The other night I was watching Seven Sharp, and saw a piece that encouraged Pākehā to “develop their Māori cultural competence” in order “to increase their future employability.” And although they’d long passed away, I still felt like I could hear the thump of my tūpuna (grandparents) falling off their chairs in disbelief. While Te Wiki o te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week) was first celebrated back in 1975, I don’t think either of them could have imagined the recent swelling of enthusiasm from wider New Zealand society to embrace this taonga tuku iho (treasure handed down) as part of a larger, positive shift in attitudes towards Māoridom. And with record numbers of Pākehā lining up to learn te reo Māori, it won’t ease anytime soon.
Aotearoa is changing.
Labour’s recent commitment for New Zealand history to be compulsory within schools by 2022 was framed as a response to the calls for every New Zealander to know more about our own history and identity. While I’m hyped on the idea, squeezing conversations about colonisation, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the New Zealand Wars and the “evolution of a national identity with cultural plurality” between first period and Tik Tok seems like a big ask for students. But we need to squeeze this discourse in somehow, and somewhere, because understanding what has happened in our shared past isn’t the destination, it is simply the key to unlocking a massive and necessary conversation about who we are as a nation, and who we want to be.
To better describe the scale of the task ahead of us, I return to a story from the well-known tohunga, scholar and Anglican minister, Rev. Māori Marsden. After fighting in WW2, Māori returns to Aotearoa and finds himself at a Whare Wānanga (traditional tribal centre of higher and esoteric learning) in the Hokianga, answering questions about how the war ended. Māori recounts:
“One of the elders who had of course heard of the atom bomb asked me to explain the difference between the atom bomb and an explosive bomb. I took the word ‘hihiri’ which in Māoridom means ‘pure energy’. Here I recalled Einstein’s concept of the real world behind the natural world as being comprised of ‘rhythmical patterns of pure energy’ and said to him this was essentially the same concept. He then exclaimed, “Do you mean to tell me that the Pākehā scientists have managed to rend the fabric (kahu) of the universe?” I said “Yes.”…“But do they know how to sew (tuitui) it back together again?” [and Māori replies] “No.”
I’m pretty sure neither Māori nor that kaumatua looked at one another and said “Mic drop” at the end of that conversation, but they could have.
By describing the universe as a fabric Māori and this kaumatua tap into traditional motifs to explain the nature of the world: everything is interconnected and interdependent. Most readily seen in the concept of whakapapa (genealogy) which grounds everything in the natural world through a common ancestry, this vision of reality asks the question: if all things material and immaterial are related to one another, are we moving towards restoration, reconciliation and healing (tuitui), or away from it?
My grandparents on my mother’s side were born and bred in Te Tai Tokerau (Northland), Hōri Paul was raised in Pipiwai and Kararaina Shelford was from Ngāraratanua. They had nine children together, and my mother Whitiao was number five. My mum moved to Tāmaki Makaurau (the big smoke) from Whangārei as a young adult. Like many others within Māoridom, she followed her siblings and work opportunities into the large urban centres. Although industries were keen to employ the Māori workforce during times of prosperity, when the markets turned, the bright lights and big opportunities quickly faded. The Kia Pū te Wai o Pareira report, summarising the tail end of this urban drift states:
“Māori workers were particularly vulnerable. They were typically lower skilled, in volatile professions, and were more likely to be laid-off first. Poverty within many urban Māori communities developed rapidly. The consequences were inevitable; housing affordability quickly became a challenge, health and nutrition issues emerged, as did higher levels of educational underachievement and cycles of disadvantage. Many Māori whānau became trapped in this cycle and were further compromised by the fact that their linkages to traditional support structures (due to urbanisation) had been severed.”
During 1985, and into this context, I was born. My mother was working in a takeaway shop in Panmure when she fell pregnant with me, and after my birth she put me into one of the few kōhanga reo (language nests) in central Auckland, at Te Unga Waka Marae in Epsom. Studying full time, and working when she could, my mother eventually completed her degree in Social Work. Faced with an overwhelming workload, her career was defined by the struggle to see whānau Māori treated with the dignity and respect they deserved within the health, education and justice systems she fought so hard against. Although this period is now described as the Māori renaissance, for the average city dweller, any effort of cultural reclamation was being dwarfed by the emergence of a distinct urban Māori experience and identity. An excerpt from the Apirana Taylor’s poem Sad Joke on a Marae, mimicking the pepeha (tribal motto), describes the exchange that had taken place:
But hey, we had a roof over our heads (provided by the state), and full cupboards, and clean clothes, and I went to the movies more than other kids in my neighborhood. Compared to my friends, and many of my cousins, I was the lucky one. So it wasn’t a big deal for us as a whānau when I didn’t go to the kura kaupapa (total immersion school) half way across town, or keep up with kapa haka (cultural performance) practice, or head home to the marae as much as we might have. We were doing well (enough) weren’t we?
No. No we weren’t lucky, or fortunate at all it turns out. Because the evidence showing the deep connection between cultural identity and wellbeing is overwhelming. And 20 years since my own teenage experience, things haven’t changed much for kids like me. In fact, Dr Keri Lawson-Te Aho a psychologist specialising in indigenous suicide prevention notes “the impact of colonisation for contemporary Māori youth has contributed to a breakdown of traditional cultural structures; leaving a legacy of hopelessness and loss of meaning.” Culture isn’t an optional extra to Māori wellbeing, it sits at the heart of it.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that my entire life is surrounded by conversations that return to how, where, and why we should continue sewing the universe back together. De-colonise this, Māoriwards that, Treaty claims here, inequality there: one stitch at a time, always mending.
Feeling overwhelmed? Join the club.
So, although we’ve taken leaps and bounds as a country in valuing Māori culture on the whole, there is still a long way to go. Let’s take learning te reo Māori as an example. Just under 20% of Māori in Aotearoa can speak te reo. In my family, it’s less than that. From my grandparents down, there are currently six generations, 91 of us all up. My grandfather Hōri could speak te reo, and my grand- mother Kararaina was able to understand it apparently. They taught none of their children te reo Māori, thinking they would be able to function better within wider society. Counting my grandfather, my two first cousins, and some of our kids, there are currently eight people in my whānau who can kōrero. That is not a typo, eight out of ninety one descendants can speak their own language.
At the end of this year, after a long personal journey of language classes, and tears, I will become the ninth person in my family to speak the language. I’m unsure how you’d imagine celebrating an achievement like this, but for me as an individual, and for us as a whānau there will be mixed emotions. Any sense of personal accomplishment will quickly fade, because the gift of te reo Māori doesn’t come without a sting. First there’s the responsibility. As a te reo speaker (even as basic as I am), I’ve now become a designated “go to” person at all Māori gatherings. And while I spend the next ten years with a bad case of imposter syndrome, the ability to participate within Māori speaking contexts is a privilege most people won’t ever be able to enjoy.
Then there’s the (completely self-imposed) guilt. In order to achieve my fluency goals I’ve received a sabbatical, and a scholar- ship, I’ve had wonderful whānau support (with parents who are still alive and have helped financially) and I have thankfully avoided any significant crisis during my study period. So many dice had to roll the right way, consistently, for me, one person, to get to this part of the language journey. Not everyone is so fortunate.
So, although I can see the positive step I’ve taken forward, the wider picture is still dominated with negative space. Healing intergenerational trauma isn’t a one-off event, it’s all absorbing and enveloping. Personally, and collectively, Māori understand we can’t opt out of the work of restoration. To do so, is to make the wellbeing and future for our kids worse off.
So, for all of my Pākehā friends, I’m so excited that you want to learn te reo Māori. I genuinely look forward to hearing about your experiences on the marae, enjoying our hospitality and surviving the chorus of snorers on your first night. And mostly, I can’t wait to hear about your conversations with your future teenage kids and grandkids about our shared history. But, please don’t stop there. Every interaction with te ao Māori (the Māori world) is an invitation, a doorway, to co-labour together. It’s sacred work, putting the fabric of the universe back together, and while I can’t and won’t opt out of this weaving, non-Māori quite easily can. I would ask that you don’t.
Please choose to opt in, and decide to move from merely observing the reclamation of our culture, to becoming an active participant. Typically, when I lay down this wero (challenge) to my Pākehā friends, they respond “Ok then, tell us how? How can we help in ways that are actually meaningful?” It starts with things as simple as making it awkward at the office party or family lunch when a racial slur or “harmless” joke is said. It can include learning te reo Māori etc. But the most meaningful things you can do are the ones that might cost you. I’ll give you an example.
Recently my Pākehā friend was offered a role as a te reo Māori teacher at a very reputable, private girls’ college. Before accepting the role, she asked the simplest and most obvious question: “Why haven’t you, say, employed an actual Māori?” The school had been trying apparently, so my friend pushed them to try harder. Before accepting the job, she said the school would have to ensure every other possibility to find and employ a Māori teacher had been exhausted before she’d proceed. After it was clear that no other candidates could be found, she said “I’ll only accept the offer if you give me a larger budget because there are types of knowledge and experiences that only Māori should share, so I’ll have to bring guests in for the students.”
The pragmatist in me is happy she took the job, I still want those kids to learn the language. But the process she took, and the personal cost she was ultimately willing to risk actually matters. In my world, where it can always seem like we’re swimming upstream, it felt good to have someone opt into the awkward, difficult work of restoration.
Embedded into the current reality of our society; the good and bad; our pain and pride, is caught up within Māori and Pākehā relationships. It’s not about returning New Zealand to what it was before colonisation, that’s impossible. Instead, what compels me, the Māori world, and hopefully you one day, is the restoration of te Ao Māori. If the wider flourishing of the New Zealand we know today came at the cost of the Māori world and culture, the good and necessary work of repairing the fabric of our universe will need to cost us all something too.