University of Auckland PhD Graduate Completed Doctoral Thesis in Samoan Language

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Source: University of Auckland. Educator Muliagatele Vavaō Fetui has graduated with a PhD in Pacific Studies from the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Arts in the autumn ceremonies, after completing only the second PhD thesis every written entirely in Samoan.

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His thesis, Notions of Respect and Politeness in a Transnational Samoan Community: Toe Laumeanuti o le Fa’aaloalo i Agatausili a Samoa i Atualuluga, focuses on the Samoan matai (chiefs) ava (kava) ceremony as a metaphor for respect (faaaloalo).

It is the second doctoral thesis to be written in the Samoan language and the first to be issued by a university outside of Samoa.

Muliagatele was raised and educated in Samoa until he was 20, when he travelled to New Zealand on a government scholarship and attended teachers’ college in Auckland for two years.

Armed with his NZ Certificate of Teaching, he returned to Samoa to work out his bond, where he taught primary and then junior high school in Apia.

“It was a great experience to be trained in New Zealand and a great privilege that the government looked after us,” he says.

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His parents were already in New Zealand, having arrived in the 1960s in response to the labour shortage and subsequent opportunities for migrants.

Back in Aotearoa and married with a son, he ended up at Mt Roskill Grammar on their fledgling English as a Second Language (ESL) programme, teaching recent arrivals from all over the world, including the Pacific.

“English teaching for second language learners wasn’t popular in secondary schools at the time, but the need was there so we collected students from lots of other schools.”

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What started as a five-year pilot scheme was eventually extended to 15 years and Muliagatele stayed on as one of the foundation teachers, in between periods of further study and qualifications in both secondary and ESL teaching.

Then, with the introduction of Tomorrow’s Schools and the resulting 1993 curriculum reform, he found himself at a milestone moment in education.

“I got a job at the Ministry of Education as a principal writer on the new curriculum which, among other things, introduced the teaching of Samoan language and culture for the first time in New Zealand. When I was there, there were those who thought Samoan was only a ‘social’ language used for everyday conversations.”

That couldn’t be further from the truth, he says.

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“The mental process of acquiring knowledge and understanding in Samoan is like any other language. In some ways, even we Samoans had to ‘decolonise ourselves’ to appreciate our own language, which is always changing and evolving.”

The written language owes a huge debt to the first missionaries to arrive in Samoa from the London Missionary Societies in 1830, says Muliagatele.

“They did a very important thing; they wrote the language down phonetically with the aim of translating the Bible into Samoan. They were often also linguists, so they had the skill of writing different languages and they did a very good job, I still refer to their work.”

Muliagatele Vavao Fetui

He says he learnt to read his own language the same way many others did, by going to church and having to read aloud.

Samoan is notable for its differences between formal and informal speech as well as a ceremonial form of the language used in Samoan oratory.

In his thesis, Muliagatele uses the ava ceremony as his central focus because he believes this particular form – there are others – demonstrates respect in Samoan culture, especially in the way the matai are formally seated.

uliagatele Vavaō Fetui and his family on graduation day, University of Auckland.

The thesis features findings from interviews with 24 members of the Samoan diaspora in Sydney, San Francisco and Hawaii and provides “a window into the evolution of the relationship of matai with Samoa over time and space,” he says.

Traditionally, matai must ensure the well-being of their family, both in the village of their birth and wherever they now live outside of Samoa. They continue to support their homeland with significant remittances as money for family, via tourism dollars, saofai (chief bestowal ceremony) and as family reunion and funeral contributions.

Muliagatele’s research shows that Pacific peoples are “cultural, connected, creative, dynamic and transnational” (operating across national boundaries).

“Technology keeps Pacific people culturally better informed and engaged with resources from the homeland, as well as easily able to exchange ideas. Forget canoe navigation!” he says.

He wanted to know why fa’aaloalo (respect and politeness) is so morally important in Samoan communities and in what way politeness works in a contemporary context among, for example, matai (chiefs) living in Sydney.

“I was also interested in who defines ‘traditional’ and how that’s expressed in a Samoan context.”

Thesis co-supervisor, Associate Professor Melani Anae, says Muliagatele’s use of the formal and chiefly form of Samoan to present his findings has not been done before at this level and will initiate an important discussion among Samoan language speakers, linguists and academics.

“Muliagatele made excellent use of the material collected during my Marsden-funded project, Samoan transnational chiefs: ancestor god avatars or merely title-holders? This is the moment he stopped being a Samoan language lecturer and became a Samoan researcher, scholar and academic.

“He became fascinated and obsessed with research work; and the mixture of talanoa (discussion), personal participation in, and observations of, ava ceremonies and the review of relevant literature provided excellent quality material for the thesis.”

Professor Caroline Daley, Dean of Graduate Studies, says she’s delighted to see Muliagatele’s hard work come to fruition.

“I am so pleased that we were able to accommodate Muliagatele’s application to submit his thesis in Samoan, and it was wonderful to see his success celebrated at graduation.”

Muliagatele was joined at the ceremony by his son and daughter-in-law and his four grandchildren.

His thesis supervisors were Associate Professor Lupematasila, Misatauveve Dr Melani Anae (University of Auckland) and Professor Lo’au Fata Simanu-Klutz (University of Hawaii).

Muliagatele’s research was funded by a Royal Society Te Apārangi Marsden grant.

A related book, Tusifaitau o Matai Fafo O Samoa: A Handbook for Transnational Samoan Matai (Chiefs) by Associate Professor Melani Anae, was published in 2018.