Rahera Shortland. Photo: Creative New Zealand

Rahera Shortland. (Photo: Creative New Zealand)

It’s no surprise that Rahera and Waihoroi Shortland were honoured at Ngā Tohu Reo Awards last weekend. They’ve been lifetime achievers as speakers, teachers, and advocates of te reo Māori. And their joint award, fittingly, was for their lifetime achievement on behalf of the language.

You can catch up here with Waihoroi’s story in his colourful kōrero with Dale a few years ago. And then there’s this candid conversation with Dale, only a week ago, when Rahera outlined her career.


Tēnā koe, Rahera. We’re never surprised by the talent that Ngāpuhi produces. But what particular spot in Northland can lay claim to you?

Kia ora, Dale. Well, I grew up in Tautoro, just south of Kaikohe. We lived there for many, many years. But I was born in Okaihau, a small settlement north of Kaikohe.

I understand that among your ancestors is Eruera Maihi Patuone, who was a significant Ngāpuhi warrior chief in the first half of the 19th century.

Yes, I’m a descendant of Patuone on my mother’s side. My mum, Te Aroha Tau, raised all 16 of us kids. I’m the eldest. Unfortunately, there are only eight of us left today. I grew up in the war years — that’s World War Two (1939-45) — when kai, like butter, and other things were rationed. My dad Manga Wiremu Tau worked as a carpenter.

Your schooling?

We started at Tautoro Māori School. Then we moved to Kaikohe Māori School, and from there, I went to Northland College and did four years there. I was keen on shorthand and typing and home craft. After secondary school, I became an office assistant at the Kaikohe Hotel. Worked there for a short time and then my dad decided I should be a nurse. I had an aunt, Patsy Rika, who was a very good nurse and cared a lot for our family.

So I spent three years in Te Kopuru Hospital, south of Dargaville. I spent that time nursing elderly folk.

Then I got married and had six children. But that marriage didn’t last all that long and I brought up my kids on my own. Making sure they had a good education.

And, not long after, you became a teacher yourself?

Yes. In the 1970s there was a call for people who spoke Māori to be trained as teachers. So, in 1976, I became a student at the Auckland Teachers College. At that stage, they were running one-year courses for fluent speakers of Māori.

That’s where you met Wassie — Waihoroi?

No, I met him before that. I was a member of the Māori Women’s Welfare League in Papakura and he was a community officer for Māori Affairs — and we met through my work in the community.

He’d been to St Stephen’s School at Bombay and then Otago University. We both had the same passion to see our people rise above some of the difficulties they were experiencing.

We kinda lived together for a while, then decided, well, the practising time was over and it was time we got married. So, from teachers college, I landed a position at Pukekohe High School.

Pukekohe, in those days, probably wasn’t (still isn’t) a stronghold of Māoritanga.

That’s right. Not too many people there were pro-Māori, if you want a kind way of putting it. And, unfortunately, too many of the parents of our tamariki at the school believed that their kids couldn’t go beyond lowly jobs like working in the market gardens.

Waihoroi’s interest, like mine, was to get our kids trained in avenues that would uplift their stance in the communities. So we pushed and we met with the parents and encouraged them to raise their sights for their kids.

Once we started campaigning, there were really bright, really brilliant kids coming through and then landing places in all sorts of courses — secretarial, carpentry, electrical and all of that. So the change began.

After a while, we had the support of the kuia and kaumātua around Pukekohe because they could see how their mokopuna were changing, and the best kids were aiming higher than the market gardens.

I did five years there at Pukekohe High School, and had some struggles, particularly in trying to establish a kapa haka. But I’m not one to give in, so we worked hard with the support of the parents, and we got there. And I think the word went out to other teachers around the country that Pukekohe was doing something to move Māori forward.

But soon you moved on to Auckland Girls’ Grammar. How did that come about?

Well, I was at a Māori teachers conference in Ngāruawāhia where I was asked to present a paper on how to encourage and set up kaupapa Māori in schools. At that time, of course, in the early 1980s, there wasn’t such a thing as kura kaupapa Māori.

But Charmaine Poutney, the AGGS headmistress, was at the conference, and she was enamoured with my plans for starting our tamariki with their reo and helping them recognise who they were.

Charmaine asked if I was interested in putting this dream of mine into practice at AGGS. I thought it over for some time and decided there’d be too many hurdles to jump over in Pukekohe. And I wasn’t prepared to give all my energy there and get limited results.

So I went to teach at AGGS where I found that the Māori girls and their needs didn’t have much recognition within the kura. The Sāmoan and Tongan girls were taking the lead, and bringing their culture into the school.

I told Charmaine that the Pacific influence was fine but that AGGS ought to focus much more on their Māori girls and develop them as leaders. I said they should be right at the forefront — and that we needed to start by engaging them with te reo.

Fortunately for me, Charmaine listened. And then we moved on to the next hurdle, which was to sit down with the parents, kōrero kanohi ki te kanohi, and explain to them the value of immersing Māori students in the reo and then encourage those parents who were happy with the kaupapa to allow their girls to join the Māori language unit.

Then we set that up and called it Ngā Tūmanako o Kahurangi. The kaupapa is still being practised today — and only a year after I taught at Auckland Girls’ Grammar, the school had its first Māori head girl.

Within the Kahurangi unit, the girls came to appreciate their language and also appreciate that knowing their reo was another string to their bow in seeking a career and hunting for a job. The result of that was my girls went off to all kinds of careers, including a number they never thought they’d be able to achieve.

I taught at AGGS for five years and then decided I needed some time out. So I had a break. And my next move was go to Waikato University to do a degree looking at language development and linguistics, which, despite all my work with te reo, was something pretty new to me.

I found that my time at university was really valuable. I take my hat off to people there, especially Timoti Karetu, Te Wharehuia Milroy. They were my back at Waikato.

Rahera with the Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy, after receiving an MNZM (Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit) for services to Māori, education and television, in 2016.

You must’ve linked up with the kōhanga reo movement, and the Ataarangi method of teaching around about that time.

I did. My first job when I left university was to work for kōhanga reo. I worked there for a couple years, and then I thought maybe I’d be better training teachers at teachers’ college.

So I got a job there and, for four years or so, I used the little coloured rods of Te Ataarangi to empower teachers teaching Māori. Since then, I’ve spent more time with the kōhanga reo, too.

And, after that, AUT (Auckland University of Technology) hired me to work in Te Ara Poutama and show the students how effective those little coloured rods can be in teaching te reo Māori.

Since then there’s been more and more teaching — some of it for Te Rūnanga o Te Ataarangi, including teaching over in Sydney where they now have nine kura. Just last month we had the Ataarangi national conference in Melbourne.

There is an appetite for reo Māori across the Tasman, isn’t there?

There is. Sometimes we don’t appreciate what’s right under our noses until we move away from home. Then we tangi weto for our reo. And that’s the situation for some of our Aussie whānau at the moment.

We’ve got a number of Māori language initiatives going on these days through Te Mātāwai, Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, kura kaupapa Māori, and so on. And there are a growing number of non-Māori playing a part in those revitalisation efforts. But do Pākehā have a role to play?

Absolutely. Not so long ago, I ran a teachers’ training course down in Nelson and over half the people there were Pākehā — and very, very keen on te reo. They were staunch. And, in the courses over in Australia, there are some Pākehā from New Zealand. They’re very welcome.

Sometimes you’ve really got to sit down and mirimiri our own people in order to get them to participate, which is really sad for me because to know your reo is to know your culture.

It’s been a lovely kōrero, Rahera. Thanks for sharing some of the richness of your journey. Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Just that it’s not all smooth sailing when you see the need for change. If you want to make changes, sometimes you need to have a bit of mongrel in you. You can’t afford to cave in and lie down when there’s opposition.

So I don’t lie down. In fact, I relish it, love it, when people oppose me. That’s when I shine. That’s when I can meet their challenge, when I can explain the issue — and when I can change their minds if they’ve come to the discussion without understanding why te reo Māori is so important.


(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2019

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