29 May 2017

Sonny Natanielu - Celebrating Samoan language, culture and identity

9:47 am on 29 May 2017
Sonny Natanielu

Sonny Natanielu Photo: RNZ Pacific

Samoan-born Sonny Natanielu has come a long way from trying to scrub his skin off as a teen, to now celebrating his language, culture and identity.

"I was born in Samoa and I came over here when I was two. And from the beginning my parents always elevated education. So I grew up here in Te Atatu North Auckland and once I started to show promise in the school system, my parents stopped me speaking in Samoan and so I completely lost the language and the culture," he said.

"To my shame I was actually ashamed to be brown, wanting to scrub the brown off my skin. Back then when I was forced to confront my Samoaness there was very little about me except for my brown skin, which is why I wanted to get rid of it. "

He was a top A student, but at church and at Sunday School exams he always came last, but didn't really care.

"Back then I thought my parents were telling me to avoid my Samoan culture and embrace the New Zealand culture. And I found it uninviting and impersonal. And although I did well in education there was a whole lot of bunch of experiences in New Zealand where I felt I did not belong and I was not one of them," he said.

Sonny started having arguments with his parents as a teenager because his parents wanted him to be an accountant or a lawyer but he wanted to be a teacher and a social worker.

He then tried to commit suicide twice as a teenager but failed. It was then in his darkest hour that he says he found God and his purpose in life.

"So my purpose is to find out what it means to brown, to be Samoan in today's contemporary modern world. And now today I am finishing off my Phd in Social Psychology. My topic is a Samoan approach to psychological resilience using the tatau as a representation as to what it means to be Samoan."

Sonny then started learning more about his culture when he joined the Samoan Association at university and through his research and studies.

His career path has been within social work, criminal intervention, mental health and education.

"I noticed because a lot of parents didn't pass on ways to be Samoan, I saw that people looked for ways to identify themselves. They got it in gangs, alcohol, drugs, all sorts of crime. And for those who didn't do crime, many ended up in the mental health system."

Sonny eventually went back to Samoa and had his tatau (tattoo) done at the Samoa Tourism Centre in Apia by the tufuga (master) Su'a Suluape Alaiva'a.

He says it is a statement about his identity and who he is as a Samoan and supports the most important thing to Samoans, which is gafa (geneology).

"On a tatau, each motif has a gafa. The structure has a gafa. There are 10 divisions of the tatau and if your marks don't have these 10, it is not a tatau. And if you don't get it done by one of the tufuga families, it is not blessed as part of it."

Other crucial aspects to Samoan culture include tautua (service), aiga (family), matai (chiefs) and the nu'u (village).

"Elevate those things beyond yourself and honour those customs and traditions that is just as important as speaking the language," he said.

He returned back to New Zealand after spending a few years living in Samoa and now speaks the language more fluently, but with an english accent. Sonny believes language is an important signifier of identity.

"So to have a Samoan Language Week in New Zealand, it is really good there is one so we can prioritise things Samoan."

His favourite cultural proverb is about an albatross.

"The albatross always takes flight but then it returns to the water. So it is like you will always need to return to Samoa and return to your roots. So for all the Samoan listeners, sure, do your own thing. But then always return back to your home and reconnect to your family and your history."

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