As a university student, Ruakere Hond had his eye on a career as a biochemist — and was maybe halfway there when he succumbed to the lure of the Māori language. He hasn’t looked back, especially since he came under the spell of a number of our top reo academics and teachers. Now he’s a part of the Mātāwai team trying to find the best ways of encouraging our whānau and Māori communities to revel, day by day, in the reo. Then, as he tells Dale, there’s the responsibility he feels he shares in seeing that the pacifist principles of Parihaka leave an unforgettable legacy for all of us in Aotearoa.
Kia ora, Ruakere. You’re known as an especially strong and accomplished advocate of te reo Māori. And, so I understand, you and your siblings had the support of your parents, Jeff and Pat Hond, for that interest and focus. But their work took them down other tracks, too, didn’t it?
Both our parents gave us a strong sense of commitment in the community — and the need to work hard within our Māori communities. And that, I think, had an impact on all of us.
Mum, Pat Te Waikapoata Mathieson, was Taranaki Iwi and Ngāti Ruanui. She started off in the late 1940s as a teacher. That was in Ohura, Tokomaru Bay, Pungarehu, and then St Joseph’s in Napier. Next, she was in the army for a couple of years. And, in 1955, she became one of the first Māori policewomen.
Later on, she went back to teaching, working in girls’ homes. Then when we returned to Taranaki, she worked with communities through Māori Affairs and with youth at risk. And I’m sure that rubbed off on us and set the principles of service which we’ve lived by.
Our father came out to New Zealand from Lancashire, England, after the Second World War. He was in the Royal Air Force. He caught the tail-end of the war and fought in Africa. Then he joined the New Zealand Air Force, and met our mother when she was in the police. He worked in Hobsonville, and then at Te Rapa.
How big is your Hond clan?
There are three girls and three boys. The eldest brother, Michael Tāwheta, died of a brain tumour, when he was eight — I was three years old at the time. Then comes Erana, with Aroaro next in line, then me, my younger brother Tama, and finally Mereana, who’s working as a journalist for Al Jazeera in the Middle East.
I was born in Helensville when we were living in Hobsonville, but when I was only a couple of years old, we moved to Frankton, near Te Rapa, and spent most of our time growing up there. But we regularly went back to Taranaki, to our marae, and spent almost all our holidays on the whānau farm with our cousins and our uncle and aunty — Dave and Bessie Mathieson — who were like a second mother and father to us and our other cousins.
So we maintained a very close connection with Taranaki through those trips, until I came to the end of my high school education. Then we moved home to Taranaki.
We went to Catholic schools, and then to Māori boarding schools. That was when our mother was really putting huge effort into learning te reo. So she made sure that all the girls went to Hato Hohepa, in Napier, while us two boys went to Hato Petera, in Auckland.
We had contact with te reo through that period, through our grandmother, Norah Aroaro Ruakere, because our grandparents’ generation all seemed to speak reo. And we had lots of reo contact on the marae, too, though it was mostly through Māori mass at Hui Te Rangiora, in Hamilton, and at Pūniho Pā, in Taranaki, that we were exposed to the language. But it wasn’t until we got to boarding school that we actually started being taught it.
The Māori boarding schools, though, weren’t really set up for us learning to speak reo Māori. The schools were more for us passing School Cert and UE exams — and kōrero Māori at that time wasn’t really a major theme. So that didn’t really occur for us as children until we moved on into community work and were involved with Māori language organisations.
You Hato Petera guys — just like those who’ve come through Tipene or Queen Vic — must’ve been proud of your kura, and then really sad about the fate of those schools, being either closed or, apparently, on the brink of closing. Do you sometimes think that, if they’re not being used as schools, they should be returned to Māori ownership?
Yeah, it’s sad to see what’s happened to those schools and to think about the lost potential — in particular, the sort of leadership that came through those schools over the years.
I suppose there’s an understanding that Māori society, as a whole, has moved on significantly from the time when a Māori boarding school was really the only place where you could send your children for a Māori education, because these days we have kura kaupapa, kōhanga reo — a whole range of avenues for people to gain access to reo Māori.
And also, when we were at the boarding schools, there was always the sense that it was a Catholic Māori boarding school and that Catholic came first. I’m not knocking the role of the church in supporting the reo. It’s just that the focus on reo Māori and an education within an all-Māori environment wasn’t so strong in those days — and maybe that didn’t move with the times.
I still hold out hope for an immersion-based Māori boarding school, or schools, providing a complete and holistic education for our rangatahi — and where they can be strong and proud in ao Māori and prepared for the roles they’ll have as they mature. I still hope that will happen in the future.
I understand that, among your tohu, are a master’s degree and a PhD. And, although this may be unofficial, you’re widely regarded as one of our top guns with the reo. But was that where you were aiming all along?
Well, like most students starting out at university, I was just sort of looking around and seeing what I liked doing. And I did my BSc in biochemistry. That was mainly because I liked the lecturers and I liked the things they were talking about.
I started a master’s in biochemistry but it wasn’t really me. So I left Waikato University, came back to Taranaki, and worked in a kōhanga reo in Okato, in Taranaki. That sent me on a path to teaching, which then reconnected me with Te Ataarangi — and that way of teaching has been very much a part of my life ever since.
It led on to my master’s degree in Māori Studies, through Te Wānanga o Awanuiārangi — and then, later, I followed up with a PhD in Public Health at Massey. In that doctorate, I focused on Māori health promotion and, in particular, the role of Māori language in influencing positive Māori health outcomes.
I’d intended to study the use of dialect and regional language variations and how they can support community development. But, in talking with Dr Mihi Ratima and Dr Mason Durie, I was drawn to Māori health promotion because of its focus on community development, which was a lot better aligned to what I was seeking to study. So that was my PhD research.
You’re now on the board of Te Mātāwai, which is riding herd on reo Māori developments. And you’ve had a bit to do with Te Taura Whiri, the Māori Language Commission, which has had some responsibility for revitalising te reo Māori. So perhaps you’re disappointed with the way the number of reo speakers has reached a plateau.
Well, I don’t think we’ve ever really nailed the key elements of revitalising the language. We’re still on a pathway to find the best way forward, but I’m hugely optimistic about the work of Mātāwai.
I suppose I’ve never been an exponent of the higher level of language use. My focus has been more on its use in communities and in daily life. Everyday language doesn’t have to be highly technical or formal to be of use and value. I see that as an important way forward, and the way towards its survival.
So I’m excited by the work of Te Mātāwai and by the work that’s been done with Te Mātāwai’s projects. There are developments now taking place that we’ve never tried before, especially in the way we’re supporting our communities to make more use of Māori language.
I’ve always worked with Te Reo o Taranaki and Te Ataarangi, and they have attempted to do these sorts of things from the beginning — it’s just the resourcing wasn’t there. But, this time, with better awareness through the government, and also through organisations, support has started to come in behind the concept of using our reo being the focus, rather than just increasing language proficiency by itself.
There’s no doubt that high-quality reo is important, but, unless we really nail the concept of using it every day in communities of speakers, the quality of our reo won’t be assured. Unless our tamariki grow up in our reo, it will struggle to grow as a living language.
So we’ve really got to make this work. This is the exciting part. And for people like myself — and there are many of us — this is a great time to make it happen.
What role do you see for technology in the future of our reo?
I know our groups are using platforms such as Zoom and Facebook, with video conferencing, where people from all over the world are starting to interact as communities speaking reo, which is exciting.
But, if we’re not going to use it on a regular basis in our homes as we’re raising our children, we’re probably going to miss the main way forward for reo Māori.
In this struggle to save the language, there’ve been a number of champions of the cause. And I imagine you’ve known most of them.
Back when I was at Hato Petera, there was one teacher, Lang Davis, who was a role model in the way he used the reo, even though he hadn’t been trained to teach Māori in the most effective ways. I always looked up to him.
Then, at Waikato University, we had Hirini Melbourne, Te Wharehuia Milroy and Timoti Karetu. So we were well-off for role models. And there were many others as well, such as Te Rita Papesch, who were our role models and our guides. Then, I was hugely influenced by Katerina Mataira, who many of us looked on as a second mother, because she was always there supporting us, supporting youth.
But, here in Taranaki, I can’t go beyond people such as Huirangi Waikerepuru, who gave us young people guidance at a time when we were being put down by some of our elders, who felt it was inappropriate that youth should take up leadership roles.
He was always there standing up for us, and so were others, such as Mary Turner, Hineara Parata, Erana Ngātai, and many other key kuia.
Every time I see youth put down, I can’t help thinking that we have to keep putting pressure on ourselves to give them guidance and backing, in the same way we were supported. Our communities are strengthened if we encourage our youth to make decisions about how they want the future to be. That’s what all these people did for us.
The colonising history of Taranaki is full of injustices that it must’ve been hard for you and your generation to take on board. And I imagine you’ve come to understand what happened from many different sources, including books and movies.
There are so many amazing movies around these days. We can trace it back to films like Utu, that were groundbreaking for us and changed our thinking about how te ao Māori and our Māori stories can be presented to the wider public.
And then there’s the writing of Ruka Broughton with Ngā Mahi Whakaari a Titokowaru. He not only had the ability to provide a historical view of what Titokowaru did, but he was able to do that in a very Māori way, focusing on things that were important for us as Māori.
Dick Scott’s Ask That Mountain has also had an impact, although that’s sometimes not well recognised. There were some flaws in the information, but, for us in Parihaka, the book was hugely influential in putting a stake in the ground about what happened.
Historians lambasted Scott for making it up or for not presenting information appropriately, but his work has stood the test of time — and it’s still out there and is an excellent example of just telling the story in a very accessible way.
Of course, there’ve also been a great many books and reports done through the research of the Waitangi Tribunal about various regions, and we can go back to them and read the words from the mouths of all of those people who presented submissions and presented kōrero to those tribunals.
They’re historical, but what I also enjoy is that they’re also retaining the integrity of information from a Māori perspective.
The story of Taranaki is disturbing and the injustices so blatant, you could be forgiven, as a man of Taranaki, for carrying great angst and anger. How do you maintain such a cool head?
I can’t say that I maintain a cool head all the time. Sometimes it does get really frustrating. I think it’s natural that, when you first come to understand what took place in history, your response is anger and frustration. And the marches and protests have been a way of expressing those feelings.
But, eventually, the anger and the frustration give way to an understanding of what actually needs to be done — and sometimes that can be a little overwhelming, especially when every letter to the editor and every comment that’s made when you’re standing and speaking is like a slap in the face.
These days, I don’t spend my time responding to that sort of negativity and lack of awareness. Instead, I focus on what may be the most effective models for moving us forward as Māori. We need to be showing te ao Māori what our achievements are and what works in practice. Such as Māori radio, Whānau Ora, immersion education, and the outcomes from these sorts of developments.
We need to be taking control of our own futures rather than simply reacting to the sort of negativity and the hype that has pervaded the media, particularly in politics.
Also, on the positive side, there is, I imagine, for you and many others, some satisfaction that Parihaka is now taking on a role of national importance.
Yes, the progress is satisfying, but it’s also a reminder of how much more work we need to do. It’s a reminder as well of the leadership we’ve had from amazing people like Te Miringa Hohaia, Rangikōtuku Rukuwai, Te Rū Kōriri, Aunty Freda Tito, and Lindsay McLeod. They’ve taken us a stage closer to fulfilling the legacy of Tohu and Te Whiti — and living by their principles.
We need to bear in mind that we’re not in Parihaka simply because we have whakapapa here, but because we’re committed to modelling the legacy of Tohu and Te Whiti, who maintained these principles even though they were faced with such adversity.
That’s the challenge ahead of us, and it feels like we’re really only just starting on our way.
The reconciliation process was the important first steps in a direct relationship with the Crown and wider society. Prior to that, we were largely ignored and made invisible by the wider society.
And now we’re stepping out into the wider world and putting Parihaka into an environment where that legacy can be recognised and supported, and fulfilled.
What hopes do you have that you’re going to pass on a better Aotearoa to our tamariki and our mokopuna? Are we heading in the right direction? Are we doing what we need to do for them?
Anything we do, if we have the right principles, is doing the right thing.
The world of the future is going to look quite different from what we have now. We can’t map out what it will look like. We just have to help build, within our young people, their sense of confidence and trust in those values, so they can make the right decisions.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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