Learning te reo: My pathway out of shame

Learning te reo Māori has helped thousands of New Zealanders embark on a voyage of self-discovery.

Learning te reo Māori has helped thousands of New Zealanders embark on a voyage of self-discovery.

Being Māori, yet unable speak or understand the language of my tīpuna (ancestors), I always felt as if my identity was built on fragile ground.

When a kuia berated me for some unintentional transgression in the wharenui, my sense of self was shaken. When I couldn't remember my rote-learned pepeha during a school visit, I felt the walls tilting towards me.

When I failed to know the appropriate waiata, or the correct words to acknowledge visitors, I felt a rupturing between what I should be and what I actually was:  Was I really Māori if I couldn’t speak te reo?

Why I learned te reo

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I became incredibly adept at hiding my shame and "faking it". While at high school, I attended the Māori netball nationals, which, like all good Māori sports tournaments, involved a lengthy hui on the final afternoon.

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At the hui, kaikōrero (speakers) from all teams acknowledged the organisers’ work and thanked Tūranganui-a-Kiwa for hosting us. Those of my teammates who could speak te reo spent the afternoon chatting at the back of the hall, but I sat - rock-still - for hours, pretending that I could understand what was being said and desperately wishing that I could.

I laughed when everybody else laughed. I shook my head when everybody else shook their head. I was overly chuffed when, at the end of the hui, one of my teammates said to me, "you can speak Māori, aye?".

Forced to go to such lengths to hide my shame, I sought someone to blame for my predicament.

Rationally, I knew that the blame rests with the institutional racism that underpins New Zealand’s history. Rationally, I knew that, from the 1860s onwards, te reo was forbidden in many schools. And I rationally knew that, to prevent their children from experiencing the same punishment that they did at the hands of their teachers, many parents stopped speaking te reo to their children.

But I was still plagued by a nagging thought: why couldn’t have those parents been stronger? Why couldn’t they have believed in the importance of their language?

The target of my resentment was my paternal grandmother - my Nan. She was raised by her grandparents in Mōhaka, a small settlement on the east coast, approximately 20 kilometres south of Wairoa.

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Until she turned five and was sent to the local school, Nan spoke nothing but te reo Māori. She retained her knowledge of the language throughout her life and, when it became increasingly clear that te reo was in rapid decline, was involved in the Kōhanga Reo movement.

She later became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, in part for her contribution to Kōhanga.

Nevertheless, my father, my aunts and my uncles were raised with only one language: English.

It always seemed ironic to me that hundreds of children are now learning Māori due to my grandmother’s efforts, yet most of my whānau remain voiceless when it comes to te reo.

I never had the maturity to ask Nan why she raised her children speaking English. When I was finally old enough and able to voice these questions, she was no longer there to answer.

In some ways, the fact that Nan wasn’t around anymore forced me to take the leap in 2013 and enrol in Te Tohu Paetahi, a total immersion programme at the University of Waikato. In the absence of my Nan, I could only blame myself for my predicament.

And learning te reo Māori was the pathway out of years of shame.

E ai ki te whakataukī: tōku reo, tōku ohooho.

 - Stuff Nation


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