Considering it’s a former colony of New Zealand, which some here were once happy to claim as one of “our island possessions”, it’s strange that people in Aotearoa know so little about Niue, writes Jess Pasisi. And especially considering the significant impact the relationship with New Zealand has had on Niue and Niueans.
This is an edited extract from the new book Living with the Climate Crisis: Voices from Aotearoa, in which a group of New Zealanders write about how they experience the impacts of the climate change crisis.
Mum and Dad met at Waikato Hospital. He was a dishwasher, she worked on the meal trays. After a respectable, no-hanky-panky, four-year courtship, they finally married in 1981, and in October of 1982, Christmas came early when my brother arrived.
He was soon to be followed by a sister, then another girl, another girl, a fourth girl (me!), and then, at long last, one more baby girl. My dad comes from the Pasisi family of Mutalau Ululauta Matahefonua in Niue. He is the son of Siale Lela and Matagi Pasisi.
My mum is Pākehā and she also has ancestors that link us to Ngāti Pikiao and Tahiti, though we don’t know these connections very well. Mum is the daughter of Betty and Jim Christian. Our family grew up in Kirikiriroa, and my first time in Niue was when I took my parents over for a quick trip to see if I could do my PhD on climate change there.
In Niue culture, learning about someone’s family is how we understand their connection to place and to the land. I’m grateful to have space in this book as tagata Niue (a Niue person) who was born and raised in the Waikato.
For many in Aotearoa, it’s a surprise to learn that Niue is within the Realm of New Zealand. Or that Niue people have New Zealand passports and citizenship. Niue has been self-governed in free association with New Zealand since 1974, though like the late Terry Chapman, I would argue that the word “free” comes with many political strings attached.
Growing up, when I said I was from Niue, most people gave me a blank look. At first it was fun to come from a place that not many people knew about. But now, knowing more about Niue as a former colony, how New Zealand newspapers would tout Niue as one of “our island possessions”, or how all Niue residents have a New Zealand passport, it seems strange that people in Aotearoa don’t know more about Niue.
When it comes to climate change, the history of Niue and New Zealand is both connected with, and distinct from, the relationship of tagata Niue and tangata whenua.
In this chapter, I start with some of the connections Niue has had with New Zealand in the last century, specifically in reference to Niue people and land being exploited to feed and serve the unsettler societies of colonial New Zealand.
Then I think about the Niue communities that have been nurtured on this whenua and why it’s important that we learn, talk about and strengthen our connections to tangata whenua and other Indigenous people around the Moana, as the realities of climate change create a greater sense of urgency.
As a tagata Niue, I always find it interesting to search “Niue” in New Zealand newspaper archives and look at what comes up from the early 1900s.
On the one hand, Niue was seen as a tropical, exotic land that dignitaries from New Zealand visited to help encourage natives to develop and aspire to the standards of their colonial ruler. On the other hand, Niue was a supreme exporter of fruit and other produce, also known as a “valuable dependency”.
Visitors to the Otago Winter Show in June 1933 were even encouraged to remember that Niue bananas “are New Zealand’s Products”.
Explicit claims of ownership of Indigenous land and fruits are not uncommon in colonial policy. Around this time, any tagata Niue who did not plant the required bananas would face a fine or hard labour under ordinances dictated by the New Zealand resident commissioner’s office.
Niue had its own trading ring relationship that spanned the Pacific before any aimlessly drifting Pālagi came exploring or missionising in the region.
But as missionaries set up shop and Niue was annexed to the British Empire, the country transitioned from being a largely self-sustaining nation to being in a position where the “prosperity of Niue depend[ed] almost solely on its fruit trade”.
From copra to limes, passionfruit, bananas, kūmara and cotton, the rise and fall of Niue’s produce exports mark the efforts of an agenda determined to harvest as much as possible from Niue with little to no concern for the land or her people.
After claiming Niue men to serve in the front lines of the Second World War, in the 1950s and 1960s, New Zealand took a keen interest in using the brown bodies of Niue and many other parts of the Pacific to work in menial and hard-labour jobs for the fast-growing industrial economy.
The New Zealand administration’s early relationship with Niue was one of possession and ownership, and by the 1950s, the prosperity of the New Zealand economy was being built on what would ultimately become more disposable brown bodies from the Moana.
There are many complex problems at play here, but I want to narrow them down to the impact on Niue and her people today, and what this means in relation to local and regional climate change.
One major issue is how industry affects people’s relationships with the environment. To fine people for not planting a food crop for export is ridiculous.
Yes, I’m a little bitter because this happened to my grandfather, but the fact remains that penalising people has flow-on effects — from having foreigners essentially micromanaging your crops, to creating unsustainable food practices and damaging the transmission of cultural knowledge.
In the age of climate change, it cannot be clearer that when Indigenous people don’t have control in the relationship they have with their land and bodies of water, ultimately the health of the planet is put at risk.
Ironically, it’s Indigenous people who continue to face the steepest and most severe costs from the ignorance and insatiable greed of those in power.
In my PhD research on Niue women’s perspectives on, and experiences of, climate change, one of the most useful things I could do was to be patient and listen to people’s stories. I learnt that climate-change discussions are different depending on whether you’re inside or outside. Whether you’re in a taro plantation or in an air-conditioned room can change the literal and metaphorical groundedness of the conversation.
For some people I spoke with, the phrase “climate change” wasn’t flexible enough to encompass their relationships with the environment or what it meant to have generational knowledge guiding their cultural customs and practices. I’ve heard similar conversations in the Niue communities here in Aotearoa.
Wherever Niue people are, when they are close to the culture and confident in the Vagahau (Niue language), they have much more distinctive and significant relationships to the natural environment, whether it’s working the land to grow produce, or using natural products for cultural practices or medicines, or in innovative ways that are adapted to a new setting.
For other women I spoke to during my doctoral research, western science wasn’t enough to contend with the complexities of climate change, nor the realities of what that meant for people on the ground.
These women suggested that western knowledge, particularly, though not exclusively, in relation to climate change, would benefit from catching up to and learning from Indigenous knowledge.
On one level, this looks like the prioritising of cultural and traditional practices, but it’s not dismissive of the potential that comes from collaboration and sharing of resources that creates benefit for many rather than for a self-selected few.
Climate change might be better viewed not from binaries of denial or belief, but as a space that holds many contradictions, not least because of the predominant language that is used in these discussions.
While it’s possible to have climate-change discussions in one language, this shouldn’t distract from or overshadow the kinds of discussions that should and do happen in other languages.
When so many Pālagi authors have tried and failed to tell our story, it’s important that we’re able to tell Niue stories in Niue ways.
Knowledge of climate change doesn’t belong to one ethnic group. My experience is that Pālagi approaches to climate change don’t cut it in a Niue context, nor an Aotearoa one. We already have climate experts educating and leading in the region.
My cousin Coral Pasisi recently represented the Pacific on a panel of global experts and leaders advising the UN Security Council on the threat climate change poses.
Coral’s talk emphasised the threat to our maritime boundaries, the Blue economy — the ability to sustainably manage and benefit from ocean resources now and for future generations — and the displacement of people, which we are already seeing.
Coral was clear that “there can be no greater threat to our security than the loss of one’s entire nation and its jurisdictions as established under international law”.
Climate change is a catalyst for a range of issues, from peace and security to health and wellbeing, biodiversity, gender, energy, economic growth, education and more. Leaders and experts from around the Moana, like Coral, continue to fight for the mobilisation of resources to where they are needed.
The risk of losing cultural and traditional practices in-situ is beyond devastating. For many of us in the diaspora, there can be a lot of barriers to going to our parents’ or grandparents’ homeland, and the risk of not being able to experience or learn these birthrights is criminal.
I don’t have to talk about a “climate crisis” in order for people back home in Niue to know that there are things that threaten the land and ocean that’s been their home since our ancestors made the decision to move somewhere new.
The Niue people I’ve met easily comprehend that there are bigger issues at play when it comes to looking after the environment, and perhaps what weighs most heavily is how these changes will affect their families now and in generations to come. Because, while staunchness seems built-in to Niue culture, some people I’ve talked to about climate change actually feel powerless: like their voice doesn’t matter, because it probably won’t change anything.
When I talked to my dad in August 2020 about what he thought about a climate crisis, he simply said that it’s already happened. He sees that governments and industry leaders around the world have growing power, but don’t seem to be doing anything useful with it. It was a conversation couched between what he had for dinner that night, whether Tāmaki Makaurau would stay in or get out of Covid-19 Alert Level 3, and the vavae tree he remembered when he was growing up, which had marshmallow-like cotton fluff that was used to fill pillows and mattresses.
It’s not dissimilar to the kinds of conversations I had with people in Niue about climate change, and while at first glance some of the topics might seem to be digressions, there are always strands that weave them together.
A common theme in these topics is about a duty of care that extends from food to health to the environment to memories of the past. There is a reminder here that my ancestors were a lot better at using the resources on their doorstep rather than things with fleeting lifespans that end up poisoning our land, or winding up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Maybe colonisers don’t claim our bananas any more, but they are quick to demand our silence and imply we should be thankful for the crumbs we are given. If I can borrow the words of Tigilau Ness, we need to remember that “freedom’s our right”, and in a world facing climate change, a global pandemic, and growing unrest over social and racial injustice, freedom only comes when the rights of Indigenous people are respected and upheld.
To be visible and to be heard in climate-change discussions is critical for the futures envisioned and fought for by those that came before us.
The importance of Indigenous knowledge cannot be overstated in discussions about climate change, and neither can the power of mobilising our family networks that connect us across and beyond this great ocean continent. Like my cousin Coral told the world leaders at the UN Security Council, we need collective action to stop climate change and reverse it.
As guests of this whenua, we, as people of the wider Moana, have opportunities to lobby and fight for change, to stand in solidarity and speak up in ways that will make a difference and protect this planet for future generations.
This edited chapter Fakaalofa lahi atu: Climate change stories from an Aotearoa-born Tagata Niue, by Jess Pasisi, is taken from Living with the Climate Crisis: Voices from Aotearoa, a BWB Text published by Bridget Williams Books and released next week.
Jess is of Niue, Pālagi, Ngāti Pikiao, and Tahitian decent. She’s a postdoctoral research fellow in Te Pua Wānanga ki te Ao, Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies, University of Waikato. Her research field of expertise includes Niue studies, climate change, and Pacific and Indigenous studies. Jess recently completed her doctoral thesis looking at Niue women’s perspectives and experiences of climate change. She’s a current recipient of a Health Research Council of New Zealand postdoctoral scholarship that focuses on Niue happiness and wellbeing.
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