Storytelling helps turn new page for important research into South Sea Islanders in Australia

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

A traditional Melanesian story-telling methodology, ‘tok stori’ will be the foundation of a new James Cook University research project looking at the lived experiences of Australian South Sea Islanders.

Researchers supported by the Queensland United Australian South Sea Islander Council (QUASSIC) will gather insights from Australian South Sea Islander people to identify ways to improve access to health, housing, employment and education services.

JCU Associate Professor and Principal Research Fellow Michelle Redman-MacLaren will lead the major study and said facilitating ‘tok stori’ dialogues would culturally ground the research.

“Story is a powerful medium for sharing experiences that can guide meaningful, positive action so we will be recording multigenerational family stories about the lived realities of Australian South Sea Islanders to identify protective cultural factors in addition to challenges faced,” Associate Professor Redman-MacLaren says

“The tok stori approach will also facilitate research that identifies priorities of Australian South Sea Islander communities through comprehensive community engagement and will ensure the research agenda and methods are culturally grounded.

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‘’In addition to ‘tok stori’, the team will analyse existing quantitative data to build a better understanding of the experiences of Australian South Sea Islander peoples in Queensland across areas such as education, employment, housing and health.

“These findings will begin to fill a knowledge gap and provide evidence-based recommendations to improve services for valued members of our Queensland community.’’

Understanding a proud history

She told EducationDaily that her own relationship with members of the South Sea Islander community in Australia began during her own days at university in the early 1990s – “from first year lectures about blackbirding at the University of Queensland delivered by Professor Clive Moore, to friendships, travel adventures and milestone celebrations with members of the Fatnowna and Bobongie families from Mackay, where my husband David MacLaren grew up”.

“I have also been privileged to visit, live and / or work in Solomon Islands for over 30 years – working with people whose family members were brought to Queensland work in the sugar cane and other industries,” Redman-MacLaren says.

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“For this specific study, I was approached to submit a competitive tender to lead the research by members of the Australian South Sea Islander community. I see Australian South Sea Islanders in Queensland not accessing education, health and other services in the same way, as other member of communities in Queensland.”

Collective effort aims to boost equity and advocacy

She says her James Cook University team, in partnership with Queensland United Australian South Sea Islander (QUASSIC) leaders, are “committed to co-generate quality evidence that can be used for advocacy and ultimately used to inform positive change”, adding that storytelling plays a pivotal role.

“I have experienced the power of story – as the storyteller and as witness to stories – and believe story is a central human need. Story can also bring positive change. Amongst researchers, the power of story is becoming more and more recognised as a way to deeply and systematically explore people’s experiences. The tok stori approach in research is highly contextualised, as described by Prof Kabini Sanga, from Malaita, Solomon Islands. Tok stori is a Melanesian approach to storytelling that takes into account the context of where the stori is taking place, different types of knowledge and adheres to the cultural ways of doing things. Tok stori honours the whole person, including emotional and spiritual domains.”

Redman-MacLaren says the activity is a collective one that puts the researcher at the heart of the process.

“Our JCU colleague Mrs Zia Youse, an Australian South Sea Islander, will be facilitating the tok stories in this study. Zia likes to say about tok stori, ‘it is just how we talk‘,”

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The importance of improving access to education

The research will initially focus on the communities of Rockhampton and Bundaberg, two regions with significant Australian South Sea Islander populations. A third site will be identified in Far North Queensland as research progresses.

The research was commissioned and funded by the Queensland Government with findings from the study informing the Queensland Government Multicultural Action Plan and policies to support Australian South Sea Islander communities. The study is expected to be completed by mid-2025.

Redman-MacLaren says improving access to quality education will promote the development of Australian South Sea Islander children and contribute to them becoming active and contributing community members.

“This study will contribute historical and contemporary multigenerational family stories about their experiences of education, including identifying improvements that can be made,” she told EducationDaily.

QUASSIC President Clacy Fatnowna has welcomed the research and says it is an important step forward for South Sea Islander Australians. 

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“We have been calling for greater understanding of the contemporary Australian South Sea Islander experience in Queensland,’’ Mr Fatnowna says.

‘‘This study provides an exciting opportunity to have our stories heard, generate a foundational evidence base, and identify areas for positive change.”

JCU Australian South Sea Islander researcher Zia Youse describes the study as an incredible opportunity to centralise experiences of Australian South Sea Islander peoples through a culturally relevant research process.

‘‘It will bring together researchers with decades of experience working with Melanesian and Australian South Sea Islander peoples and I’m proud to be contributing to this important work.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]