Developing research practice

Hi, I’m Misatauveve Dr Melani Anae, currently Senior Lecturer in Pacific Studies and the Postgraduate Student Advisor at the Centre for Pacific Studies.

Misatauveve Dr Melani Anae at Autumn Graduation.

A place to call home - Ingenio

Ask Pacific Studies academic Dr Melani Anae about her greatest achievement since she joined the University staff in 1998 and her reply is prompt: “The Fale Pasifika,” she says. “When I became director of the Pacific Studies Centre in 2002, that [the fale] and consolidating a Pacific Studies curriculum was my first job and it was huge.”

Many at the University still remember the moving speech Melani gave at the 2004 opening of the University’s Fale Pasifika: the second largest in the world.

“My parents, like many other migrants, worked on factory floors, but they had dreams for us, their children, that New Zealand would be a better place for succeeding generations,” she told a crowd of 600.

“While they have longed for a place in New Zealand they could call home, they never could have imagined that Pacific communities would someday be so much a part of the New Zealand way of life that a fale like the one we are looking at now would be built in the heart of Auckland City.”

If anyone is a product of this “Pacific” dream then it is surely Melani herself. A New Zealand-born Samoan, she has always been fascinated by her own culture and history and has a BA, MA and PhD ‒ all in Anthropology ‒ from this university.

Director of the Centre for Pacific Studies from 2002 to 2006, Melani was instrumental in growing it from a small language-based programme into a collaborative hub for the study of Pacific culture, history, identity, art, language, performing arts and literature. In 2008 her research work and service to Pacific communities in New Zealand was acknowledged with a Companion to the Queen’s Service Order (QSO) medal. Today she is Director of Research at Pacific Studies Te Wānanga o Waipapa with expertise in Pacific identity and ethnicity, transnationalism, Pacific research methodologies and relational ethics.

Melani, through her research, teaching and publications, is continuing to make a large contribution to our understanding of Pasifika communities, and especially, the Samoan community in Aotearoa,” says acclaimed novelist and Emeritus Professor Albert Wendt.
Albert was on staff and worked with Melani on getting the Fale Complex built. Now he says: “Whenever I see the complex, I think of Melani.”

Melani is a pleasure to interview: friendly, warm and relaxed with her time. As we sit in the Pacific Studies boardroom, she flings her long mane of hair back and laughs heartily as she tells me of her interests outside the University. “I am a member of the Alofa Tramping Group. Would you believe it, we’re probably the first Pacific Island tramping group ever!
My partner is an avid tramper,” she explains. “He took me out to the Waitakere Ranges and saw I had stamina and endurance for multi-day tramps. Now we try to do two multi-day tramps a year. We’ve been all over the South Island to Nelson Lakes, the Rees Dart, Arthur’s Pass, Kahurangi and Mt. Aspiring National Parks and Rakiura (Stewart Island). We’ve done the Tongariro Crossing several times and I’ve managed to endure the hut culture: smelly socks etc. It’s a great way to see New Zealand with family and friends. And it’s what we share on the journey that matters.”

Whether out tramping or working as an academic, Melani is always aware of her journey as a Samoan woman in New Zealand.

As a 17-year-old she joined the Polynesian Panther party, the first Pacific Political Party in NZ ‒ because she had a strong leaning towards social justice for minorities. “Now my teaching philosophy is reflective of this. I work to get students to value what they’ve taken for granted ‒ their ethnic identity ‒ to enable them to see it is a valuable asset and to apply that knowledge to optimise their contributions to both NZ and their own Pacific communities. ” (Incidentally her older brother is Anae Arthur Anae the first Pacific MP in the National Party and now the Manukau Ward Councillor on the Auckland Council.)

Melani’s parents were in the first wave of Samoan migrants to come to New Zealand in the 1950s. “My father hailed from the villages of Apia and Falelatai and my mother from Siumu. My father worked in a paper bag factory in Richmond Road, Grey Lynn, and my first job ever was at my dad’s factory in the school holidays. I remember thinking the work was so repetitive. Dad was the foreman at the time and worked really long hours but it made me respect him for the kind of job he was doing to support our family.”

Melani grew up in a villa in Home Street in Grey Lynn and was one of eight children: four boys and four girls. “We played in Newton Gully before there was a motorway,” she remembers. “But more than anything I loved being part of a large extended Samoan family” especially for to’ona’i (Sunday lunch) when we’d all get together after church with uncles, aunties and cousins and share food. Our church was the Newton Pacific Islanders Church in Edinburgh Street between the Pink Pussycat and the Pleasure Chest on K-Road.”

She went to Newton Central Primary School, Kowhai Intermediate and Auckland Girls Grammar. When she enrolled at university, as all the members of her family were expected to do, it was to study her own culture and its history. “I did a double major in Māori Studies and Anthropology. There was no Pacific Studies then.”

After an Anthropology masters exam, her professor called her up and said: “have you considered doing a PhD?”

“If he hadn’t called me, I don’t know if I’d have done further study, because I was working full-time [for the Department of Māori and Pacific Island Affairs as a Housing Officer] and raising three young children.” But thankfully Melani took her professor’s advice and the research from her PhD now forms part of numerous published journal articles, book chapters and a soon-to-be-published book on ‘Identity Journeys of NZ-born matai. Her latest book will be based on the Marsden-funded, project “Samoan transnational matai; ancestor god avatars or merely titleholders?” which returns to this material but extends its scope beyond New Zealand.

Samoans make up the largest Pacific ethnic group in New Zealand, Australia, and the US. In Samoan culture, families (āiga) are split up into groups or branches. At the head of every branch stands the matai, or head of the family.

“There is increasing global concern about how the faamatai (chiefly system) is evolving,” explains Melani. “So there is a need for more evidence about how the transnational matai practise their roles and obligations to family in Samoa where they live, and in most cases settle, in another country. We need to understand the risks and gains associated with these processes.”

She says the research has always been in the back of her mind “because my father was one of the first pioneer transnational matai to come to New Zealand. Pioneer or settler transnationals travel and stay in a place. I’m looking at the pioneer generation who settled in these places as well as the first generation who were born outside Samoa. How are they experiencing taking on Matai titles? Samoan-based matai are quite critical of how transnationals are ‘changing’ the faamatai. The way they are getting their titles, whether they have the right credentials, whether they are ‘really’ supporting their families and villages back home, are of increasing concern to matai in Samoa. I’m trying to clear up some of these misunderstandings/ issues and gain some empirical evidence of what, how and why transnational matai are actually contributing to their families and villages in Samoa, given that their focus is on trying to survive in a new land.”

Melani has been researching Samoan matai who have settled in Southern California, Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand. The research will have an impact for the sustainability and wellbeing of Samoan families worldwide. She will eventually report back to six villages in Samoa and hold an international transnational matai symposium in the University’s Fale Pasifika.

It is only late in our conversation that Melani lets slip that she in fact holds 2 matai titles. There are two types of matai: ali’i (loosely translated chief or high chief depending on a specific title’s rank) and tulafale (orator chief).

Melani became an ali’i matai through both her father’s village, Falelatai, from which her title Lupematasila originates, and her mother’s family, Siumu, from which her title of Misatauveve originates. Of her own role she says: “it means serving and giving when the call comes from āiga here in New Zealand, Samoa or elsewhere. Service comes in the form of time, and money in the many family occasions which are celebrated, fund-raised for, and mourned by āiga for a plethora of reasons.

“In my heart of hearts I celebrate the matai system,” she concludes. “It is the ultimate expression of the centrality of family in Samoan culture.”

My current research

As Theme leader of the Identity and Well-being stream of Te Whare Kura, one of the University of Auckland’s Thematic Research Initiatives, I am part of an interdisciplinary project - The relationship between ethnic identity and well-being: towards indigenous transformative models. This project will examine the ways ethnicity and cultural identity interact in the lives of young indigenous (Maori and Pacific) New Zealanders; how a commitment to and disinterest in ethnicity/cultural identity is fostered; how this impacts on their lives; and the transformative potential of their justice, education, and health experiences.

I am the University of Auckland BRCSS Coordinator for the Pacific Postgraduate Seminar Series, a grid which enables regular research talanoa between Postgraduate students and academic staff about their research work, covering New Zealand’s 7 Universities (Auckland, AUT, Massey, VUW Wellington, Waikato, Canterbury, Otago). The following are some Postgraduate student evaluations of the sessions:

All three presentations were very interesting…all were different…but it was great to experience different types of references and paradigms. Presenters have done an excellent job in promoting Pacific worldviews and Pacific methodologies in the midst of…dominant western worldviews…These newly/proposed methods, worldviews [are] very encouraging for upcoming current and future Pacific students.

Translating Pacific research into policy using the teu le va cultural reference

As main author of the Ministry of Education’s Pasifika Education Research Guidelines (2001) , and one of the main authors of the second Ministry of Education Pasifika education guideline document, Teu le va: Relationships across Research and Policy: a collective approach to knowledge generation and policy development for action towards Pasifika education success (Airini, Anae et al 2010), I have used the philosophical cultural reference of teu le va to promote the forging of optimal relationships in research to translate research into policy for indigenous and ethnic minority communities.

Integral in providing a conceptual and philosophical reference and methodology for future Pacific educational, and other social science research in New Zealand, this document was informed by my conceptual paper commissioned by the Ministry of Education in 2007 ‘‘Research for better Pacific schooling in New Zealand: Teu le va – a Samoan perspective’, in Mai Review 2010 Issue 1, Pacific Research in Education: New Directions. Auckland: Mai Review ISSN 1177-5904, 24pp.

At present, I am part of an MOE Pasifika Education Research Priorities Working Group made up of MPIA, MOE, and academics from University of Auckland, Massey and Canterbury Universities. This initiative arose from Pasifika Research Guidelines (Anae et al 2001), 2007 Pasifika Education Symposium (NZARE Pasifika Caucus and MOE), and Teu le va: Relationships across Research and Policy: a collective approach to knowledge generation and policy development for action towards Pasifika education success (2010). The group is developing a Pasifika Research Priorities plan for future Pasifika education research in New Zealand.

Other things that ‘researchers’ do

I play an active role in professional and public service, serving as a panel member on:

  • 2011 Marsden Fund Panel
  • 2001, 2006, 2012 Peer Review Panel for PBRF Quality Evaluation for TEC
  • Fulbright Selection Committee for US Fulbright Graduate Student Award Applications 2009-2010.
  • ‘Growing up in New Zealand’ UOA longitudinal project Pacific reference group
  • 2010-2011 Chair, of the University of Auckland’s Pacific Reference Group
  • A number of national working parties and committees (including the Pacific Islands Health Research Council and HRC Expert Pacific Panel).
  • Overall coordination of the UOA Pacific Postgraduate Programme 2004-2010 (fono; Pacific Postgraduate seminar series, writing retreats, Toktok electronic newsletter)