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In praise of…Pākehā learning and teaching te reo Māori

I had one of those lump-in-the throat moments the other day watching Jennifer Ward-Lealand on Native Affairs talking in te reo Māori about her journey into te reo Māori (watch it here.) She was suffering from a bit of a cold, and she chose her words carefully, and she was gorgeous to watch and marvellous to listen to, giving hope to many an aspiring reo learner judging by comments on social media. I found my own emotional reaction a little surprising. After all, what’s new about people learning te reo? What, especially, can possibly be new about that kind of interview during Māori Language Week? Get a grip, girl! At any rate I found myself analysing my own response (yes the inside of my own head can be a pretty annoying place at times). One stream of thinking in my mind was the cynic. She is often present and not always pleasant. ‘Riiight’, she sneered. ‘You need Pākehā approval of our language just to be able to feel good about it. Typical behaviour of the colonised mentality.’ ‘Ah shaddap’, I told my cynical self. But on the other hand there might be a grain of unwelcome truth there. As someone who has had to learn how to be culturally Māori over the last three decades or so, perhaps I really haven’t left behind that insecurity that has me fear that I will some day be found out as a cultural fake. As the late and very great Barry Barclay said to me in an interview once, he always felt like he was in a ‘spiritual wheelchair’ during his journey to learn to be culturally Māori as an adult. By this he meant that he always felt at a level of disadvantage that perhaps was only perceptible to him. Maybe, if I still have the remains of that kind of cultural ‘dis-ease, I still need ‘validation.’  Perhaps I really do need Pākehā I admire to like and respect things Māori in order for me to ‘have permission’ feel good about them myself. I don’t know. I hope not.

But there is another slightly (actually substantially) louder voice in the hubbub. That’s the voice that reminds me how absolutely grateful I am to certain Pākehā who cropped up at critical times in  my life to let me know that not only was it OK to be Māori, the Māori language is truly a thing of genius as well as beauty. My Pākehā mother raised me to believe it was good and special and enviable to be Māori even of she was never quite sure what that meant. (My Māori dad, I don’t think, gave a pātero in the high wind for the language, for much of his life.) It was Dr Winifred Bauer at Te Kawa a Maui in 2007 who opened my eyes to the brilliance of the language. I knew how to speak and write it by then (to a useful but not fluent degree) but I had no idea that the language I had been learning was so bloody GOOD. Yes, I know all languages are good. I just think I had taken it for granted up until that point, and being in her class was like taking the back off a Swiss watch and seeing for the very first time the unbelievably intricate mechanisms that lay behind the smooth and beautiful face.

Then there are the Pākehā who are fluent in te reo Maori that I just happened upon over the course of my working life, people like Anaru Robb, Tipene Chrisp and Mary Boyce just to name a few. There were the many Pākehā and Tauiwi students that formed some part of my own language learning journey. Something I have learned over the years is that for Pakeha learning te reo there may be quite a heavy personal cost as they can be challenged about their right to access te reo, and for those that attain fluency and go on to teach, the pressure they can experience, the challenges placed before them because of their Pakehatanga can be substantial (as alluded to in this article). Not only do such individuals sometimes face challenge from Māori about their right to participate in a language that has been lost to so many Māori already, they will often face challenges from other Pākehā and Tauiwi questioning the utility of their choice. That decision to plough on regardless takes a certain kind of bravery.

I have heard it said that if Māori is to survive in this country as a viable language, then Pākehā must speak it. If they do not, the declining numbers of Māori currently speaking te reo (as identified in the most recent census) may be the harbinger of linguistic doom. We need all hands on deck. If that is indeed the case (and I agree that it is) reports this week of the low numbers of non-Maori studying te reo at school (4% of the total student body in year 9 and above, (see here) are concerning. The Māori and Pākehā learners of today are the reo Māori teachers of tomorrow. One of the key argument against making te reo compulsory in schools has been that due to the low numbers of te reo Māori teachers the bulk of the people who would need to deliver te reo to the school kids would be Pākehā, and in many cases, inexperienced and underprepared to do a good job. As calls for compulsory te reo Māori at primary school level start to gain a bit more of a head of steam (see here) it becomes pretty obvious that there would be a massive problem in delivery, even if the compulsory element is only in the offering of te reo Māori, rather than in ensuring every child must learn it. But I don’t think the lack of human resources comprises an effective argument against compulsory reo in schools, rather, that is a logistical problem that will need to be solved by governments – governments that have a shabby record in solving logistical problems as far as the Māori language is  concerned, at least. (If you need evidence of this, have a look at the te reo Māori chapter of the WAI 262 report as profiled on Carwyn Jones’ Te Ahi Kaa Roa blog.) I don’t know what the new language strategy holds for the future of Pākehā learning te reo Māori, but without those Māori and Pākehā dedicated to, and loving, te reo, I would not be able to hold the conversations that I do. I know how lucky I am, and how grateful I am to all those who have helped me over the decades of my reo journey, Māori mā, Pākehā mā. Tēnā koutou katoa, ngā manu tioriori. But the flight path you leave has to be a wide one, so it seems, if enough of us are to follow.

About Sparrowhawk/Kārearea

Legal academic and writer, Wellington. (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Pākeha. Nō te Hāhi Mihinare hoki)

6 responses »

  1. Kia ora

    I was born and raised in Rotorua. As I travelled on the buses up and down the then Whaka Road to school I used to hear the old kuia with moko speaking Te Reo. It always sounded familiar, like a language once known but now forgotten. If I listened harder I could understand? In my 50’s I tried to learn at night classes but they didn’t work for me until our tutor found a way to enrol most of us at Victoria and it all began to make sense. This was in the time of Pou Temara. I managed to achieve Maori 101 and 121, negotiating time from my – fairly understanding – job to get in and out of Wellington from Porirua to Te Herenga Waka. It was a difficult but wonderful year! The following year was impossible, I had more responsibilities at work and at home. But still, it had given me a pretty good understanding of spoken and written Maori. It had never been an option at school. Now in my late 70’s I will never be fluent but I appreciate and respect and try to continue my understanding of the language by watching programmes on Maori TV. I support Maori being taught in all schools. It makes you smarter! I know my great grandfather, who was sent to open the very first school at Mangakahia, would have spoken Maori by the end of his time there and it would have helped him in his later, different, career.

    I see Russell Brown has a blog that says Te Reo Maori : Let’s Just Start. This sounds like a good slogan for a movement. It could begin with next years new entrants having Te Reo as a core subject as we build up the teaching capability, in step, every following year.

    A Pakeha Perspective


    • Kia ora Ellen, what a great comment, thank you! I wonder if we ever crossed paths, (I started at TKM in 1996) when Pou was there). And yes. Let’s just…start.


      • Kia ora korua

        I have really enjoyed reading your blog Mamari.. and enjoy those memories of learning at the “feet” of Pou ma. We were there and appreciate more as the years go by just what a privilege it was to begin my Reo Journey there among the likes of Quinton Hita, Julian Wilcox. Tanea Heke, Torangapu Moki just to namedrop a few. I particularly enjoyed your insights about teaching Te Reo and the pressure involved to get everything right or else.. its daunting and can even make you sick if you don’t do it ‘right” .. my own reo for the most part needs support and I have that in a few good friends who have permission to correct me when I am wrong.. As a language teacher having come to Te Reo quite late in life (began at 37) I understand that there are parts of language that will always betray the fact that I am a second language learner. And of course, there is nothing like whanau to tell you when you are all tiko.. part of the Maori experience and very useful and humbling.. so it also take courage to learn and practice Te Reo Maori ia ra ia ra.. but me haere tonu tatou ne? Let’s just start and carry on regardless.


      • Tēnā koe e hoa! Kia ora rawa atu mōu whakaaro…gee, yeah, wonderful memories of Kuratini, aye. Could never have gone on the way that I did had it not been for you lot who just allowed me to be the pale Māori learning wot it was all about…mihi aroha ki a koe!!!


  2. Pingback: Te Reo Maori | mountain2surf

  3. Kia ora rā! Ko Abby au. I’m Pākehā, a recent grad and beginning kaiako of te reo Māori this year. I found this super encouraging. Kia pai tōu haerenga reo, and I look forward to perusing more of your pieces xx



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