So, I’m googling Teresia Teaiwa in the hopes that I will come by something substantial that will do her work and legacy justice. However, I am surprised to find that besides beautifully written eulogies following her untimely death last year, some academic profiles, a few poems, and an article or two, there really isn’t that much on a woman who dedicated so much of her life to Pacific studies and issues. This could only mean one of two things, either Teresia had not been afforded the online space that her work deserved or my googling skills required further work.
This lack of information on such a significant woman in the modern history of our region shows that the visibility of Pacific women and their work continues to be problematic despite of online sharing tools which should provide in-depth details at the click of a button. Now perhaps I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but the reason for my frustration is that until last year, I had never even heard of Dr. Teresia Teaiwa. Maybe the fact I grew up overseas contributes to my lack of knowledge and ignorance, but what compounds my experience is that a lot of people who have lived their entire lives in Fiji have not heard of her either; that is unless they have engaged with her work in university, conference setting, advocacy, or through her beautiful poems. It seemed to me that throughout her life, Teaiwa’s work was known to certain spheres of influence whereas her contribution to the region seems to be posthumously more relevant today than ever before. So, despite the shortage of websites and online articles, I bring you a short yet necessary introduction to a woman who should really need no introduction in the Pacific and even global realm.
Born in Honolulu Hawaii on August 12th 1968, Teresia was welcomed into the world by her I-Kiribati father and African American mother. She grew up in Fiji after phosphate mining displaced her family from the island of Banaban, and would go on to obtain a Bachelors from Trinity College in Washington DC, a Masters from the University of Hawaii, and a PhD from the University of California, focusing her doctoral research on gender, militarism, and feminist activism in the South Pacific. Teaiwa’s academic achievements were later utilised at the University of the South Pacific where she taught history and politics. In 2000, she moved to New Zealand’s Victoria University and headed up the first ever undergraduate major in Pacific studies before going on to also take the role of programme director until 2009.
In the classroom Teaiwa joined past and current indigenous scholars by courageously navigating the rarely chartered yet diverse sphere of Pacific pedagogy and epistemologies (Note to reader: these academic terms are technically loaded ways of saying education and human knowledge). Teaiwa envisioned her classroom as a metaphorical canoe or waka, explaining that she wanted to teach her students through the ancient Micronesian understanding of ‘etak,’ whereby the system of exploring and navigating saw the canoe as being still, while it is the islands and waters that move towards the canoe and pass it. She commented, “With such an approach to teaching and learning … maybe we could bring all those 20,000 islands and so much more to us.”
Although Teaiwa’s contribution to the Pacific region primarily consisted of academic writings and tertiary education, the versatility of her work extended towards literature, poetry, and political activism. It is evident that Teresia, like the Oceanic context of her heritage, had a fluidity which often swayed between theory, practice, and action. Never limiting her gifts to places of well-earned privilege, Teaiwa committed herself to the struggles and mobilisation of her region at the grass root level. West Papua in particular was a cause that Teaiwa tirelessly engaged with, but as her colleague Dr. Pala Molissa commented, “she was not a single-issue campaigner” because in reality, the over- Stuff, “A Life Story – Dr Teresia Teaiwa, ‘leading light’ of the Pacific, dies, 48,” Education,
arching concern in all of her writings and activism was the “ongoing realities of colonisation.” So within her domain, Teaiwa encouraged students to challenge the status quo, “question cultural and political assumptions,” and investigate systems of power and their “implications” on the Pacific region and its peoples. She applied her knowledge and experience in the best way possible, by nurturing critical thinking and sowing the seeds of hope for a better and more just future in the hearts and minds of young Pacific Islanders.
Teresia Teaiwa lived an exemplary life of service to the Pacific, and despite her early passing in 2017, what remains evident is the influence that her work continues to have on many women across cultural, social, and ethnic lines in our region. Though this article is limited in its capacity to capture the depth and essence of a woman such as Teresia, what it hopes to do is encourage young and older women alike to celebrate her legacy and acquire some of the wisdom and knowledge she so willingly shared throughout her lifetime.
Manson, Bess. “A Life Story – Dr Teresia Teaiwa, ‘leading light’ of the Pacific, dies, 48.” Stuff.