Lina-Jodi Samu

Here’s Lina-Jodi Samu talking with Dale. In English.

If Dale — and e-Tangata — could’ve coped, she might’ve done the interview in Samoan. Or Tongan. Or Māori. She has that range of language skills.

And she has many more credentials, too, including a couple of degrees and a PhD on the way. That doctorate is based on particularly interesting research about the potential that our young people have for making an impact as digital navigators.

Meanwhile, she’s settling in at the Human Rights Commission as our first-ever Human Rights Advisor — Pasifika. We wish her well.


Talofa lava, Lina. Or should I say Tuiloma Lina-Jodi Vaine Samu? I often start our Q & A discussions with names because they can be so revealing. You carry the most beautiful names, and I guess they make you very proud.

When I was about five years old, I hit up my parents about my name, because all the rest of the kids at our school had Pākehā or Pālagi names. So I rocked up to them and said: “I want to be called Jennifer.”

They cracked up laughing.


“Yeah, Jennifer.”

And then they sat me down and told me why I was given the names I had. I was called Lina after my grandmama, my father’s kōkā whaea. She passed away a couple of months before I was born.

As for the second part of my name, that came from my relatives’ daughter, Jodi, who was born a few months before me, but she died. So her parents asked my parents if they could link her name to mine so she could always live.

And then my middle name is Vaine. It’s a Rarotongan-Māori name. One of my mother’s best friends at the Auckland hospital laundry was Vaine Tonga. And, yes, I carry those names with great pride.

Tuiloma is also significant. It’s an orator matai title that I’ve been honoured with by my aiga and my grandfather, from my mother’s father’s village of Sapunaoa, Falealili, in Samoa. And that village is very interesting because that’s where our ancestor, Manu Samoa, is from. That’s who the Samoan national rugby team is named after. So that’s the story behind my ingoa/igoa.

Ka pai. At what age did the title Tuiloma come to you?

In 2003. So I was 33 or 34 at the time.

And did it coincide with your academic graduation?

No, it didn’t. And that’s the great thing about Samoa. My aiga didn’t really give a stuff about academic accolades like a lot of people in the Western world do. They care if you are a good servant to your aiga, to your family, to your community, to the church, to who you belong to.

Your service to the family and the community is paramount. I’m not saying that Samoans don’t care about educational achievement — it’s extremely important — but it’s not the be all and end all. Service, and being a good human being, is first and foremost.

True. In our Pacific cultures you’re judged more highly not by what you have but what you give, so I respect what you’re saying there. Your parents came to New Zealand in the 1950s. It must’ve been difficult for them, but difficult times can pave the way for much better times. And I’m hoping that was the case for your whānau.

They grew up in very closely related families with strong connections to the Mormon church and, as young people, they converted to the Mormon faith. In school in Samoa, they hated each other. But, when they came to New Zealand, they fell in love and got married as 23 or 24-year-olds. At that time, New Zealand was looking for low-skilled, no-skilled labour to work in the primary industries and the manufacturing industries. That’s why my parents came over.

My mother trained as a teacher in American Samoa, but her qualifications weren’t recognised in New Zealand, so she became a typist at Farmers. My father worked in factory jobs and as a taxi driver and a bus driver all his life.

They were very strong trade union people until the day they died. They really focused on justice and making sure that people had advocates, if they couldn’t stand up for their own rights. I inherited that strong sense of social justice from them.

Like many Samoan and Pasifika parents, and Māori whānau as well who moved from the country to the city, they were affected by racism. Whakapākehātia was the way to get by. Try to act like Pālagi. Like Pākehā. Name your kids Pākehā. Speak only English. Don’t speak te reo. Don’t speak gagana fa’a-Samoa, because, maybe, if we take this path with our tamariki and our mokopuna, they’re going to have a chance to succeed. They won’t be looked down on in society. So my parents followed that track.

I used to ask: “Why didn’t you teach our brothers and sisters a lot more about fa’a-Samoa, and why didn’t all of us have Samoan as our first language?”

But I didn’t understand the context or the environment that they had to deal with in New Zealand at that time.

I really respect that you evaluate your parents by their sense of social justice. Rating people by their “menial” jobs does an injustice to them especially when they have these other rich traits.

This is it, Dale. You may know of Tofiga Fepulea’i, a comedian, who talks of those times. And when he’s among our Pasifika people, he tells them: “My parents came here from Samoa. Here they are, in Wellington. They bought two homes. In those two homes, they had all of the aiga that they were able to sponsor and nurture and awhi here in Aotearoa New Zealand until they could buy their own homes. And they were able to do that by working in what a lot of people call menial jobs.”

I remember in the 1970s, our mother and father together had an income of no more than $20,000. But they were able to raise, educate, feed the family and make sure that we were well taken care of. Also, our tuakana, our older sister, helped our parents a lot to make sure that we were well provided for and well educated as well.

You had the Samoan tongue at home, so that language was a given. But I’m interested to see that you took a real interest in reo Māori. Can you tell us about that journey?

If you’re living in a place like Māngere, Aotearoa New Zealand, and Tāmaki Makaurau, you’ve got to be really blind if you can’t see the Māori presence everywhere in this whenua, in the moana, in the wai. It’s all around.

Also, the great thing about growing up in the Mormon church is that a lot of our kōkā whāea, our grandparents, mātua and kaumātua had come from the country to look after their mokopuna, their tamariki in the cities. So we had a church community where Samoans, Cook Island Māori, Niueans, Tokelauans, Tongans and te iwi Māori all used to look after their mokopuna together.

They couldn’t speak English, but they understood each other because our languages are very closely related. So we grew up in that environment as small children and it really propelled me to have a love of languages. To have an ear for them.

When I worked out that fa’a-Samoa is not too far removed from te reo Māori, that really led me to have a love for learning te reo. Especially the mana whenua reo of Te Ākitai, te Waiohua of Tainui waka, who hold the mana whenua out in Māngere where I was born, where I was raised and educated — and where I still live.

Māngere at that time was a much-maligned community, and there was a lot of wild stuff going on. The church might have sheltered you from some of it, but the reality out in the streets and in the pubs and clubs of the south side was tough. A lot of racism. Do you see us all as one people now?

It was wonderful for me to grow up in Aotearoa New Zealand, because learning te reo Māori and tikanga Māori made me even stronger as a Samoan person in my own Samoan identity. Because I learned about things like ahi kaa. I learned about important things like whakapapa, and tūpuna, and about knowing and celebrating who and what you are and where you’re from.

Regarding the racial issues you mentioned, even though we were raised around the Mormon church and had strong ties to our Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist relatives, we weren’t sheltered at all from what was going on.

Even as children we were very well aware of a lot of the social ills of that time. Especially when people lost their jobs or couldn’t get jobs. My parents were very much part of the union movement, trying to help people who were becoming the working poor.

I remember that transition — when those low-skilled, no-skilled jobs started to get taken away. My parents and our church movement were at the forefront, trying to help people who were in need. We lived it every day.

Some people are probably surprised by the depth of your understanding of te reo Māori, and the role you now have as the human rights advisor for Pasifika.

Yes. It fascinates people. And sometimes they feel threatened. But one great thing I learned from my parents, from being a Samoan and also from te iwi Māori who have mentored me, is not to be whakahīhī.

Even though I have some proficiency or fluency in several mita of te reo Māori and the dialects around Aotearoa whānui, I’ll never use that information to put anybody down, to takahi people. I might know te reo Māori and tikanga Māori from the iwi from all around Aotearoa, but I’m not a Māori. I never will be a Māori. I’m Samoan and I know where my place is.

Is there anyone you’d like to acknowledge who helped set the platform for your opportunities and the mahi you now have?

I was very lucky because our tuakana, Silulu Samu, worked with our parents to make sure we had a solid home foundation and were taken care of financially. She never married and never had children. In our culture, the fulfilment and the success of a woman’s life is often associated with being married and having children. Our sister chose not to do that. She wanted to focus on our aiga.

As a result, her five siblings all became university graduates because of her kaha and her support of us. Along with our parents, she’s our biggest role model. Even though she’s very unassuming and doesn’t speak too much, she’s the centre of the universe in our aiga.

I want to also acknowledge Helen Moewaka-Barnes, my primary supervisor at Massey University’s Whariki Research Centre, the School of Public Health, and Tim McCreanor and Lanuola Asiasiga. They helped me through this PhD journey.

At the University of Auckland, I always respected but I never knew at the time how blessed I was to have Ranginui Walker, Pat Hohepa, Linda Tuhiwai Smith — and to have Leonie Pihama as my sister and academic trainer.

Now that I’m 48 years old, I look back and say: “Wow. How stunning to be supported by all of these magnificent people!”

Your dissertation focuses on digital navigators, which is an interesting area and I’m curious to know why you chose that subject — how young Pasifika adults are using Facebook in their family and social lives. What were you hoping to identify and uncover there?

I compared three groups of rangatahi. The general population, mostly Pākehā, and Māori and Pasifika, all aged 18 to 25, which is the early, alcohol-drinking age.

What I was interested to look at was this: Okay. Here we are, descendants of the greatest navigators and voyagers that this planet has ever seen. Our ancestors had to invent the technology to get from wherever they came from, whether it was North America, South America or Southeast Asia to get to all the places they populated in the middle of Moana-nui-a-Kiwa.

So here in the 2000s are the descendants. We are said to be at the bottom of the heap in so many socio-economic areas, but here’s a way, possibly, for our rangatahi, for the descendants of these magnificent ancestors, to take the lead — to take charge of this social media platform where, if you’ve got the algorithms and if you can control the code and invent the code, you will rule the world.

Pasifika young people are often told to shut up and not speak out. So I was interested in the social media platform as a place where their voices could rise and they could take autonomy and tino rangatiratanga for themselves and stand in their own mana motuhake and create a reality that really inspired them and inspired other generations in their world.

Some time ago, I spoke with one of your cuzzies from Auckland Grammar, who feels we’ve been denied the majesty of our Pasifika history — Māori included. One of the tools of colonisation is to take away language and to take away the things that the colonised hold dear. The magnificence of the settling of the Pacific and the very technologies you speak of that allowed our forebears to traverse the Pacific were relegated to some sort of historical curiosity. How much damage has that done? And how important is it that our people, Māori and Pasifika, reconnect with the wonderful history — and don’t allow it to be shunted to the background?

The impact and the damage have been huge. One of our greatest academics was the late Epeli Hau’ofa. He wrote a landmark article that we all use, Our Sea of Islands. He called Te-Moana-nui-a-Kiwa our blue canoe. And, instead of taking on board the Pākehā thinking that we are small people in insignificant islands, we should be identifying with the vastness of Oceania. We are a part of this great world and it is a part of us.

Another thing, with regards to Pākehā colonisation, is that, in order to defeat the people they are colonising, they replace their history and herstory. Absolutely belittle and minimise our reo, our ancestral mana, our languages, what we look like, how we behave, how we eat, all of our practices. That’s what colonisers do. And that’s very much what was done to us all over the Pacific and Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. And no more so than Te Iwi Māori whānui here in Aotearoa.

And we’re coming to terms with it, but now we’ve got a generation of younger people who have recognised the traits of colonisation and are fighting back against the domination that colonisers rely on in order to inflict their ways. But let’s talk about the Human Rights Commission. Some say it’s an organisation without teeth. Others that it’s a watchdog of great importance. Why did you join up? And what are you hoping to achieve?

I’m the first person who’s ever been appointed as a human rights advisor for Pasifika communities. I’m only one person, but I have a great team of colleagues who’re based in Whanganui-a-Tara and Tāmaki Makaurau with me, and also in Ōtautahi, Christchurch. The commission is responsible for making sure that Aotearoa New Zealand is meeting its obligations for international human rights treaties and conventions and declarations that we’ve signed up to.

For example, the convention for eliminating all forms of racial discrimination, the convention for eliminating discrimination against women, and the declaration for the rights of indigenous peoples. So we make sure that we monitor how government and government agencies are performing.

But, at a more functional level, the commission is saying: “Here we are. If you feel like you’re being discriminated against with regards to sexual orientation, employment, gender, in the public arena, we’re here to help you.

I live in Ōtahuhu, and the other day there was as vibrant a display of Tongatanga as I could ever hope to witness. It was a wonderful display, and for the most part, everyone was just having fun and celebrating their Tongan culture. Now that could be a description of our Cook Island or Samoan whānaunga as well. They bring a vibrancy and patriotism that wouldn’t happen unless they were starting to feel increasingly comfortable in the place they now call home. It’s a lovely dimension, don’t you think?

Ae. I’ve got one daughter. She’s 26, and her name is Sika. She’s named after her grandmother. Her father’s family is Tongan. When we saw our Tongan community going hard out in Ōtahuhu , in support of Mate Ma’a Tonga — the rugby league team from the Kingdom of Tonga — I said to her: “What I’m so proud about our Tongan community is that, when anything happens, they go hard out.”

Remember the 2011 Rugby World Cup? We Samoans thought we were so great when 2000 of us rocked up to Auckland Airport to celebrate the arrival of the Manu Samoa rugby team in Aotearoa. Two days later, 15,000 Tongans turn up to welcome their team. It was actually the Tongan community who really brought that vibrancy, that excitement, that loving-life impact to the Rugby World Cup in 2011, and it’s exactly what they’re doing in 2017.

Well, it’s been very nice talking with you. Is there anything you’d like to add?

I want to thank you and the aiga at e-Tangata for giving me this opportunity to speak with you. And I want to encourage readers who are interested in finding out more about the Human Rights Commission to have a look at our website, and our info line. If you ever have any questions, just give us a call on 0800 496 877.


© E-Tangata, 2017

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