Determined since high school to focus on Māori Studies, Dr Gianna Leoni has recently completed her University of Otago PhD, written in Māori, examining government attitudes toward Te Reo.
With Northland iwi affiliations to Ngāi Takoto and Ngāti Kuri, plus an Italian grandparent, Gianna says people react with surprise when she says she was born and raised in Dunedin, attended the University Otago for all her tertiary studies, and she’s able to write her thesis in Māori.
“People don’t think there are many Māori in Dunedin or at Otago – but we’re here,” Gianna says. “For my Masters I looked at the transition of Māori language immersion high school students to the University of Otago and I was Tumuaki (President) of Te Roopu Māori (Otago’s Māori Students' Association) in 2013. The conversations I had as a result made me really appreciated the systems we have for Māori at Otago.”
After completing her Masters within Te Tumu Otago’s School of Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies Gianna was employed there as a Research Assistant in March. Her work inspired her PhD topic looking at government departments’ use of Te Reo and use of the overarching Māori Language Strategy within each government entity.
“I found some departments are better at incorporating the Māori language in everyday use than others, which I think was the assumption from the start. We were surprised, though, when the departments we expected to be most adaptable often weren’t and some we thought wouldn’t be absorbing the language well, were. My thesis should help them all by showing what strategies are most successful.”
Gianna says the skills she has gained within Te Tumu are eminently transferrable, not just for working in New Zealand, but within any indigenous community. She thanks both her supervisors for all they have taught her.
“Associate Professor Poia Rewi and Dr Lachlan Paterson are awesome. Poia did his PhD thesis in Māori and Lachlan did his in Māori and English. Writing a whole thesis in Te Reo was my area of weakness, so I couldn’t have asked for better supervisors to support me through that.”