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A New Zealander in New England

Māori Fulbright Scholar Will Flavell finds common ground in Massachusetts

Although Fulbright scholar Dr. Will Flavell comes from halfway around the world, his work focuses on the indigenous people who have a long history here in Massachusetts. A Māori researcher from Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa (Māori for Auckland, New Zealand), Flavell is studying language, culture, and identity in the schooling experiences of Native American youth in Massachusetts, first at the UMass Boston campus, then at UMass Amherst. We spoke to him about his work, his findings so far, and what has surprised him about life in a different hemisphere.

Tell us about your work.

My research project here in Massachusetts is looking at the schooling experiences of Native American youth. So, for example, can they see their culture, language, and identity featured in their classroom experiences? I’ll be interviewing a range of 18- to 24-year-olds and asking them to reflect back on their high school experiences. Once I understand a little bit more about their schooling experiences, I want to compare that to my work as an educator with indigenous youth in New Zealand and see if there are similarities or any differences between the indigenous young people here and in New Zealand.

What made you decide to come to Massachusetts specifically?

I’ve been to the States two times prior, but I had never been to Massachusetts before, and a friend of mine who works with the different colleges in the Amherst area suggested I come to UMass Amherst. I also recognized there was another UMass campus in Boston. So I thought, okay, maybe I could get away with going to both campuses. 

I like the idea of public research universities, so I wanted to go to a university that a lot of people from the area attend. You see that those who live in Massachusetts, who are from Massachusetts, will go to UMass Amherst or Boston, and will contribute back to their local communities. I like that. Also, I like the idea that many of the students may be the first in their family to attend university.

Will Flavell standing in front of the University of Massachusetts flagship campus sign in the snow

Do you have any particular events you’ll be doing or classes you’ll be working with at UMass Amherst?

My key contact there is [Provost] Professor Sonya Atalay, who is in the anthropology department. Professor Atalay specializes in the repatriation of Native American artifacts that are still in museums, with the aim of bringing them back to their homelands. Interestingly, many Māori artifacts are stored away in American museums.

I also plan to do some guest lectures at UMass Amherst. For example, we’ll talk about the current education issues young Māori indigenous New Zealanders face, and some of the work we’ve been doing to support Māori learners in education.

Are there any highlights of what you’ve learned so far about the experiences of indigenous young people in Massachusetts?

There are similarities between Native American stories here and Māori stories; historical grievances, learning about the American Indian boarding school situation—things like that. Also, learning about ways indigenous communities come together because they see the importance of revitalizing their language and culture, and that’s vital to them.

If you look at the landscape of recent indigenous history in New Zealand, in the 1960s there was a report that stated that the Māori language was close to extinction. As a result, you saw communities come together, leaders pushing the government to act and do something about normalizing Māori language education in our schools. It still needs work, but we’ve seen a steady, growing number of Māori language speakers. So, for example, we’ve got these Māori language immersion schools in New Zealand where students learn science, maths, etc., all through the Māori language. So those schools have created a new generation of first language speakers.

Here in Massachusetts, I’m curious to see if any similar programs exist. I will be visiting numerous indigenous language schools here in Massachusetts to get a bit of an idea. It’s the shared knowledge I think is really important with indigenous communities around the world. There’s an obligation to share what’s worked for us and hopefully learn what works for indigenous groups here.

What else have you been working on around these issues?

I’m a big fan of advocating for and strengthening the voice of Māori children. I feel young children can play a crucial role in influencing policy and local community decision-making. I recently published a book with 11- and 12-year-old Māori young people about community issues that were important to them.

Another area I’ve been working on is the idea that Māori communities need a broad and responsive education to succeed in New Zealand. We have a history in New Zealand where Māori students haven’t necessarily done well academically due to several factors, including poor relationships with key people, including teachers, in a school environment that has not recognized their culture, language, and identity. My work is to advocate for the need to look at how teachers relate to Māori students and create an environment both in the school and the curriculum to ensure that we are culturally connecting back to Māori students. Everyone succeeds when Māori succeed.

As a New Zealander in New England, what’s been most surprising to you here?

There’s so many, where do I start? The accent. There are times now I purposely change my accent, particularly when ordering food or in a rush. For example, I was having trouble once with tomato. You know, to-MAH-to. So I changed it to to-MAY-to. Oh, tomato, okay. [Laughs.] Things like that. We don’t tip in New Zealand, so that’s another interesting cultural experience here. I love the shopping, too. [Laughs.] Supermarkets are massive!

To learn more about Flavell’s work and travels, check out his blog or find him on Instagram.