There’s a day that Dr Jemaima Sipaea Tiatia-Seath won’t ever forget. It was back in 1992, as she was about to set off for her first day at Auckland University. She was looking around for her grandad and nanny, who were going to give her a ride into the campus — and then she spotted them both, in the back room. They were saying a karakia, covering her with a prayer before she embarked on her academic journey.
That brought home to her just how special this day was for the whole family. It’s a memory of a moment she treasures — more special than any of them realised because, as she outlines to Dale in this conversation, that journey has taken her to challenges and heights none of them had imagined.
A PhD, for instance. And her present role as the Co-Head of Auckland University’s School of Māori Studies and Pacific Studies.
Talofa, Jemaima. Thank you for giving us your time. And, first of all, I wonder if you can tell us about your name and your background.
Jemaima is from the Bible. It was the name of my dad’s younger sister who died in a plane crash on the outskirts of Pago Pago, way before my time. My other name, Sipaea, was given to me by my grandad — I’m named after the first wife of Tupua Tamasese Lealofi I, who was a paramount chief and my grandad's aiga.
My late father, Papu Iona Toilolo Tiatia, was born in Samoa. He’s from Taga in Savai’i. My mum, Joyce Suresa Tiatia, is from Salelologa, Fusi Safata, Siumu, and Vaimoso — although she was born in Mangakino.
I’m the eldest of three siblings — Mary and Folaalela are my beautiful sisters. But there were many cousins my parents helped rear, so it was never just the three of us. And still isn’t.
There was quite a big migration by Pacific people to that Mangakino–Tokoroa area in the days of the Kinleith mill and the pine forests. Is that how your folks got there?
Yes, mum’s parents had moved to Mangakino in 1955, but when the work dried up there they moved to Tokoroa to work in the Kinleith Mill, in 1963. So I was born in Tokoroa.
Then, in 1976, my grandparents found work in Auckland, so the whole family moved up — my grandparents and Mum and Dad and uncles. We ended up in West Auckland, and I’m still there now, still a Westie.
And so your family was back in Auckland, where your grandparents had started out?
Yes. My nanny — my mother’s mum, Suresa Siapai Falaniko Mauava — landed at Mechanics Bay in Auckland in a seaplane as a 25-year-old. That was in 1952. She was sent here by my great-grandfather to explore and to find a better life.
She arrived in Auckland with no job or place to stay. So she was put up in the YWCA in Queen Street, and, within a week, one of the supervisors at the hostel had connected her to the Oakley psychiatric hospital in Point Chevalier. So she stayed at the nurses’ home there and worked as a nurse-aide with psychiatric patients.
A year later, she met my grandad, Masuigamālie Vaialua George Gavet. A typical migration story.
Nanny has been, and will always be, my biggest mentor. And my parents are just as inspiring.
Sadly, I didn’t spend as much time with my father’s parents (Tiatia and Folaalela Stanley) because they were in Samoa, and I only really spent time with them when we lived in Samoa. Which we did for a year when I was one, and then again when I was seven.
So you grew up in West Auckland. And where did you go to school?
May Road Primary, Grey Lynn Primary, Avondale Primary, Avondale Intermediate, and Avondale College. Avondale is pretty much where I spent the majority of my life.
Did you excel at school? Were you a Goody Two-Shoes?
No. Doubt it. I was able to have fun and do the things I loved. My parents weren’t all that strict, but they also had lots of rules in place. They always kept me grounded.
And I thought that, if I just did the work, everyone would lay off me. And that worked. Still does. Head down, butt up, and produce the results. And people will leave you alone.
Sports also kept me sane. Life-balance is important to me.
Avondale has been a big school for years. Very white initially. So perhaps you would’ve experienced some racism when you were growing up there?
Of course. And there was an especially defining racist moment for me at Avondale College when I was 17. I was in lots of classes where the majority weren’t brown — these were the days when they had streaming.
So I was in a top class, and I can vividly remember our seventh form dean handing out tertiary information to students. He was like: “University, university … Here you go. Here you go.” And he looked at me and walked straight past me. He never saw me as a possibility.
That moment had a huge impact on me. And I knew from that point on what I needed to do so that sort of thing would never happen to me again. I wanted to never, ever feel again what I’d felt at that moment. Like a “dumb Coconut” — and feeling unworthy, even though I was in a class where we were all on the same academic level.
I knew then it was because of the colour of my skin, and I felt judged. It had never bothered me before then — I’d never noticed it before then. Not until that very moment.
Still, there were some amazing teachers at Avondale College. Teachers that did look past colour and did have a heart for Māori and Pacific. And one female Samoan teacher in particular, Nua Silipa, who I still have contact with today — she was inspirational.
But, I’ll tell you what. That bad experience with the dean paid off for me. It worked in my favour.
Can you tell us about your contact with things Māori? I’ve spoken at times about Pacific-Māori relationships with our Pasifika whānau. And I’ve got the impression that, in the ‘70s for instance, we were quite standoffish with each other. But that seems to have changed. In your teens, what was your relationship with things Māori?
They were my best mates. Back then, it didn’t matter to us who was Māori and who was Pacific. This was the ‘90s. Because, being brought up in Avondale and through my church Avondale PIC, there was no segregation of any type.
So I’ve always had a really strong affinity with Māori.
Most of my besties and close friends are Māori, from primary school right up until now, as are members of my aiga through marriage.
My spouse is of Māori-Scottish heritage — hence, Seath — and of Ngāti Whātua o Kaipara lineage.
And currently I’m Co-Head of Māori and Pacific Studies at Auckland University (with Professor Tracey McIntosh).
I sense that you and Tracey and your colleagues are part of an evolution at an institution that, not so long ago, didn’t really recognise its Māori responsibilities as well as it might. And now there’s Pasifika studies, which are an increasingly important focus in New Zealand life. So you’re entitled to feel proud of your part in this development.
I’m totally proud. And there’s now a more positive feel about these developments. Actually, it’s always been there. I’m not saying it’s just come about now that I’m here. It’s always been there —and it’s really something beautiful. But now that I’m a part of this, for me, it’s really exciting.
It’s also revolutionary — especially for Pacific. We’re getting this new generation who are realising they can actually have a voice without feeling they’re breaching cultural norms. I guess it’s millennials and what have you, coming through with a different perspective on life.
It’s about giving voice. And, with that voice, there’s always going to be things that people don’t like to hear, or which may seem cheeky in the Pacific sense. But at the end of the day, it’s setting a new platform or springboard for what we can expect to see in the next 10 to 20 years.
I’ve also been extremely honoured and humbled to be appointed to the Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry panel, alongside Mason Durie, who’s also been, and still is, a huge influence in my public health and academic journey.
What about the church? How important has that been to you?
I was born into it. And, back when I was doing my master’s degree, my thesis was published as a book called Caught Between Cultures. That research came about because the Christian Research Association wanted to know why young Pacific people were leaving the traditional churches.
It became really controversial because it confronted our communities with the voices of Pacific youth, which traditionally aren’t heard. Back then, it wasn’t culturally appropriate to do that stuff. But here we are still with the same issues.
Has the church, at times, frustrated you —with the hold it has on Pasifika peoples?
Yes. It has been a frustrating journey. But it’s been a journey that has bred our resilience as Pasifika peoples. The balancing of church obligations with study, work commitments, and being a young person having to navigate or compromise all these multiple identities, has been especially difficult.
And, as an educator in a high-pressured tertiary environment, I see students with high anxiety levels and depressive symptoms because each one is expected to be an amazing student — and their families have vested all their hopes and dreams in them.
You can see it and you can feel it. You can see the fear when they don’t do well in an assignment.
And maybe the church should be helping to deal with that problem, alongside other institutions — the health, justice, social, and education sectors. They all have so much influence and can do so much in supporting our Pacific communities.
I respect faith and people giving thanks. But I wonder if, at times, we should resent the church for stealing some of our traditional Māori and Pasifika spirituality. Should we resent the church with its Christian focus for negating so many of our traditional stories?
That’s a tough question. I was brought up in the Christian faith. To me, and my family, it’s about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that is first and foremost, before the cultural and traditional stuff.
But, in terms of colonisation and that whole — almost cultural — genocide type discourse, I guess our indigenous knowledge and values have historically always been devalued.
But I think that we’re now seeing ways to merge contemporary along with the traditional. Both are just as vital to making up who we are as Pacific in Aotearoa.
Through your years of study and research and teaching have you found inspiration from other directions?
There are only two things that have ever inspired me throughout my whole life.
There’s the biblical one, from Phillipians 4:13 — I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. That has made me feel and believe that absolutely everything is possible. And in the bad times and the down times, I can draw strength from Christ.
So that’s been one source.
But there’s also an Albert Einstein quote which resonates with me when I recall the way I was treated by that dean at college who walked past me with the university pamphlets.
Einstein said you have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else. And that’s exactly how I feel about combating any type of racism or any type of inequity — whether it’s gender or ethnic inequity, or ageism.
Learn the rules of the game and then, boom! Hit them with it.
So, those are my two mantras I live by.
Thanks. That’s great advice. Clearly you place a high value on university education. And one of the values is the impact of one family member’s academic success on others within the whānau. There’s a flow-on effect, isn’t there?
That’s instilled in us from an early age. It’s intergenerational. You chase the paper, the certificate, and you’ll be secure, and you’ll be able to look after us when we get old. And you’ll be able to look after your own family and do good for yourself. With a good education comes economic stability.
You can see that sense of responsibility with all our Pacific and Māori students. They know they’re out there carrying the name — and that everything rests on their shoulders. They’re aware of the sacrifices their parents have made for them to get a good education. That’s always in the forefront of their mind.
And then, when they do graduate — I know for me personally, when I finally got my doctorate, on graduation day I looked at my dad, and that got me thinking.
Here was someone who didn’t even finish school. He’d just turned 15. Then he helped his brothers get through school. And my mum was only 15 when she left school. Both worked blue-collar jobs to secure our futures.
So at my final graduation, they could look at me and have this immense joy, gratefulness, and the feeling that it was all worth it. The multiple jobs. The sacrifices.
And, for me, their feelings and emotion far outweighed the piece of paper that I was holding in my hand.
Even though I have my certificates hanging on the wall, they mean nothing to me. They’re just paper. They’re only up to encourage the younger members of my family. You see this at graduation with all the families, and you know exactly the feeling these parents have. It’s just priceless.
One important area of your work has been suicide prevention. It’s been very important to you. You’ve lost too many loved ones. And from your research you know that Pasifika suicide rates are higher than we realise.
As an early teen, I had a friend who killed herself. And thereafter, there were lots of my peers attempting to take their lives. It just became so heavy on my heart. I was attending lots of funerals around that time as well.
So, after the master’s research, after the book, Caught Between Cultures, I decided to do more investigation, through a PhD, into suicide and mental health and wellbeing.
Since then I’ve kept talking to those in Pasifika communities who’ve attempted to take their lives — or who’ve thought about it. And to families who’ve lost a young person to suicide.
And I fully agree with Edwin S. Shneidman, who was a pioneer in the study of suicide, that suicide prevention starts with suicide postvention. By that I mean focusing on those who are left behind, who are at an increased risk of suicide or risk-taking behaviours, because they’re not supported well enough through their suicide bereavement and healing processes.
We know there are a number of complex reasons why people take their own lives. But we need a lot more promotion and awareness of how best to ensure safe, timely, and culturally appropriate support.
One of the main things is to dismantle the stigma associated with mental illness. There also needs to be better access to services that can help. Affordability of those services is another factor. So is cultural competence.
But the stigma around seeking help is a real problem. So we need to get the message across, as with the anti-violence campaigns, that it’s okay to talk about it. It’s okay to seek help. And we also need to train lots of people in recognising the symptoms or signs of distress, anger, anxiety, and low-times in our loved ones.
There’s another aspect, too — and it’s one I preach. That it’s okay to feel and to show a vulnerability in front of your child. Even though, as a parent or older family member, you’re there to protect your children and be their strength, at times there’s value in allowing them to see that it’s okay to hurt, and it’s okay to be weak. Family secrets don't help.
They need to know that it’s okay for them to feel, to grieve, to be frustrated — that they don’t need to mask pain and pretend to be happy all the time.
An emotional expression is human, logical, and healthy. And that can be encouraged by normalising the subject of mental illness and positive mental health and wellbeing in conversation, in talanoa.
That’s healing. Stories are healing. That’s a major part of the suicide postvention vision.