A Life Story - Dr Teresia Teaiwa, 'leading light' of the Pacific, dies, 48

Dr Teresia Teaiwa considered Fiji her spiritual home.
Victoria University of Wellington

Dr Teresia Teaiwa considered Fiji her spiritual home.

Dr Teresia Teaiwa, scholar, activist, poet: b August 12, 1968, Honolulu, Hawaii; m Sean Mallon, 2s; d March 21, 2017, Wellington, aged 48.

Dr Teresia Teaiwa's work in Pacific studies went well beyond the lecture halls of Victoria University. Her devotion to teaching and learning about that huge and expansive part of the world was "oceanic".

Teaiwa came to New Zealand in 2000, joining the faculty at Victoria University of Wellington to teach the world's first undergraduate major in Pacific Studies, and was programme director until 2009. 

Teaiwa was considered a leading light in the Pacific, not just in literature and academia, but as a true leader and a ...
Victoria University of Wellington

Teaiwa was considered a leading light in the Pacific, not just in literature and academia, but as a true leader and a voice on many important political issues.

Later promoted to director of Va'aomanū Pasifika, home to Victoria's Pacific and Samoan Studies programmes, she was also elected in 2005 as the first woman to head the Pacific History Association.

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 Heading into uncharted waters

She once described her task of disseminating knowledge to her students as an "audacious undertaking".

"As I embarked on my teaching and learning journey in Pacific Studies at VUW, it felt as if I was heading into uncharted waters," she said in a 2014 interview.

With more than 1200 indigenous languages, the Pacific Islands region was so huge and diverse that the notion of a single all-knowing teacher delivering knowledge from the front of the classroom was ludicrous, she said.

Once describing the classroom as a metaphorical canoe or waka, she said: "I realised if I just started with where my students were – at VUW – I might be able to put the ancient Micronesian navigating technique 'etak' to use – a system of wayfinding and navigation that visualises the canoe as stationary while the islands move towards it.

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"With such an approach to teaching and learning … maybe we could bring all those 20,000 islands, and so much more, to us."

Her innovative approach to teaching earned her the Victoria Teaching Excellence Award in 2014 and the Pacific People's Award for Education a year later.

She had earlier received the Marsden Fast Start research grant for an oral history and book on Fijian women soldiers in 2007.

Teaching a way of life

Teaiwa was an academic who walked the talk, says Luamanuvao Winnie Laban, Victoria University's Assistant Vice-Chancellor, Pasifika.

"It wasn't just about research and publishing. She was passionate about social justice, opposition to violence, decolonisation. She made it real and meaningful."

Teaching was not just about sharing knowledge with her students, Laban says. "It was about inspiring them to say 'How can this knowledge contribute to a better world?'

"For her it was not a job but a way of life. 

"As an educator she knew the power of the researcher, the teacher, the lecturer. She knew it was important to inspire the younger generation so they could realise their dreams."

Teaiwa felt a deep connection to her Pacific community, Laban said. "She could never claim her own liberation until all of her community had the same access to opportunity and a life of dignity."

As well as her role in academia and as an activist, Teaiwa was a celebrated poet.

Her work has been published and performed internationally and she represented Kiribati at Poetry Parnassus festival in London in 2012.

Her collection of poetry on a CD, entitled I Can See Fiji, was described by one reviewer as "groundbreaking".

The path to academia

Teresia Teaiwa was born in Honolulu to her I-Kiribati father – displaced to Fiji from the mine-devastated phosphate island of Banaba – and African American mother. She was raised in Fiji with her two sisters, Katerina and Maria. 

Her mother was a high school teacher and later a lecturer at university who went on to work as an editor and course developer for distance learning. Her father rose through the ranks of the civil service.

Teaiwa studied for her BA at Trinity College in Washington D.C and her MA at the University of Hawaii. She completed her PhD in History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

She returned to her beloved Fiji, where she taught history and politics for five years at the University of the South Pacific in Suva before passing up a job at Greenpeace to take up a position with Victoria University.

Despite studying abroad and moving to New Zealand, Fiji remained her spiritual home and firmly on her radar when it came to that country's political state of health.

In an article published in The Dominion in January 2001 following the fallout of the Fijian coup the previous year, Teaiwa wrote of her fears for the island nation.

"The plot has become so thick and the rot so deep that nothing less than a cataclysm will move Fiji forward.

"Wasn't the year 2000 cataclysmic enough? It's hard to be sure: for all Fiji's people ... have an incredibly high tolerance for pain, a high threshold for horror, and a facility for repressing their memory. This is why the prophets of 'reconciliation'  (without justice) are doing so well."

The activist

Victoria University senior lecturerDr Pala Molisa called Teaiwa a leading light in the Pacific, not just in literature and academia, but as a true leader and a voice on many important political issues. 

She was a committed activist, particularly on the part of West Papua's struggle for independence and was one of those who really mobilised the community in New Zealand and Wellington in particular.

But she was not a single-issue campaigner, Molisa says. "Her deepest concern was around the ongoing realities of colonisation, particularly in the Pacific, and so much of her work centred around that. She is one of our leading academics looking at the militarisation of the Pacific, particularly in Fiji and all the harms that come with that.

"She was a committed feminist looking at issues of male violence and gender inequality and how they intersect with militarisation and climate change and environmental challenges."

For a long time she was a strong supporter for trade unions fighting on the minimum wage campaign and was always a champion for the transformative power of the arts.

A true critical educator

But the biggest impact she had was in the classroom, Molisa says.

"She was an amazing example for young students on how to live a principled and expansive life."

A true critical educator, "she taught students how to question cultural and political assumptions, to critically analyse systems of power we live within. 

"She asked students not just to take pride in their own culture, but also to think about the political implications of these systems of power.

"Although she never compromised on her critique, she had the beautiful ability to recognise the humanity of people, even the ones she critiqued. She had such a huge heart."

Teaiwa, who is survived by husband, Sean Mallon and sons, Manoa, 23, and Vaitoa, 14, once commented that her name could be interpreted as "fiery canoe".

In the Pacific the name people give you says something about your character, Molisa says.

"And she was certainly that. She was a leading light. Someone people would look to for guidance, not just in terms of getting ahead in education but she was a voice of principle. She always looked out for the most vulnerable in our community. She lived that ethos of looking after the most marginalised, the most oppressed. That was Teresia."

By Bess Manson

Sources: Sean Mallon, Ako Aotearoa Academy of Tertiary Teaching Excellence, E-Tangata (Dale Husband).  

 - Stuff

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