We are family: The Austronesian language family

Each year, government agencies across Austronesian-language-speaking countries from Hawaii to New Zealand select an indigenous student to attend the Taiwan Council of Indigenous People’s Programme for Cultivation of Young Talent for International Affairs. In 2018, Mihi Satele was that student. Here Mihi reflects on her experience, feelings of connection and the undeniable affinity that Māori have when operating successfully in Asia.

Mihi and a woman hongi

As a taiohi Māori (young Māori), I was aware of our shared cultural heritage with Taiwan; however, this international conference introduced me to the roots and reality of my own culture in ways not even Aotearoa had taught me.

It was an experience that made being nine thousand kilometres away from New Zealand feel like I never left home. As busy as the days were, I found value in every conversation and kindness, even in the silence.

I’ll never forget the moments on tour watching the Paiwan people working hard, long hours in the heat just to cater to us. And the little moments when my group would lend a hand with my suitcase or put their own piece of pork on my plate, knowing that I don’t eat seafood. These little acts of manaakitanga (caring) are what make us Austronesian – connected by our sacred whakapapa, one family.

Austronesia is a language family. It is not a race or ethnicity but a group of over 386 million people who share similar customs, traditions and language links.

I looked around the room and thought about why we were all there. It wasn’t just to listen to stories of our past, but as individuals representing our own Austronesian populations we shared a common interest to take action, to uphold our mana - the sacred authority that binds us to each other, to the gods and natural environment, to the past, present and future and which operates on another level with a life of its own, an intangible concept which is tangible in everything we do.

We heard that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples defines the relationship between indigenous people and the state in colonised countries.

We heard of the national apology made by President Tsai Ing-wen where she said, “Taiwan’s first inhabitants lived their lives and had their own languages, cultures, customs and domains. But then, without their consent, another group of people arrived on these shores, and in the course of history they took everything from the first inhabitants.”

As she said this, I thought about how my own ancestors lived before European settlers arrived. In today’s terms they may not have had much, but they had their own beliefs, their own solutions, their own way of life - of hunting, fishing, gardening. In our culture our ancestors were empowered.

I looked around the room and thought about why we were all there. It wasn’t just to listen to stories of the past but as individuals representing our own Austronesian populations we have a responsibility to act now to uphold our mana.

One distinct memory I have of the trip was the day we travelled by ferry to Orchid Island. Every wave pulled my stomach in a different direction and after every blink I’d see a new passenger holding their digested breakfast in a bag.

Despite the bumpy ride, it was a moment to reflect on the strength of our collective past. Austronesians are seafaring people. Our ancestors travelled vast oceans by waka. This was their everyday life. As Tessi Lambourne said, “We must acknowledge their bravery. We are lucky.”

As indigenous peoples, whether in Asia or Aotearoa, we share the experience of colonisation, of disenfranchisement and deprivation – socially, culturally, spiritually, physically and economically. This is something that resonates with us, along with our steadfast determination for change.

As I sit reflecting on the programme, I look forward to the future, to extending solidarity with my new found Austronesian whānau and working to strengthen indigenous rights and the collective wellbeing of all of our people.

As we say in Māori, “Ehara taku toa i te toa takitahi engari he toa takimano” - success is not the work of one, but the work of many.