Before I started learning Māori, the only time I ever came into contact with the language was on formal occasions. I could lip-synch at pōwhiri like a pro. I knew how to line up outside the marae and wait for the sound of the karanga to lift into the air and pull me forward, as if by some invisible hand. I learned how to study the eyes and body language of the speakers, watching for clues of their message in the way they spread their hands, or the precise tone of their voice.
It’s a kind of blindness, to hear a collection of words that hold no meaning. People often talk about language being a key to unlocking culture but, for Māori, there’s more to it than that. Knowing how to communicate in foreign lands will help you connect with the tangata whenua, and it’s a wonderful thing. But it’s quite a different proposition when you are the tangata whenua, and the language you’re learning is not foreign at all, but something you once had, but have lost.
Some people in this country prefer to think of the decline of te reo Māori as a gradual thing. The knowledge that a river has run dry is somehow more palatable if you imagine it occurred over hundreds of years as opposed to a single season. But that isn’t the case. My Nan’s first language was Māori. My Nanapā’s first language was Māori. In my whānau, our language was lost in one generation — a snap of the fingers.
To lose an indigenous language is to lose something essential. Language is the filter through which we make sense of the world. It provides the invisible threads that connect us to the people around us. Without it, we navigate, to some extent, in the dark. But we don’t stop being Māori, just because we don’t speak Māori. We simply find another way to communicate, another language.
The trouble is, te reo Pākehā is so inadequate sometimes. That’s not a criticism — it’s just a fact. Ask any bilingual and they’ll be able to rattle off any number of words that don’t have an equivalent in English. Buzzfeed has a list. It’s one of the wonders of learning a new language. You discover words for emotions or states that you’ve always experienced, but never had the language to describe.
That’s how I’ve found my journey in te reo Māori. It’s like entering a familiar room through a different door. Everything is the same, but the light is cast in a way that I can see the world from a completely new angle.
One of the first things I noticed about te ao Māori, is my place in the world. In English, when you introduce yourself, you always start with your name. The structure of the English language tends to put the individual at the centre of all experience.
But in te ao Māori, the collective is the centre. When you introduce yourself, you start with the people who came before you. You acknowledge the land you hail from and the links from the past that bind you to the present. During mihimihi, it’s not uncommon to hear the words: My mountain greets your mountain. My river greets your river. Because, as Māori, our identity is derived as much from the landscape around us, and the people we call our whānau, as it is from anything that lies within us. That’s why people often sit down after introducing themselves, having completely forgotten to mention their name.
When our language constantly reinforces the understanding that our story is just a small part of a much bigger story, as te reo Māori does, it changes the way we think about the world and the role we play in it. It makes us aware of our impermanence, reminds us of our responsibility as kaitiaki (guardians), and reaffirms the importance of remembering.
This is a fact that the modern world is only just starting to catch up with. There’s an entire industry these days built around helping people trace their family ancestry. You can invest hundreds of dollars and as many hours in libraries and historic vaults, searching faded newspapers and forgotten registries for the lost stories of your ancestors.
But whakapapa Māori is told and retold every time we stand to speak. Our stories have not been forgotten, because our language and culture provide the words and occasions to remember them all the time. That’s why I bristle when people say Māori should get over the past, and move on. They don’t understand that that’s not the way the world works for us. The very language we use to talk about the past (mua) is actually a word that means in front or forwards. In other words, we walk into the future, with our eyes firmly fixed on the past.
That’s not as crazy as it might sound. A bit of research into modern psychology and grief counselling tells us that not forgetting is crucial to healing, particularly for those recovering from the loss of a loved one. It’s not something that tikanga Pākehā does well, outside the setting of a remembrance service.
But in te ao Māori, remembering the dead is part of the fabric of our language. One of the most beautiful expressions you’ll hear at the start of any whaikōrero is some variation on the sentiment: Kei te mihi atu ki a rātou kua whetūrangitia. To those who have gone to the place beyond the stars, we greet you. Often the words are followed by: Haere, haere, haere atu rā. Farewell, farewell, farewell. It’s a ritual that acknowledges that, while people leave, they live on in our memories.
In this way, our language provides the words that allow us to love and to grieve at the same time. In fact, the word “aroha” — which most people understand to mean love — also means “sorrow”. There’s an implicit recognition that love and sorrow are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one, without the other. In the words of a well-known phrase: Ko te utu o te aroha, he mamae. The price of love is sorrow.
Finding the words to validate knowledge that already exists within you can be a very powerful thing, especially to someone new to the language. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea, for example, that the struggles Māori face today are of our own making. The language I grew up with, especially in the 1980s, seemed to explain “Māori problems” as some kind of individual deficit — a failure to make good, logical, healthy decisions.
But that’s an assessment that has no compassion for people as thinking, feeling, vulnerable human beings, interacting with the world around us. And if there’s anything I’ve discovered on my journey so far, it’s that te reo Māori is deeply rooted in compassion. Manaaki ki te tangata: Support, protection, care, respect and generosity for others. There’s an acknowledgement, particularly in healing, that mind, body, spirit, whānau and the physical world are all connected. Western medicine traditionally views these things as separate, but a Māori worldview understands that they are interwoven and interdependent.
Some of the best examples of Māori wisdom can be found in our whakataukī, or proverbs.
This is where the Māori language becomes poetic and playful, using metaphors and allegory to guide, caution, inspire and challenge. We’re told not to die like an octopus, but to die like a shark, a saying that has surely motivated its share of Māori language revivalists over the years. We’re reminded that we shall never be lost, because we are seeds sown from Rangiātea — a reference, in one breath, to our history and our potential.
The ability to layer meaning in ways that allow for multiple interpretations is probably one of the most exciting things for me about learning Māori. For all that, I still struggle to speak sometimes. Shame creeps up on me like a vine whenever I need to find my voice. And, much like Willie Jackson, I’ve been judged harshly at times, by those with more knowledge than me. I’ve been called a “born-again Māori” — and that’s just by my friends.
The tendency to use fluency, or some other fact, as a weapon against our own people, doesn’t make sense to me. Not only does it go against the essence of the language itself, it also fails to recognise that learning Māori for many of us isn’t just an intellectual exercise. It’s emotional and spiritual, too. We inherit the mana of our tūpuna, but sometimes, we also inherit their fear and pain.
That’s why it isn’t helpful to criticise each other and where we’re at on our reo journey. We might need to go searching for answers to questions about our whakapapa Māori that leave us empty-handed, frustrated and confused. It’s a process that takes time. Just like a riverbed needs time to replenish after a season of drought.
I’m still in that process. But now, when I hear the karanga pulling me forwards, I understand the significance of the words and why they stir such deep emotions in me. I hear the banter between the lines of whaikōrero, or a gem of wisdom hidden in a whakataukī, and I no longer feel like I’m sitting in the dark. I certainly don’t understand everything, but these days, when that waiata tautoko goes up, I’m definitely singing along.
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