Tamasailau Suaalii-Sauni grew up in a Sāmoan family where, as a daughter, she toed the line that her dad drew. That was just how it was. But she also learned from the strong women around her, and from Sāmoan history, that there’s an essential place for women speaking their mind and often taking the lead. And, as is apparent in this conversation with Dale, she’s followed through on that in her career in academia and in the pursuit of justice.
Now, Tamasailau Suaalii-Sauni, thank you for joining us on E-Tangata. And to start our conversation, I wonder if you’d tell us how you’ve come by your beautiful names.
Sure. My first name, Tamasailau, is what, in Sāmoan culture, we call a tāupou name. It was given to me by my maternal great-grandmother, Aivale, who’s from the villages of Salani and Saoluafata in Sāmoa.
Her mother, Satia, held the tāupou title Tamasailau in her day. Carrying the name often presents a dilemma for me. I want to honour Aivale’s gift, but I’m also aware that it traditionally belongs to Salani.
My daughter, Tineifaualii Sauni, has the same dilemma after being named by her great-grandmother, Ailei’u, of the Leauanae family in Iva, Savai‘i.
Our traditional Sāmoan names and naming practices carry so much personal, village and cultural history.
My surname Suaalii-Sauni brings together the surnames of my father, Matiasi, and my husband, Sinapati. They also carry family histories.
Where did you grow up?
I came to New Zealand when I was three with my parents and siblings. At first, we lived in Grey Lynn and then Herne Bay. But I grew up in Ōtara and, later, in Henderson.
My father had a job in the freezing works near Ōtāhuhu. My parents were both Seventh Day Adventist churchgoers, so we went to the church school. And then it was back and forth from church schools to state schools. But I did all my high school years at Waitakere College.
Before that, though, when I was at intermediate, my uncle came over from Sāmoa. He was going to the Philippines, on a government scholarship, to become a veterinarian. That was when I became aware of opportunities like that, and of the prospects of higher education.
It was one of those pivotal moments where you think: “Okay, university is an option.”
What would you say of your attitude, during your early years, towards schoolwork and studying?
I enjoyed the academic world, or at least the world of ideas. Books were my escape.
I had a typical first-generation 1970s,1980s migrant Sāmoan female upbringing. My parents were strict disciplinarians. They were teachers in Sāmoa and prioritised education. They were, and still are, very religious and are committed to their fa’a-Sāmoa and ‘āiga values and obligations.
My maternal aunt, Naoupu Taylor, and my paternal grandmother, Ailei’u, were hugely influential in my formative years. They both helped to raise me.
They instilled in me a feminist spirit. My grandmother would often tell me not to live a life of dependence. She’d say: “Sailau, aua e te ola fa’alagolago.” She meant that I shouldn’t be dependent on anyone, especially a man.
Both women were fiercely independent and committed to their ‘āiga and their fa’a-Sāmoa. Their values are deeply ingrained in my academic and community work.
Aunt Naoupu would often remind us of a dream of our grandfather, Telea Lote, that at least one of us grandchildren was to go to university. I was the first, but a few have since followed suit.
And your relationship with your parents?
I remember in 1989 when I was doing my Law Intermediate year at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, I’d travel every weekend to Auckland so I could play the piano for Saturday church. My father believed that it was part and parcel of our tautua, our service, to church and community, although I can’t say I fully shared in his conviction at the time.
I love my father, but we didn’t always see eye to eye. I remember a poem I wrote more than 20 years ago. I called it Pau ā which means “just because”.
It’s basically about trying to come to grips with the expectations of, and on, a Sāmoan father — and my frustrations with both. These two stanzas pretty much sum it up. It reads:
He may get angry and lash out
He may be unreasonable and self-centred
But he is also proud and loto alofa
He is a matai
He has a big heart
He may not show it all the time
But he may not know how
He is a hard man
But he wants what’s best
for the Aiga
Us . . .?
He disciplines without reasoning
For you are his daughter
you are Samoan
you must succeed
you must obey . . .
Why? . . .
It’s a message that resonates with a lot of Sāmoans I know.
My relationship with Mum has grown over the years. I didn’t see a lot of her when I was growing up because she was always working. Not only did she have several jobs — as a cleaner and nurse-aide, then as a primary and intermediate schoolteacher — but she also held leadership roles in our church community.
I’ve always admired my mother’s work ethic and her congenial personality — unless crossed. She was very supportive of higher learning, but it wasn’t something she seemed particularly interested in for herself.
She was the practical one in her relationship with my father and in our home. My father was the dreamer. Still is.
They shaped who I am today, and I’m forever grateful to them for the opportunities they gave us.
You did your law degree at Waikato and Auckland? What drew you to legal studies?
My dad. He wanted me to do law. Actually, he should’ve done law, not me. I think he would’ve made a good lawyer.
I’ve grown to appreciate the place of law in today’s society, but I struggle with its monoculturalism. Pluralism is hard for the law. And a lot of that, in my view, is cultural.
I did a conjoint law and arts degree majoring in sociology. I went on to do a master’s and then a PhD in sociology. For both of those degrees, I explored the relationship between law, culture and legality.
In my master’s thesis, I examined “cultural defence” and argued that the “cultural” was subjugated knowledge in law. Then, in the PhD, I focused on the “governmentalisation” of Sāmoan youth offender cases.
You could say, I became a little preoccupied with culture in law and culture in governance. I still am.
Along the way, no doubt, you came under the influence of some significant thinkers.
Yes. Three of them have been amazing Pākehā women who’ve inspired me to persevere with academia. There was Ruth Busch, an associate professor (now retired) at Waikato University. She won’t remember me, but her passionate lectures about the law, the legal fraternity, and their gendered biases have had a lasting impact.
At Auckland University, there was Dr Catherine Lane West-Newman, also now retired, who had a love for the sociology of law that I found infectious.
Her classes basically picked up where Ruth left off. And, lastly, there’s been Professor Alison Jones, also at Auckland University, who’s known for her clarity and endearingly pointed manner. I see her as a tuakana.
The impact of these three women on me have been deep and lifelong.
Looking back, I can see that my academic pathway was largely paved by these strong academic women, who alongside my Aunt Naoupu and Nana Ailei’u, gave me the fuel I needed to keep going whenever self-doubt kicked in.
Given your time at Waikato University, how conscious were you of the Indigenous issues surfacing at that time? As a Pasifika woman, were you watching the Māori space?
I was only 19 and it was 1989 when I was at Waikato. Up to that point, my world was family, church, and school — and in that order. I had little exposure to Māori communities and Indigenous issues.
I remember, however, coming across a guest lecture by Moana Jackson that year at Waikato. I don’t remember exactly when or where it happened, but I do recall that I was mesmerised, and largely by his voice. He spoke in his trademark measured, soft tones. But, beneath his gentleness, I felt a resolute core fuelled by a great pain. I felt my ancestors.
That same year, I recall reading Te Whaipaanga Hou, his report on Māori and the criminal justice system.
The monoculturalism that Moana Jackson wrote about then has, 30 years later, not changed much. Criminal justice officials and services may have better intellectual and emotional understanding of the nuances and intricacies of that monoculturalism — but overcoming systemic barriers to achieving intergenerational Māori healing remains elusive.
We as tauiwi — yes, even us as fanauga o le vasa, children of the ocean — we need to do more. But we can’t do it without Pākehā. Pākehā are a significant component in this restorative healing equation. And not in a controlling way.
I can feel a groundswell. The whenua/fanua, the vasa/moana nui and collective aroha energising our wairua and restoring our mauli/mauri, pushing us forward. I feel it. I sense it.
The application of tikanga — such as granting legal status to a river — these concepts are unusual to western legal thinking. How is this influencing not just Māori but also Pasifika?
The influence of tikanga — or what in Sāmoan I would call aganu’u or agaifanua — on law, is huge. There is a demanding challenge for Māori and Pacific peoples who seek to uphold customary beliefs and values that are right, or tika — and to ensure that the legal system is capable of recognising these beliefs and values.
That requires being able to closely interrogate what the law is, how it has (or hasn’t) developed over time, and how it could be recast and empowered to honour Indigenous values.
Two groups and their bodies of work have been critical in this shift towards legal recognition of tikanga and te ao Māori in New Zealand law. One is the Waitangi Tribunal, and the impact of the work of the Tribunal on legal spheres of influence.
The other is the academic world — in particular, those who work in the field of Māori customary law. They are the ones who have the skills and, importantly, are given ring-fenced time to do the mahi. And it’s a lot of mahi.
For instance, Te Mātāpunenga, which was led and compiled by Professors Richard Benton and Alex Frame, and by Dr Paul Meredith, is an exemplary and invaluable resource on Māori customary law. It took over 10 years to compile.
Through their meticulous work with historical (oral and written), linguistic and textual data, the nuances and dynamism of tikanga and te ao Māori is made clearer and accessible. This mahi really is a profound gift for all New Zealanders and Indigenous peoples around the world.
Māori scholarship and leadership in this area serves as a beacon for Indigenous peoples worldwide — even for Indigenous peoples in Pacific countries like Sāmoa where we’re the overwhelming majority and have full sovereignty over our laws.
Would there be good value in a focus and research on Pacific customary law?
Yes. There’s an urgent need to invest in a body of work like Te Mātāpunenga for the wider Indigenous Pacific.
I am a Sāmoan fascinated by our Indigenous concepts, such as monotaga, igaga tō, matū palapala and their jurisprudential value — and I believe the timing is right to learn from our Māori fanauga about how we could best compile a Mātāpunenga of our own.
I worry that if Sāmoa and Sāmoans — and indeed the wider Indigenous Pacific — don’t see the importance of this decolonial jurisprudential work, that soon we won’t be able to stop the relentless onslaughts of globalised waste (literal and metaphorical) that have been coming to our shores for centuries, destroying our ability to protect what is ancestrally and spiritually ours.
We in the Indigenous Pacific can learn a lot from each other. Learning the ins and outs of how a river can be a legal person is a step in the right direction.
Let’s turn now to your work at the Criminal Cases Review Commission. Part of your work is responding to the reality of our people who are hugely disadvantaged and who are imprisoned in great numbers.
The work of the commission is to review potential miscarriage of justice cases and to refer appropriate cases back to the appeal court.
It’s widely known that our Māori and Pacific peoples are disproportionately represented in New Zealand’s criminal justice statistics and that we have one of the highest imprisonment rates in the world.
We’re also still hugely disadvantaged socially and economically. This, together with evidence of a broken, racially biased criminal justice system, puts those of our people convicted of a criminal offence at high risk of a miscarriage of justice compared to other ethnic groups.
We’re very mindful of the need to be culturally and institutionally responsive, as a commission, to those in our communities who may wish to better understand the work of the commission and be able to put in an application.
The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care has reconnected us with the reality of hardship faced by many — including some of my own whānau who were Lake Alice kids. We’ve created an intergenerational cycle of imprisonment for many. It’s certainly a shared history for Pasifika and tangata whenua, isn’t it? And it’s a sad history.
Yes. Really sad.
I take my hat off to our survivors who came forward to share their stories. Their resilience is inspiring. And I take my hat off to the Royal Commission staff who supported our survivors, giving them an environment where they could speak of their trauma in mana-enhancing ways.
I also take my hat off to our families and communities who supported them throughout their lives and during this inquiry. It’s a genuinely big deal to have them come forward.
Given the position the church still plays in the lives of many Pacific peoples in Aotearoa, the inquiry offers an opportunity for us as a society to call out these powerful institutions and hold them accountable for the historical and intergenerational harm they’ve caused. This is especially important for Pacific cases of sexual abuse.
But the work of the Royal Commission doesn’t stop with the inquiry. It’s ongoing and long-term.
It was an honour and privilege to be part of the inquiry’s Pasifika Talanoa Panel. While solutions can come from within our communities, the problem is wider. Long-lasting resolutions and true healing requires all of us who can help to work meaningfully together.
And the media plays a big role too in helping justice prevail, doesn’t it?
Yes. Film, and the arts generally, have the potential to address tapu topics like abuse in care and sexual abuse, and to do so in less confronting and more culturally sensitive ways.
I had the honour and privilege of working with the cast and crew of the documentary film Loimata — The Sweetest Tears, which was directed and produced by Anna Marbrook and Jim Marbrook. It’s about navigation, resilience, institutional and family abuse — especially sexual abuse, and healing. Themes core to the inquiry.
We need as many tools and purposeful bodies as possible to help us successfully navigate the complex challenges of abuse. Families, communities, films, scholarship, and commissions all have their roles to play.
As an outspoken woman, are you finding that there’s growing acceptance of that positive role? Now that there’s the first wahine Sāmoan prime minister, is there more willingness to break the mould?
Yes, Sāmoan women can, generally speaking, be outspoken. Sāmoan female leadership at family, district or national levels have always been there.
For many Sāmoan families and villages, the right of women to vote and lead as family heirs is without question. But there are some families and villages where this right is highly contested.
I worry whenever I hear or read of situations where women’s rights, roles and responsibilities are described as naturally subservient to those of men. As many a feminist scholar and anti-violence advocate would know, it’s a short step from there to unjustly excusing male violence.
The Sāmoan feagaiga as a concept advocating gender equilibrium is underexplored. It’s been co-opted somewhat by Sāmoan parochialism and western intellectualism to suit their own purposes. An Indigenous Sāmoan decolonial feminist interrogation of the feagaiga is long overdue.
Fiamē Naomi Matā’afa is the first female prime minister of the independent nation state of Sāmoa. But she isn’t the first female national leader of Sāmoa. Our oral histories of pre-European contact Sāmoa remind us of the leadership of Salamasina and Nafanua.
With Fiamē, however, we might say that our current mould is now, at long last, being recast. Touch wood, it holds past the upcoming by-elections of November 26.
Ka pai, Tamasailau. It’s been an absolute pleasure to talk with you. Keep up the good work, sis.
Fa’afetai tele mo le avanoa, Dale. Ka kite anō. Thank you!
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity).
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