University of Canterbury’s Professor Steven Ratuva. (Photo supplied)

Professor Steven Ratuva, now based in Christchurch where he heads the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at Canterbury University, has a few strings to his bow. But it’s as a widely travelled academic and prolific writer that he’s made his mark, worldwide, in sociology and anthropology. And, in the course of his research and deliberations, he’s come to develop a healthy disrespect for some aspects of western scholarship — especially the tendency to assume that Indigenous scholarship (from the Pacific, for instance) can’t be taken as seriously as western knowledge. He has no patience with that view, as he explains in this talanoa with Dale.


Bula Vinaka, Steven. For a little Fijian boy growing up in a village not far from Suva, you’ve gone on to clock up a good few miles in the course of your academic research and teaching.  

I see that you’ve had university roles not just in Fiji but also in Australia, Britain and the States, as well as in Auckland and now in Christchurch. I suspect that hasn’t been the norm for youngsters with your background.

No, it hasn’t. I was the very first in my village of Naioti (on the Island of Kadavu) and also in my family to graduate from university. But, over the years, a lot of my nephews and nieces have taken that step, and there are 15 in our family now who have degrees.

My parents, Joeli and Olita Ratuva, brought us up with the belief that the best way to success is through education. Village life is usually seen as romantic because of the sunshine and beaches. But it’s tough as well because you have to work hard. Every day there’s the fishing and planting and caring for crops and other challenges. Interesting, but not always easy.

But I grew up with the perception that there was something beyond the horizon. After all, our ancestors had sailed across the Pacific around 3,000 years ago and settled in different Islands. From the West Pacific to Fiji, Tonga, Sāmoa and across the Eastern Pacific to Rapa Nui. And they went as far as South America and up to Hawai’i and down to Aotearoa.

What guided them was really the horizon, their link to the stars and their sense of cosmology.  For them, there was an endless array of universe after universe — and that was at a time when the Europeans thought that, if you went beyond the horizon, you’d fall off the edge of the world. 

Our ancestors didn’t think that way. They knew that beyond the horizon were other horizons. So that’s how I thought when I was growing up. It was the same motivation which allowed my ancestors to sail beyond the horizons and which allowed my grandfathers to travel around the Pacific in the early 1900s.

It’s almost like it’s in our DNA to go out and seek what we can in the world. Then move on. And I and a lot of us Pacific people are still moving. 

The feats of our ancestors in traversing the Pacific have too often been undervalued by western scholars. And so has the mātauranga of our forebears. But perhaps their achievements and insights are now starting to get the recognition they deserve. Do you sense that, Steven? 

Yes, suddenly, a number of western scholars are beginning to recognise the significance of Indigenous knowledge. 

Western knowledge has been fragmented into little boxes that they call disciplines. So we have the sociology box. We have the economics box. We have the physics box. 

The whole academic system is geared towards creating these little boxes — and academics fight over which box is better than the other. And they rank knowledge according to their biases about what they consider valid forms of knowledge.

Because of the neoliberal values now driving academia, money has become a major factor in this. So various sciences which are seen to generate money are arbitrarily ranked at the top, and those like Indigenous knowledge and social sciences are seen as lower because they don’t generate money.

But now they’re beginning to realise that a lot of these rankings are very superficial — and they’re beginning to move towards interdisciplinary thinking.

Indigenous knowledge is largely to do with interdisciplinary connections of knowledge. The knowledge of the universe, of the stars, of cosmology, are linked to our knowledge of the ocean and knowledge of culture, of the climate, of innovation and the world around us.

They’re all linked, and now our education institutions are moving towards this interdisciplinary knowledge which, over the years, they have denied. 

But there’s a lot of predatory exploitation of this. For instance, more than 70 percent of  pharmaceutical products in the world are sourced from Indigenous knowledge. Scientists working on behalf of big corporations study traditional medicines and this leads to their extraction and patenting. This happens in the Americas, Aotearoa, the Pacific, Asia and Africa. They take Indigenous knowledge which has been used for centuries in local communities and then transform it into modern medicine to build up multibillion-dollar empires.

This is corporate piracy, theft of knowledge, theft of intellectual product, with big corporations reaping the benefit from Indigenous knowledge — and there’s little being done to stop it. In fact, it’s being encouraged by neoliberalism and free trade regimes.  

So, while there’s some recognition that Indigenous knowledge provides the way forward, there’s also the ongoing predatory aspect which we need to guard against. The contradiction is that while they say that Indigenous knowledge is inferior, they are, at the same time, stealing the knowledge and using it for economic ends. 

Professor Steven Ratuva with his wife Mere and daughter Natasha at the University of Canterbury where he was presented with the 2019 Research Medal, the university’s highest award. (Photo supplied)

As a proud Fijian man, how satisfying is it for you that you’re working in a period where there’s more recognition and validation of the Indigenous knowledge that’s been built up over the centuries? 

And I wonder whether, at times in your academic career, you’ve felt that your western colleagues should appreciate that scholars like you have two sides to your knowledge — Indigenous as well as western — and that you can couple the two together in a way that they never can.

Well, we’re aware that there’s an inbuilt subconscious bias against us because of the way that knowledge is being structured and ranked — and the way the promotion system works. Then there’s what they call “metrification” where things are measured quantitatively in terms of what journals you’re published in, the citation of your work, the ranking of universities, and so forth. 

Although in a way it’s hidden, there’s also a practice in a number of universities of stereotyping and ranking different races as “smart” and “not very smart”. They will deny it and tick all the diversity and equity boxes, but the more “progressive” boxes they tick, the more they conceal the racialised subconscious biases.

And, unfortunately, we begin to assimilate these framings about ourselves as minorities — and then we start internalising these myths by believing that we are intellectually inferior and incapable. 

This is a collective psychological impact of colonialism which many of us may want to deny, although it may be just too deep and subtle to come to terms with. Research has found that such self-perceptions of inferiority, a product of colonial trauma, can be passed down over generations. 

As I’ve been telling some of my Indigenous colleagues at university, we have to break that cycle. It’s not easy. But we have to be creative and innovative and prove to our future generations that we are just as capable as those considered the “smart” races.  

For instance, when I won major funding awards or international recognition for research and then was awarded the 2019 University of Canterbury Research Medal, which is the highest award by the university, I felt they weren’t for me, but were another step in our attempt to shatter some of the myths about us which the system reinforces and perpetuates.          

One of the interesting developments over the last couple of generations in Aotearoa, and in the Pacific too, is the increasing contact between Māori and Pasifika. It’s a renewal, of course, of relationships going back many hundreds of years. But it’s different these days. And I wonder what we can learn from one another.

The first thing is to decolonise our “differences” which were framed by the early Europeans. One example of that are the Eurocentric classifications of Melanesian, Polynesian, and Micronesian, which were invented in 1830 by a French explorer called Jules Dumont d’Urville.  

Culturally, genetically, and in terms of language, there are dynamic and continuous connections right across these artificial and nonsensical boundaries. My own DNA test reveals mixed matches of 52 percent Fijian, 33 percent Tongan, 13 percent Sāmoan, and 2 percent others. There are mixtures all across the Pacific and it’s really just a matter of degree.  

I think it’s important for us now to look beyond those demarcations and see ourselves as just one people connected at different levels through the ocean. And, within our universities, for instance, where we have Māori studies separate from Pacific studies, perhaps we should slowly come together and begin to see ourselves as part of the trans-Moana people because the commonalities are strong and embedded in pre-European history. 

And, with that synergy and with the merging of various forms of Pacific and Māori studies, that’s another way we can learn from one another. 

Thank you, Steven, for your overview of our whanaungatanga, our Polynesia-tanga, because, as you say, we are all one. And it’s important that we understand and act on that. Climate change is another issue that warrants our attention, isn’t it?

There’s less talk about climate change at the moment because everybody’s more concerned about Covid-19 and about opening the borders and finding jobs. But, in the Pacific, climate change has been part of people’s lives for a long time, and they’ve found ways to adapt to changing environments as they’ve moved from island to island across thousands of miles of the Pacific.

One reason for their moves has been climate change as their villages were wiped out by cyclones or rising sea-levels, and perhaps by conflict as well and other reasons. This has been made worse over the years as a result of industrialisation and emissions. So, adapting to climate change is in our DNA as well. 

The environment of the Pacific is probably much more sensitive to climate change than the bigger continents, and sometimes we adapt to climate change without realising it. For instance, in how we build our houses, how we plant, and how we live our lives if the sea is intruding into our village.

All these things have been going on over the years, and Pacific communities have been innovating as part of their responses. Talking of innovation, some of our ancient innovations have been brilliant. For instance, in sailing. Our ancestors designed triangular sails in a particular way so that they could move fast at every angle against the wind — and this baffled Europeans including James Cook. They understood aerodynamics in sails long before Europeans invented the word. 

Climate change has become very political in the way in which governments have framed it as part of their policies. And western scientists seem to have the notion that climate change is something they’ve discovered. They sometimes talk as if it’s theirs when, in fact, we in the Pacific have been living with it, have known it, and have had our own words for it. 

So it’s nothing new for us. And it’s not just an academic subject.

Steven, as a 20-year-old undergraduate student at the University of the South Pacific, Fiji. (Photo supplied)

As we move towards the conclusion of this kōrero, you may like to add some comments, especially about your non-academic activities. 

Okay. What else do I do? I enjoy my gym workouts. During my younger days I was president of the Fiji Bodybuilding Federation for a year before moving overseas again. I’m also an artist. I paint. I used to draw cartoons for a number of magazines and newspapers, such as Island Business, Fiji Post, and the Weekender. 

But there’s not much time in academia at the moment for activities like that. Perhaps, when I “retire”, I’ll have the time to paint some South Island mountains. Or some Pacific scenery.     

I’m also a musician. I play keyboard and, during my student days in Britain, I played in a makeshift band of students who were trying to make quick money from drunk and unwary customers. We played in a few pubs — and I remember, in the mid-‘90s, playing in a student pub, when a Māori girl rushed up and hugged me, and said: “Thank you so much for singing that song. I’ve been in Britain for 10 years and that’s the first time I’ve heard it in all that time.”

I was singing one of my favourite songs. It was Pokarekare Ana.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Before he was appointed a professor and director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Canterbury, Steven Ratuva had worked in a number of universities including the University of Auckland, Australian National University, and the University of the South Pacific. He did his PhD at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex, which for a number of years has been ranked first in the world in development studies. He was also a Fulbright Senior Fellow at the University of California (LA), Duke University and Georgetown University. He has written more than 10 books and is now working on another three.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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