Threat to Te Reo sparks written journey

TE REO: Hikoi author and director Nancy Brunning with actors Tola Newberry, Hine Parata-Walker, Ngakopa Volkerling, Kali Kopae and Aroha White.
TE REO: Hikoi author and director Nancy Brunning with actors Tola Newberry, Hine Parata-Walker, Ngakopa Volkerling, Kali Kopae and Aroha White.

A tale of what it was like to grow up Maori in the 1970s and 80s quietly percolated in its creator's mind for 16 years until the heat suddenly went on.

Nancy Brunning had begun writing Hikoi to keep her mind active when she was pregnant in 1995.

It grew one character at a time, one vignette at a time, until something gave it urgency in 2011.

Te Mauriora Review predicted the death of the Maori language within 40 years.

The report found that, although there were more and better opportunities to learn Te Reo at kohanga reo, kura kaupapa and Te Wananga O Aotearoa, and despite the Maori Language Commission's efforts, the language was not widely spoken in homes.

"What they realised was that it only takes one generation to unravel the work that had been done," Brunning said.

"I had to ask myself the question: 'why am I not speaking it?'. "

Te reo had been her mother's native tongue but she was of the generation that was beaten for speaking Maori, and Brunning did not become fluent.

Her own daughter spoke Maori at her kohanga and at school but not at home.

She asked her siblings a range of 25 questions about their experience of their language and was amazed by the diversity of answers she received to such queries as 'What was the first Maori word you heard? What was the first Maori song?"

Her family was raised in a small town where being Maori meant being part of a gang and fighting.

What they learned was not what they saw of their culture but what they were told about it.

She was also surprised to hear of fear and shame, fear of being picked on, shame of not being able to speak properly.

"Communication has that impact," she said. "It's not about taking away a thing or a right, it's taking away somebody's understanding of who they are, their confidence, their courage."

Her play Hikoi is set in the 1970s and 1980s, a time of upheaval in New Zealand. Maori All Blacks were accorded "honorary white" status in South Africa, the Springbok tour split the country, Dame Whina Cooper led the first land march and Ngati Whatua and their supporters occupied Bastion Point.

The growing children felt the changes in the political landscape on a small scale.

"When you had class discussions about Maori land marches you would see the room being divided down the middle," Brunning said.

For one exercise, the children were told to take either white settlers' side or the Maori one. Brunning chose to be a white settler but she found herself a largely silent observer, listening to others define her and her culture.

In spite of the larger issues of language and how a racially diverse society lives together, Hikoi is really a story about family, partnerships and communication, she said.

The Maori parents are different to one another and have their own communication challenges.

One was raised in a Maori family, dominated by a pakeha- oriented father, the other fostered out and raised among pakeha.

"They're talking about the same things but they are kind of missing each other and that's symptomatic in the raising of their five children," Brunning said.

Audiences should not expect Hikoi to be too serious - there is humour.

"People call it Maori humour," she said. When things become intense somebody will do something ridiculous to lighten the situation and the kids do it frequently, she said.

"This is about human nature and people trying to connect with one another."

Hikoi opens at Circa Theatre on June 28 and runs until July 12 as one of Wellington's Matariki events.

For more information or to book call 801 7992, or visit

Is Maori dying?

According to Statistics New Zealand te reo was at least ailing, if not terminal.

Less people were fluent in 2013 than had been in 2001.

In 2013, 21.31 per cent of Maori could speak te reo, down from 25.15 per cent in 2001.

Of the total population, 3.73 per cent were fluent in te reo in 2013 or 125,352 speakers, down from 130,485 in 2001.

Upper Hutt Leader