Sereana Naepi, who has Fijian and Pākehā whakapapa, came through an East Auckland secondary school and has a BA (Hons) and an MA from Auckland University as well as a PhD from the University of British Columbia in Canada. In the course of those studies and, more recently, her research and lecturing back in Auckland, she’s focused on questions about the inequity for Pacific students and staff in tertiary education. She’s not of a mind to ignore unfairness, or to back away from advocating change — as she explains here to Dale.
Bula, Sereana. You’ve got a beautiful first name. Where does that come from?
I’m named after my great-grandmother who raised my mother, Alumita, in the village of Nakida in Naitasiri, Na Gone Ni Colo, Fiji. Mum always talks about how she really, really wanted a little girl to carry her bubu’s name.
Our names carry our ancestry with them, so I think I’m really lucky, especially as my brothers got Grant and Paul.
As a kid, I was often called “Serena” and I remember my mum hanging up on people who asked to speak to “Serena” or whatever other nickname my friends had decided to give me. She was quite firm that my name was Sereana. With four syllables.
I also have a Fijian middle name which comes from a great-aunty — and Mum has plenty of stories about her and why she chose that name. Her face lights up whenever she speaks about that aunty so I know she meant a lot to her, and I think it speaks to how we all have women in our lives who shape us.
I know you have a wonderful nana on your Pākehā dad’s side who’s in her 90s now, a military lady, still living on her own in Rotorua. What can you tell me about her?
My grandmother met my grandfather in England during World War Two. My grandfather (Robert Patterson) was in the New Zealand Army and he was over there training English pilots. That’s where he met my grandmother, Alice, who was in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force).
The rumour is that my grandmother already had a boyfriend when she met him. But this other man had cancelled on her and so she agreed to go out with Grandad instead. But she wasn’t looking forward to it. She says he had a reputation for being a grumpy old bastard.
But she went, and there was a show, and there was a late train, and then sneaking back to the base afterwards. They got married just after the war and she moved to New Zealand to live on the West Coast with my grandad.
I went to my grandmother’s house every school holidays and she means the world to me. She’s especially staunch and progressive and she had a lot of influence on me. I think I get my stubbornness from her.
My daughter Alice is named after her. I wanted her to carry that history with her.
Actually, Alice has the names of both her grandmothers — her middle names are Fijian and Niuean, so she really carries the matriarchy on her shoulders. I’m hopeful that it won’t be a weight but a strength instead.
Your dad turned up with a Fijian woman. And it wasn’t always smooth sailing, was it?
My dad, Ian, is wonderfully chill in the face of quite a lot. He’s a man who took home a Fijian woman who, for the longest time, he’d referred to simply as “Ella”. He hadn’t told his family that she was Fijian.
So, the first time my mum met my grandfather, he was reading the newspaper and he was expecting this Ella. And so, when Ella walked through the door, he flicked the newspaper down and went: “Hi Ella”, flicked it back up again — and then flicked it down again in shock.
At that time and in that space, it took courage for my dad to be with my mum. I think we’ve underestimated just what it took for him to do that, for him to walk in both worlds.
I recall him saying to me, when it was very clear that I was going to marry my husband: “Remember, it’s the whole family.”
Because that was his experience. His experience was not just that he married my mum. He married the whole family. And he did things like taking in my aunty, taking in my uncle. I think the strength it takes to do that, and the love it takes to do that, is something we should spend more time thinking about.
Dad’s an electrician. He grew up in East Auckland, and he met Mum in 1978, in a pub in Pakuranga. Mum was working in the kitchen of the Pakuranga Children’s Health Camp at the time.
I think there was a lot of learning on both sides as there always is when you bring two cultures together, but my grandma has told my mum that my grandfather “couldn’t have wished for a better daughter-in-law”.
You visited Fiji as youngsters and so the reality of village life was in sharp focus for you. What do you recall about that trip? What was the impact it had on you?
It was amazing to go home, to see where my mum had come from and where she called home. To swim in the same river and walk the same pathways and to see the river where she teased my aunty who I’m named after — to really understand what it took for my mum to come to Aotearoa. That was all pretty special.
As Pacific people in Aotearoa, we’re lucky in that we have two homes. To live in both worlds and to be able to return to one is a privilege.
I can’t wait to be able to take my daughters to experience that world.
No doubt your experience in the East Auckland schools that you attended didn’t offer the same cultural riches. How were those times? Good, bad, indifferent?
Oh, on a good day they were indifferent.
When we were in primary school in Pakuranga we had cultural days where we’d come dressed up and we’d do a little parade which was quite advanced for that time. But that’s the bare minimum, right?
My mum was really active in my schooling. So we’d have lovo at the school. And we had a trip to Fiji. Because my mum was present and there were other Pacific parents on the board of trustees, my primary years were really diverse.
Then I went to college in Pakuranga. It’s predominantly Māori and Pacific kids, so it’s the school that everyone in East Auckland doesn’t send their kids to.
At that time, the school had a strong Niuean group, but it was still very much that Māori and Pacific kids were there for sports and singing and dancing.
I remember, when I got my scholarship to the University of Auckland, our careers counsellor said to me: “Don’t lose that like everyone else does.”
So there was that clear message that the space for Māori and Pacific is on the stage and on the sports field. There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s a problem when we’re not seen as being capable of existing and excelling in other spaces — and capable of academic excellence.
I’ve been in school board meetings where there’ve been discussions about how schools should stick to zoning — essentially excluding areas where Māori and Pasifika live — because South African parents have come in and said: ”Oh, we like what you’re doing. But it’s a little bit brown.”
Those are the kind of conversations that go on behind closed doors — the conversations that shape the world where our teenagers exist.
When I heard that comment, I never went back to another meeting after that — because nobody seemed to have a problem with it.
You start to realise that maybe comments like that is why all the Pacific kids get put into the NCEA programmes leading to McDonalds as opposed to STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).
You went to uni and, after your degree, you started to support Pasifika students through Auckland University. Why were you drawn to that sort of mahi?
A number of my friends and peers from college got into university. But a lot didn’t finish for various reasons. As you go through the early years, you start to see Māori and Pacific students just disappearing off the map.
Stallone Vaiaoga-Ioasa, who directed the film Three Wise Cousins, was my tuakana mentor in film studies. I remember him talking about how the University of Auckland gets the diamonds of the Pacific community. They’ve survived an education system that’s kind of done everything it can to make sure that we don’t make it.
We have to treat every Pacific student as being precious because they are precious. And we should remember that each student is a connection to an entire community.
I was lucky because I had a scholarship (the Vice-Chancellor’s Pacific Scholarship) so I had a support system. They check in on you, they see how you’re doing. They make sure you’ll be okay. And I went to the tuākana workshops in the Māori and Pacific programme which is where I started to find my stride.
A good many Māori and Pacific students are coming from high schools where they aren’t expected to make it to university. And so their high school classes don’t teach them the skills they need to be successful at university.
And then they find themselves alongside students whose schools have invested in making sure they understand what it means to be at university. So, not only are Māori and Pacific students learning new content, they’re also having to learn skills that they weren’t taught at secondary level.
I also worked at the Māori and Pacific admissions scheme in the Faculty of Medical Health Sciences. That’s like the best equity boot camp if you want to understand how to run a good Māori and Pacific support programme.
Papaarangi Reid and Elana Curtis have got those kids from when they walk in the door to when they leave at graduation. They are well-resourced. They’re structurally embedded. The faculty is behind them. And Papaarangi can walk into a room and say: “This is how it’s happening” — and that’s how it happens. There’s respect for her knowledge and mana, and I think that’s why that programme is successful.
I see some of the tuākana and teina now, and they’re influencing dental policies, they’re getting PhDs, they’re working in the Big Four accounting firms and they’re bringing more Māori and Pacific into the Big Four.
And you can see how that investment in one Pacific student or one Māori student is an investment in a whole community because they bring others with them.
So rather than just adding Māori and Pacific elements to a conventional programme, it’s about saying this programme is of national importance and we’re going to invest in it. We’re going to structurally embed it. We’re going to resource it. And we’re going to make sure that every Māori and Pacific student who walks through these doors feels precious.
And their communities will come with them and we’ll make sure we recognise the power in ensuring each student does well because then the community does well.
I know that among your biggest supporters are two eminent Māori scholars, Linda and Graham Smith. What contact have you had with them?
I’d read Graham and Linda’s work, but the first time I met Graham in person was in a kitchen in Kamloops in British Columbia, where a university was hosting him. I remember him sitting there and politely putting up with a selfie.
He asked me what I did and I told him I was doing my PhD on Pacific women’s experience in the university. He said: “Well, of course, you want to look at mana wāhine.”
At that point, the university had directed me to look at feminism, and I was reading a lot of feminist texts. He said: “Nah. Just read some of the mana wāhine work by people like Leonie Pihama.”
That changed my trajectory. It changed me from saying “universities need to do better”, to arguing that universities need to grow indigenous knowledge and support indigenous knowledge and value indigenous knowledge.
Sometimes those of us in Aotearoa forget how lucky we are that we can walk into a room and have a conversation with Linda Tuhiwai Smith or Leonie Pihama or Tracey McIntosh. In my case, I can have a coffee with Damon Salesa and I work with Tamasailau Suaalii, so we get to work in these spaces where these forces of indigenous knowledge are also walking and talking.
For me, mātauranga is foundational. What happens if we start at mātauranga? What happens if we completely erase all of those policies and procedures that we have and start at valuing the knowledge that comes from the whenua — and then think about how the knowledge that comes from the moana could also be valued?
I want to see mātauranga in our institutions, not as an addition but as the driving force.
It’s the same with Fijian knowledge and Pacific knowledge. Knowledge is formed in relationships. It’s not formed in the abstract. If we start at our institutions, then at the relationship level, they would look very different.
When you presented your thesis in Canada, you’d interviewed your aunties from your village. When you put that up as your research, what did it take to have that validated?
It was the irony of ironies. In order to get a job in a New Zealand university, I had to go do a PhD on Pacific peoples in Canada with no formal Pacific supervision.
I rang my mum and I said: “Oh, I’m being asked to do this and can I talk to my aunties?” Mum organised for the aunties to come over for breakfast and we had a conversation about what it means to be a Fijian woman and what they want their daughters to know.
And one of the things that my aunties said that was brilliant was: “Feminism has nothing to do with it.” It was brilliant because it was a rejection of western knowledge systems as a way of understanding Pacific experiences. At the same time, my stomach dropped because it meant I couldn’t use the framing that the university expected.
I needed a framing that made sense to my community. And I was lucky, because my supervisory team was like: “Yes, this is it. Move forward with this.”
I remember in particular, one of my supervisory teams said: “This makes no sense to me” about one section, and my lead PhD supervisor found a beautiful reference from Cash Ahenakew where he says: “Not everything needs to make sense. We need to move from making sense to sense sensing.”
And it enabled me to record and talk about Pacific women’s experiences not from a need to intellectually understand them, but from a need to know through feeling and to know through relationship.
You had more than intellectual challenges to deal with though, didn’t you?
Yes. I had my daughter in the third year of my PhD, while I was doing my talanoa.
I was still breastfeeding and Alice was screaming her head off. And I remember one of my collaborators saying: “Go get the baby, breastfeed the baby, and we’ll keep talking.” And we spent 20 minutes talking about the joy of children. It was just a different approach to research.
There’s a moment in the PhD defence in Canada when you’re allowed to have the public attend. My supervisor organised it so it was quite late in the afternoon for a defence so my family could join by Zoom.
Instead of asking questions, they sang three waiata and that reduced me to tears because that was my community telling me that my PhD was good. That meant more to me than the committee passing me.
They had to be up at 6am to do that. We need to make spaces in our institutions for that to happen, because why should people who’ve never set foot on our whenua or vanua decide whether our knowledge is valid? It should be our communities who get to sit in that examination room and say, yes, this knowledge is valid.
Then they should ask the institution: “Did they communicate it clearly?” And, if they did, pass them, because the knowledge is valid.
You came home and got a job at varsity, and you’re writing articles about how difficult it is for Māori and Pasifika academics to advance professionally through the university ranks. That might have rankled with those who were, in effect, your bosses?
In our Education Act, academics are protected by academic freedom which basically means that if the research says it, we can say it.
The first article we wrote (“Why isn’t my professor Māori or Pasifika?”) was met with resistance. The following ones haven’t been exactly embraced. But they haven’t been resisted. And what’s encouraging, too, for me and our collective is that our work gets used in national education plans.
What’s happening now in New Zealand, in the course of hiring academic staff, is that there’s an acknowledgment that we have an obligation and a responsibility to hire for excellence. And excellence in Aotearoa includes Māori and Pacific research — and here’s the data showing us we’ve failed as an academy to support and engage in that excellence.
So we get cool messages from people saying: “Yeah, I used your research to argue that this should be a Māori or Pacific position.” And then you get some pretty stink messages from people in conversations, saying: “I used your research and they ignored it.” That’s because they don’t want to engage in excellence. They don’t want Māori and Pacific excellence in their research spaces.
So there’s still a bit of work to do. But now they can’t misunderstand the data that’s been done — there’s no arguing it.
We have a systemic problem at this point. We’ve shown it right across the academy. We’ve shown it in promotions, we’ve shown it in pay, we’ve shown it in the pipeline, we’ve shown it discipline-specific areas, we’ve shown it across the field. And we have to decide as a system how we’re going to respond.
Our Māori and Pacific academics will be tempted to check out. We’re in high demand in other spaces. Ministries, private research companies and international universities all want us.
So, if our own universities don’t step up, why would we want to stay in them? Our universities have something to lose by not supporting us.
You’re a lecturer now and you talk with your students about issues in culture. What are you hoping that they learn?
I want them to know that the Pacific exists. Because we’re still getting students coming through the New Zealand education system where the only thing they know about the Pacific is the Dawn Raids and sports.
They need to know about New Zealand’s role in colonising the Pacific. They need to know about nuclear testing. They need to know about why the Pacific is so vital to New Zealand trade and trade routes. They need to know about the struggle of West Papua. They need to know about blackbirding. There are all of these Pacific histories which people in New Zealand don’t know about.
I want my students to do something. I want them to raise the Morning Star flag for West Papua on the first of December. I want them to write to their MPs about the genocide that Indonesia’s committing right now. I also want them to understand that Pacific knowledge has something to offer when it comes to understanding that situation.
How do we respond to a genocide in West Papua if we respond from that idea of relationships? As opposed to economic logic? New Zealand won’t intervene in West Papua at the moment because there’s an important trade partnership with Indonesia. But if we respond instead with a relational logic, then it’s clear we need to do something.
I’m helping train tomorrow’s bureaucrats, and I want them to value the Pacific. I don’t think that’s a radical idea. It shouldn’t be radical for our bureaucrats to value Pacific people and Pacific ideas.
Your Fijian people have celebrated your academic success. What are their hopes for you?
I’m firmly aware that I’m of Aotearoa. I’m a New Zealand-born Fijian. My responsibility as a New Zealand-born Fijian is to support the Fijian community to access higher education research spaces where they want to.
If they want to come to university, if they want to go into grad school, if they want to go into research, I am here.
Steven Ratuva has started a Fijian research collective and we’re coming together and talking about what research needs to be done for our Fijian community to thrive in Aotearoa.
We need to be strategic. We’re moving from “What does Pacific thought look like?” to starting to think strategically about how we can use that research to advance our community’s aspirations.
So I see my obligation as supporting the Fijian community in Aotearoa to achieve their aspirations.
Whether that’s working for the Ministry of Education with a BA, or whether that’s doing a PhD and influencing international thinking around the Pacific. However I can awhi my family and my community, that’s what I want to be doing.
Sereana, you’ve got kids now who have Pākehā, Fijian and Niuean whakapapa. What are you hoping to develop within them as they learn more about themselves?
We came home to New Zealand so they could learn to be Fijian, Niuean and Pākehā.
My daughters go and see their Niuean nana every Sunday. My mum is caring for my youngest daughter and that’s such a treasure. So Mackenzie gets to hang out with her Bubu nearly every day and learn. She gets to live that as opposed to being taught what that means.
The last line of my PhD is: “Alice, can you see the island?”, which is about inviting her to envisage where we’ll go next. It’s an invitation to enable my daughters to envisage what they desire for themselves and their community.
We want them to grow up as strong Fijian-Niuean-Pākehā people and we want them to have the ability to choose their direction.
That’s not something that every child in this country gets. They don’t all get to choose where they wish to go to. Different structures can prevent that choice.
It’s going to be tough for them. But between my father’s steadiness and my mother’s sheer joy, and my grandmother’s determination, and my Bubu’s community, hopefully they will have everything they need to move to where they want to go.
That’s a lovely kōrero, Sereana. Thank you so much.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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