Published Friday 21 Oct 2022

Fakalofa Atu! Join our Niue Language Week celebrations by taking in this story of a staff member who took drastic action after managing to keep their culture alive within their family, but not the language.

Mailigi Hetutu has been in Aotearoa for 44 years.

Over that time, the Niue-born Pacific Community Support Worker managed to maintain a strong Niue culture within her family, keeping up with the many traditional special occasions it boasts such as the transition to adulthood ear-piercing ceremonies for girls, and the hair cutting ceremonies for boys.

For years, everything on that front seemed to be going smoothly, with her five children building a strong understanding of what being from Niue was all about. Then until one day Mailigi realised there was a big missing piece of the puzzle that she knew was key to preserving the Niue culture for her kids and the next generation – the language.

“For many years, the culture was there and my family would always keep with Niue traditions. But the one area where I failed and regret not teaching my children as they grew up was the Niue language.”

Mailigi said time gaps between her and her children made it almost impossible to do so, and as time passed, speaking English became the norm.

“When I first got here, I had to learn how to speak English so I could understand going to the doctor and to get a job etc. In that time I was still speaking Niue at home, but the kids wouldn’t be around to hear it. When the children would get home from school, I would be starting work. And when I got home, they were already asleep, so in the morning the only words they would hear in Niue is, ‘wake up and get ready for school’. It didn’t help that my husband who is Niue-born, would only speak English. But I simply forgot about my children and their needs when it came to keeping that aspect of our language alive.”

Knowing the Niue people have reached a crossroad where the status of their language is considered most vulnerable, Mailigi decided to remedy the problem.

She made drastic efforts to teach her children the language as adults which has helped them understand and speak the language better. Then Mailigi took her mission one step further by teaching the language to all willing Niue people in the Wellington community.

“I wanted to give back to the community so a group of us started teaching classes in Porirua back in 2012. Now, every Monday night I teach Niue at the Ricoh Centre in Lower Hutt. It started with 35 adults coming in but now more children are coming in to learn. We also have school holiday programmes for the kids all in Niue so NZ-born Niue children can learn from an early age.”

Although these Monday classes may sound like a great initiative for kids to learn Niue, Mailigi said it still wasn’t enough.

“There’s still a gap because this is only happening on a Monday. What we really need is a class every day or every second day, otherwise the young children forget quickly. We always have to rely on the families to keep talking to them in the Niue language but this doesn’t always happen.”

Mailigi isn’t the only one that has reason to worry for the Niue language. It has now been registered with UNESCO as an endangered language.

New Zealand-born Niue youth have said that their language and culture are avenues to connect with their parents and grandparents, and is their sense of identity. Something that Mailigi couldn’t agree more.

“I am so proud of my country and the language identifies me as a Niue person. It’s who and what I am.

“I’m so happy and appreciate that the Government have come out and said that it is important for the Niue language to be acknowledged here in New Zealand. When I first came here there was nothing like that. I think they realise it is a language that needs to be revitalised here so I am very happy that there is a week acknowledging us.”

This year’s theme for Faahi Tapu he Vagahau Niue – Niue Language Week is - Fakatūleva e Vagahau Niue mo e Tau Aga Fakamotu ma e Tau Atuhau, which means - Sustain Niue Language and Culture for Future Generations.

Connect online by visiting the official NZ Niue Language Week Facebook page.