There weren’t many Palagi kids around by the time David Riley hit his senior years at Mangere College. Quite a few Māori and PI kids, though. And some of them became such good friends that David found himself being drawn into their worlds, in a way that’s left a lasting impression.
He’s still in South Auckland — living in Manukau, and teaching at Tangaroa College in Otara, where his efforts to inspire his students has led to him writing and publishing books about Māori and Pacific role models and Pacific legends.
Here he talks to Valley Wandstraat about how growing up in Mangere changed his view of the world.
So what was it like growing up in Mangere, South Auckland, in the ‘70s and ‘80s?
The Mangere I grew up in was probably more multicultural than it is now — there were more whites back then. My parents still live on the same street today, but now there’s only two Palagi families living there.
I went from primary through to high school in Mangere. I’d always been around Māori and Pacific kids, but until I got to sixth form at Mangere College I’d mostly hung out with some white kids. But they ended up leaving school. Then I met this Samoan kid, Ieti Lauaki, who lived at the end of my street. I went over to his house and it was the first time I tasted taro, and learned about Samoan culture.
The thing I loved the most about that experience was the sense of family. Ieti went on to uni, and when I joined the year after, he introduced me to his group of friends. That’s when I really got stuck into Samoan life. I met another great Samoan friend, Junior Natanielu, who introduced me to his family and his church. They were part of the Grey Lynn Fetuao Ao Methodist church so I joined in too. I remember the lotu (prayers) in the evenings, the church beach trips, kilikiti, aoga aso sa (Sunday school), being part of the church youth group (with adults in it!), and singing those church hymns. It was new for me and I loved being around it. That’s where I really learned how to speak Samoan and learn the language. It was like total immersion.
I also learned by singing the songs of groups like the Five Stars and Punialava’a. Samoans at uni used to get a shock when I’d pull out Punialava’a cassettes. Singing helped me get the flow of the words, and I came to really love the Samoan language through songs.
I remember we had an elderly Samoan guy who moved in next door to us and I used to go over and ask him to translate some Samoan songs for me. There was this one song from Punialava’a with the most beautiful harmony and melody that I asked him to translate, but it turned out to be a song about giving advice to drivers! Like, slowing down when you’re driving through a village. That was a crack up.
My Samoan has always been at a conversational level. I learned by asking friends how to say everyday sentences, and then writing them down in a notebook. I’ve got all these notebooks and scrap pieces of paper collected in a box, along with Niuean, Tongan, Tuvaluan and Māori words and phrases too.
What did your parents think about this change in you?
I just did it and didn’t care. I remember the first time I went to Samoa. That was with my close friend David Unasa and his family. We went to Mangere College and Auckland Uni together. I was 21 at the time and David’s family were going for his father’s saofa’i — he was getting a matai title. We stayed in David’s village of Faleseela, Lefaga.
I came home and thought: I don’t need any of this stuff in my room. And I put my mattress of the floor because I missed that feeling of not having a lot but feeling satisfied.
My parents are pretty easy-going and weren’t bothered. They just knew I was doing my own thing. They even got used to hearing Samoan music coming from my room.
I love learning and experiencing other cultures, but I’m also proud to be Palagi, and appreciate my cultural heritage.
My dad is Australian, and of Irish ancestry. My mum is a fourth generation Kiwi. Her ancestry is Scottish, Irish and Isle of Man. Dad worked in a shoe factory, Mum as a ward clerk at Middlemore Hospital. I have two brothers. One is a truck driver, the other works for a freight-forwarding company. My brothers have Māori friends. One of them had a relationship with a Māori girl and they have a daughter. But they didn’t really go as deep into learning about Māori and Pacific cultures as I did.
Your wife, Lauano Sulufaleese Deborah Riley, is Samoan, of course, so you’ve well and truly married into the culture. How did you two meet?
At teachers’ college. When I found out she was Samoan, I spoke in Samoan to her, and I think it shocked her. She said she wanted to marry someone who would respect her culture. She was a primary school teacher but now she’s an RTLB (Resource Teacher of Learning and Behaviour). She’s New Zealand-born and grew up in Manurewa.
My daughters (Santana and Maycee) don’t speak Samoan because we don’t use it much at home except for random words and phrases. That’s partly why we like to go to Samoa when we can, so they can learn more.
How has growing up in Mangere and those early experiences shaped you as a person?
I’ve been influenced by Māori and Pacific culture in a way that’s shaped my values, the way I see the world and how I treat people. I see how there’s respect for people, especially grandparents. As a teacher, I always try to find ways we can tap into grandparents’ knowledge. This hasn’t always been seen as a valuable resource in a school setting, probably because they see old people who can’t speak English, but to me, they are filled with so much knowledge that we can learn from.
For example, I gave my English students a speech topic called Show me how. This gives them the opportunity to demonstrate something they know how to do. One girl did a presentation on Tongan dance. Her family, including her grandmother, helped her prepare her speech, traditional costume and the movements she would demonstrate. They all came to class on the day of her assessment to help her dress and to watch her performance.
This is similar to what I give to my drama students. We have a topic called Mihi where the students introduce themselves in a theatrical way. One of the tasks they have to do is research the origins of their names: possible meanings, who gave the names, why the names were given, and so on. This research draws on the knowledge of their family members including their grandparents.
That’s an important thing I’ve gained from growing up in Mangere. Being able to appreciate and respect elders.
As a teacher, and based on your experience working with young Māori and Pacific Island people, what challenges do you think they’re facing today?
I think it’s a fear of new things — the fear of being uncomfortable and being around people or situations they’re not familiar with. Last term, I took a class to see a play in Balmoral and some of the students didn’t know where Balmoral was, or hadn’t been in the city before.
I think that’s because they’ve grown up learning and familiarising themselves with certain places that their families travel to and they feel comfortable in those surroundings. When they’re outside their comfort zone, they don’t quite know how to adapt to it. It’s the same in the classroom. When they come across something they’re not familiar with, they don’t feel like they can attempt it or have the confidence to do it.
Another challenge many face is trying to live in multiple worlds and adapt to the sometimes really different expectations, values, language, goals, and ways of doing things of those different worlds. Like how to balance school expectations with family needs. That’s a big one.
For example, parents might need them to drive them somewhere, but that means they’re missing important lessons at school. Or they might be expected to attend church practices for a special event yet also be expected to complete homework for school. Or they have to wake up early to attend Bible lessons, then find it hard to concentrate at school in the afternoon. I think that’s really challenging for lots of young people.
There’s also the challenge of navigating social media and how to deal with conflict in productive ways rather than calling out people on social media or responding to things said about them. I know many young people find that really hard. Also knowing what’s appropriate to post and share with the world, and what should be kept private or personal.
From what I’ve seen, Māori and Pacific young people want to have a good relationship with their teachers and the school. Relationships are very important to them. They value teachers when we’re patient, understanding, respectful, interested, and when we use humour. They find it hard to learn when we don’t do these things.
So what can be done to change this? What’s worked for you?
I think exposing young Māori and Pacific people to new experiences and doing new things will help that. Looking back, I had a pretty cruisy upbringing. My parents didn’t mind if I stayed at my friend’s house or if I wanted to try new things. I know that’s different in Pacific cultures but letting them try and exposing them to new experiences is a good thing.
Tell me about your Pacific Heroes book series. How did that start?
I was teaching English at the time and I gave my students a project to research a hero from their culture. After class, two of my Niuean students approached me and said: “We don’t know any Niuean heroes. Can you just give us a Māori or a Samoan one to do?”
I told them not to be discouraged, and we started looking for written material on Niuean heroes but couldn’t find anything targeted towards young people. I knew there was a lot of academic material on Pacific Island stories from my time at uni, but there wasn’t anything written specifically for Pacific teenagers — things about their history, culture, or stories from where they’re from.
So that’s where I started. I began my research so I could help my students.
I shared my idea with a friend of mine, who’s Niuean, and he said: “You’re thinking too small. Niueans in Avondale and North Shore will want to read this, so you should turn this into a book so more kids can read it.”
So, that’s how the first book, We Are the Rock, came about. I remember one student from Mangere College telling me that she got a merit for her assignment after using my book for her research. I was so happy about that.
We get to hear Pacific stories through verbal storytelling from grandparents and those stories are also told through performances like the ones we see at Polyfest, but it’s really hard to find these in books, or written in a way that young people can relate to.
I was inspired by Alan Duff’s Māori Heroes and his concept, so after the first book, I wrote Samoan Heroes. I’ve just finished writing Tongan Heroes.
You’ve also written several biographies on Māori and Pacific sports people. How hard was it to get people to be part of your project?
I wanted to write about people who would appeal to my students, especially boys. I’d take my students to the library and ask them what they wanted to read about. They’d say “Sonny Bill Williams”, and we’d find a book, but it’s written for adults and doesn’t appeal to them. So, I started looking into biographies and wrote my first one about Benji Marshall, the rugby league player.
When you write a biography, you don’t need that person’s permission, but I always want to give that person a heads up. So I emailed his manager thinking he may come back and say no, he doesn’t want to be involved. To my surprise, they emailed back and said yes. Over time, I’ve found that the people who say yes either have an education background or are people who can see that this is helping kids improve their literacy and it’s not about making money from people’s names.
Some Māori or Pacific historians may see your work as exploiting their cultures. What’s your response to that?
With each book, I run my ideas past people who I know have experience and knowledge of Pacific legends or culture. Like when I wrote the Samoan book, I worked closely with Dr Malama Meleisea from the Centre of Samoan Studies, in Samoa. I give them my ideas, they give me feedback and they help me choose the people and stories I should write about. As much as I can, I send the stories about legends to the appropriate people and try to contact families who have links to specific stories too.
I’ve heard someone say that “Palagis writing about Pacific stuff is problematic, but necessary” — and that’s how I view it. For me, yes, it can be problematic, but I can’t find these resources to give to my students. And I can’t wait. Or wonder if someone is going to write them. If I can’t find these things for them, then I do it myself because I really enjoy it.
People probably see my name or look at me and assume that I’m trying to make money off their culture. I don’t blame them for thinking that because there have been instances of that in our society. That’s not what I’m about, though. I’m passionate about Māori and Pacific stories because it reflects what I grew up around and who I am today.
Has this been a profitable project for you?
I’ve had to fund this project myself so it’s not a profit-making exercise, but what it has done is allow me to teach part-time and time to write so I can put the books out. It’s not making us suffer, but it doesn’t make me rich either. Each book provides enough to fund the next book. The only time I was in debt was when I put out the first book. I was $2000 in debt, and yeah, that may not be huge to business people, but to me it was big. I’ve learned a lot about printing costs since then.
Of all the books you’ve written, what’s your favourite?
It would have to be Olympic Islands. I just love that book. These are stories about Pacific Olympians that are not often told. There’s the story about Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku who competed in four Olympic games from 1912–1932. He won five Olympic medals, including a gold medal in 1912 in the 100-metre freestyle event. He’s even credited with introducing surfing to Australia and New Zealand back in the 1920s.
I love these stories and there’s so many of them like that, including one about a couple of American Samoans who went to the Winter Olympics as part of a two-man bobsled team.
So what’s next?
I’m working on Cook Island Heroes and a biography about Samoan boxer Joseph Parker. I met his parents last week and it was really cool talking to them. I got to go along to one of his training sessions, and talked to his manager. That was an amazing experience because I couldn’t hear his manager over the sound of his punches! He kept looking over to me to check if I was okay and I really loved that about him. He has a great character and that’s what I want to write about. I know that his story will inspire young people.
I’d also like to do a book on the history of combat sports in the Pacific. I saw some references to wrestling in the Pacific from Captain Cook’s early journals, so I’m keen to find out more. I’d also like to get into writing children’s plays based on Pacific legends and stories. I love taking my daughters to watch plays, but there isn’t a lot out there in terms of Pacific stories on stage for children.
What’s your advice to young Māori and Pacific people of today?
In Olympic Islands, I mentioned Epeli Hau’ofa (Tongan social anthropologist) who wrote: “If we think of the Pacific as a collection of small islands, small as in land surfaces, then our expectations may be small as well.”
He challenged that mindset and said “smallness is a state of mind”.
So, whenever I hear people say: “I come from a small island or a small village and I’m trying to make my way in this world,” I think of his words. We shouldn’t see the world that way — and that’s the thing I love and want to share with my students. When I hear someone say: “Even though I come from South Auckland”, or “even though I come from Otara”, I tell them to change it to: “I’m successful because I come from South Auckland.”
Sometimes, I suffer from that mentality, too. I’m always battling that way of thinking and I remind myself that it doesn’t have to be that way.
My students have made me what I am today. They help me to be a better teacher, and I learn and grow because of them. If there’s one thing I want to teach them, it’s to be brave and not to be afraid of new experiences.
To find out more about David’s books and upcoming projects, check out this website.
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