Extremes show lack of understanding

This year Maori language week has given me a chance to reflect on the state of Maori language from two extremes of a spectrum.

Last Friday and Saturday I was up in the North Island running a small workshop with the chief executive and trustees of the Tuhoe Uru Taumata. This is their group of elected representatives overseeing the current assets, negotiations with the Government and governance of their own affairs. The iwi is at an exciting point in its development and is keen to talk about other iwi experiences and ideas as it plans for their future.

What struck me, though, was while I was walking from the front desk to the meeting room I could hear the conversations that were happening around the table and they were all in Maori.

Most people that know a little bit about Tuhoe won't be surprised to hear this but in these times even those who can speak Maori often choose not to in an informal setting. But the group that was gathered, aged from their late 20s to their 70s, were all chattering away about family matters, recent meetings and iwi politics. They were not pushing themselves to speak to simply keep the language vibrant in their corner of the world - it was already.

We conducted the workshop in English as there were enough of us present that would have struggled to fully convey the sorts of information that we needed to if we had only spoken in Maori but that was fine too. These guys are also fully conversant in English.

At another end of the spectrum I was in a meeting with predominantly pakeha people and someone thought it appropriate to tell a Maori joke. I understand that the done thing for Maori in such circumstances is to be indignant but I am not easily offended. Anyway the joke fell flat, quite possibly because everyone else was overly aware that there was a Maori in the room, but, believe it or not, middle-aged, middle-class men love to give me a bit of a "soft" ribbing about Maori stuff.

So the conversation shifted quickly to Maori language week and I was asked what the Maori name for Dunedin was and I answered Otepoti. This is a fairly obscure name not repeated elsewhere. It may be a corruption of an original name that refers to a little corner of a bay that was right at the site of the modern Southern Cross hotel in Dunedin or it could also be a transliteration of a modern English term about boat, or a poti, anchorage in the same spot. It is pronounced something like Oar-te-porty. I explained this to the businessman and despite my correct pronunciation he looked across the table at me with an incredulous look on his face and said Oatypokey?

Once again I understand I am not supposed to laugh at such politically incorrect outbursts but I couldn't help myself. "Hokey pokey?" I said ,which only prompted a further crude joke albeit this time about blondes.

While this was certainly a contrast to what I had just experienced in Tuhoe I was also reminded of a similar incident recently with a Maori colleague. We were discussing South Island matters when I heard someone say something that sounded like Why- kick-a-moo-cow.

Now I have heard that phrase all my life as a sort of lampoon on Maori names but actually thought it was just a made-up term like the old Maori word for aerial being a kotanga (coat hanger). But hearing this genuinely piqued my curiosity and I pursued it immediately and learnt that this was a local way of pronouncing Waikokomuka.

I really am not offended by incidents such as this but I am disappointed by some people's attitude towards te reo Maori. As well as a language of general communication, as I observed in my meeting with Tuhoe, te reo is also a very poetic and expressive language. This is often reflected in place names and Waikokomuka is an example of this.

As most people know wai is water. Kokomuka is an old word for a hebe or veronica plant that is generally known in Maori as a koromiko. When I hear the word kokomuka I think of the proverb that suggests that the koromiko wood is the best firewood for cooking moa so it reminds me of an ancient presence here in Aotearoa.

My general sense of disappointment is that this window in to an important layer of New Zealand's rich historical make-up is totally opaque to most of the population. That means there is a part of who we are and where we come from that many New Zealanders simply cannot appreciate.

The Press