For sports fans, Mereana Selby’s main claim to fame is being the mum of three daughters and two sons who have made their mark on netball courts and footy fields. In fact, two of her daughters (Te Huinga Reo and Te Paea) have represented New Zealand as Silver Ferns.
But Mereana doesn’t depend on the achievements of her kids for her high profile. That comes from 40 years of working in education, especially as the tumuaki of Te Wānanga o Raukawa over the last 10 years.
And there’s now more high-powered mahi ahead of her as a member of Te Mātāwai, the newly formed organisation charged with leading a national revival of te reo Māori.
Kia ora, Mereana. For some time you’ve been playing an important part in Māori education. But let’s start with your whānau. And your lovely name, Mereana.
I’m number six in a family of seven children. Born in Taihape to a Māori mother and a Pākehā father. My mother was from Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Porou. She was raised in Levin at our marae, Ngātokowaru. And then, during her schooling and teenage years, in Ōtaki where her parents looked after the Ōtaki Māori Racing Club, which is the only Māori racing club in the world.
She went on to become a nurse — and when she married my father, a stock agent, they lived in Taihape where Dad worked. My mother, who was born in 1920, wasn’t brought up speaking te reo, although both of her parents were first language speakers of Māori.
They chose not to raise their children in te reo Māori. And so my mother didn’t speak Māori. When she came to have her own children, we were being raised in Pākehā-dominated communities, and she chose not to give us Māori names. She later told us that she didn’t think we’d be able to live up to those names given the way that we were being raised.
The Māori names that she would’ve given us, she said, would’ve been tūpuna names. Our uncles, grandparents and so on. And she didn’t feel that giving us those names would be the right thing to do because we weren’t being raised in a way that would give honour to those names. We were being raised in a Pākehā way.
Most of us were given names from the Bible. I was to be Mary when I was born. But Mum changed her mind and called me Maryanne. Then, when I began learning te reo Māori, I started being called Mereana — and that’s what I’ve been called most of my life. He ingoa kārangaranga rather than he ingoa tūturu.
What about your dad, and his bloodlines?
My dad had English, Irish, Scottish, French, Italian whakapapa and he met my mother when she was working in a hospital in Dannevirke. She nursed him there after he came back from military training in Fiji during World War II. As I understand, he’d got malaria in Fiji.
That’s how they got together, although that was much to the disdain of my father’s Pākehā family. They were pretty upset about the relationship. I don’t know that my Māori family were all that rapt about it either. But, certainly, my father’s family couldn’t accept the situation. And when Mum and Dad got married (in the Rangiātea church in Ōtaki), that was against the wishes of my father’s family. Only my mother’s family were there. None of my father’s family turned up.
After the wedding, my father, as I understand it, went home to his parents and told them he’d gone through with it. And the story goes that, on hearing that, my grandfather had a heart attack and died. My Pākehā grandfather. So, we have this funny thing going on in our whakapapa.
And I don’t think my father ever forgave his family for that difficult time. So we grew up having little or nothing to do with our Pākehā family. Not entirely estranged. But there was a kind of estrangement. Whereas, with my mother’s family, we grew up very close to our grandparents — and to our aunties and uncles. Our first cousins were like brothers and sisters to us.
The anomaly was that the strong side of the family for us was our Māori side. And yet we weren’t being raised in a Māori way. The missing side was the Pākehā side and we were being raised in very much a Pākehā way.
Taihape must’ve featured fairly large in your lives. It’s been somewhat dismissed over time, hasn’t it? There it is — the gumboot capital of New Zealand. And it’s a stop on the main trunk line. But it would’ve meant much more to the Selby kids.
Very strong community. Quite isolated in a way. But very beautiful. With extremes of climate — and with the big Ruapehu maunga clearly in sight for most of the year. Our parents were very active in sport. Active in the church. Active in schools. As many families were. And the community was distinctively Māori with the Tūwharetoa people there.
When I went to school, I don’t remember going with kids who could speak te reo. If they did, they certainly didn’t reveal it. So, obviously, what was going on within our family was being played out in other families as well.
In those days, I didn’t know myself as Ngāti Raukawa. I never would’ve described myself as Ngāti Raukawa, because people didn’t talk about their iwi, their hapū, in the overt way we do now. Or identify themselves by land features or waka and all of that kind of stuff.
And what paths did you follow when you left high school?
I’d been to Whanganui Girls’ College — and, when I left there, I went to New York for a year as an exchange student. To a little town called Pleasantville about an hour’s drive north of New York city. And that was an extraordinary experience.
Then I came back to New Zealand and did a diploma in teaching as well as a BA in Māori at Canterbury University. You could do that in those days. I really wanted to be a phys ed teacher. But I also wanted to learn te reo Māori. So, I was there for four years completing those two qualifications. And then I started my teaching career at Burnside High School in 1980.
After my first few years in teaching, I went overseas for a couple of years and taught in London for a while. Came back, resumed teaching in Christchurch. And then heard about this course at Waikato — a diploma in bilingual teaching. It was a one-year course taught in te reo Māori for teachers who wished to teach in Māori medium. And that enabled me to improve my language skills to a level where I could teach in a Māori medium. Then I came home to Ōtaki.
Hang on. Let’s get back to your year in the States. At Pleasantville. Did I hear you right?
Yes. There’s more than one Pleasantville in the States. But the Pleasantville where I lived was where the Reader’s Digest is published. That’s its main claim to fame.
Well, I wonder what influence that experience had on young Mereana Selby.
Quite a big impact, I think. When I left home, I was fairly shy and I had to learn to cope on my own — and learn a bit of independence. But I lived with some wonderful people and I was embraced within the family structure. So I learned a lot about American culture and about the commonality of people around the world.
But there was one defining point for me. I had an American brother who went to university on Long Island and who, one weekend, came home with a friend, Steve Greymorning, who was Native American. From the Navajo people.
Up until that point, I didn’t see myself as indigenous. I didn’t really understand the indigenous thing. But we immediately found common ground. And, through the weekend that he stayed at our home in Pleasantville, we were totally engaged with each other — comparing and talking about our own people.
I’d taken over a piupiu and a pare that my mother had given me. I also took some poi, although I never would’ve jumped out on the stage and performed. But Americans didn’t know what was good or what wasn’t. Anyway, I taught Steve some poi actions. And he taught me some Native American dance. It was a wonderful weekend — and we found out that we shared a lot of experiences as indigenous peoples.
That led on to me going to a pow-wow that October. It was just a few hours drive away. And I was astounded to see that it was a bit like a hui. There were teepees around the grassed area. There was a corral where they did their horse riding and various competitions. Similar, I guess, to our kapa haka thing.
Then there were stalls selling jewellery and so on. Similar again to what you’d see at a hui Māori. But I also saw the same signs of people struggling. It was as though I was looking at my own people. Except that, in lots of ways, they were worse off. There were alcohol and drug problems right there in front of me that weekend. They were struggling to deal with that. And I was dismayed by that.
But, generally, I felt as though I was looking at my own people. And I came to an appreciation of who we are as Māori and of the issues in front of us — issues that previously I’d just accepted because they were part of the New Zealand landscape. I came to see them in a different way. And I then became motivated to get home. To learn the language. And to get involved in the development, health and wellbeing of our people. Our culture. Our language. Our status. All of those things. Because I realised how bad it was for us through seeing those people.
When you made that decision to throw yourself into studying te reo Māori, you would’ve been a young woman. This is the 1980s, just as the kōhanga reo movement was kicking into gear. It would’ve been quite unusual to see a young woman, like you, with that desire, don’t you think?
The desire was already there. I just didn’t know how to make it happen and I didn’t have support around me. I wanted to learn te reo Māori when I was at secondary school, but I had to learn French. That was compulsory. Those were the days when you weren’t allowed to pick your subjects. The school determined what was good for you and your parents agreed because schools knew what was best, didn’t they? Just like doctors did. And parents didn’t argue.
I actually enjoyed learning French, but I never ever saw the point. So I badgered my form teacher about learning Māori. She said: “Look. We don’t teach te reo Māori here.” I said: “I think you can do it by correspondence.” And she said: “In order to step outside of the set curriculum you have to get the principal’s approval. In order to do that, you have to get your parents to come and see the principal.”
So I asked my parents if they‘d come and see the principal. They agreed, not really knowing what it was about. I thought it was only a formality and that we’d just get through this and then I could apply to get some papers sent from The Correspondence School.
When they went to the principal’s office, she opened up by saying there were 800 girls at Whanganui Girls’ College. And 799 of them were happy with the curriculum that the school offered — and they all accepted that their teaching staff knew what was best for them. “But we do have one girl who thinks she knows more than the rest of us and who wants to learn a subject that is going to be absolutely no help to her in the future.”
I was astounded. But my parents were embarrassed and ashamed — and they were furious with me. So when we came out of that meeting, my parents made it very clear to me that they wished never ever to be in such a situation again. They told me to get back to my classes, and that French was going to be the way forward for me. And they said they didn’t ever want to hear this nonsense about learning te reo Māori again.
So that door was slammed. But when I came back from the United States, and with the experience of the pow-wow behind me, I was able to decide for myself to go down the reo pathway. I didn’t have to seek anyone else’s approval.
Thank you, Mereana. I’ve got much respect for Te Wānanga o Raukawa and for the minds that made it a reality. No doubt you hold in high regard the people who laid the foundations for the wānanga.
Kare e tua atu i a Whatarangi Winiata. Taku mātua. He was the person credited with the huatau, with the idea. And with the determination to make it happen. He just wouldn’t give in. He came up with the plan. He went through processes to get that accepted and approved by iwi structures and he then worked to make that plan happen. And, bit by bit, he got more people on board. He was and continues to be a huge inspiration to Te Wānanga o Raukawa and to the whole iwi development plan.
The Whakatupuranga Rua Mano plan was launched in 1975, the year I was in the United States. Uncle Whatarangi was the driving force, was the visionary, and stayed with it. He’s still employed by Te Wānanga o Raukawa, by the way. He’s still with us. We’re appreciative of that. There were many others. Many of them have passed on but their inspiration remains with us. Certain families, too, who were able to provide huge amounts of support. Like the Kereama family from Ngāti Manomano.
I’m sure that, in years to come, Raukawa, quite rightly, will figure prominently when we consider Māori education initiatives that have had a great influence. Do you still see it like that? And why is it such an important institution?
I think it’s an expression of tino rangātiratanga and that it grew out of a very local issue. In 1975, a survey determined that nobody under the age of 30 within our three iwi could speak Māori. That was Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Toa Rangatira — right along the western coastline from Bulls down to the top of the South Island.
That particular statistic was really, really compelling. It told us that there were no children speaking Māori. And, for the most part, no parents able to speak Māori. And most of our speakers were over 45. So we were facing the prospect that we would lose our language. And that we could be the first iwi in the country to be language-less. For us, that was a pretty daunting and shameful claim to fame.
That must have been a powerful catalyst for action.
It was. We didn’t want to lose our Ngāti Raukawa, Te Ātiawa and Ngāti Toa Rangatira language and the tikanga that goes with that. So the development plan focused on us — and wasn’t prompted by anything happening around the world. It wasn’t trying to solve the problems of the world, or trying to be a model for anyone else. We just looked at our own doorstep and said this is what needs tidying and here are some ways we might do that.
I think that Te Wānanga o Raukawa was a part of that plan. The idea was to establish our own centre for higher learning. And it was based on being Māori too. Focusing on our own kaupapa Māori, tikanga Māori. Not measuring ourselves against anybody else.
And they’ve been compelling features of how the turnaround has occurred. I talk about the turnaround because in 2013 there was a census which showed that 50 percent of Māori in Ōtaki can speak Māori — and that number is on the rise. The national figure is something like 21 percent and on a decline. So, we know that we’re on track. We haven’t solved all the problems of the world or all the problems of Ōtaki or Ngāti Raukawa yet. But what we’ve been doing is showing results.
I must mihi to you for those outstanding results. And perhaps Te Wānanga o Raukawa can take some satisfaction from being the precursor to the other two wānanga, Awanuiārangi and Aotearoa. How satisfying is it to be part of a drive that has really changed the education landscape?
Well, there’ve been three key leaders responsible for this development. One is Whatarangi Winiata. Another is Rongo Wetere. And the other is Hirini Moko Mead. They were the three visionaries — and all, I think, in touch with each other. I’m not sure that one led the other or whether they just fed off each other. For us, we draw strength that there are other wānanga. Each quite different. But there’s a strong whanaungatanga amongst us. It’s created a much stronger platform for the wānanga model than had there only been one or two wānanga. So, we’re very grateful that there are those other two.
When we look at language revitalisation issues, do we see Māori having enough say? Or has the Crown been calling too many of the shots? And do Pākehā, Pasifika and Asian New Zealanders have a role to play in all this?
The track record would say that the Crown doesn’t know what to do. The fact is that, overall, the language is still on the decline. Ngāti Raukawa, and in particular Te Wānanga o Raukawa, have been reluctant to give advice to others because every iwi or community has its own āhuatanga or issues to deal with. We know our own pretty well. We don’t know all of them. And we don’t know what the answer is to the bigger picture.
I’ve lived through the last 30–35 years within my own iwi, and I’m reluctant to tell other iwi how to suck eggs because we’ve still got a big job to do here. We won’t have done that until we’ve got everybody back speaking te reo Māori.
With regard to Pākehā, Pasifika, Asians and all the rest, te reo Māori is the language of our land. It’s the only language tūturu no Aotearoa. And I think everybody in Aotearoa has a responsibility to te reo Māori. But how that’s going to be conveyed, accepted and embraced? I don’t know what the strategy is to do that, but I believe it needs to be led from the top. From the government. We need to be defining ourselves by our indigenous Māori culture and our Māori language.
Perhaps Te Mātāwai may come up with some strategies to assist with that. But I don’t think we’ll make real progress until we have a prime minister and other leaders in our government who embrace the special, distinctive language and culture of this country.
You have big responsibilities, of course, in language revitalisation and broader education issues. But you’ve never stopped being a mum. And a sporting mum too, with your daughters being such outstanding netball players. Did they inherit that talent from you?
No. I was mad keen on sport all my life. Loved it. I came from a family that breathed and slept sport. That was the constant topic of conversation. At the dinner table. In the car. Wherever. My grandfather, Henry Hohepa Jacob, was an All Black in the 1920s and we were terribly, terribly proud of him as we were growing up. I think we might’ve told everybody that. Everybody that we could get to listen to us.
But I didn’t reach any heights. Just enjoyed my sport over the years. Was very active, but certainly didn’t break through any big barriers. My husband, Hud Rickit, is an ex-All Black though. He was an All Black lock in 1981. My children have been lucky enough to benefit from his size. He’s a very tall man and those height genes help in netball. And so has his sporting ability.
Well, it’s clear that you’re from a really talented and hardworking family. But, as you look around, what do you make of the young crop of emerging leaders and thinkers? It seems to me that we’ve got some pretty dynamic young people. Well-educated. And bilingual.
Couldn’t agree more. I’m just astounded by some of the leadership potential I’ve seen. Particularly in our graduates of kura kaupapa Māori. There are some outstanding young people, with a real balance of two cultures — which is what I think we’re aiming for. No one is suggesting that we become a monocultural Māori country. What we’re trying to do is promote Māori language and culture so that we achieve real bilingualism and biculturalism. And we’re getting that with some of our young people.
What I love, too, about those who’ve come through kura kaupapa Māori, what I’ve seen anyway, is that they tend to have a good balance of strength and energy. But humility as well. And I think that’s good in leadership. This crop of young ones coming through are bringing skills far in advance of the basics that my generation had. So yes, it gives me great heart to see what’s been produced. Ka mihi au ki ngā kura Māori o te motu.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.