Speech at the Rotuman Language and Culture Celebrations, Epsom, Auckland

  • Hon Aupito William Sio
Pacific Peoples

Noa’ia - and warm Pacific greetings to you all. Noa’ia e Mauri to one and all

I want to acknowledge the presence of our church leaders, our traditional leaders, our community leaders, young people, friends and families.

I acknowledge those who have travelled from near and far, especially those who have come from overseas.

I acknowledge also the presence of His Excellency the Fiji High Commissioner to New Zealand. Welcome to all our visitors, welcome to our home of Aotearoa, New Zealand.

Our language is part of who we are. It is how we define ourselves and our identity.

Language is the lens through which we understand and explain our history, our culture and the world around us. Our language gives voice and meaning to who we are, our values, our dreams and aspirations, and our spirit for self-determination.

One of the most important ways we protect, nurture and grow our languages is by coming together, like we have today, to tell our stories, share our cultures and celebrate our traditions for the benefit of future generations.

It is a privilege to be here to share in this celebration with you all.

Because, at its heart, what we are celebrating are the bonds that bring together the past, present and future of every Pacific person in New Zealand.

It is through language that we connect in powerful ways to our past - through the stories we hear, and share, about our families, our spirituality, our connection to the ocean and our ancestors.

And we remember these stories best when we hear them in our own languages, from our own people.

But languages don’t only say something about who we are – they speak to where we are.

They speak to our sense of belonging, our identity and our understanding of how we came to be here as Pacific New Zealanders.

But more than that, languages carry the spirit, history and culture of Pacific people, providing a lens through which other New Zealanders can learn more about how their Pacific friends and neighbours think and perceive the world.

Languages also connect us to our futures – our future communities, our future families and our future prosperity.

Because when we have our language, we have our story. And when we have our story, we have a sense of place. And when we have a sense of place, we have the confidence we need to thrive.

One of the privileges of my job is that I get to travel around the country - meeting people and listening to the different ways they describe their world and their hopes for the future.

Part of what informs these interactions are the differing interpretations people have about where they find themselves right now and the story behind how they got there.

For Pacific people, this place is often seen as being at the intersection between our Pacific past and the modern future-looking Aotearoa we are helping to shape.

This can be a challenging place to be.

But it is through our languages that they can explore their Pacific identity – and their place in the world - in a way that is meaningful to them, unconstrained by the expectations or definitions of others.

This isn’t easy to do.

We live in a world that so often defines us by who we are as individuals, rather than who we are as a community.

A world that tends to value more highly our ability to express ourselves in the dominant language, rather than what we bring culturally.

Perhaps that goes some way towards explaining why, right now, Pacific languages in Aotearoa New Zealand are struggling.

Their use is declining and the stories they hold are heard much less frequently.

But today isn’t for dwelling on the challenges we face.

We must focus instead on how we work together to make the most of the opportunities we have in front of us for transforming the state of Pacific languages.

Everyone here today has the power to bring these opportunities to life.

It will take resilience, expertise, and an enduring commitment to go that extra mile for our people.

I can see that you have that spirit; that dedication. Looking at what you have achieved with this celebration today.

So, our job now is to find the people to work with us and alongside us to deliver on the incredible work completed so far.

Because when people do not have their own language as a way to express themselves, or as a lens to understand their past and the world around them, it can lead to problems.

And this can manifest itself in an enduring sense that this important aspect of our culture and history is not important. That it’s nothing to celebrate.

It is our job to remind future generations that without our language, and the stories it holds, it is harder to be alert to and to challenge those histories that are balanced in favour of the dominant culture.

With our forthcoming wellbeing Budget, we will have a unique opportunity to talk about the importance of language to our own and our collective sense of wellbeing.

We can do this, by doing exactly what we are here today to do. By sharing our stories - and our vision for the future - in our own language.

And when our children and our grandchildren look back to see what we did; they can take pride in what we achieved.

Let that be our common purpose here today. Strong, growing Pacific languages worthy of our children.

To the community of organisers, and the many others who made this celebration possible.

Thank you for all you do.

Your vision and purpose have been to develop pride and excellence in Rotuman language - and through that our culture, history, customs and practices.

With each Pacific person that learns part of their language, our country and our people change for the better.

The work you do is making that change possible.

Today like any other, we offer our prayers of thanksgiving and gratitude to our Eternal Father in Heaven for guiding our journey.

But it is up to us, as a community, to take this journey together – to walk alongside each other.

It is up to us, as it has been for every Pacific generation, to lay the path the next generation will follow, so that they too can be guided by the wisdom of our language.

Our ancestors were guided by the language of the natural world - reading the currents and swells of the ocean waters, the flight paths of birds, and reading the stars, and knowing the exact spot where the sun would rise and set.

Today, we use the language of ideals to communicate values, and to describe the challenges we all face in a way that makes sense to us all.

Through our own words we can inspire, motivate and guide people to learn and work for what they believe in.

This year’s Rotuman Language and Cultural celebration is particularly special as it is taking place during the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages.

In this year of global celebration, we can be proud that we are already making positive changes to support our Pacific languages and those who speak them.

Today is not only about celebrating those who speak your wonderful language, but to inspire others to learn.

It is an opportunity to remind all of us that we, as New Zealanders, do not speak with one language.

Over the course of our Pacific language weeks this year, I will be encouraging all those who do not speak a Pacific language to take a small amount of time to learn.

It might only be a few simple words, like hello, or goodbye, or thank you. But maybe, just maybe, for some, this will be the spark that starts a lifelong journey of language exploration and learning that they can pass from generation to generation.

And when they next hear someone use a Pacific greeting or open a meeting in a Pacific language, they may well know what the words mean.

And they may take time to help others understand the depth of meaning and the cultural importance of these words.

All of this is possible, thanks to the leadership people like you show.

Because your job – like all of ours – is to work together to protect, nurture and grow our Pacific languages. More importantly, we have a collective responsibility to ensure the survival of our languages through future generations after we are long gone.

Finally, may I relate a recent experience to acknowledge our young people present.

I was in Fiji earlier in the week attending the 3rd Climate Action Partnership Programme forum. This is where Pacific leaders from across the region gather to plan for actions to fight the effects of climate change. I was there to deliver the New Zealand statement to the Pacific leaders. New Zealand will stand in support of the Pacific region and the goal to reduce our global carbon emissions to 1.5 degrees limit.

While delivering this statement, I was impressed to say to the Pacific leaders that as Minister for Pacific Peoples I represent a rising Pacific population of Aotearoa New Zealand that I refer to as Generation 6Bs.  This rising generation will inherit the Pacific region when we are long gone. They are interested in the actions we take to safeguard and protect their beloved Pacific home. When asked what this Generation 6 Bs, I said, they are Pacific peoples of Aotearoa that are brown, beautiful, brainy, bilingual, bicultural and bold.

Our young people today are Generation 6 Bs and you should be proud of that. We wish you all the best in your futures.