London to Nukunonu: Queen Elizabeth honours Susana Lemisio (nee Perez)

15 June 2016 - By Lealaiauloto Aigaletaule’ale’a F Tauafiafi and Paula Faiva
Huhana&TeofiloLemisio2016-450 Within every grain of sand, is a unique chapter of the greatest story ever told.

On Monday last week, one such chapter, on the life of Tokelau’s 70-year-old Huhana (Susana) Tetane Lemisio (nee Perez) was recognized by Queen Elizabeth II, in her Birthday Honours list.

Huhana was made a ‘Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM). A recognition for services to New Zealand’s ‘Tokelau community and Early Childhood Education’. Services of quality, deemed significant enough to have caused a shift in making New Zealand a better place as a result.

There were 177 other New Zealanders recognized for rendering such service, including seven Pacific islanders: Mr Neil Ieremia (for services to dance), Mrs Mele Fakatali Nemaia (for services to the Niuean community), Ali’imuamua Sandra Alofivae (for services to the Pacific community and youth), Dr Monique Faleafa (for services to the Pacific community and health), Reverend Tevita Finau (for services to the Tongan community), and Mrs Selma Theresa Scott (for services to the Pacific community).

There was extra significance accorded the 2016 recipients than in previous years due to three milestones reached by Queen Elizabeth in 2016: her 90th birthday, becoming Britain’s longest-lived monarch, as well as the world's oldest-serving sovereign.

For Huhana, the recognition was received with humility. A time to reflect and acknowledge the sacrifices, contributions and gifts from her ancestors, family and country. But above all, recognition that the award was founded on her belief in God and source of all blessings.

Tokelau’s leader, Ulu o Tokelau, Aliki Faipule Afega Gaualofa was holding bi-lateral talks with New Zealand and Pacific leaders in Auckland last week, when told of Huhana’s award.
Congratulations Huhana from Ulu o Tokelau, Aliki Faipule Afega Gaualofa and Acting Administrator Tokelau, Ms Linda Te Puni. Photo F. Tauafiafi
“On behalf of the three villages of Fakaofo, Nukunonu and Atafu we congratulate Huhana for this recognition. Not only for her services and love over the years to the many Tokelauan scholarship students and others needing the familiar surroundings of Tokelau in her home, but in flying Tokelau’s flag with honour and pride,” he told Pacific Guardians.

“In these days of changing climates and global uncertainties that pose a threat to Tokelau’s future, Huhana’s recognition is a timely reminder to the Realm of New Zealand, the Commonwealth and international community that we are a country and a people who matter.”

He added, “We may be small but that does not stop us from contributing in ways that make the world a better place. A contribution embodied in Huhana’s recognition by Her Majesty, and reflective of her role as an ambassador for Tokelau. Fakafetai lahi lele!”

Huhana’a award recognizes her leadership, drive and determination, characteristics that led to the establishment of the first Tokelau Language Nest in Wellington’s suburb of Petone.

Her love for Tokelau and need to maintain its cultural mores in New Zealand also led to the establishment of the Fatupaepae PACIFICA in the Hutt Valley in 1989. This group was instrumental in maintaining the skill of Tokelauan weaving amongst young Tokelauan mothers and New Zealand-born women.

Her family house, bought in 1975 came to be affectionately named ‘central station’. A place where scholarship students, extended family and other Tokelauans “hang out” when visiting or conducting business in New Zealand.

Mrs Paula Faiva, Tokelau’s Manager for Climate Change said, “Huhana deserves it [Queens honour]. As far as I can remember, her whole life revolved around the Tokelau community in New Zealand. She fostered scholarship students, and her daughter Petronilla wrote a chapter on their life growing up.”

But those are small snippets of the Huhana Lemisio story. For hers’ is a story that began during tumultuous times for humanity. And perhaps, one of the reasons why education became a central theme in her life.


The year was 1945. On 21 April, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, future Queen of the British Empire turned 19. Five months later, on 2nd September, World War II ended.

On 16 November, after two weeks of a meeting in London, 37 of 44 countries signed the Constitution of UNESCO. It gave birth to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. New Zealand was one of the 37 parents.

On that same day, 16 November 1945, a young baby was born some 15,000 kilometres away in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a speck of land only 5.5 square kilometres in area. She was named Huhana, the sixth and youngest child of Ateliano and Malia Sei Perez from the Tokelau atoll of Nukunonu.

Her proud siblings Kema Apolosio, Fatia Perez (departed), Maselina Haolo Potuvaka Pereira (departed), and twins Mika and Nila Perez (aka: Sr Juliana Perez departed) were all there celebrating the newcomer.

Huhana and UNESCO entered a world that was on the start of journey looking for peace. A world that recognized, “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”

UNESCO was created for a specific purpose. The 37 nations knew that political and economic agreements were not enough to build a lasting peace. That only on the basis of humanity’s moral and intellectual solidarity through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information could such peace be established.

Huhana on the other hand, would be honoured by the Queen 70 years later. Following is a brief view into her story.

As a little girl growing up on Nukunonu, Huhana remembers looking out at the Pacific Ocean. Her vision limited by the horizon stirred her imagination to wonder at what lay beyond. She had no way of knowing about UNESCO and the world’s aspirations for peace, nor her future role. But like all youngsters, she was apprehensive and at the same time excited at the wonders imagined beyond Tokelau’s tranquil lagoons.

It was not until she was 18-years old that she was to discover the world beyond the horizon. In 1964, Huhana left in the second wave of what was then called the Government Resettlement Scheme of Tokelau to New Zealand.

But before she left, Huhana took stock of her heritage and place of birth, packed all her memories of Tokelau and ancestors to arm and buffer herself for the life that beckons from beyond the horizon.

When she arrived in New Zealand one of the first additions to her bag of memories was, “a shock to see for the first time the tall buildings and all the cars and trucks”.

But shock quickly turned the young woman from humble beginnings to follow a vision, to become a living bridge between Tokelau and New Zealand. The need to establish an anchor where future generations would be able to connect to Tokelau’s culture and traditions back home. A yearning to preserve the Tokelau she knew and loved during the first 18 years of life.
A 1994 aerial photo of Nukunonu atoll. Photo: Gasteiger.
Husana with the Resettlement group of young men and women on their safe arrival in Wellington. L-R: Lele Tanu, Susana, Eneliko Tovio, Hinalagi Maka, Ianeta Baker (nee Tinielu), Lui Tufala, Kailua Teilo, Filika Tato (nee Lomano), Akileo Manuele and Savelio Lomano. Photograph taken circa 26 May 1964 by an unidentified Evening Post staff photographer. [National Library of New Zealand EP/1964/1760-F]

The Lemisio family. Photo provided

In 1975, Huhana and Teofilo bought their first home in Petone.

With their two young children at the time, and amongst a constant stream of relatives in and out of the house, they also hosted nine scholarships students from Tokelau.

The students attended boarding schools around New Zealand but would all come to Petone for the school holidays. That service has profited Tokelau’s development and future generations.

Today, one of those scholarship students, Sio Perez, is now the Member of Parliament for Nukunonu and carried the Ulu o Tokelau title in 2015; another, Mika Perez is the current Director for Tokelau’s Economic Development, Natural Resources and Environment Ministry. While Akata Koloi (nee Apolosio), John Fatia Perez and Kele Perez are all working for the Tokelau Public Service.

One of the scholarship students that lived at 'Central Station' became the Ulu o Tokelau in 2015. That's Siopili Perez (R) with NZ Foreign Affairs Minister, Murray McCully, NZ High Commissioner, Jackie Frizelle, and UNDP Resident Representative, Lizbeth Cullity on board the new Tokelau vessel MV Mataliki. Photo: Samoa Observer.
As a result of the constant stream of people in and out of their house, it became known as the ‘Central Station’, a place where all types of people from the Tokelau community found common ground. A place where family and friends were welcomed whether on holiday, a medical appointment or just to hang-out, Huhana and Teofilo’s was that half-way house.
And it still is to this very day. Where Huhana and grandson Kainaki are the current hosts.


Throughout the 1970's Huhana was part of the Parent helper and Play Centre teachers' group for the Petone Polynesian Pre-School. The work was part of a vision by Father Pat Greally (Sacred Hear Parish Priest) and Sister Johanna of the Sisters of Assumption Order in Petone.
However, it wasn’t until 1987 that Huhana's passion and work in education started to bear fruit.

Under her gentle leadership, she and several women who had previously been involved with the Petone Polynesian Pre-school, had the courage to carry out the vision of mobilizing Tokelau’s language and culture in a formal educational setting.

Huhana and her grandchildren
She gained the support of the Priest and Sisters together with local community leaders Filipo Lui, the late Tioni Vulu, Timo Ahelemo, and Lafaele Pasilio. Other drawn to her efforts included Jeanne Lomax, the late Jacinta Ioane, Akata Lui, Gabrielle Kingturner, Julie Tionisio, Kema Pereira to name a few.

Through her leadership, drive, passion and determination, the first Tokelau Language Nest for Tokelauan children was established.

A remarkable achievement during a time when there was no formal Pacific Education Plan. The Early Childhood Development Unit of the time must be commended for providing full backing to the initiative which was being established the same time as the Kohanga Reo movement to revive the Maori Language was being promoted.

What Huhana had a created was a central hub where Pasifika leaders in the field were able to provide her with support. They included: Faafua Laban (previously Pasifika Chief Advisor for the Education Review Office); Fereni Ete (established Wellington's first Ā'oga 'Āmata, Samoan language nest, in 1985), the late Te Upoko Morgan, Tapaeru Tereora, and Paddy Walker (Founding National President for Pacific Allied (Womens) Council Inspires Faith in Ideals Concerning All (PACIFICA)).

The Biblical adage “Where there is no vision, the people perish” is apt to describe Huhana’s commitment to Tokelau education. The establishment of the Tokelau Language Nest was central to achieving her vision for maintaining the Tokelauan language and improving educational initiatives and projects for Tokelau.

Her success is revealed by the achievements resulting from the language nest which led to:
  • more Tokelauan women qualified as Early Childhood Education (ECE) teachers
  • more Tokelauan Language Nests established around New Zealand (Auckland, Rotorua, Taupo, Porirua, Naenae, Taita, Stokes Valley, Upper Hutt and Dunedin)
  • 1988 founding of Ofaga o te Gagana Tokelau Ahohi i Aotearoa-New Zealand (Tokelau Early Childhood Association Aotearoa-New Zealand)
  • more licensed Tokelau Early Childhood Centres established [As of today these are: Matiti Tokelau Akoga Kamata, Mataliki Tokelau Early Childhood Centre and Fetufa Early Childhood Centre]
  • increased participation of Tokelau children in ECE services.
But there is more. Huhana worked tirelessly and strategically alongside other pioneers of Pasifika education to ensure Gagana Tokelau is not lost inside New Zealand's education system. Some of the highlights:
  • From 1988 to the present day Huhana is still a member of the Ofaga o te Gagana Tokelau Ahohi i Aotearoa-New Zealand helping current president, Rev Nathan Pedro.
  • In 1990 – Ofaga o te Gagana Tokelau Ahohi i Aotearoa-New Zealand established the vision of developing a Tokelau Language curriculum to support Tokelau Early Childhood Centres in Aotearoa New Zealand.
  • 2002 – Petone Ofaga o te Gagana re-ignited the Te Motumotu vision amongst Tokelau ECEs in the Wellington region.
  • 2003 – A meeting with the Ministry of Education to discuss the development of a Tokelau Language Curriculum...This was the opportunity for the group to share their vision.
  • 2004-2008 – Tokelau Language Curriculum drafted and written after a comprehensive consultation process. The writers were the late Amosa Faafoi, Lealofi Kupa and Nila Lemisio-Poasa.
  • 2009 – Launch of the Tokelau Language: Gagana Tokelau: The Tokelau Language Guidelines.
Today, amongst all the hype, Huhana quietly deflects the accolades preferring the spotlight to shine on Tokelau, her parents and family; and more importantly, on the Almighty the source of all blessings.

In her low-key way, she finds contentment in her roles as a wife, mother and grandmother. And through those duties and reciprocating support, she was able to establish a beachhead for Tokelau’s traditions, language and culture in New Zealand, anchored to the three villages back home.

And therein lies the value of Huhana’s story. A chapter revealing the aspiration of a people with a unique heritage, of a life lived in a foreign land, the struggles and challenges, the battles for recognition, the fight for rights, the milestones achieved, tears of sadness and joy, a tale of love.

And as Tokelau itself fights for survival in a world threatened by climate change and the global maelstrom of corporate greed and self-interest; it is through individual stories like Huhana’s that Tokelau will survive.

And beyond Tokelau, these are the stories that inspire, guide, teach the values of humility, respect and love that will influence the minds of men and women to serve the greater good. For it is there, in the minds of humanity, that a better Tokelau, a better New Zealand, and yes a better world is made possible.

Within every grain of sand is a story, an experience, a small beginning to build upon for the next generation.
Fakafetai lahi lele Huhana. Malo te galue!