News Item

Identity, language, culture: Flavour of the month, and then what?

Media 17 May 2021

Winner of the PCF Young Pasifika Male of Influence award, Leki Jackson-Bourke questions what else can be done to keep Pacific mother tongues alive in addition to language weeks in Aotearoa. And he shares his own personal journey of language learning with the Pacific Cooperation Foundation's (PCF) Pacific Voice series, as the Aotearoa Languages Weeks begin with the week-long celebration of the Rotuman Language.

We dress up, we wave our flags, we copy and paste from the latest templates to decorate our auto-generated email salutations.

But is that it? How much value and mana do we actually place on our languages? Are we at risk of turning our cultures into a one-week parade with hashtags and hype?

Do not get me wrong - I love our language weeks as much as everybody. The question is - in addition to language weeks, what else can we do to keep our mother tongues alive?

In 2013 Statistics New Zealand revealed that 7.5 percent of New Zealand-born Niueans were competent in speaking Vagahau Niue (the Niue language). Let's call a spade a spade - our stats are not good.

Vagahau Niue is in danger of extinction, and we are in a war for survival. Auckland prides itself on being the largest Polynesian city in the world (when it suits).

So where are all our young language warriors?

We do so well during language weeks, but then after all the noise, many of us are guilty of falling off the vaka and taking a nap under the mango tree.

I often go to Niue community events, and I am constantly disheartened to see the lack of young people in attendance. Maybe we aren't passionate enough. Maybe some of us are comfortable with conforming to the plastic mould of the pan-Pacific identity. Or maybe it's the toxic Niue community politics that many young people find unattractive.

We are at war with ourselves and we risk losing everything at the swing of our own swords. We need to do better.

For years I have worked in a number of Tongan, Samoan and Niuean community circles promoting identity, language and culture through the arts. My work is primarily focused on reconnecting New Zealand- born youth with culture. I use the arts to make language accessible because so many of my New Zealand born brothers and sisters struggle to find their place in the village.

I get it - I grew up being called plastic. And I know the feeling of discomfort when you walk into these cultural spaces and everybody stares. I can tell you - it will not always be the same.

Currently, I work as a Niue language teacher for children aged 11 to 13 years, and there is no shortage of community gatekeepers who constantly challenge my work. Through this, I have come to realise the importance of resilience. We owe it to our ancestors to push beyond our own personal insecurities. We need everyone to fight in their own spaces to promote, maintain and uplift Vagahau Niue.

Aucklanders - the world does not revolve around us. We must not forget our cousins out in the regions who are also fighting the same fight as us.

Last year, I led an intergenerational digital project which saw 120 Niueans perform traditional songs and dances of Niue. The project united young and old, brought Niueans together from across Aotearoa, and cleared space for our beloved Vagahau Niue to shine on stage.

The experience highlighted the importance of language learning in an intergenerational environment. When we learn from our elders, it is our job to pass it on. When we sing and we dance, we are actively keeping our language, our culture, and our ancestors alive. Our language is a taonga that lives and breathes, and the arts are key if we ever hope to reverse our language statistics.

As a community we invest so much time and resource into academic spaces, but is it enough? Do we really need more books on language? Perhaps another language class out in South Auckland? Whilst all these academic initiatives are useful in their own right, it is time to critically reflect on what is actually working. Who is funding all this and why?

My humble request to all of the major players is to remember and recognise the contributions that the arts and artists can make to this crucial conversation. Our artists' works are sometimes misunderstood as mere entertainment. However, as creators artists play a very meaningful role in keeping cultures alive; they are sometimes among the unsung warriors of cultural preservation.

So, do not just invite us to come sing and dance at the fono in front of your funders. Invite us to the table to eat the cheese and crackers and to be a part of the exciting talanoa that we are all so passionate about.

Our creative sector serves in the revitalisation, maintenance, and preservation of indigenous languages. For centuries Pasifika languages have been sustained and promoted by the arts. With the innumerable forms of expression including: music, song, dance, choreography, storytelling, poetry, tapa cloths, tattoos and fashion, the arts allow our languages to speak through many voices.

Let us remember this.

About the author:

Leki Jackson-Bourke is a multi-cultural / multi-disciplinary, South-Auckland artist of Tongan, Niuean and Samoan descent. His Pacific heritage links back to the villages of Nei'afu Vava'u Tonga, Hakupu-Atua Niue and Vailima and Talimatau Samoa.

Leki studied at the former Pacific Institute of Performing Arts and since graduating in 2011, he has worked professionally as an Actor, Dancer, Choreographer, Writer, Producer, Director and Stage/Production Manager across stage and screen for more than a decade.

Leki has worked with and been mentored by some of the industry's most renowned Senior Pasifika Artists and he has represented Oceania on numerous occasions at international arts festivals in Europe, Australasia, America & across the Pacific.

Leki's passion is in uplifting his Pasifika Community through performing and creative arts, to keep the stories, languages and cultures of his ancestors alive and thriving.

First image: A Niuean takalo challenge. Photo: Pool photo / New Zealand Herald / Michael Craig

Second image: Niuean youth are seen as the key to retention and development of Vagahau Niue. Photo: Niue Youth Network

Third image: Leki Jackson-Bourke