I never once heard my tinamatua (grandmother) speaking Samoan when I was a kid. None of my aunties or my mum could speak the language either. I, however, never hesitated teaching Nana the ways of my favourite television superheroes every school day at 5pm. As she sat on the couch, my puny little ninja moves and cowabungas imitated the heroic Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello as they protected New York City from the cruel Master Shredder and his dark ninja underworld. Outcasts amongst society, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lived in the sewers with their sensei Splinter, a mutant rat teaching the turtles the importance of family, tolerance, fighting for the downtrodden and knowing one’s ancestors. On my seventh birthday, Nana made me one of her signature crafted cakes in the form of Michelangelo, the orange-banded turtle who liked to party. Little did I know it would be the last cake from Nana I would ever get to enjoy as two weeks later, my Samoan sensei died suddenly from a massive heart attack. Shortly afterwards, my crime-busting “turtles in half shells” heroes were canned from the popular 5pm slot and replaced by some other cartoon.
Sea turtles are highly revered amongst Samoan society, so much so that if turtles were to vanish, Samoan culture would cease to exist. Three species of sea turtles live amongst the Samoan archipelago: hawksbills, greens, and leatherbacks. These ancient warriors graced our oceans when dinosaurs still ruled the lands. Samoans refer to all three sea turtles as I’a sa, or sacred fish. In traditional Samoan folklore and legends, I’a sa appear as powerful beings who rescue lost fishermen and transport important beings to distant lands on behalf of chiefs. Harming a chief’s I’a sa would incur a terrible vengeance upon perpetrators. Of Samoa’s three species, only the hawksbills come ashore to nest on Samoa’s picturesque beaches. Greens regularly feed in the lagoons while leatherback sightings are rare. Although sea turtles prefer tropical waters, it’s not uncommon to see Samoan turtles making do amongst the frigid waters of the North Island. All three species are protected in Samoa, but all are endangered due to habitat destruction, destructive fishing methods, and illegal hunting.
|Hey Mum. Remember that Polynesian Panthers essay I told you I did at uni? Well I found out my result… A-.|
|Wow, A-. Well done. Can I read it?|
|Sure. Man, I never knew anything about the Dawn Raids before uni, but bloody hell… they were pretty racist back then!!!|
|They sure were.|
|Do you remember much about the Dawn Raids?|
|Not much but it was on the news every night. I know there were police raids somewhere in our neighbourhood.|
|Oh really? Must have been a pretty scary time for Nana?|
|Yeah she was pretty scared, even though she’d been living in New Zealand since after the war.|
|Did the police ever hassle her?|
|Not that I knew of, but your aunties and I would tell her the police were gonna deport her back to Samoa.|
|Bloody hell! You guys were little shits back then!|
|I was only 10 years old then, but I feel terrible about it now!|
|Jesus, Mum! Hope she gave you guys a good smack! You reckon the Dawn Raids had something to do with why Nana never taught you guys Samoan?|
|Could be but I really don’t know, Mark. For all I know it could’ve been because of those Kiwi nuns strapping her knuckles every time she spoke Samoan in class.|
|Oh, I didn’t know about that. Was this when she lived in New Zealand or while she grew up in Samoa?|
|Samoa, when it was still a New Zealand territory.|
|What did Pa Todd think of all this?|
|Hated Muldoon, hated National. Put up with a lot of crap from his own kind too.|
At home you’ll find my most treasured gift, a miniature wooden carving of a paopao given to me by my grandfather a year after Nana died. This intricate little Samoan outrigger canoe consists of a solid hull with a tough bow eager to rip apart any stubborn water particles that lay in its path. Inside the hull is a spear-like paddle, while attached on the port side is an outrigger plank connected by flimsy matchstick-thin pieces and held together by tiny yet indestructible ropes. Whoever gazes upon the paopao long enough will want to know about its history. There is a saying in Samoa that “The toloa bird flies far, but will always return to the water”. If my paopao were a toloa bird, which waters would it return to?
Samoans see turtle shell patterns as powerful bonds tying families together. In 2013, I came to see if I could trace my own broken family pattern. There are only two kinds of turtles in Samoa today. There were those living in putrid ponds and covered in filth who’d only reveal their institutionalised mouths for meagre breadcrumbs from selfie-obsessed tourists. If I wanted to find my original turtle power, I had to visit the lagoon of my ancestors. As I sat there in my clunky open-seated kayak at Mulivai Safata, I scanned the gentle ripples with sharpened senses for any signs of reptilian life. Fretting the staff who told me to stay within sight of the resort, I almost left empty-handed when a turtle suddenly plopped its head and shell out of the water some 50 feet away. Sitting in my alien craft, torso towering above the water as if I was one of those intimidating colonial battleships that used to impose their wills upon the locals of Apia, the turtle dived under into the pristine depths as quickly as it had appeared. Perhaps I was too far removed from my ancestors for this turtle to reveal anything to me. As soon as I returned to Aotearoa, I bought myself a Samoan dictionary and asked my mum for Nana’s banana cake recipe.