Leina Isno is a proud ni-Vanuatu woman and advocate for Melanesian communities in Aotearoa. She spoke to Teuila Fuata’i about the importance of maintaining all our Pacific languages, and why it’s been disappointing to see smaller Melanesian communities overlooked in the government’s new Pacific Languages Strategy.
Last month, the government released its 10-year Pacific Languages Strategy. The 100-page strategy outlines how support for Pacific languages will be coordinated across government, communities and key stakeholders for the next decade.
As the Minister for Pacific Peoples, Aupito Toeolesulusulu Tofae Su’a William Sio, outlines in his foreword to the strategy, Pacific languages are fundamental to the health and wellbeing of Pacific communities. The evidence tells us, he says, that “when our people are strong in their own language as well as English, they are more likely to be strong mentally, culturally, academically, and economically.”
The Pacific region is made up of three subregions — Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. Melanesia includes Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, New Caledonia, and West Papua, and is home to more than nine million people. Micronesia includes Guam, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands. Polynesia includes Tonga, Sāmoa, Niue, the Cook Islands, Tuvalu and Aotearoa.
You would think that any strategy for Pacific people in Aotearoa would recognise all the cultures and communities from all three of its subregions living here. But apart from Fiji, there’s no recognition of Melanesian cultures and languages in Aotearoa. And Kiribati is the only Micronesian nation in the strategy.
The strategy outlines specific plans for the nine countries and languages the Ministry for Pacific Peoples formally support: Gagana Sāmoa, Lea Faka Tonga, Te Gagana Tokelau, Vagahau Niue, Te Reo Māori Kūki ‘Āirani, Te Gana Tuvalu, Fäeag Rotuam ta (Rotuma), Vosa Vakaviti (Fiji), and Te Taetae ni Kiribati.
These languages were selected based on criteria set by the Ministry of Pacific Peoples. It considers a country’s relationship with Aotearoa, the current state of the language in communities in Aotearoa, and the demographics of those populations. For example, constitutional status and Aotearoa’s legal obligations to Pacific realm countries (Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau) are important in the criteria, as well as population size. The criteria is also used to allocate funding for different language initiatives.
I can understand why realm countries and Pacific nations with larger populations in Aotearoa were prioritised. But that doesn’t explain the total lack of acknowledgment of a significant part of the Melanesian and Micronesian communities who also live and work in Aotearoa, and who share the same struggle to maintain their languages.
My family is from Malekula, the second largest island in Vanuatu. I grew up speaking the local Ninde dialect, which belongs to the nine villages of the island’s Southwest Bay. It’s one of more than 30 dialects on Malekula, which is home to about 23,000 people.
My Ninde language is a big part of my cultural identity. It connects me to my parents, who still live in Malekula, and our Denemus tribe. It grounds our traditions and community structures, and frames the importance of the ocean and crops like yam in our way of life.
There are fewer than 500 of us who speak Ninde. When I hear it and speak it, I know exactly where I’m from and the people I belong to.
As well as Ninde, I speak Bislama (the national language of Vanuatu), English and French. I can also speak Pidjin, spoken in the Solomon Islands, and Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea, both of which are closely related to Bislama.
Language diversity exists all through Vanuatu. With more than 110 dialects and languages, and a population of about 300,000, it’s considered the most lingusitcally diverse place in the world based on languages spoken per head of population.
I’m incredibly proud of that. It shows how diverse and rich our Indigenous cultures are.
And, after 20 years of living away from Vanuatu, I know how important maintaining our home languages is for our cultural identity and wellbeing.
I was 19 when I left Malekula to study nursing at Whitireia Community Polytechnic in Porirua. I’d never lived outside of Vanuatu and didn’t know anyone in Aotearoa apart from my cousin Celia, who was at Massey University in Palmerston North.
Because we’d focused on French at high school, I wasn’t a confident English speaker. Routine things like getting the groceries and catching the bus were big hurdles in those early days. I was so nervous about saying the right zones, having the right change, and knowing how to push the stop button in front of people, that I’d walk the almost three kilometres between polytech and my flat to avoid it. And for several years, I didn’t attend church because I was worried about getting there and talking to people.
Those first few years were pretty lonely and tough at times. For a long time, I’d go for weeks without speaking Ninde because it was too expensive to ring Malekula regularly. But my connection with Celia, the only person I could speak Ninde with, helped to get me through.
It took a while but eventually life in Aotearoa became more familiar. When I finished at Whitireia, I stayed in Porirua and got a job as a palliative care nurse at Wellington Hospital, and I’ve worked as a nurse and in the wider health sector since then. I also found other ni-Vanuatu living in Wellington through community networks. They’ve been my homebase for all these years.
It’s still the case though that the only time I get to speak Ninde in Aotearoa is when I call my parents in Malekula. And when I can get home to Vanuatu, nothing beats the feeling of belonging that comes from being in the Southwest Bay area and immersed in Ninde.
As a ni-Vanuatu in Aotearoa, I’ve loved growing our local support network and establishing ourselves as part of the Melanesian and Pacific communities here. For 11 years, I was the secretary for the Wellington Vanuatu Community organisation, providing support to others who’ve made the move from the islands. I’m also an advocate for ni-Vanuatu RSE workers who come to Central Otago to work on the orchards. When I’m with ni-Vanuatu, we speak Bislama.
I’ve watched my community grow from just over 200 resident ni-Vanuatu, according to the 2001 census, to almost 1000 (as of 2018). We are part of a broader Melanesian community of around 23,000, most of whom (19,700) are Fijian.
I’m an advocate for Melanesian languages, and when I’m with other Melanesians, I speak with them in the national languages of their countries.
Being able to go between Melanesian languages has been particularly important since I moved to Dunedin in 2019 to do my master’s in health sciences at the University of Otago. There’s only one other ni-Vanuatu I know of living here. A couple of my close friends in the city are from the Solomon Islands, so I get to practise my Pidjin with them. When I’m around Papua New Guineans, Tok Pisin is usually used.
As part of the Pacific diaspora here, we Melanesians are very much a minority within a minority. We’re not as numerous as the bigger Polynesian groups, like Sāmoans and Tongans. That status has made it hard to achieve recognition in Pacific spaces in Aotearoa, even though our communities grow and contribute alongside other members of the Pacific diaspora here.
The development of the Pacific Languages Strategy is an example of how, too often, Polynesian countries and cultures are often taken as representing all of the Pacific population. That cultural dominance results in lack of recognition and inclusion for Melanesian cultures.
According to the cabinet paper detailing the release of the Pacific Language Strategy, the Ministry for Pacific Peoples engaged close to 700 people in its consultation process last year. Yet, we’ve struggled to find any of our leaders from the minority Melanesian communities of Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands who were involved.
For something as important as a 10-year-language strategy for Pacific, the absence of our voices during the consultation process should have raised serious red flags. Particularly as advocates from local Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea communities have been trying to get a Pidjin language week for our Melanesian cultures and languages for the past two years. Just like other Pacific cultures, the visibility and celebration of our languages is important to their maintenance in Aotearoa.
The fact the consultation process wasn’t questioned, and the strategy went on to be approved by Cabinet, is a major cultural blunder. It reiterates how we’re often minimised as part of Aotearoa’s Pacific diaspora, and reinforces the incorrect assumption that Polynesian cultures and countries can represent the entire Pacific region in Aoteaora.
We are here, we are present, and we contribute to Aotearoa alongside other Pacific populations in lots of different ways. And our culture, language and heritage is just as valuable and important. At the very least, one of the 100 pages in the 10-year Pacific languages strategy could have acknowledged that and the need for ongoing language sustainability work with minority Pacific communities in Aotearoa.
As told to Teuila Fuata’i, and made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
Leina Isno is a professional practice fellow at Va’a o Tautai, the Centre for Pacific Health at the University of Otago in Dunedin. As well as studying for her master’s in health sciences, she teaches cultural competency to medical students. Leina lives in Dunedin and is from the village of Lawa in Malekula, Vanuatu. She is involved with a range of community projects, including the rebuild of the Southwest Bay Clinic on Malekula. When finished, it will provide essential hospital services for people in the northern Vanuatu islands.
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