again and again, even as they and their effectiveness diminish.

Academics have called this “homosocial reproduction” — how people gravitate towards and select people like themselves. That isn’t a good model of leadership, and it’s a terrible way to build a future, because it’s premised on replicating the past.

One of the main arguments of my book is that we’re all better off if we have different kinds of leadership and culture, enriched by the differences that people themselves have. This allows different kinds of talents to come into play, and gives opportunities for new cultures of innovation, excellence, and leadership.

That includes not just Pacific and Māori people but Asian people and all different kinds of folks. Such leadership understands its present and looks into the future — but it requires courage.

Another aspect I explore in the book is that we’re facing a situation where Pacific home ownership in Auckland is under 20 percent, yet when the national media talks about a home ownership crisis in Auckland, they use the figure of 50 percent, which is the Pākehā home ownership rate.

Not owning a home, having no place to stand in New Zealand, is one of the great challenges of Pacific people. If we could cross that barrier and make sure that Pacific people had a true place to be at home, we’d find that so many of the other challenges Pacific people face would disappear.

The social indicators put Pacific people at the bottom of the heap as far as health stats, education stats, home ownership stats, etc. But the happiness stats fly in the face of those metrics. How do you account for that?

Yeah, it’s interesting. The New Zealand General Social Survey asked people how satisfied they are with their lives, and Pacific people are far and away the most satisfied people. It’s not even close. Nearly half of Pacific people rated themselves at 9 or 10 out of 10 — far higher rates than other people in New Zealand (who were at about a third, or less).

And that flies in the face of all the statistics you mentioned. It is proof of the incredible resilience of Pacific people, their ability to adapt and sustain themselves and others in the face of hardship.

I think what it also shows is that Pacific people know how to build good lives through families — big families, families that they treasure and nurture — through communities, through churches, and particularly through helping each other out. It’s a form of society built around relationships — alofa/‘ofa/aroha.

These kinds of things all contribute to Pacific people being much more satisfied in their lives, and I think that’s one of the many things that Pacific people have to teach all of New Zealand.

And don’t forget that Pacific people are the youngest population in New Zealand, which means that Pacific young people will increasingly define New Zealand’s society and economy in 10, 20, 30 years.

New Zealand is becoming more Pacific. That future’s already happened. It’s here, and we better learn to live with it if we haven’t already. It’s island time.

During the 1940s and ‘50s, the perception was that Māori were the happy-go-lucky ones. You know what I mean: give them a guitar and a couple of beers, everyone’s happy. But came 1975 and we realised, hang on a second, we’ve got poor health, no land, we’re losing our language, we’re losing our culture, and we started to rark up a bit.

Sometimes I feel that Pasifika people have reason to be hōhā, when you consider the way that they’ve been treated, manipulated, and even down to the Tongan case, where it’s been suggested that some of the obesity of Tongans is due to this country using Tonga as a dumping ground for our lamb flaps. Is there justification for Pasifika people to be angry?

Stereotypes often seem to arise at politically convenient moments. So the stereotype of happy, guitar-strumming Māori came at a moment of crisis, when Māori were fiercely defending their own land and their mana. Other people were saying Māori were happy with little because little was what they had — and these others were trying to reduce even what was left.

In different ways, Pacific people have had to face these kinds of stereotypes and injustices. For many Pacific peoples, the source of some of these injustices — the New Zealand state — is shared with Māori.

That’s one of the many deep connections Pacific and Māori people share, an interwoven history.

At so many turns, Pacific people have got the short end of the stick. Major decisions are not made with Pacific people, and the consequences that they will feel, in mind.

What we’ve seen, though, is that through innovation, through living life well, through building strong Pacific communities in New Zealand, people have come up with a much stronger response than simply being pissed off — although I think a degree of righteous anger is helpful because it keeps people honest and it keeps Pacific people engaged in the political process, and ensures that these stories are shared.

But, certainly, non-Pacific, non-Māori New Zealand has been slow in understanding what has occurred, so you do see a large time lag between what Pacific people are doing and what others think they’re doing.

I mean, only a few weeks ago a Cook Islander was named the new governor of the Reserve Bank. And there are 13 Polynesians in the new New Zealand government —13 Polynesians who literally govern our country. So while people are worrying about this and that, Māori and Pacific people have just been getting on with it and building a future for themselves and for others.

It’s like the people arguing about the state of te reo Māori. Mike Hosking and those who think similarly can argue until they’re blue in the face, but for most 18-year-olds that argument was settled years ago. The naysayers have lost, they just haven’t come to understand it yet. And that’s the way it will be with a Pacific future. It’s already happened, but people haven’t fully realised it yet.

Can we take a moment to look at your own journey, educational and otherwise? Tell us a little bit about the Salesa whānau, starting with your parents’ names.

My father is Tusanilefaia’ao Ieremia Salesa and my mother is Yvonne Salesa. They were both born far from Auckland — one very far from Auckland. Dad was born in a village called Vaisala, which is in the far west of Savai’i, in Samoa, and my mother grew up in Waipapakauri in the Far North.

Both of them came to Auckland as teenagers for work, and they met at a time when it was very uncommon, even a little bit scandalous, for a Pālagi woman to marry someone who was literally just off the boat, like my father.

My father worked his whole life in a factory, Fisher and Paykel, in East Tamaki, and my mother was an enrolled nurse who worked almost all of her working life at Middlemore Hospital.

After they married, my parents moved in with my father’s family, the Aoina family, who had been amongst the earliest Samoan migrants to New Zealand. They were living in Glen Innes in a place that’s very special, because generations of my family came to that single house in Glen Innes, and were nurtured and loved there before moving on to put down their own roots.

When my parents were able to buy a house — which back then was possible as a factory worker — they bought a house nearby.

I went to Glen Innes Primary and then Glen Innes Intermediate, which was closed down after I left, and then to a neighbouring high school, Selwyn College, following my older siblings.

I loved my upbringing in Glen Innes, and I’m still very much connected with that community. I serve on boards in Glen Innes, and watch very closely the big social transformation that’s happening there right now.

I’ve undergone transformations of my own, too, as I now have, through my wife Jenny and my two daughters Mahalia and Esmae, a Tongan family.

It’s interesting that you should point to one house which to you is a taonga. Are there family members in that whare still?

That house is indeed sacred to us. I’ll give you the street: Tuakana Street, an appropriate name. Yes, my cousins are still in that house, and one of the cousins that used to live there is a minister. She launched my book and she officiated at our wedding, so it’s been a gift to have that place to call home in New Zealand.

It’s what research teaches us, too. The evidence points to that kind of security making a difference in people’s lives. If you have one house, you are far more likely to stay in one school.

One of the great problems of Pacific young people is having to move from home to home and school to school as landlords push them on from place to place, or they can no longer afford to live in Auckland.

So just putting people in one home means that teachers get to know them, schools get to know them, they get consistent healthcare, they work with a single doctor — all those sorts of things make a difference.

They certainly made a difference in my life. My brothers and sisters all went to the same schools. It was a very stable life. We might not have gone anywhere for flash holidays, but we always had a place to sleep. We always had a place that was like a haven for our whānau, and I think that’s something that is now very far from true for most Pacific families.

When we’re looking at less than 20 percent Pacific home ownership, and at 25 percent of state housing tenants being Pacific people and 35 percent being Māori, that’s a very different story to what it once was.

Tell us about your experience at university.

Not many of my friends went to university, so there was a real transition there to find my place. My parents had always thought that university would be in my future, even though they had never been and only had an outsiders’ knowledge of what happened there.

So it was a strange place, and was at first a struggle, but with such strong family support, it was a struggle that was manageable. This idea that the world is full of knowledge and that university’s about opening up and making that knowledge available was really exciting to me — and still is.

I had wonderful teachers like Albert Wendt, Hugh Laracy, and Malama Meleisea, who introduced me to a new world of Pacific knowledge. And that was incredibly enriching, but also empowering in terms of the way I saw and experienced the world.

I think the most important thing was that my parents and my family always valued education and learning, and even though as I went on they understood less and less about what I was doing, they always provided space and support for it. They trusted that whatever it was that I was doing, I would be doing my best. And that expectation and support made a difference.

Turn up, try hard, contribute to the family, do the dishes and mow the lawn.

How has your relationship with your dad panned out over the years? I’m hoping that he’s still with us.

It’s been a tough year, Dale. We lost him in mid-2017.

I’m sorry to hear that. But you speak tenderly of his interest in your work, and I just wondered how much that meant to you as you got older?

It meant an enormous amount. And like many Auckland-based and particularly Pacific kids, I lived at home. I was at home until I left for Oxford.

One of the many statistics that I don’t write about is that the average age Pacific kids leave home is 27. So I was perfectly average in that regard. That was my parents’ way of supporting me because they couldn’t give me money.

As I got older, I began to really appreciate the journeys that my parents had made, particularly my father, who’d come from what is called “i tua” (“the Back”), in Samoa: a part of Samoa that’s seen as the wops. Realising what my parents had been through took my relationship with them to new levels of alofa and respect — that they could do all this with such good humour and generosity at a difficult time in New Zealand.

I found out that one of the reasons they moved in with my father’s family was that no one would rent them a house. My mother remains a ferocious defender of family — all families — and my father was an incredibly resourceful and hardworking man. They worked, raised five kids (Shane, Jordan, Fia, Leilani, and me), ran sports clubs, and always contributed to the family and community.

Both could bear adversity with an evenness, dignity and good humour that made them inspiring role models. What big changes they lived through. It’s commonplace now for Pasifika and Pālagi people to be together, but that was not the case in the mid-‘60s.

You’re the very first Pasifika person to get a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. What did you learn there? What intrigued you about that opportunity?

That’s an interesting one, eh?

Part of it was there was this magnificent opportunity to have studies paid for, to get a free PhD at an institution that has such strong recognition and is so ancient. And so that’s always appealing to someone like me that trained as a historian.

Going to Oxford was my first time in Europe, and to be immersed in this deeply foreign culture. I mean, my assumption had always been that English people were just like Pākehā, but when I got there I realised, no, English people are not like Pākehā.

So many of the English are as traditional and tribal as Pacific people, living in villages and deeply attached to their customs and cultures, but their customs and cultures are just very, very different to those of the Pacific.

So I learned a lot about the colonial cultures that came to New Zealand. It probably helped me be more understanding of the trajectories of Pākehā people, which includes parts of my own family.

Probably the most important thing in Oxford was to meet other scholars. Amongst my closest friends were people from Uganda, India, Europe, the United States, as well as from England, and this helps grow your understanding of the world as well as your mind. I came away knowing, yes, the Pacific is the centre of the world, but the rest is pretty interesting, too.

I’ve not been to England myself. The only place I really want to go to is Leeds, to be honest.

I know what you mean.

One of the things which I understood on paper but not in reality, was the differences between the people who make up the British Isles. I always had just assumed that at some level the British were one people. And then you meet Scots and Welsh and you understand their experience of being colonised, both by the English and by their own elites, and you realise that the Scottish and Welsh and Cornish are still struggling for their freedom, culture, and languages in ways that often parallel some of the experiences of Pacific people.

It complicates really simple distinctions I used to draw.

It helped to meet some of these different peoples in their places of origin, on their tūrangawaewae, and witness these cultures and peoples as tangata whenua, not just as tangata tiriti, as I had always known their New Zealand relatives.

You and I have got a shared thing, in the sense that we’ve got one Pākehā parent and one brown one, and as much as I recognise the injustices our Māori whānau have suffered, and moan about the oppressors and colonisers, the reality is that that’s me. I’m the oppressor, I’m the coloniser, and I’m also the oppressed and the colonised. How do you find some resolution with that type of background?

The way I see it is that colonial thinking has always wanted to halve people. So they talk about half-castes, for instance. But people are never half, they’re always whole.

To see people as “halves” requires us to break them. We have too many broken people in our world already, so I think the Polynesian way is simply better, and more empowering. In Polynesian cultures, people aren’t half and half, they’re double. You’re always both of your families: your mother’s family and your father’s family. You don’t get to pick which one is which, right? You belong to both of them, and in a sense, they have equal but different claims on you because they’ve played a role in your whakapapa.

So, for me, personally, it’s always been that everyone has two families, everyone’s two families are different, and, actually, I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had families that have allowed me to feel connected to them and them to me.

In the past, that was a real challenge in a mixed marriage where you might have a Pākehā family that didn’t want to be connected to you. That was just a generation ago in New Zealand.

And I think one of the signs that we’re on the right path is that we have young people for whom this is totally natural. I listen to the conversations my children have, and when they describe their friends’ whakapapa or their own, it just flows out of them like this is a conversation that all children have, and have always had.

That future’s already happened. Love won. Alofa atu. ‘Ofa atu.

So we’re getting that bit right. It’s a sign that we’re moving towards island time and Māori time.


© E-Tangata, 2018

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