Language and identity: haunting issues for Sāmoan diaspora

Opinion: For Sāmoan Language Week, Patrick Saulmatino Thomsen examines the challenges and hope for Sāmoans in NZ who don't speak their mother tongue.

We’re building a pan-Pacific identity, too, where we may be Sāmoan, but we’re also Pasifika.' Photo: iStock

The issue of language and identity haunts all Sāmoans who were raised in New Zealand. I know this because of the recurring conversation on social media around whether you can call yourself a “real” Sāmoan if you don’t speak the language.

It’s a touchy subject, and I think that’s why so many are quick to weaponise it against others in emotional debates around Sāmoan identity. What this comes down to is the idea that there’s only one “right way” to be Sāmoan — and that being Sāmoan means looking and behaving and speaking in a certain way.

But life isn’t that simple

If you’re growing up in Sāmoa, your context will be different from a Sāmoan growing up anywhere else in the world. And I want to say that’s totally okay.

Sāmoans growing up in communities in New Zealand, Australia and the US have developed their own sense of who they are in response to the challenges they face in their overseas homes.

We learn our cultures in relation to those around us, and if you grow up in Aotearoa, you learn who you are as a Sāmoan in relation to what it means to be a New Zealander, all the while navigating your own status as a marginalised Pacific person.

But from this struggle, our people have developed new and beautiful ways to relate to each other. We’ve been influenced by other marginalised groups and express who we are in ways that don’t always match how a sense of the Sāmoan self is expressed in the homeland.

In New Zealand, for example, many Sāmoans are building connections with Māori and supporting their struggles for tino rangatiratanga. That involves us absorbing and learning ways of being that are tika but may appear different from those living in Sāmoa.

We’re building a pan-Pacific identity, too, where we may be Sāmoan, but we’re also Pasifika, which means we’re learning to communicate with other Pacific people in shared dance and songs that are not strictly Sāmoan. This in no way diminishes the right to a Sāmoan identity. For what is central to the Sāmoan self is an ability to relate to others in respectful ways. To tautua, or serve, your family, your community, and our people.

Language matters . . . but so does context

Language itself is central to understanding one’s culture. How many times do people say that there are some things that simply can’t be translated properly into English? And it’s true. That’s because language is also about expressing context. Embedded within our languages is cultural knowledge specific to the time and place in which it was developed.

The reality though is that learning one’s language is highly dependent on the access we have to it in a living setting. And because in New Zealand, until recently, the Sāmoan language has been devalued in Pālagi spaces, a lot of opportunities for generational learning have been missed.

I can’t tell you the number of stories I’ve heard from people whose migrant parents discouraged them from speaking Sāmoan because they believed that concentrating solely on English would guarantee success in New Zealand’s education system. Judging by the statistics, it’s probably not our lack of command of the English language that’s holding us back.

I think it’s important to realise that the power of the settler-colonial state to devalue and debase Māori, is the same expression of violence that governs us, cousins of the tangata whenua. But we’re not here at our cousins’ request. We’re here mostly because of the needs of the New Zealand economy. We’re here because New Zealand’s factories needed our labour.

The persistence of Sāmoan in New Zealand as a widely spoken language despite these challenges is down to the considerable efforts of our church communities. (Sāmoan is the third most spoken language in New Zealand after English and te reo Māori, and the second in Auckland.)

Those who were raised in a Sāmoan church usually are the ones who’ve managed to keep the language. And many of our a’oga amata (language preschools) are connected to a Sāmoan church.

However, not all of us were raised this way in New Zealand. So, I have much sympathy for my fellow Sāmoans who’re here as a result of their forebears’ dreams and aspirations but who can’t speak our language. Almost everyone I know who’s in this position dearly wishes they could.

I don’t, however, share the view that this makes them any less Sāmoan than me. This type of thinking is divisive — and it’s “lateral violence”. That’s where, instead of directing our energy upward to those in positions of power who subjugate all of us, we lash out sideways, at other people who are in the same category as us. Like I always say on social media: Punch up, not sideways. And definitely not downwards.

Not being able to speak your native tongue can lead to a crisis of confidence for many who are trying to connect back to their gafa (whakapapa). This is something that is often beyond their control. My nieces and nephews are all “mixed” Sāmoans who struggle to speak the language.

But I will defend their right to their Sāmoan identity to my very last breath. I’m also putting pressure on my siblings to find ways to teach them Sāmoan, and to show them what makes being Sāmoan beautiful: fa’a’alo’alo, tautua, alofa. Respect, service, love.

So, in short

Sāmoa’s story is a unique one, but it pays to learn it properly. Like I said, context always matters — and in Sāmoa, humility is golden.

In all honesty, I don’t know what a “real” Sāmoan is yet, despite living as a Sāmoan all my life. But what I hope I’ve shared is an optimism in the way forward. That we, as migrant Sāmoans, as local Sāmoans, as “part” Sāmoans, can find ways that relate to each other which respect everyone’s unique narrative and mana. One that isn’t mired in reproducing arbitrary, violent, and colonial divisions.

One thing we all share — and I know this to be true — is a love of our homeland, families, and communities. There’s nothing more Sāmoan than that.

This is a shortened version of an original article published in the Mana Trust online Sunday magazine E-Tangata

Dr Patrick Saulmatino Thomsen is from the School of Cultures, Languages and Linguistics in the Faculty of Arts

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Language and identity: haunting issues for Sāmoan diaspora 1 June 2022

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