Indira Stewart, host of RNZ’s new early morning news and current affairs show First Up.

If you’ve been listening to Radio New Zealand’s Pacific news coverage over the last few years, you’re bound to have heard Indira Stewart’s reporting. Tomorrow, at 5am, the 34-year-old journalist will step into a new role, as the host of RNZ’s new early morning news and current affairs programme First Up, which leads into the top-rating Morning Report. She becomes the first Pacific presenter of a regular weekday show on the RNZ National network. Here she talks to Dale about what that means for her.

 

Kia ora, Indira. And, straight off, I’m concerned that I could be mispronouncing your name. So I wonder if you’ll help me there, and also tell me where it comes from.

Well, I was named after Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of India who was assassinated in October, 1984. My mum was carrying me at the time. My dad really admired her and said he’d name me after her. I was born two months after she was assassinated. So that’s where my name comes from.

It’s pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable. INdi-ra. And about the only people who get it right these days are taxi drivers — that’s apart from some of my Indian friends and close family.

I’m Tongan-Fijian. My father, ‘Aisea Moala, is Tongan, and my mother, Elisiva, is from Kadavu in Fiji. But I was born in Tonga, and I was raised more on my Tongan side, although I’m still close with quite a few of my Fijian cousins.

Perhaps you also have a middle name with a tale to tell as well.

My middle name is Lenisi. That was given to me by my father’s sister. It’s her middle name as well. But I’m not sure what that name means. I’d love to find out about that.

And, of course, my married name is a Pākehā name that I proudly carry. That’s Stewart.

And I understand that you have four kids.

Yes. Hayden and I have a blended family with Jedeiah, Iszak, Caysha, and our youngest, Noomi, who’s 21 months old.

You’ve mentioned mum and dad. And no doubt their stories, like so many others coming from the Pacific, are of people making sacrifices. Would you be kind enough to tell us about their journey?

(Pause). Gosh, I did not expect that question would tear me up. Excuse me, Dale.

But it would be my privilege. There are moments in life when it hits you how much of where you’re standing comes from the sacrifice of other people. Your parents, your grandparents, your ancestors. And you certainly don’t take lightly the privilege of being where you are today.

I’m the second eldest of five children. My parents were very young when they had us. My father was a music teacher at a boys’ college in Tonga, and he wanted to move to New Zealand to give us a better education and things like that. I was two when we came.

They barely knew English when they came here, to West Auckland. We spoke in Tongan at home, but my parents wanted us to establish ourselves in New Zealand society as much as we could, so they made us speak English.

And one of the strange things about my childhood is that I played the piano accordion for 15 years. That’s because my father, who’s very musical, wanted us to learn an instrument that didn’t require electricity, so that we could take it back to Tonga — something we could travel with.

I remember my dad coming to our music lessons. He didn’t have the best English, but he’d be trying — even though there were so many cultural barriers — to tell the teacher how he wanted us to play certain songs. We were doing classical music.

School, at Glendene Primary, was really enjoyable. I’ve always enjoyed learning. And when I was six, although I never thought my English was as good as that of other people, my teacher, Mrs Gibson, said she wanted me to be the presenter for our classroom play. She saw me as a chatterbox. So she decked me out in this sort of tuxedo suit. And that was my first step in a presenter-related role.

Indira, right, with her older sister Lesieli.

I love the piano accordion. That’s because it’s portable, and also because it reminds me of a style of entertaining that used to bring people together. Everyone would cluster around it. Our nana left us one as well. It’s still a beautiful machine, all these decades later.

Okay, so that was Glendene. What came next?

I went to Kelston Intermediate and then Auckland Girls’ Grammar in the city. So I’m an old AGGS girl. My parents were heavily involved. My dad was always trying to get on the board of trustees at all the schools we attended, even though his English wasn’t the best. He was really trying to assimilate into New Zealand culture as much as he could. That’s what I remember.

These were still the relatively early days of Pacific migration and I recall him telling us stories, such as having to walk to work all the way from New Lynn to Ponsonby. He’d start walking at 4am to get to work on time.

He’d tell us stories like that when we were growing up, but it just seemed surreal to us. We’d kind of laugh and be: “Whatever. You didn’t do that.” And he’d say: “No, that’s what we did. Back in the day, we didn’t know the system — we didn’t know how to catch the bus.”

My generation, often, can be very detached from the realities of what the first migrants went through. So I take my hat off to my parents and their generation. I can’t imagine doing that at my age and I owe everything I am to the sacrifices they made.

And how did you fare at AGGS?

I loved it. It was a melting pot of cultures and it was lovely being in a girls’ school. I had a really great experience. And I did well partly because we had two Pasifika teachers at the time. One was Mrs Anisi, who went beyond her job requirements to make sure all the Pasifika students were doing their best. And, if they weren’t, why weren’t they? And trying to get support for them, like finding some way to pay for them to get to school camps.

We were lucky to have her and Mrs Brown — and Miss Moller, who was a Pākehā teacher but very involved in the Pasifika community there at AGGS, and pushing for us young brown girls to do well.

No doubt there were some among your contemporaries who’ve gone on to make their mark.

There were plenty of them who’ve excelled in sports and other fields. But one who comes to mind is Kiri Allan, who was a year older than me and in the Kahurangi Māori unit. She’s now in government as a Labour MP and I’m not surprised at that. She always had something about her, including leadership qualities. I’m watching her journey and admiring what she’s doing.

Now let’s turn to journalism, the profession where you’re making your mark. What drew you to it?

I never planned to become a journalist. And, when I think about the shortage of Pasifika journalists, I’m a bit surprised there aren’t more of us because we’re powerful storytellers, and we always have been. Our histories are passed down through oral tradition.

But in some ways, I’m not surprised either. I hadn’t thought about coming into this industry because I hardly saw or heard anybody of my colour reading the news, or writing stories in the paper.

I’d written for the school magazine every year. And I’d done a piece for Tagata Pasifika when I was 15 or 16, but I still never gave any thought to making this my career. So I went off to uni on a scholarship to study music, classical composing.

Then I left at the end of my second year because New Zealand Idol was on, and the prize was $50,000 and a car — and that was more tempting than being a broke student.

Indira, 21, on NZ Idol in 2006.

So I went into New Zealand Idol. I thought maybe there’d be more money in it than in composing, which was quite competitive. And it was kind of fun, this thing on TV. I made it into the final two, with Matthew Saunoa, who won. That was in 2006, the third and final season.

After New Zealand Idol, I’d just left a rough marriage. I’d married young and I had two young kids. So I was a solo parent having to provide for my children on my own. I just wasn’t sure I’d be able to do that as a composer. I’d really enjoyed presenting on What Now after New Zealand Idol. So I did that. I went back to communications. And I enrolled in a course.

My major was video production. I didn’t choose any papers to do with journalism. But then I was short of a few credits one year. So I took up a journalism paper to make up the extra credit. And, when I went to my very first lecture in this journalism class, our lecturer got us to analyse a column from the Herald.

It was written by Tapu Misa and it was about cultural identity. And, I have to say, it was a pivotal moment for me in my life. It was a turning point for me because I’d never seen a brown woman writing so powerfully.

It was just so captivating. Everything she said was totally my journey — but I’d never seen it printed in the mainstream media. And it just took me by surprise. I remember taking the article home and just reading through it several times over the night.

I knew her name because my parents used to listen to her husband, Sefita Hao’uli, on Radio 531PI. And, because of Tapu’s column, I began wondering how other people could ever understand who I am, or who our community is, if we’re not telling our own stories. So I felt like I should be part of the cohort that’s going to tell those stories.

Somewhere about that time, I understand, you went off to Aussie, didn’t you?

Well, during uni, I did some work experience writing for an online Island mag called Islandher. And after that, I moved to Darwin to spend some time with my parents. Then, by chance, I got an internship in Melbourne at the ABC. I then got offered a job as a digital journalist and assistant producer on a Pacific Beat radio programme.

I do have respect for the programme, but I kept seeing Pākehā people telling our stories. I have to take my hat off to some of them, and really admire them for their efforts. They did the best they could. But it’s not easy, not possible in fact, to be the voice of a community you don’t understand.

When I came back to New Zealand, I started working at Radio NZ. I covered stories in the Pacific realm and I was pretty grateful because it’s such a rich region for stories — and they were meaningful stories for me, stories that gave me a real sense of fulfilment. So it was never a chore to come to work and report on the Pacific.

I went away and had a baby a couple of years ago and I spent a year off. That gave me time to reflect on how I felt about being a journalist. By the time I came back, I had a fresh zeal and some passion, and I made sure every story I chased was meaningful for me and my community.

In a sense, you’re telling the Māori story, too. It’s a familiar story for our readers and me as well. I listen to National Radio quite a lot and I’ve heard a number of Pasifika stories that are really powerful. And I suspect that you’ve been behind some of them without me knowing. But, of the many you’ve done, is there any one story that sticks in your mind, Indira?

That’s a hard one because every story has been meaningful for me. And, as a journalist, it’s a privilege to provide a platform for someone else to have a voice.

There is a matter-of-fact element about the work, though. You file a story, you go home. But there’s also this sense of giving someone an opportunity — of opening the door for someone who’s been voiceless to be heard. And that’s the best part of being a Pacific journalist.

You know you’re from a background where our voices were rarely heard. So, every day, you feel you’re making a difference by pushing against that white mainstream narrative all the time. And it hasn’t always been an easy battle. Sometimes, you’re up against editors or sub-editors who, in subbing your story, will change the narrative. Maybe their way makes more sense to them, or to a nationwide audience.

But, with their changes, the story may no longer make sense to your own community. There’ve been plenty of times I’ve had to go to bat for having certain Pacific words in my stories — or for keeping a sentence that was essential to explain the cultural context of the story.

And, I have to say, I grew a backbone over the years. I learned that I need to be able to back what I say. I inherited that Pacific attitude, that you respect your elders and avoid causing offence. So it’s taken me a while to shed that attitude in the newsroom, and to fight, if need be, for our stories.

I’m not painting all my Pākehā colleagues in a negative light because a lot of them have been listening. And all of us, Pasifika included, can do better at understanding each other.

One story that was quite monumental in my career was my first journalism feature last year about Pasifika mental health. There was a term we used. It’s “puke tevōlō”, which, in Tongan culture, is how people describe depression or mental illness. But the literal translation is “Devil’s sickness”.

It was important for me to put those words in the piece because that’s how my community has seen depression and mental health for so long. So, of course, it’s problematic when you’re going to see a professional and you try to explain to them, that no, I’m not depressed, I’m actually possessed by a demon, or I have ”Devil’s sickness”.

I was trying to explain why it’s so difficult for Pasifika to access some of these mainstream mental health services. But it took a long time for me to convince people above me that it was okay to use that term. They didn’t want to add any further negative stigma around mental health, which I totally get. But our professionals, including government services, won’t understand how to get along with the Pasifika community if they don’t know the cultural context.

Thank you, Indira. Now, can we talk about your tūrangawaewae? Where do you most comfortably stand? Where do you feel most pride? And from where do you draw most strength?

Tonga is still home for me. Even though I was raised in New Zealand, every time I go back, there’s just an incredible feeling the moment I step off the plane on to Tongan soil. And I know that I’ve come home. I feel like this is where my soul, my spirit, is deeply rooted. It comes from knowing that my lineage and my history is all here. The wairua is present when you’re back home.

As a sign of custom and respect, you’ll sometimes see Tongan people wearing the fala, the fine mats, or the kiekie. For us, that represents us wearing the earth, or the soil, of Tonga. And, when I’m back in New Zealand, it means so much to me when I can put on a kiekie or a ta’ovala, because I know I’m wearing woven material around me that has come from the earth of Tonga.

It’s a dream of mine to live in the Pacific and raise my children there, if my work gives me an opportunity to do that.

Back here there’ve been some wonderful moments prompted by the exploits of the Tongan rugby league team, in Hamilton, when they beat the Kiwis, and in Auckland, too. We all saw how uplifting that was for Tongans — and for thousands of others of us enjoying their success and their delight. What do you make of that crazy but utterly cool surge of national pride?

Yeah. People were going crazy. And I just love that extra level of fandom that Tongans and the other Pacific communities bring to our sports. We all know how to get behind our people. It’s just part of the community culture that we have. It doesn’t matter if it’s a funeral, wedding, birthday — we celebrate as a village, together.

Tongan people feel like they raised all those league players together themselves, as a village. So we celebrate everyone’s success as a village. And since I got this new appointment at RNZ, I’m so grateful for the support I’ve been given on Facebook. It’s been overwhelming.

It reminds you of where you come from when one of us wins. When one of us wins, all of us win. And everyone claims a victory. I love that. I love that people think they’re winning because I’m winning. That’s what it’s all about, and it makes it even more satisfying that you don’t take that responsibility or opportunity lightly, because you know you’re carrying everybody else’s faith and confidence with you, which is a real privilege.

Kia ora. It’s good to see RNZ beginning to recognise their obligations to the cultures that make up Aotearoa. How do you feel about becoming this new presenter? And you might remind us of the name of your show that’s starting tomorrow morning.

It’s called First Up. And, honestly, I sometimes pinch myself that RNZ has picked me, a brown woman, to front one of their news programmes. I would never have believed that it was on the cards. Actually, I never thought to apply for the job because it didn’t occur to me that this was an appointment they’d make.

But in November, I was shoulder-tapped by Pip Keane, who’s been John Campbell’s executive producer for years. At first, I didn’t believe she was serious. But she was. And I’m really proud of RNZ that they stepped up and made this decision.

Sometimes, you can doubt your place and wonder whether you deserve to be there. But those thoughts have lasted only for a moment for me because there’s been so much support and aroha for me from my community and many others.

They’ve encouraged me to believe that not only is it good that I’m in this position, but it’s time. It’s time for our voices to be at the table. It’s time for our voices to be in the mainstream. And there should be more of us.

Māori and Pasifika are the fastest growing ethnic group in New Zealand. And we’re going to wake up one morning and find that we’re making up a third of the population. We’re overdue to have more Pasifika and Māori in the mainstream content — and we may soon be celebrating the appointment of some other brown host.

That could already have been one of my colleagues, Leilani Momoisea, or Ravinder Hunia, who are just two of some of the awesome sisters I have here at RNZ. If it was either of them, I still would’ve been just as proud because a win for one of us is a win for all of us.

And I’m going into this first show tomorrow knowing that some brown girl, Māori or Pasifika, might be listening, or watching when we go on multimedia, and might think: “I’ll do that one day, when I get older.” That would make it all worthwhile for me, because I never had that experience.

Finally, you’ve mentioned your lovely young whānau, and as parents — and, in my case, as a grandparent as well — we’re hoping for an Aotearoa that gets better and better. So I wonder whether you’d share some thoughts about what sort of Aotearoa you’d like to leave for your kids?

I’d like my kids to know that the world isn’t just white. I’m not trying to be critical of Pākehā. In fact, I’m married to a beautiful white chocolate man myself. But I look at my children and I hope that they don’t go through the same struggles that we had.

So, for me, it’s important to put my stake in the ground, because I know every time anyone of us does that, we’re further opening a door that has been shut to us for generations. We’re further opening that door for those coming behind us. And the great thing about growing up as Māori or Pasifika is that you know that it’s never about you. It’s about who’s coming behind you — and who went before you.

I have to admit that, in my early years, I whitewashed my voice because I felt that was the only way a national audience would listen to a brown girl like me. But one of the best pieces of advice that I got was from John Campbell, who said: “Don’t be a Susie Ferguson. Don’t be Kim Hill. We’ve already got people like that. You need to be you. We don’t have an Indira Stewart. We don’t have a brown Pasifika woman. You need to stick to who you are.”

That empowered me. And I want my children to feel like that’s normal. They may not ever understand that was a luxury we never had. But I hope they have the luxury of feeling like it’s normal to see and hear brown stories told often and told well.

Thanks, Indira, for the richness of your kōrero. You’ve got many in your corner, including me. Good luck with your mahi tomorrow — and many more tomorrows.

 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

© E-Tangata, 2019

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