Former pro rugby player revitalising Samoan language in Canterbury

Once Jason Tiatia ended a professional footballing career that took him round the world with the New Zealand Sevens team, he rekindled a desire to keep the Samoan language relevant. Now the 42-year-old is a senior academic staff member at Ara Institute of Canterbury. He articulates his journey to Chris Barclay

Jason Tiatia teaches Samoan at Ara in a bid to help keep the language alive in Christchurch....
Jason Tiatia teaches Samoan at Ara in a bid to help keep the language alive in Christchurch. Photo: Chris Barclay
We learned about you when receiving reviews from participants at the New Zealand Education Institute’s Registration and Retirement Ceremony on December 2. You made quite an impression on a Casebrook Intermediate teacher and her mum.
The main message was be true to yourself and give time to yourself because as teachers we’re always giving, right? We’re the last to be thought of. ‘If I’m not looking after me I can’t look after anyone else.’ It’s a pretty simple concept. Keep it simple: value the things you practise, give back to the community as a way of serving them consistently and truthfully.

You were a professional rugby player once you left Aranui High School and joined the Canterbury system until you returned from the 2006-07 season with Parma in Italy. Then you made the transition to teaching. Why?
When you’re not a rugby player anymore you have to reinvent yourself. I knew a sports co-ordinator at Ara (then the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology) who was going to Australia. He asked if I wanted to take over and I thought I’d give it a go. It was really hard. In the rugby world, without being arrogant, everything was handed to you. In this world you’re like: ‘No one knows who I am.’ I had to earn my right to be a teacher, earn respect.

You wanted to hang up your boots, in a sports co-ordinating arena, so you studied – at Ara – to become a tertiary teacher with a focus on the Samoan language.
My inspiration came from Hana O’Regan (a Māori language advocate and academic) before I went to play rugby overseas. We (Tiatia and high school sweetheart-turned wife Tate) went to this workshop around indigenous languages at the end of 2003 and listened about how they’re declining. Hana spoke about how it takes one generation to lose it, and three to try and reverse that process. She kept telling us – we didn’t have kids at the time: “Do you want to be responsible for the generation that lost it, and didn’t do anything about it, because your grandkids or great-grandkids will ask you: ‘How come you didn’t teach the language to your kids?’ I was like: ‘I don’t want to be that guy’. When we got home we thought we should start practising what we preach and what we believe in. My core business now is teaching the Samoan language. We’re trying to grow that space with the Tongan language, Niuean and the Cook Islands languages as well.

What sort of people are interested in obtaining a Certificate in Samoan Language?
It’s really diverse. Some were born on the island, raised here and were disconnected from the language. Others are just connecting with their language and they want to teach their kids, pass it on. I’ve had an 80-plus year-old Pakeha, Palagi woman. She said: ‘I love Samoan people, I just want to learn the language’. We’ve got young mums and a lot of our teachers, Māori, Palagi, even Filipinos who have lived in Samoa, loved it, and want to carry on the relationship. The aim of the courses was to get New Zealand-born Samoans to keep their language alive. This is a space to do it in. If you don’t go to traditional Samoan churches anymore, you don’t hear it.

You mentioned teachers were part of your classes, that’s encouraging isn’t it?
I had one Palagi student, she’d recently married a Tongan-Samoan. She teaches at a predominantly Samoan school in Aranui. She loves the kids so much she wants to speak the language but her main motivation was when she has babies they’re going to be trilingual. Her vision is so far ahead (in New Zealand); the Europeans have been doing it for years, learning four-five-six languages at a time. Imagine an Aotearoa where we’ve got all our kids speaking Pacific languages? They go into a restaurant, speak to a Tongan serving them in Tongan and they’d probably get even better service.

Jason Tiatia takes the Crusaders through action and body parts in Samoan as part of a cultural...
Jason Tiatia takes the Crusaders through action and body parts in Samoan as part of a cultural workshop. Photo: Supplied
This doesn’t sound realistic but can teachers, for example, do more to embrace ethnic minorities when using their whiteboards?
I’m encouraging our primary school teachers to go to Pacific environments. Go to church, sit and listen and learn. See what the atmosphere’s like. How do they operate? How do they actually interact? It’s more the non-verbal communication you’ll see.

What was it like learning at Central New Brighton School on Seaview Rd? Did your teachers make an effort to make you feel at home, even though you were born and raised in Christchurch, the only child of Sara and Lavata’i?
My last name was mispronounced every time and it’s only three letters and two syllables. I would say: ‘Just call me J or Jase, you don’t need to say my last name’. I thought maybe I’m in the wrong, it’s too foreign for them, too hard, let’s make it easy for everyone else. What didn’t hit me was the leader (teacher), she didn’t empower me by saying the first thing I’ve been taught (my name) correctly. I’ve come into this room and 30 seconds later (after roll call) I’ve been devalued. One teacher asked: ‘Can I just say Jason?’ Other teachers were more open. One said: ‘Jason, you’ll have to teach me, I’ll try every day. You can call out the roll as well and help me.’ Awesome, that made me feel special. We’d have Samoans who’d come straight from the islands and I’d translate. There was an assumption that if you couldn’t speak English you’re not all that smart.

Jason Tiatia at Ara Institute of Canterbury. Photo: Chris Barclay
Jason Tiatia at Ara Institute of Canterbury. Photo: Chris Barclay
A cheery ‘Kia Ora’, ‘Talofa’, ‘Bula vinaka’ or ‘Ni Hao’ can also speak volumes before lessons get underway, can’t they?
Saying names correctly is important, so is the greeting because what you’re telling the rest of the students is it’s not just this person’s responsibility to share it (culture), it’s everyone’s. That’s where communities go wrong. It falls back on the minority groups to have to try and build it up. If you’re in a position of power you can say from now on: ‘We’re going to do a blessing or a quote in Samoan. We’re going to get Mary to have a go at pronouncing it and we’ll get Samuelu to support her’. That’s not hard and it’s encouraging their culture as a collaborative approach. 

If a nine-year-old from Apia started school in Christchurch last week, would they find it easier to blend in than the classmates you translated for at Central New Brighton School?
I’d like to think teachers are more open to new students coming from abroad. I’ve done some professional development in schools and I keep hearing the same question: ‘What if they don’t know?’ I tell them: ‘That’s your job’. Your skill is to grab what they don’t know and turn that into something that will inspire them to keep going. 

You have three school-age children, will they be equipped to keep their native tongues alive?
They go to full immersion schools (Te Waka Unua and Te Whanau Tahi). In the last couple of years Te Whanau Tahi’s brought Samoan language and culture into their programme because they’ve got a handful of Samoan-Maori students like our kids.

Your full name is Jason Apelu (Abel) Tiatia? Given your passion for the Samoan language, have you contemplated dropping your christian name?
No. I love Jason. My mum always said you’re a healer, that’s what it means (in Greek).

Jason Tiatia passes infield while playing for Bay of Plenty against Hawke’s Bay in Rotorua in...
Jason Tiatia passes infield while playing for Bay of Plenty against Hawke’s Bay in Rotorua in 2002. Photo: Getty
You also had a passion for playing wing and fullback before teaching became the end game.
My No 1 sport was rugby league and I was going to the Penrith Panthers, but I was too young to sign a contract (with the NRL club). Canterbury offered me a scholarship and when I was 17-18, just out of school, I made the New Zealand Sevens team. I had Eric Rush as my mentor, our captain. He was my roomie in Fiji and he didn’t say a word. I had to eat next to him and train alongside him, pick up the waters, that sort of thing. Sleeping next to him in the room, he would read his book and turn the light off. I’m like: ‘I better turn my light off too’. What that told me is I’ve got to earn respect, you can’t turn up and think we’re equal. I was lucky to play with Dallas Seymour, Christian Cullen, Jonah. You were around the masters of the game.

You also played with future All Blacks in the world championship-winning New Zealand colts team in 2000.
That was a star-studded line-up. I’m one of maybe five or six guys that didn’t make the All Blacks. We had Aaron Mauger, Jerry Collins, Mils (Muliaina), Ben Blair, Richie (McCaw). He couldn’t make the starting team, Josh Blackie was ahead of him.

In 2003, Rugby World Cup year, you finally had a crack at the NRL in Brisbane after playing NPC with Bay of Plenty and Southland.
That was my mid-life crisis. I had a 2-½ month stint with the Broncos, I was living with (club legend and current first grade coach) Kevin Walters. (He was coaching the feeder club in Toowoomba; Tiatia had a couple of games for the Clydesdales). Wayne Bennett said we’d love to keep you but there’s lots of younger players coming through so I went home before France (Grenoble) and Italy.

You never played for the Crusaders, but have spent time with Scott Robertson’s squad through your role at Ara.
I’ve done workshops with them for a couple of years. I thought it was a box-ticking thing, but it wasn’t. They’re culturally diverse now, and they have to be. The leaders like (former prop) Michael Ala’alatoa – he’s captained Samoa – but in the Crusaders environment he was in the minority. He’s like: ‘I really appreciate you coming in. Some of the staff don’t quite understand how we operate’. They’d see them lying down relaxing, having a laugh in the corner thinking they’re not doing much. No, this is our welfare time, this is how we connect.

You played for Linwood and now you occupy two positions at the club: Strength and conditioning coach plus unofficial Pasifika cultural adviser.
Linwood has always been a great club but now they’re really deliberate around the diversity they have there. Now we’re giving younger players a voice by having informal forums . . . sharing food and involving our Pasifika leaders to facilitate good, open conversations. Many of the young players prefer not to drink and for some, they want to better prepare themselves for coming games or church commitments. They could feel uncomfortable drinking in front of other family and community members. We’re not saying there shouldn’t be drinking but some of the behaviours wouldn’t be accepted by some of our parents. The great thing is our non-Pacific players love it when they get to experience Pacific culture. They love the food, togetherness and energy.