Rawinia Higgins was lucky enough to be born into a family with no shortage of proficient te reo speakers, so even though English was her first language, she had more than her fair share of whānau to help her become fluent in Māori. Not that it’s been a breeze. Here she tells Dale how she went from being in a remedial reo class at Rūātoki, to the Māori Language Commissioner leading the work of revitalising the reo.
Kia ora, Rawinia. For some years now, you’ve been influential in reo Māori circles. But I’ve been aware that your mum, Te Ripowai, has been a native speaker and a significant teacher, too. Has your reo just flowed naturally from her and your dad? Kōrero mai.
My mum is from Rūātoki, and she grew up there with her grandparents. She’s the eldest of 11. Born and raised in Rūātoki. She then went off to Hukarere Māori Girlsʻ boarding school in Napier.
After Hukarere, she worked at the Post Office in Wellington, which is where she met my dad, Daniel Higgins. He’s a Pākehā who grew up in Inglewood, Taranaki, and ended up in the airforce. He was based down here at Shelly Bay when he met my mum.
They got married back in Tūrangi where my grandparents were living — and then they moved to Blenheim where I was born. When I was three months old, my father was posted to Singapore and we moved there until I was three. That’s where my brother Raniera was born.
My grandfather was Hemopo Williams and my grandmother was Te Akakura Tihi. Both of them are from Rūātoki, literally a marae apart from each other. My kuia is from Ngāti Rongo hapū. My grandfather is from Te Urewera and Ngāti Koura.
What sort of attitude did your dad have towards taha Māori and the reo revitalisation kaupapa?
From the outset, Dad has been extremely supportive. He’s the backbone of our whole family. My mother’s mahi was teaching Ataarangi and, eventually, at Victoria University, teaching generations of Māori to speak te reo, whereas my dad has been our taituarā at home.
If you were to look at my family on paper, you’d see my mum, myself, and my daughter, all able to speak te reo Māori — and that we were a Māori-speaking whānau. But, actually, the biggest champion of te reo in our whānau has probably been my dad. Even though he’s not a speaker of the language, he’s always supported us to learn te reo.
He was adamant that we were to have Māori names. And, back in those days, there wasn’t overwhelming support for that. But my dad insisted. He also encouraged us to learn te reo at school.
He was supportive of Mum’s mahi even though she was off nearly every week around the motu, teaching Ataarangi — particularly in the ‘80s when she was with Ngoi Pēwhairangi and Katarina Mataira, teaching people how to speak te reo. My dad is her rock, but also ours as well. I’ll always acknowledge my dad and his role in our whānau language journey.
Because Mum was away a lot, te reo wasn’t in our home. But I’d hear te reo around us because my mum and her cousins, like Uncle Pou (Temara) and Aunty Hema, and her siblings, always spoke Māori to each other. I was the kind of kid that had to know what was going on and I wanted to be included in those conversations. So, when I was 11, I asked my parents if I could move back to Rūātoki and live with one of my kuia, Te Uru McGarvey, and go to Rūātoki School.
That was probably my first conscious step towards learning te reo. Going to live with Nan in her two-bedroom house, where there were about 13 of us at any one time — my aunties, uncles, and her other mokopuna — and going to Rūātoki School, which at the time was still a bilingual school.
Tom and Kaa Williams both led the school. Even though it was bilingual, I assumed that half the day would at least be in English, and I wouldn’t struggle too much. But as it turned out, it was probably, at best, about one hour in English, and the rest was in te reo.
Really, it was a pioneering kura kaupapa, even though it was technically a bilingual school. I had a great experience there. It was hard. Because I had very little reo, I was actually put into a remedial reo class to help me out.
When I think about it now, it was a unique feature of that school because I don’t think anywhere else had such a programme. Some of my cousins and peers have teased me about how I was in the remedial class but ended up with a PhD in Māori Studies. I’ve described it in presentations as living in a parallel universe where you had remedial te reo classes, whereas every other school in the country had remedial English.
Suffice to say, through that immersion experience, I managed to get a better grasp of te reo.
Outside of school, there’s something else with the validation of our reo and tikanga that occurs in that proud valley. What did you learn from Rūātoki?
I got to learn more about my Tūhoetanga — the raupatu and the build-up towards the Treaty claims. I also got to understand more historical kōrero, waiata and haka, and I also felt a deeper connection with that place as my home — more connected spiritually than I’ve felt with other places where I’ve grown up, like Blenheim or Singapore or Tūrangi or Wellington. And I got to know our extended whānau. I feel like I learned heaps about that.
Who would you describe as role models for you as you were growing up?
Definitely my kuia Te Uru McGarvey, because I lived with her. She was a strong kuia and leader and would attend a lot of hui, including Ringatū gatherings, but also when major kaupapa came to Rūātoki. More often than not, she was there. She was definitely one role model.
Then, when I was at university, I was fortunate enough to be looked after by our other koroua, Whitu Waiariki and Tio Tākuta, who had a profound influence on my life. They introduced me to the wider region of Te Urewera, particularly Ruatāhuna and Waikaremoana — and they helped me understand the people and the kōrero from there.
I’d also include Pou Temara. He was like my other father. I spent a lot of time with him and Aunty Hema and their kids, and I see them as my other brothers and sisters. We all grew up here in Wellington.
Pou was the one who signed me up to go to university. I had already convinced myself that university wasn’t for me, but he wasn’t having a bar of it. He came over to my parents’ house and enrolled me and brought me to the university. I really haven’t left since, from the time I was 16. So, he’s had a strong influence.
And, when I look back, I feel like I was a child who was raised by a village. I realise now that I was lucky to be in the company of many pākeke, like Pou and other whānau, including Koro Timoti (Karetu), Koro Tiwi (Black), Uncle Wharehuia (Milroy), and Uncle Hirini (Melbourne), because they’re my mum’s whānau.
I know they’re revered widely by many people, and rightly so, but I just saw them as my uncles or koroua. I was exposed to other reo exponents like Sir Kīngi Ihaka, Ngoi Pewhairangi, and Katerina Mataira but, at the time, I just saw them as people associated with my mother, and I didn’t realise how significant these people were in the reo world.
I’m not a big sports person. I didn’t want to play outside. I just wanted to listen to what they were saying. I often describe this as my reo privilege and as being in a bubble — and I honestly thought that this must be the norm for everybody. But it wasn’t until I came to university and met my friend Hana O’Regan (Ngāi Tahu), that I became aware that she and others came from a different kind of world, particularly down south, where there were whānau who’d had no reo for four or five generations.
In my head, I was like: “Whoa. That can’t be right. My mum can speak reo, how come your parents can’t?” She popped my bubble of reo privilege and introduced me to a world where there were whānau out there who hadn’t had reo for a very long time. And I felt really sad about that. I think that prompted me to work in the reo space to try and stem that decline and help regenerate te reo wherever I can.
We’re in a time when Māori women, understandably, are looking to be more assertive, and are examining their roles on the marae. Are you satisfied with the roles that women have in our tikanga space and in our Māori settings?
I think I may have a different position on this issue because I’ve been around some very strong and influential women. I’ve always seen my kuia, my mother, aunties, and women like Te Heikōkō Mataira, Ngoi Pewhairangi, and Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi as not having any problems at all with asserting themselves. For me, the marae and the pōhiri process is just one part of te ao Māori. The pōhiri has a particular role and purpose — but it doesn’t determine everything.
I feel like we buy into the marae ātea as being the only domain, or the ultimate platform, where decisions get made. As a ritual of encounter, issues can be aired there, but it is only one domain where this can occur. Itʻs not the only domain.
I’ve seen my kuia totally command a wharenui after a pōhiri, address every issue that was spoken about during the pōhiri, and then turn the audience around to her way of thinking. So I don’t buy into the construct that the pōhiri is the only platform from which leadership is demonstrated.
Thanks, Rawinia. Kōhanga Reo came at the behest of our old people. Women in particular. Same with Te Ataarangi where your mum was a great advocate. But, since the early days, we’ve also had government intervention. What are your feelings about these developments?
I’ve been lucky to have had a strong involvement with Kōhanga Reo and Te Ataarangi, particularly when Kōhanga were preparing their Waitangi Tribunal claim. At that time, I was able to dive into their history and I felt really privileged about that.
The critical thing with Kōhanga and Te Ataarangi is that they began as movements — organic movements that started from our people, wāhine mai, tāne mai. And, as movements, when they started, they mushroomed across the country because they were organic. They were by the people.
But, as time passed and they grew beyond what most people expected, there came a point of government intervention — or whatever you want to call it — and they got shifted into becoming institutions. And that change from movement to institution has meant tensions felt by both rōpū.
They should be entitled to resourcing and support, but that places them within the parameters, or the framework, of the government. The effect of this can lead to an organic, kaupapa-driven movement becoming an over-regulated, government-defined institution. This was proven by the Kōhanga Waitangi Tribunal claim, which showed that kōhanga were being funded at a far lower rate than early childhood centres, and really only surviving on the passion and drive of the people.
You’ve been on some heavy hitting boards and organisations along the way, like the Waitangi Tribunal, Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, Te Taura Whiri and, of course, in various roles in your academic career. But, when you look back at some of that work, what’s brought you most satisfaction and pride?
If I’m purely talking of career, it would be my part in making the changes leading to the creation of Te Whare o Te Reo Mauriora and being a part of Te Mātāwai and the development of the Maihi Māori and also the Maihi Karauna.
It’s been a career highlight to even have the opportunity to take part in that kaupapa. As academics, we always hope that our research influences policies, but that doesn’t always happen. So, to be able to participate in that kaupapa really is an achievement.
Personally, however, my greatest achievement is my daughter, Kuratapirirangi, who’s 23, and everything that she’s done to become the woman that she is. I’m a solo parent. I had her while I was working and finishing off my post-graduate qualifications at the University of Otago.
When she was two, my brother and my niece were killed in a car accident. That was a hard time for our whānau. My parents naturally weren’t coping very well, so I sent her back to live with them and for them to whāngai her. She lived with them for nearly 10 years. In that time, I finished my master’s and my PhD. After my doctorate, I did one more year of service at the University at Otago, and then I decided to come home.
When I left, they all thought I had a job in Wellington. I said: “Oh nah, I’m going home to be a mum.” I felt that she often bore the brunt of everything that I’ve done and achieved. Despite all the things I’ve done in my career, she’s my greatest achievement, and I’m really proud of her.
I’m pleased you’ve touched on motherhood, the journey, the kindness of giving your kōtiro back to mum and dad to help strengthen them. That beautiful act of whāngai. But what else do you do? What else makes you smile and love life, but from beyond the reo domain?
As the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Māori) at Victoria University of Wellington, I enjoy graduation. It’s such a joy to watch our Māori kids walk across the marae to receive their qualifications. In my time, we’ve managed to bring graduation proper back to the marae. Normally, graduations are held at the Michael Fowler Centre, but we have at least one ceremony at the university marae, Te Herenga Waka.
It’s a real buzz because often we see some of the whānau at the pōhiri when they bring their kids in as first-year students. But then to see them come back and pick up their tamariki or mokopuna with their tohu, for me, that’s such a great feeling — because it’s not just the student who’s graduating. It’s that whānau, collectively, who are graduating. You can see it in the haka, the waiata and the karanga that they do in acknowledgement of their child. And that’s awesome.
Itʻs not just our studentsʻ success that makes me smile, I also enjoy watching the success of our Māori staff at the university. We have some awesome, intelligent and creative staff and it makes me smile to watch them succeed in their respective fields.
I also really enjoy being involved with Kura Whakarauora and spending weekends with colleagues like Shane Taurima, Toni Roberts, Charisma Rangipunga, Scotty and Stacey Morrison, Ruakere Hond and Tatere McLeod, among others. We facilitate kura whakarauora and teach whānau about language planning.
One of the things I get a real joy out of is not just the teaching, but watching people develop plans for their whānau to help bring te reo back into their homes. Reversing language decline starts in the home, and being part of supporting whānau is always a pleasure.
But when I’m not working, you’ll probably just find me relaxing at home knitting, or just spending time with my daughter.
When do you think you might get a moko kauae?
I wrote my PhD on moko kauae. I don’t know whether it’s because I wrote my PhD on moko kauae that gives me a kind of sense of: “Hmm . . . maybe that’s not for me.” I personally love moko kauae. I think it’s beautiful and I love seeing women with it. But it’s not on my bucket list at the moment. I’m waiting for my mokopuna. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most.
Finally, turning back to te reo once again, the reality is that all of us in Aotearoa are in this waka together. Māori, Pasifika, Pākehā, new and old arrivals from all directions. We all have a role to play. What would you say, not just to our people, but to all the others, about the reo journey and how important it is that they are or should become part of it too, if they want to call this land home. We Māori understand our own role, and that’s to value our reo as a people, but what role do other New Zealanders have?
I think one of their roles is to understand that te reo is fundamental to our identity as a nation. It’s what sets us apart from the rest of the world. Non-Māori who are trying to connect to a place should realise that part of the connection is through the language. Our land is enriched by our language through its place names, but it actually distinguishes the way we speak English.
You can feel more connected and included by supporting te reo or starting to learn at least a little. When everyone supports te reo, we positively reset attitudes about the value of the language as being a definitive element of who we are.
Do you want to add anything, Rawinia?
Just one point I’d like to add to that earlier mokopuna comment. Recently, at a conference, I was asked about my future aspirations for te reo. And my answer was this: “My greatest aspiration for the future of te reo is to have a mokopuna, so I can speak Māori to that mokopuna every day.”
And I feel that, after achieving a whole lot of things in my career — that is pono, and the biggest thing that I look forward to in my life. While I’m waiting, I’ve already started knitting for them.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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.