“Psychology as a young science doesn’t really speak to a lot of our Pacific experiences.” — Professor Siautu Alefaio on why a Pacific-Indigenous psychology is needed. (Photo: Raymond Sagapolutele)

Professor Siautu Alefaio, who became Otago University’s first Pacific professor of psychology this year, had a talanoa with Dale Husband just before she left last week on a Fulbright fellowship in the US. They talked about grief, family and faith — and why psychology needs to take more notice of culture.


Talofa, Siautu. Could you tell us about your names, please? Because names tell a story, don’t they?

Kia ora, Dale. Well, Siautu is my dad’s aunty. When he came from Sāmoa in the 1950s, he stayed out in the Grey Lynn, Ponsonby area, and she was the matriarch of their family.

Alefaio is from my grandpa, Dad’s father, but it isn’t a family name. They had a practice in Sāmoa whereby the village would change the ministers’ names to a biblical name. My grandfather’s name was actually Fa‘alili Fa‘amoe from the village of Fagamalo, in Savai‘i. But when he became a faife‘au, a minister, in a village called Matavai, they changed his last name from Fa‘amoe to Alefaio, which is Alpheus in Greek.

As you say, there’s always a story behind a name.

I’d like to talk about your folks, because there’s a rich story there, of wanting better opportunities for their tamariki. You’ve been part of that, and here you are, all these years later, the first Pasifika professor of psychology at a prestigious New Zealand university, Otago University in Dunedin. But I see that although you grew up in Ōtara, you were born in Dunedin?

Yes, it’s definitely a full-circle moment going back to Dunedin to take up this appointment.

And you’re right. I credit all that I’ve achieved to my parents’ sacrifices and my grandmother’s prayers.

My mother, Pepe Matautu, and my father, Matavai (short for Simatavai) Alefaio, met at Newton PIC in Auckland, and they were married by my mother’s uncle, Reverend Ned Ripley, who founded Ōtara PIC with my Aunty Alice. They were mentors to my parents and helped shape their lives, especially after my father became the founding faife‘au of Papakura PIC in the early 1980s.

Dad did his theological training at Knox College in Dunedin, and I was born just as he was finishing in 1975. So I was only a few weeks old when our family left Dunedin. Dad often tells the story of how they had to put me in a banana box, beside my mother and brother at the back of the car, when they drove back up to Ōtara. We’re always in tears thinking of the struggle they would’ve had as young parents away from their families.

Both my mother and my older brother, Fa’amoe Timo, have since passed away — and they were the pillars of our ‘āiga.

Siautu with her parents at her PhD graduation at Monash University, Melbourne, in 2015. (Photo supplied)

I’m very sorry to hear that. I noticed when I was reading your recent interviews that you express aroha every time you mention your brother. How long ago did you lose him?

We lost him on the 10th of December, 2022. Sometimes you don’t fully realise how much a person means to you until they’re gone. You take them for granted. He was our older brother, our matai, our chief. And when you come from a small family of three, even though you’ve got a large extended whānau and ‘āiga, you know you’re down the main player of your team when they’re not there.

As the oldest, he pretty much bore the burden of responsibility for my younger brother, Sima, and me. He left university early to get work to support my parents and pave the way for us to have our education.

In hindsight, you realise just how much a person sacrifices for you. Even though more than a year has passed, the grief still remains. Every 10th of every month is a reminder he’s not here. It’s a massive loss that I don’t think we’ll ever get over in this lifetime. We’ll carry it with us to the next.

He must have been quite young.

He was only 51. Having lost a really good friend of ours, Efeso, this year as well, it feels like we’re losing quite a few too young — younger than our parents. When parents are having to bury their children, it’s a tragedy.

You and Efeso were good mates?

We were all at varsity together. When you’re from South Auckland, and you’re catching buses to Auckland uni, you see each other. But Fes just had that dynamic personality that made an impact on all of us. And when we graduated, he was the student rep and he would fa‘aula all of us, greeting each of us with a lei as we went on stage. So, yeah, really missing the bro.

You spoke about grief and how you never really get over it, the memory of these loved ones, and I know that a commitment to live life fully to honour them is something many families are caught up in, ours included. But if you don’t acknowledge the grief, it can manifest itself in really uncomfortable ways. We’ve all heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, although some people are dismissive of it. But unresolved grief is a very important issue. Can we talk about that for a moment?

Unresolved grief is huge, and we see a lot of it in the AOD (alcohol and other drugs) area. When you’re not able to really process the deep hurt and the brokenness of the loss, you go into autopilot or whatever your default mechanism was before that — and then it exacerbates, it gets worse.

I’ve seen that in my own brothers. They never got over our mum’s death, and I don’t think any of us ever will. But how we actually process that loss can vary for each of us. My father, who we care for at 83, always walks with a limp after he lost Mum in 2017. So we’ve been grieving Mum and grieving the loss of my dad — of who he was before Mum died — even though he’s still living with us.

Grief comes out in so many different ways. It’s a difficult journey. There’s lots of research that’s been done on grief and how we carry our grief, and how we walk out our grief. But I don’t think we actually do a lot of that mahi and processing with our own whānau.

I mean, we do process it in ways which accommodate us, like getting together, eating, drinking excessively. And then we say, “Oh, well, that’s just how it is now,” and we move on. But we don’t actually continue to talk about how much the loss impacted our lives, and how we can process that loss to live stronger and better in the present day.

Siautu, sitting on her grandmother Sosoli (her mother’s mum), with her brother Timo and her father Rev Matavai. (Supplied)

We’re talking about psychology, which is your area of expertise, and I’m intrigued to know whether there’s an ethnic component to the psychological make-up of people. Are there differences in the psychological health of different ethnic communities?

For sure, for sure. Culture is fundamental. But psychology as a young science doesn’t really speak to a lot of our Pacific experiences. For example, I grew up in a Sāmoan home, and we were Sāmoan-speaking. We weren’t allowed to speak English at home. English was just for school.

So a lot of the ways that we thought and behaved and lived our lives was fully Sāmoan. Even though we were in Aotearoa, we lived a village life. When I went to university, and I was studying psychology and questioning some of the theories, lecturers started to ask me more about my experience. They were intrigued, but I just thought what I experienced growing up was normal.

For me, there’s been a lot of unpacking. As people of the Pacific region, what is it that our language ascribes to us in terms of the way we think and the way we conduct ourselves within our families and our communities?

One of the things that was quite profound for me when I was working in the Saili Matagi programme (a male violence prevention and rehabilitation programme in Spring Hill prison) is how we help people journey home culturally in their hearts. It was a heart to heart, spirit to spirit dynamic, rather than just a cognitive experience, which is one of the limitations of psychology.

If you kōrero Māori, if we talanoa Sāmoa, there’s so much in our languages that take you to different places in your thoughts. For example, one of the cultural elders said to me in Sāmoa that we’re “others-centred”. That struck a chord because that’s really different from developing self-esteem and having more self-control over our behaviour.

If the default position is others-centredness, it affects the way you do psychological assessment. You’re asking people all these questions about themselves, about what they think about themselves, and often times they’re not answering. It’s not because they don’t know the answers. It’s because they’re like: “Who are you? I don’t know who you are, so why do you want to know about me?” There hasn’t been a connection made to the other people, like our ‘āiga, that we centre our identity on.

If you begin with names and villages, as we did at the start of this interview, we find the connections through others before we come around to them as individuals. “Oh, so that’s your last name. Oh, you’re connected to this family and that family.”

This is similar to the Te Wheke model which I learned from a good friend, Dr Catherine Love, when we went back to Sāmoa together and I invited her to share in a training that I was leading for basic counselling skills. She talked about Hinengaro, the hidden woman. I thought it was a beautiful metaphor of the mind, because she was saying: “You don’t go straight into it, you have to go around.”

And I thought, that’s exactly what it’s like for us Sāmoans. You don’t go straight in and say to them: “What are you doing? What are you about?” You have to go around and make the connections.

That is a little bit about why I think our psychology is very different, and it’s yet to be understood in the wider science of psychology.

So the study of psychology is not one-size-fits-all, and you’ve been developing a Pasifika psychology. Are these traits hereditary, or are we picking them up from learned environments?

It’s a combination of both, but it’s grounded in language first. Language, with all its tools and symbols, affects our higher-order mental processing. Growing up in our families, our ‘āiga, and in our environments, the languages we use are fundamental to how we think, know and behave. Whether it’s Sāmoan, English, Māori, a mixture of various languages, sign, Braille, symbols, nods, Tiktok, Insta, mukbang. Language is key to how we interact with each other. It influences how we think and know, and our way of being. Pacific-Indigenous psychology is based on this.

A wedding in Sāmoa. Siautu and her husband Wesley Tugia with her parents Matavai and Pepe and brothers Sima (left) and Timo (right) and other family, in 2010. (Supplied)

At our core, we lived in villages. It took the village to raise the child. And all of a sudden we’re thrown into cities and pushed into units. You know, quarter-acre sections, where it’s really the nuclear family. And that compromises our age-old approaches to overall health, does it not?

Of course. And the thing is, the majority of the world comes from collectivist societies. The “WEIRD psychologies” research (which stands for western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies) shows that, historically, most psychological studies were based on 12 percent of the world’s population — and the majority of people in those studies were American college students.

That means that 88 percent of the world’s population, and their experiences, aren’t actually in a lot of the psychological literature. That’s what my whole contribution to psychology has been about.

It’s not saying that psychology isn’t relevant. It’s saying that this is not the only way of thinking about how we can support our people. The classic example is the Saili Matagi prison programme. When I started to redevelop it, I took a lot from Te Piriti programme in Paremoremo prison. They’d found, over a decade, that it was Māori cultural ways of being and doing that was making the difference for the men in their programme.

I made that the foundation for the Saili Matagi programme, and that’s how we’ve built success over the last decade, showing that cultural principles aren’t an add-on, they are the very core. For us, fa’aaloalo, the respectful relationship that you have with everyone else around you, with your father, your mother, your aunties, your uncles, governs that way.

Another example is feagaiga, the brother and sister relationship. The sister is seen as the person who irons out difficulties in the family (pae ma auli). And the brother is the one that upholds the sister’s safety. So, when we say: “O le tuafafine o le ioimata o le tuagane” (“She’s the apple of her brother’s eye”) — when we discuss that in our offender circles, all of a sudden a lot of our guys have a wake-up moment, thinking: “Oh, so my partner who I just bashed and why I’m here, that’s someone else’s sister.”

And when you have them thinking about it from that perspective, they start to have these transformative experiences, because now we’re on a different paradigm of thinking and knowing and being. It’s sacred — it’s family and genealogy.

Siautu and husband Wesley in Brazil. (Photo supplied)

And it acknowledges the generations. I mean, this didn’t just come to be by accident or fall from the sky. These are practices that have been established across millennia. We have this western model trying to address behaviours without cultural input. And now we’ve got the naysayers saying: “That’s all hoo-hah. They’re all criminals. Lock them up and make them do the time.” It doesn’t resolve the challenges to help these guys find themselves, and find the pride that exists within them.

Yeah, it doesn’t. That attitude just teaches people how to become better criminals. I think the humanitarian crisis that we have in this country is that 50 percent of our prison population are Māori males. We’re just not waking up to the reality that what we’re doing is inhumane.

I always ask: “Who are we actually keeping safe here?” Prisons are supposed to keep the community safe by locking certain people away. But the reality is, we’re making the situation worse. And the defunct mental health system that we have is only adding to that.

For me, the answers lie in our families and our communities. And it’s thinking about how we can create family systems that are going to support us and will help us navigate the phenomenal climates of change that we’re in now.

Social media has only accelerated the destabilisation of our families. We need to be thinking about how we get back to the core. Our churches need to stand up and address how they’re supporting our families. We’ve built the buildings. But, for me, it’s not about the physical buildings, rather the buildings of the heart.

Christianity has proven to be a useful tool in some ways, but some might say that it’s actually not been as good as if it hadn’t arrived in our islands at all. What’s your take on spirituality and its effect on our psychological health?

I have to acknowledge that it’s fundamental to my own wellbeing. My faith journey has been about Christ in my life, and that comes through my grandmother. It’s how she raised us. She couldn’t speak English, and she would get us up at 6am every morning for lotu (prayer). As she got older, she started to forget things — we didn’t know it was dementia — and she’d wake us up maybe three or four times, starting at around 5am. Sometimes, we’d have four rounds of prayers before we went to school.

So, faith has been a massive part of my journey. I hear what a lot of people are saying in terms of it being a colonial structure. But we have to acknowledge that it not only exists but it’s also a big part of our history — and our ancestors turned to it. And every time I’m in Sāmoa, you can’t deny it. Its impact is all over Sāmoa. It’s fundamentally what our families and family systems all lean to, not just in the way that we live but also in our belief systems.

But, at the same time, that colonial, very Victorian cultural structure that came with the delivery of the gospel message has created a lot of limitations and tensions in the way that we marry the new generation of the diaspora that’s growing up outside of Sāmoa — like me here in Aotearoa New Zealand, and others in Australia and America — with our cultural roots.

This is why I work in our partnership programme with Malua Theological College and our awesome partnership team, Reverend Dr Alesana Pala’amo and his wife Lemau, who run SoulTalk counselling in Sāmoa.

For me, it’s acknowledging that faith is a huge part of who we are, but how we live out that faith is one of the challenges in contemporary life — and we need to be open to change. Our Sāmoan proverb is a classic example of this need to be adaptive: “E sui faiga ae tumau fa‘avae.” Foundations stay the same but the way we do things change.

Well, what I’ve noticed is that in studies of people’s satisfaction, happiness gauges, that Pasifika peoples shine. And even though they may not have much materially, they’re content in ways that people with all the riches of the world would be envious of. So there’s something going on. Is your appointment as the first Pasifika professor of psychology at Otago a recognition that there’s something in Pasifika perceptions of psychology that can add to our understanding of ourselves?

Yes, definitely. We’ve come a long way, and I was really surprised at their deliberate search for a Pacific psychology candidate. It’s a recognition of a lot of hard work by our Indigenous psychologists, people like Professor Linda Nikora and Associate Professor Waikaremoana Waitoki. These amazing mentors of mine have really led the way for us as Pacific people to have our own voice within psychology.

What we’re seeing across the world is a desire for a more applicable psychological science that deals with today’s issues — not relying on antiquated theories from the forefathers of psychology, bless them.

But healing of the soul isn’t like a product that you can just sell us as Pasifika. While a lot of us go to our faife‘au, church, pastors, youth leaders, families and friends, there are many who don’t.

So we need to educate those who are working with our Pasifika peoples about how they can be culturally relevant and safe. Psychology has a part to play — and universities such as Otago have acknowledged and recognised the need for cultural psychologies that can help and inform all of us.

“Cultural principles aren’t an add-on — they are the very core.” Siautu and family at the launch of her book Pacific-Indigenous Psychology in Auckland. (Photo supplied)

I note that one of your areas of expertise is Pasifika, Indigenous and humanitarian psychology in climate and disaster resilience. Can you talk about that?

Sure. It came out of the work that followed the Sāmoa tsunami in 2009, where I saw that, alongside the traditional humanitarian agencies of Red Cross, Oxfam and Save the Children, were the Sāmoan diaspora, working through their churches, families and village communities.

I’ve recognised more and more that communities, families, villages are the first responders in critical disasters — just like marae are here in Aotearoa. But what tends to happen is that a lot of those established links get overlooked during a disaster response, and the support and funding isn’t there for them.

In the Pacific, the people who stand up first are always our families, because our lines of response are family lineage and genealogy. Remittances is a classic example. The amount of money that’s sent back by our families sustains Pacific economies. But with Pasifika peoples earning the lowest wage across Aotearoa, it’s basically the poor sustaining the poor.

On top of that, the Pacific region has the highest remittance fees in the world — and that, for me, is the greatest economic crisis for us as Pasifika. The state of a nation before a disaster determines how well it will respond, so if we’re already in a state of deprivation, it will only get worse.

A lot of my research is focused on making visible — for MFAT, NZAID and AusAID — the invisible systems of humanitarian response and disaster resilience that are found in our diaspora, villages, communities. When these are recognised, I believe we’ll get innovative collective efforts that can help sustain long-term recovery.

It’s like you said. Our people are actually really resilient. You go to Sāmoa and people are already moving on to rebuild. And their faith really helps them to respond quickly and to sustain longer. But it doesn’t mean that they’re not grieving, they’re not hurting. We’ve still got a whole heap of issues with trauma, and we’re not immune to the urgent social problems.

One of your roles is to encourage others who are studying psychology to factor in this cultural dimension to the work, to make them better psychologists. What are you making of the pool of young talent that’s interested in psychology and studying at university — and how accepting are they of these cultural perspectives into their studies?

Many of this new generation are actually demanding it, because when they go out to work, they’re working cross-culturally. They’ve been trained in schools of thought from Euro-American contexts, but when they go out to practise, the reality is, that’s not what they’re encountering.

They’re asking how they can be more culturally informed, competent and relevant. Because they know that when you go to apply psychology, it’s a whole different ball game. And so, I’m really enjoying just starting off with a new university and listening to the students and what they’re asking for. They’re really receptive.

You can take the girl out of Ōtara but you can’t tale Ōtara out of the girl.

That’s right — 274 hardcore!

How do you think that growing up in Ōtara has armed you for the work you do?

Growing up in South Auckland, you’re always having to make do with what little you have and what’s in your hands. We know how to hustle. We know how get it done. So I guess that makes me a number one hustler!

South Auckland taught me that you don’t have the luxury of sitting back and taking this, that and everything else. You have to keep doing the mahi.

At home in Papakura, Siautu and her father Matavai Alefaio. (Photo: Raymond Sagapolutele)

Outside of work, how do you keep yourself vibrant, healthy, interesting? What do you do to keep yourself well?

To be honest, it’s a journey of ups and downs. With more family and work responsibilities, it’s been really hard getting the balance right. I’m caring for my ageing father, who lives with me, but our family is doing this together — and being around them makes me happy. We live close to each other, and have a little bit of a village here in Papakura and Manurewa.

Prayer has been massive for me. I have a couple of friends, and we just vent and pray, vent and pray. And then we eat.

Plus, I try to get back to Sāmoa at least a couple of times a year, just to have the island air.

Living here and doing family, church and community keeps me balanced with academic life. Otherwise, if you’re just in academia, your head can get too big.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2023

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