Koro Ngāpō hasn’t routinely been taking life’s easy or direct paths. For instance, in his reo journey, when he set his sights on a PhD at Waikato University, he decided to do that in Māori — and he was the first student to do so. Before that became his target, his energies had gone into sport and guitars and playing in bands. And, five years ago, his motorbike was also a serious distraction from his reo because that led to a crash that came close to costing him his life. As Dale learned in this chat with Koro, there can be all sorts of activities and interests making up the life of a reo academic.
Tēnā koe, Koro. Thanks for joining us. Now, first up, what can you tell us about your whakapapa and your name?
Kia ora, Dale. Well, my full name is Korohere Ngāpō — and my tribes are Ngāti Tamaterā, Ngāti Maru, Ngati Pāoa, Ngāti Pūkenga and Ngāti Porou. Those are my Hauraki iwi, but I also have links outside Hauraki.
I was born in Tokoroa in 1972 and grew up there. I went to Amisfield School, then to Tainui Intermediate as it was named back then. After that I went to Tokoroa High School before moving to Hamilton to study at Waikato University.
As a kid, I loved sport, especially athletics, rugby and basketball — and I played rugby and touch until I hung up my boots. And then I got quite involved in the tournament fighting of Kyokushin karate.
So. Boyhood in Tokoroa, then the University of Waikato, then teaching in Hamilton secondary schools, followed by kura kaupapa Māori schooling.
And all the fantastic experiences I had growing up in Tokoroa and then studying and working in Hamilton prepared me for moving home to the Hauraki area.
That’s my magnetic north, and my main passion.
Where does your name Korohere come from?
That’s my grandfather’s name. Legally, my name is Korohere Crossley Bishop Lloyd Ngāpō. Crossley is the name that I was known as during my schooling years. Korohere is the translation of Crossley.
Dad’s name was Ngātauiwi, but Lloyd was the easier name for people to say while he was alive. Dad was a security officer at Kinleith Mill, before he and Mum moved to Tokoroa to run a security firm there.
I’m the oldest of the whānau. I have a sister who’s a lawyer in Tokoroa and a brother who’s a teacher at Tokoroa High.
What took your mum and dad to Tokoroa?
Like most of our people, my grandparents left Hauraki to chase jobs. A lot of Hauraki families moved to Mangakino to work on the dams and bridges that were being built in those areas in the 1940s and ‘50s — and my grandfather and grandmother, Bishop and Nancy Ngapo, were among them.
Other whanaunga moved to Tūrangi, but they all seemed to end up around Tokoroa later down the track. The Kinleith pulp and paper mill came on stream in the early 1950s, and that was a big employer in those days.
And your parents are still there in Tokoroa?
Dad passed away in 2012. He’s buried in Hauraki, but Mum’s still down in Tokoroa.
I am forever grateful to the awesome people who helped to shape me down in that Tokoroa timber town, but Hauraki is my home where all my ancestors are buried.
We have ties to Kennedy Bay, to Manaia, and to Thames and Paeroa. And there’s our Ngāti Pāoa side, over in Kaiaua and Waiheke.
Hauraki is a unique place really, because there are a dozen tribes that affiliate to many different waka. Whereas, if you look at some of the other tribes in Aotearoa, they usually have only one waka.
There are areas in Hauraki where the boundaries are contested to this day. That just makes it a more interesting place, in my view.
We’ve got to hold on to the different histories that we have. For me, it’s not about one of my iwi being greater than the other. It’s about recognising and trying to help all of them.
Yes, it’s a beautiful area, Hauraki, but it was hit by the first wave of colonisation. We’ve had significant setbacks on account of that. First, though, what’s your take on how the name Hauraki came to be?
According to our old people, Hauraki is a particular northern wind.
I’ve also heard a kōrero that Hauraki might have referred to the Tainui waka making its landfall down in Whangaparaoa Bay in the Bay of Plenty and then being pushed north by the wind. Does that square with any of the kōrero that you’ve heard?
Yes, that’s another narrative I’ve heard, where the Tainui waka left Whangaparāoa, sailed to Tōrere, then north to Tauranga before it came into Hauraki. And it left sacred relics and names that we still celebrate today.
With multiple iwi in Hauraki, you’re going to have some interesting histories.
So, when did the reo Māori journey start for you, Koro?
At high school. But you wouldn’t have picked me for an academic back then. I struggled in the classroom and, like many Māori boys, I gravitated towards sports. I made the junior Waikato and King Country rep teams in rugby, as a winger. And then, in my teens, it was touch. I played for the Tamatoa touch club and the Waikato men’s touch team many moons ago.
But, yes, although I struggled with School C and Bursary Māori at Tokoroa High School, I just squeaked through. So, I’m thankful to my language teachers at Tokoroa. Especially Rangi Ngarimu, Poihaere Barrett, and the late Henare Johns.
After I left school, I played senior rugby for Tokoroa Pirates for a short time. I also played guitar in a couple of bands with my old high school mates before I figured out that I wanted to go to university.
And that’s where I really latched on to our language and culture, in depth. I started to follow around some of our old people in Hauraki, too — and that complemented the BA Te Tohu Paetahi programme at Waikato University that I was doing.
I did my teaching degree, too, and then I went teaching for a short time. I taught te reo Māori and social studies at Hamilton’s Fraser High School for two years, before doing teaching stints at Waikato Diocesan, Te Wharekura o Rakaumanga, Tōku Māpihi Maurea Kura Kaupapa, and Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Ara Rima as it was known then.
I also began running wānanga, and there are some prominent Hauraki names I’d like to acknowledge — the late (Hector) Haumarangai Conner and Nancy Gage. They planted the seed and challenged me and others to help keep our language alive and to give back some of what I’d been given.
That’s what eventually led to the setting up of Te Whare Tahuhu Kōrero o Hauraki around the 1990s.
Waikato University stands out as pivotal in promoting our reo, our cultural renaissance. So, who were some of the influential characters that you learned from there?
That’s a very good question, but I want to pause at Tokoroa High because that will lead me to the answer.
As you know, there’s a number of very good Māori language speakers who’ve been through Tokoroa High who now are movers and shakers in the resurgence of te reo Māori.
For example, one of the top students who was in my te reo Māori class at Tokoroa High was Rāhui Papa. We also had a few Pākehā who were quite intuitive learners as well. And before Rāhui, there was his sister Pānia, who’s a well-known advocate for te reo Māori today.
So I had some great examples to follow. And it’s no surprise that many of us went on to Waikato University to become more immersed in the reo under the likes of the late Te Wharehuia Milroy, Te Haumihiata Mason, and well-known Pākehā lecturers in te reo Māori like Ray Harlow and John Murumāra (or John Moorfield as he was also known).
So, you’re right. The university’s Māori language department was highly respected and renowned for their Māori language teaching.
You went school teaching for a time. We have a son who’s a teacher. We see that it’s worthy mahi but it’s also very hard graft. What do you sense are the extra pressures Māori teachers face? I’m also curious to hear why you think so few Māori men are attracted to the profession now?
We keep asking ourselves that question as well. I’ve always said teaching is one of the hardest professions. Unfortunately, people like your son, who have a strong command of te reo and tikanga Māori, often get enticed by government departments and other high profile positions because of their skills.
Yet teaching in schools is such important work. I also think that teachers are so underpaid. I thought that back when I was teaching, and I still think that now.
Any school which has Māori teachers — and looks after them — is special. And help may be at hand, because the government is about to put in more resourcing for New Zealanders to learn te reo. There are programmes like Te Ahu o Te Reo Māori as well as Te Mātāwai funding that helps iwi reo Māori programmes.
And that’s great. But, when I was lecturing at the teachers’ college, there was a constant struggle to find good language teachers. And we’re still grappling with that shortage today.
Let’s think back to the establishment of kōhanga, kura and whare kura. Thanks to them, we’re getting this new generation of wonderful, bilingual and confident young Māori, who are themselves young parents now. What do you read into this emergence of talented young Māori who may help guide the reo forward?
First of all, let’s wholeheartedly acknowledge our nannies who were the backbone of the kōhanga reo movement.
Secondly, I’m thinking right now about the ones from our kids’ generation who went into broadcasting.
We have some great Māori women on television, for instance on Te Karere or Te Ao or Te Kaea. Right through to mainstream media where you’ve got people like Oriini Kaipara who’s a regular on TV3, which is fantastic.
These people are the products of the kōhanga reo, the kura and the whare kura systems. That’s something to celebrate.
You look to Europe, and you see children there, perhaps still not in their teens, who speak three or even four languages. And that’s not considered remarkable — it’s normal.
But here in New Zealand, most of our children can speak only one language. That’s English. And that’s not enough. If there is to be cultural understanding throughout our society, te reo Māori is essential.
It’s taking a long time for New Zealand to wake up to this. It’s starting to change, slowly but surely. So, we now have Māori lawyers who are fluent, we have Māori doctors and scientists and professionals from a range of different sectors who are fluent.
You’re famous for having been the first University of Waikato PhD candidate to finish their thesis in te reo. What was your thinking there?
I wouldn’t say I’m famous, only that I wanted to challenge the status quo.
When I was weighing up doing a doctorate, one of the things that surprised me — Waikato University being, I suppose, the benchmark for te reo Māori at that time — was that no one had completed a PhD there in the Māori language.
I wanted to give back something to the university that had nurtured me, and I certainly wanted to give back to my people. I wanted my thesis to prove that education goes vast, and it’s not defined or limited by one language.
It wasn’t for glory or status. It was because I was bent on providing an example for people who are passionate about the reo.
One other motivator was being told by certain professors: “Ahh, it may be difficult to write in te reo Māori and get your points across.”
You’re also a prolific songwriter, Koro, and I’ve enjoyed a lot of your pieces over the years. What role does waiata have in Māori development?
Dale, I don’t profess to be a professional songwriter. But, while I was trying to set up Te Whare Tahuhu Kōrero o Hauraki, I couldn’t find a waiata that unified our Hauraki tribes. We seemed only to be borrowing waiata from other tribes.
I thought, well, there’s a space there for us to write our own Hauraki narrative, using our own Hauraki words, and putting those lyrics to tunes that some of our younger generation might like.
That was the reason for composing those songs, and then I sent them to our Hauraki schools and to our Hauraki tribes. So that, if we did come together for an occasion, we had at least one or two waiata of our own that we could sing together.
I also wanted to try to get some of our Hauraki words, our Hauraki dialect, back into our Māori language speakers on our pae.
We’re slowly starting to see that happen, both in karanga and whaikōrero. And that’s been awesome.
What are some examples of Hauraki kupu that you’ve brought back?
I was lucky enough to get a tape recording of my great-grandfather, who was Ngāti Maru, speaking in te reo Māori. He was born in the late 1800s, and somebody had the foresight to record my koroua in Manaia.
He uses quite a few different sayings and words. It’s very much a Tainui-type, strong dialect, with very thick pronunciation — and fast.
One word that our old people would say is “rahi”. The way they were using it puzzled me, until I figured out that it was one of their words for “surf”. But, if you look up “rahi” in the Māori dictionary now, it will tell you it means “great” or “numerous”.
Those things fascinated me — and made me want to do what I could to preserve our Hauraki kōrero, our Hauraki nuances.
Because we are different. And, yeah, I think waiata is a good way to do that.
Oratory is usually an indicator of cultural health, and you’re a great exponent of it. When you stand on the pae, I see you interweave historical knowledge linking your kāinga and manuwhiri. This sort of whakaaro is gathered over the years and it’s not something you can get on the net.
What would you say about needing to be there, to be present, to whakarongo? Because, surely, this is how you’re able to collate the info you use so well on the pae?
You’re right. Trying to reach those kaumātua who were still around while I was doing my PhD was crucial for me.
Being able to record them. Being able to talk to them about their experiences. Being able to ask, for example, who they liked in terms of whaikōrero and karanga — and who they respected as exponents of rākau, Māori weaponry, during whaikōrero on the marae.
And being able to ask them: “What did your old people do back in the day?”
Younger people today don’t have those role models. So, it’s up to ones like us to keep alive those narratives of traditional kōrero. Otherwise, it will be lost — and so much of it has already been lost.
Five years ago, you nearly died, Koro. We heard of your accident on the kumara vine, and we were very saddened at the thought of losing you, because you’re an important part of our people’s future.
I hear that some of your mates did some super karakia and maybe helped to keep you here. What do you remember of that? Is there some truth to that kōrero?
Yeah, I had a bad motorbike crash. I was in a coma, and I was told it wasn’t looking good. Some of the doctors were saying to my wife, to my whānau, iwi and friends that it may be time to turn off the life support and let this fulla go.
Thankfully, I had a group of people — otherwise known as Te Mata Punenga, a group of tohunga taught by the late Te Wharehuia Milroy and Sir Pou Temara. They taught the old ways, the traditional karakia, in the hope that we’d keep that alive. I also acknowledge all the whānau, iwi, and other people who came to assist in the karakia. And the doctors at Waikato Hospital. I’m so grateful and humbled by what they did.
Without going into it too much, I most certainly believe there is power and mana in the karakia that were performed. Our Māori spirituality is a big thing. It always has been and it always will be.
Has coming back from your accident changed you?
I think I’ve learned to be more patient.
I’ve always had a desire to work with my people in Hauraki and to challenge them to be better and do better. I have never been a fan of mediocrity but sometimes we have to roll with the punches and get up and just fight on.
It’s good having you here with us, Koro Ngapo. It’s been interesting and very enjoyable to talk with you. Thank you, brother. When I angle to an end of these conversations, I often ask people what else they do to keep fresh and enthused by life. What’s your system?
Getting back into the guitar. And my new hobby is doing up my 1980 Holden Kingswood HZ. It’s a bit safer than that two-wheel passion that I had, and it’s a good stress reliever. Other than that, I love spending time with whānau and loved ones.
After an accident like I had, Dale, obviously there’s a reason I’m still here. So, I’ll keep trying to give back.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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