Marama Kahu Fox is one of two Māori Party MPs in Parliament. She and Te Ururoa Flavell are co-leaders following the resignation of Tariana Turia. She spent 26 years in education, and then became a Māori Party list MP after the 2014 general election. Here she talks with Dale Husband about her background and her enthusiasm for te reo Māori.
Would you please tell us something about your family and your early days?
When I was very young, our family shifted from the middle of Cannon’s Creek in Wellington down to Christchurch. My father was a teacher at Waitangirua Intermediate in Porirua. My mum had started the Corinna Street playcentre. This was about 1971. And the Minister of Education, who’d come to have a look at what she was doing, liked it so much that he offered her a job in Christchurch. So the whole family moved down there.
My mum (Frances) was from Wairarapa. Ngāti Taneroa. Ngāti Kaiparuparu. Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa. Her kuia, Hera Ngatoro, was from Matahi o te Tau, Ngāti Porou.
My dad, Ernie Smith, was Pākehā. Ernest Richard Smith. His family came from Australia, but originally from England. They landed at Westport where, in its heyday, there used to be 47 pubs on the main street. His dad, Kenneth Smith, had been quite a famous conductor of bands and orchestras back in the day. And his mum, Olive, was the head cook at Church College for a number of years.
It was at Church College where Mum and Dad met. They married young, and Dad taught at a number of schools including Whakarewarewa and then Melville, in Hamilton, where I was born.
I was the youngest of five. First there was my brother, Rawiri, who was a teacher for many years but is now the environmental manager for Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa. Next was my oldest sister, Terry, who works for a furniture company in Sydney — and who’s been there forever and needs to come home.
My second sister is Vanita Kutia, who works for Kiwi Rail in Hamilton. Then there’s Kim Smith who works for TPK (for Whānau Ora) in Wellington. And, finally, there’s me.
Very soon after we shifted to Christchurch, my dad left. So my mum brought us up. And if you want to talk about influences on my life, that was Mum. She was phenomenal. She was very independent and, early on, she decided she wasn’t going to rely on anybody. And she had the same idea about us.
For example, she put me through a junior mechanics class so that I could learn to fix the car and the lawnmower. And we became very independent young women.
How was it at school in such a Pākehā environment?
At school in Christchurch, we were just about the only Māori students. No others at Elmwood Primary. Only one other — my best friend — at Heaton Intermediate. Then, at Christchurch Girls High, there were only 10 or so Māori girls at the time. And I remember the principal calling us into her office and asking us not to hang out together because “we looked like a gang”. I thought that was an interesting comment.
But my mum was always quick to respond to any hint of inequality, so she marched down to the principal’s office to have a word about that. I always had a sense of pride in my mum, especially in the way she made sure that we were treated properly. She said there were all these stereotypes about Māori, so we should never let ourselves be treated in any way less than we deserved. She wanted us to be the best we could be. To be proud of ourselves. And to ask ourselves: “What could we have done better?” Not just for the sake of success, but to push ourselves to be the most we could be.
My mum was absolutely pivotal. She loved education and wanted us to pursue it as far as we could. My brother, Rawiri, and sister Terry went off to university and paved the way for the rest of us.
Meanwhile, my mum was working for the Education Department and was helping establish preschool education in the South Island. Now, whenever I go down there, people ask me “How’s your mum?” and they comment on the effect she had on developments down there.
She ran in-service courses at Rehua Marae where the students learned stick games and poi and raranga. And she helped bring tikanga Māori and Māori practices alive.
Was there reo Māori in the home when you were growing up?
My mum didn’t speak Māori. She remembers being strapped at school for that. So the old people would only speak Māori among themselves. They always spoke English to the tamariki.
I’ve heard comments that Māori gave away the reo, but I think that’s harsh. I don’t believe that at all. Our reo was stripped from us through 100 years of legislation — and it was also discouraged in the whānau not because they didn’t want the reo but because they wanted to protect their children from harm.
Now, in the debates about the Matawai policy, you hear the question: “Why would you want to put the reo back in the hands of the whānau when they gave it away?” But that’s unfair. I completely oppose that thinking.
I grew up with the desire to learn te reo. I wanted to know what was being said. We’d go back to Wairarapa for tangi and birthdays and all those sorts of things. When the old people were on the paepae talking in te reo, they’d be in fits of laughter all the time, and nodding and agreeing … and then they’d sing. It was all so relaxing for the old people to have their language. And I’d be frustrated at not knowing what they were saying.
We also went home to Wairarapa to shear sheep. Shearing was in our blood. I was a presser and rousie in the school holidays. That’s how we earned money for our school books and clothes and so on. We’d work for our uncle who was a shearing contractor. That’s where I met my husband, Ben Fox. He’s mostly known as Sam or Sambo, though, because he was so dark right from when he was born.
So, how did you get on the trail of te reo Māori?
At 18, I was a teen mum — and Ben and I married and settled in Masterton for the rest of our lives. I was wondering what to do with myself. It couldn’t be university now that I had a son. So I took baby to kōhanga reo — and I stayed there every day, and slowly began to learn the reo.
I knew the rule was that you weren’t allowed to speak except in Māori. So I had to be quiet — which, as I’m sure you can understand, was really hard for me.
But I had a toy rabbit with me and I whispered to one of the kids: “What’s this?”
He said “rapiti”.
Then I remembered that we used to sing Oma Rapiti. There you go. Run Rabbit Run. So I realised I did know some stuff, some reo Māori.
And that led me on to try and say other things in Māori, even though that could mean I’d have to go all the way around the mulberry bush to get out what I wanted to say.
But then I followed the kids — I’ve got nine of them, five boys in a row and then four girls. I followed them all the way through kōhanga and kura kaupapa.
Then there was a chance for me to do some teacher training. In fact, I might’ve made it into the first intake of students for the Whakapakari package. But the other applicants were quite a lot older. I was the baby. So I missed out there. They decided that our kuia should be the first to go. But I made the second intake, even though my reo was still pretty tragic.
How did you feel about being given that chance?
That kind of opportunity was really important for me because the Wairarapa Māori had so much taken from us. Our forests had been cut down, the river diverted, and the swamps drained and turned into farmland.
That forest had stretched all the way from Dannevirke to Masterton. And the whole of it was clear felled. Yet, so they say, it had been so dense and thick you couldn’t see your way in there without a light even in the middle of the day.
That land and our waterways were our food cupboard. Our fridge. Our food store. So we had to rely on Pākehā kai — and, because we weren’t being paid for land leases, we ended up in debt and land was taken from us. And these days we’re holding on to less than one percent of the Wairarapa land.
But, now with the reo revival and the reo courses, our tamariki are learning about their ancestors and the fight by our tūpuna for equality and rangatiratanga. This pride which is coming through the reo, and the mātauranga is fantastic.
And it can only get better.
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