Timoti Karetu

Timoti Karetu, as Māori Language Commissioner in 1987.

A couple of years ago, Timoti Karetu, who’s now 82, was knighted for his services to Te Reo Māori. That KNZM wasn’t any surprise because, in a career spanning 60 years, he’d been a major force on behalf of the language — as a school teacher, university lecturer and professor, haka performer, composer and tutor, author, Māori Language Commissioner, kōhanga reo advocate, mentor and, above all, a stickler for standards.

There have been a host of other awards for the work of this exceptional Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāi Tūhoe scholar. In this interview, Timoti and his Tūhoe whanaunga Wena Harawira look back on the contribution he’s been making. 


Kia ora, e te Pāpā. You were born in 1937 and raised as a whāngai by Tame and Mauwhare Karetu. Tell me about them.

All that I am is because of my loving, doting parents, Tame and Mauwhare Kāretu, who gave me all that was theirs to give. Tame or Tamati Kāretu of Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāi Tūhoe was the older brother of my maternal grandfather Sam Kāretu. So my birth mother was his niece and I, therefore, by Māori definition, his mokopuna.

My mother, Mauwhare Taiwera, was from Ōpūtao, Ruatāhuna, but raised at Waimako marae, Waikaremoana, by her aunt, Te Rana.

My birth mother was 17 and pregnant with me when the old dears suggested to her that she give them the child to raise, and I was taken from her at birth, fortunately for me. She died at the age of 22 from tuberculosis, so I never knew her. I was her second child. She bore a son at the age of 15 as the result of being abused by an uncle. That older brother passed on some years ago.

My birth father was George Harvey, whose father, Walter Wilkins, was Pākehā, but I have no idea where the name Harvey comes from. George was of Ngāti Pāhauwera descent and had seven children to four different women, I being the product of the third. I haven’t had much to do with that side of the whakapapa because we have nothing much in common, our upbringings being so different. There are four of us still living. The two before me have passed on, as has one of the younger sisters.

My birth father played no role in my upbringing, and the occasions we met were few and far between. At his tangi in Raupunga, a Waikaremoana koroua, Tiaki Mei, stood to speak and stated: Ko te tātea noa iho nōu, nā mātou i whakatangata! (Only the sperm is yours, we made the man!)

So Waikaremoana was the place I felt affiliated to and where my formative years were spent. Their claim is a valid one as a consequence.

Mauwhare and Tame Karetu, Timoti’s “loving, doting” parents.

Tame and Mauwhare were a kind couple who indulged me and yet had nothing much in the way of material comforts. Our kāuta, Kaitū, in Waikaremoana, was a one-roomed house with a dirt floor and none of the things you’d see in a contemporary home. Since everyone else’s living standards were similar, I never felt deprived as there was always warmth, plenty of food, and much loving affection.

I was raised as an only child even though they had one natural daughter but, because of our age difference, she’d married and gone off to be with her husband and left me alone with the old people.

When I was in Form One, my parents decided to return to Waimārama, so my last two years of primary school were spent there. I also attended Kōkako School in Waikaremoana and Huiarau School in Ruatāhuna on the occasions my mother went back to help with planting and harvesting crops.

I played tennis and hockey at secondary school. I was reasonably outgoing as a personality and a lover of books, which started at primary school, intensified at secondary school, and then, of course, at university and after.

Who were the people that inspired you as a boy?

I suppose my first major inspiration was my primary school teacher at Waimārama Māori School, Herbert Curnow. He made me sit an exam for a scholarship — which I won — and I ended up spending five years at Wellington College. To ensure I got there, he actually took me to Wellington in his own car, did all the formalities, then returned to Waimārama and left me in those strange surrounds.

I think, deep down, it was his belief in me that prompted me to always try to do well at school. He will always have a place in my gratitude bank, for without him who knows what would’ve happened? We kept in touch, and every time he came to Napier to visit his granddaughter, he’d call me and say: “I’m coming over for a cup of tea.” Herbert died in 2015, aged 97.

The boarding part of Wellington College was Firth House and there were 120­–130 of us boarders who were called “scabs” by the day boys. Initially, it was a culture shock. It was a place with its own peculiar kawa, particularly if you were the lowest of the low, a third former.

Timoti at Wellington College.

I adjusted quite quickly and learned over the years how to play the boarding school game. It was hierarchical so that, as you progressed over the years, your seniority increased until you could eventually lord it over others, just as you had been lorded over.

The senior housemaster was a real man’s man, coach of the 1st XV, who tolerated no bullying. The other sins were being caught smoking and thieving, which meant instant expulsion. It was an environment that I enjoyed the more senior I became.

The language side of things was maintained by my mum and dad who always wrote to me in Māori, principally because Mauwhare’s preferred language was Māori. English was beyond her command. I responded in Māori, with my father subtly correcting me when I went wrong.

I was granted a third year, all fees paid, to complete my degree at Victoria University while I was at Wellington Teachers’ Training College. All the Māori students at Victoria wanted to be lawyers and accountants, but I only ever wanted to be a teacher, probably because of Herbert Curnow at Waimārama.

University made me very much aware of another universe. Life is all struggle. It wasn’t until later, though, that I realised the value of having had the mind opened and challenged by other thinkers and philosophies.

I have no regrets about my career choice. It is a fulfilling profession which I have enjoyed these many years, mainly at university level and beyond. It’s made me more tolerant and reasonably au fait with the human condition — although many of my students would say otherwise.

What drew you to learn French and German?

At Wellington College, French was compulsory for all students in the first year. After that, you could opt for other subjects. Depending on which class you were in, you did Latin, if you were in the top echelon, and then German at the next level down, along with French and other subjects. I just enjoyed the study of language continuing on to university but never realising then that I’d soon be travelling abroad.

In my last two years at school, I met Beth Ranapia, a Pākehā Scot, but an extremely fluent speaker of Māori who’d taught in schools in Te Whānau a Apanui, which was still strongly Māori-speaking while she was there, hence her fluency. She married Patu Ranapia and taught in Te Kaha for over 20 years and had just returned to Wellington. She was like a second mother to me.

Also, during my university years, I met Adele Schafer, an Austrian refugee and a poet, who helped me with my German. She and Beth were great friends, so that meant I now had two mums who always had a lot of sympathy for a penurious, starving student!

You tutored the Māori clubs at teachers’ college and the university. What was it about kapa haka that attracted you? Were you composing then?

I started to compose but they were pretty bad compositions. It was Wena Rangihau who talked me into serious composing, particularly for Tūhoe ki Waikato, which performed at the Tūhoe Festival. This group suffered many of my compositions along with Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato. Wena would say to me: “He rangi tāku. Tēnā homai he kupu” (I have a tune, give me some lyrics.) Kapa haka was very much a part of life at Kōkako and Waimako.

The girls from Waikaremoana would come back from Hukarere for the holidays along with the newest action songs of the day, which were then taught to us and to the school. Haka wasn’t considered to be important at Waimārama, but my grand-uncle, Taki Winitana, a first cousin of Tame, was a fine exponent and he taught us haka.

I think I admired the performance of people and just wanted to be like them. To this day, I still enjoy the whole world of haka and its allied disciplines, but it’s the lyric and the tune that it’s couched in which grabs me. I’m a word freak.

The Māori club at teachers’ college had a lot of Ngāti Porou people in it. Irony of ironies, my younger half-brother was there at the same time but had no idea of our connection, nor did I feel obligated to tell him, so there was no major revelation while we were there. He was the club captain and I was the tutor.

As the Information Officer at the New Zealand High Commission, 1968.

How did you land a job at the New Zealand High Commission in London?

After finishing university in 1960, I taught French and German at the high school in Taumarunui for two years, and ran a Māori language class for lawyers in town one night a week. The Presbyterian minister, Charlie Maitai, and his wife, Hinauri, looked after me. And Maramena Rangi, of Te Arawa, was also a good friend.

We started a kapa haka called Te Rangatahi, whose members included Archie Taiaroa and his girlfriend Maata, who he later married, and Huia Brown, Charlie and Hinauri’s daughter.

When I arrived in London in 1961, I spent about a month just being a tourist. Europe introduced me to a new way of looking at life and made me ever more appreciative of life back home. Germany is my favourite country because of its language, culture, food, people and cities. I also find Berlin interesting, if a little serious, but I don’t consider that to be a negative.

The job of Information Officer at the High Commission was advertised, so I decided to apply and was lucky enough to be appointed. I held that position until my return in 1969. It entailed informing potential migrants about New Zealand and what they should expect.

An extract from an article written by Barbara Ewing for Te Ao Hōu magazine, in 1962. (Timoti’s middle name is Samuel.)

Sam sits and answers hundreds of questions about New Zealand every day: the price of wool, the population of Christchurch, the prospects for a surveyor in Hamilton and where he could send his children to school, how New Zealanders overseas can record their votes in a general election. The phone rings and he answers and begins to talk in German. There is a knock on the door and in walks perhaps Canon Rangiihu on an exchange visit to London to celebrate the centenary of Marsden’s visit to New Zealand, or perhaps Steve Watene on a visit to London during the New Zealand Parliament recess. The phone rings again and it is the High Commissioner asking Sam to go to Brussels to act as a German and French interpreter at the World Food Fair.

You were a founding member of Ngāti Rānana. Why was it so important for Māori in London?

I look back with a sense of nostalgia at the many people who donned a piupiu on behalf of Ngāti Rānana.

At our initial meeting of the club were Louie Tāwhai from Te Arawa, Margaret Smith from Ngāpuhi, Winnie Waapu from Ngāti Kahungunu, Margaret Paiki from Aotea, Norma Mōrehu from Ngāti Raukawa, and Ben Wanoa from Ngāti Porou.

Winnie and I had been at teachers’ college together so we, at least, knew each other. From this small number the group grew with its diet of haka and waiata ā-ringa and poi for the great unwashed and those who knew nothing of the Māori of Aotearoa. Many Pākehā joined the group over the years as did many Māori who had never performed at home but wanted to while in London. A strange phenomenon but they existed.

Reactions were always positive because of the unusual nature of haka and its newness to European audiences. It is Māori singing that always attracts attention along with the haka and poi.

Our claim to fame while I was there, was our performance with Inia Te Wiata and Kiri Te Kanawa at St Paul’s Cathedral. Kiri hadn‘t yet achieved the celebrity she has today. Our other claim to fame was to be the choir of Reverend Sam Rangiihu, who came to celebrate 150 years of Christianity in Aotearoa in 1964. The hymn we sang was Au E Ihu Tirohia.

It was Christmas and snowing outside the church of St Martin in the Fields in Trafalgar Square. It all led to there being a very nostalgic choir as they began to sing, but the reverend with his beautiful singing voice held it all together while tears were held back with much difficulty. The whole setting was conducive to a healthy dose of homesickness.

Ngāti Rānana just before a TV performance in the UK called Songs of The Maori, which was presented by New Zealand actress Barbara Ewing.(Standing, from left) Timoti Karetu, Lindsay Hounsell, Hemi Wiremu, Tom Russell, Freer Crawford, Gavin Clark (a TV director), and Barbara Ewing. (Kneeling) Margaret Smith, Marie Morehu, Louie Tawhai, Phyllis Komene.

Barbara Ewing’s article recalls you as being a hard taskmaster for Ngāti Rānana.

There’s nothing more irritating than people never learning the words of items along with accompanying movements, or not attending rehearsals. It’s an irritant and shows a lack of regard for other members of the group. It’s a form of selfishness that is rampant in the haka world. Better to have a committed few than an ill-disciplined rabble.

When you came home, what was the state of Te Reo Māori?

I returned to New Zealand early in 1969 and taught German and French at Fairfield College in Hamilton. Fairfield offered Māori language, but there were no takers when I first arrived there. I tried to get a haka team going but it collapsed after I left and then was later brought back to life by others. The demand for the language was only just beginning to gather momentum in 1969–70.

In 1975, there were no texts for students at sixth and seventh form level so I was approached by Beth Ranapia, the editor of School Publications by that time, to do one, as she felt my command of Māori and general language background would help in writing such a book. I wrote Te Reo Rangatira, and the intent was that it followed on from the books Te Rangatahi, by John Waititi. Hence the similar format.

It’s now a book in need of drastic revision but its contents were my own idea, featuring Tūhoe kaumātua Ira and Paku Manihera along with their mokopuna, Tawhi. They were the models for Tame, Mauwhare, and Tīmoti in the book.

Philippa Milroy, the daughter of Te Wharehuia Milroy, was one of my students at Fairfield. Once Te Wharehuia and I knew where we were from, we formed a bond which strengthened over the years, with the language and culture being our principal fields of interest along with our tribe and its concerns. We worked well together and could always bounce ideas off each other. In a way, he kept me grounded and I’m glad that he did, which is one reason I miss him. He’d tell me point blank if one of my ideas verged on the idiotic.

In 1969, I was also approached by Canon Wi Huata and Moana Raureti, a welfare officer, to teach a class at Waikato University part-time. Canterbury University offered me a position to introduce Māori there, but, when Waikato heard that, they offered me a full-time position as a senior lecturer, which I took up in 1972. It was difficult initially, but having the freedom to try different strategies without hindrance was a positive. I became the head of the Māori department and foundation professor of Māori at Waikato, and remained there until 1987.

Hovering in the background all the while was John Rangihau who kept his paternal eye on us. John was a Tūhoe leader, Māori welfare officer, university lecturer, and adviser on Māori affairs. I had first met him at Victoria University and, although we were both from Waikaremoana, I didn’t know him well because of the age difference.

Te Wharehuia and I got together to attend a wānanga at Te Whai a Te Motu in Ruatāhuna. John Rangihau got up off his bed to mihi to me and my parents, who had since passed away, so my arrival was rather like bringing Mauwhare back home. From that time on, he would say to me, “Come and speak at so-and-so place to so-and-so people . . .” And I was happy to be at his beck and call because one learned so much just in casual conversation with him.

He was impressed that I still spoke Māori reasonably well despite my years away from it. He was also the one who talked me out of accepting the Canterbury position by saying: “Kei konei kē ō mate, he aha koe e haere nā ki tēnā wāhi?” (Everything that you are is here. Why are you going to that place?) He was one of my mentors and also one of my supporters whose influence on me was greater than he ever knew.

The Tūhoe elders, who I had much to do with in the tribal wānanga and in the wānanga waiata, were also influential, especially the redoubtable Irihapeti Tihi who was always breathing down my neck and reminding me never to change the rangi — the half-notes used in many classical chants — to make them easier for a younger generation.

Alas and alack, I lost that battle. Others have done it.

There are others who are peripheral and they include many students who influenced me more than they would’ve realised.

Years later, I met Ngoi Pewhairangi and had much to do with her up until her untimely death. Like Te Wharehuia, our mutual field of interest was the language, which encompassed the world of haka in all its definitions. She was a generous person with both her time and her knowledge, considering the many calls made on her.

In 1987, you took leave from Waikato University to work on establishing the Māori Language Commission, Te Taura Whiri I Te Reo Māori. What was the first order of business?

One of the principal roles of the Commission’s board was to create a modern Māori vocabulary for use in total immersion schools. Te Heikōkō Mataira had just left Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Hoani Waititi after being its first tutor, and she was very familiar with the paucity of text. Hence the need for new vocabulary.

New words were created and old words given an additional meaning where appropriate. The major critics were older native speakers who, because they didn’t know the word found or created, accused Te Taura Whiri of creating a new language incomprehensible to most native speakers. What would we do without misinformed critics?

As the Māori Language Commissioner in 1987, I had the role of raising the profile of the language and insisting upon standards of good, correct language. I purposely took it upon myself to use terms and phrases considered to be obsolete — and I brushed off the dust and cobwebs and gave them new life. Many of the words and phrases created then are so much part of the language now that people think the words have always been here and so they use them with aplomb.

The inaugural Māori Language Commissioners, from left to right: Ray Harlow, Timoti Karetu, Kingi Ihaka, Koro Wetere, Katerina Te Heikoko Mataira and Anita Moke. (1987)

The inaugural Māori Language Commissioners, from left to right: Ray Harlow, Timoti Karetu, Kingi Ihaka, Koro Wetere, Katerina Te Heikoko Mataira, and Anita Moke. (1987)

How did you become involved in language revitalisation in Hawai’i?

When I was at Waikato University, Pila Wilson, a Pākehā who’s a fluent speaker of Hawaiian and a professor of Hawaiian language studies and linguistics at the University of Hawai’i in Hilo, invited me to consider taking a sabbatical year there, which I did in 1982–83. I studied the hula and how it was helping the revival and maintenance of the Hawaiian language. This followed closely on the heels of the kōhanga reo movement.

I also decided to learn Hawaiian and my principal teacher was Pila, along with his wife Kauanoe Kamanā. They were the first to raise their children through the medium of Hawaiian, and Kauanoe is a founding member of ‘Aha Punana Leo immersion school. From that acorn a mighty oak has grown.

Then I was exposed to people like Dr Larry Kimura and his uncle, whom we all affectionately knew as Anakala Iosepa or Uncle Joe. There’ve been many others who helped me on my Hawaiian language journey, all of whom I owe a debt of gratitude, which seems so little considering what they have given me over the years.

You started Te Panekiretanga O Te Reo, the Institute of Excellence in the Māori Language, with Te Wharehuia and Pou Temara in 2004. The initial motivation was that too many university students of Māori were still inept speakers of Māori, despite their degrees or diplomas. What was it like at the beginning?

Those of the first intake were probably the most fluent and were selected because of their fluency — at least that’s why I chose them. I selected half the intake and Te Wānanga o Aotearoa chose the other half. Guinea pigs would be an appropriate term for them, as we sharpened our teaching styles and worked out the language levels where we should start. It was an enjoyable group to work with, as were most of the intakes. And those who failed, simply failed, end of story.

Many returned to complete and to satisfy the requirements of those aspects where they’d failed. It was a philosophy of Te Panekiretanga that those needing to complete the course should be given the opportunity to do so, a decision I applaud.

Overseas study trips have exposed students to the work of other indigenous peoples in revitalising languages. Has that experience reassured you about our own efforts with Te reo Māori?

Te Panekiretanga has made five trips abroad. The philosophy is simply that, if you have the time and the wherewithal, then let’s go (without spouses and children)! Most of the places visited have been nominated by me and, while there’ve been some not so good choices, they pale into insignificance in comparison to the good derived from these trips.

The overriding positive is that of us really appreciating our language and culture as we observe those of the people we have visited. With Māori language being de rigueur on these trips, other cultures find that, through us all speaking Māori in some way, we inspire them to want to do the same with their languages because, too often, there’s much talking about language, but not much talking of the language!

Because of your work, you’ve been given many gifts over the years. What are among your most prized possessions?

My muka and hukahuka cloak (white flax fibre with black tassels) woven by the women of Te Kapa Haka o Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato for my (surprise) 50th birthday at Tūrangawaewae marae, blessed by Te Wharehuia with water from Lake Waikaremoana and presented to me in the presence of one of the most gracious women I have ever known, Te Arikinui Te Atairangikaahu. A night never to be forgotten!

Why do you live in Havelock North rather than Waikaremoana?

My mum and dad are buried in the urupā in Waimārama and I intend to lie next to them when the time comes. Havelock is but a 20-minute drive away from Waimārama and, as I age, I feel I might need to be closer to those facilities that care for the aged demand.

Timoti Karetu, after his investiture as KNZM, for services to the Māori language, by the governor-general, Dame Patsy Reddy, on 29 August 2017

Timoti, after his investiture as KNZM, for services to the Māori language, with Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy, on 29 August 2017.

Has the knighthood meant changes in your life?

It has not made the slightest detectable difference. The Pākehā world is, generally, unaware, but it is the Māori world that I care about, for without them the knighthood wouldn’t have been awarded. So I remember the spontaneous celebration I had with Te Panekiretanga graduates on a study tour in Spain when the news was made public and then the hākari which followed a day later. I also celebrated with my Waimārama relatives.

What do you wish you had mastered but didn’t quite get around to doing?

To master the vagaries o te purari rorohiko nei (of this bloody computer) and also to be able to use all the services available on my mobile phone, but with neither of these appurtenances becoming my master, as I note the case to be with so many other people.


© E-Tangata, 2019

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