Tom Roa grew up at a time when many of those in his parents’ generation believed that knowing te reo and mātauranga Māori was a disadvantage in a Pākehā-dominated world.
Much of his life and work since, as he tells Dale here, has been about recovering that knowledge.
Tēnā koe, Tom Roa. That’s such a short name, I’m picking that you have more names than that.
Kia ora, Dale. Well, my birth certificate says I’m Thomas Charles Roa. I was named after my father’s two favourite uncles, Tame and Tiare. But Mum and Dad decided that they’d register me with English names because, at that time and even today, people have difficulty with the pronunciation of Māori names.
Actually, our family name is Roarangitia. But, because people were having trouble pronouncing that, I think my grandfather thought it’d be a good joke to shorten it to Roa — which, of course, means long. So that’s our family name, and we have a close whakapapa with any person whose surname or Christian name is Roa.
The name comes from Waikato-Maniapoto, from the Pirongia district. Much of my early childhood was spent there. But I’m born and bred in my mother’s home in Ōtorohanga in the King Country.
Her Kite family were part of the first inhabitants of the Waipa Valley. So I spent much of my early childhood in that valley with a lot of focus on the river. We never went hungry. There was always food we could get in the river — or from the nearby swamp. Like duck eggs. And water fowl.
The area was prone to flooding, though. And I remember Mum and the aunties and uncles talking about our tūpuna who, when the river flooded, just moved up the hill.
But, of course, you can’t do that with a township. So, when Pākehā wanted to build a town there, our tūpuna warned them: “Don’t build here. It floods. Build a little further inland at Kiokio, because there’s good drainage there.”
They went ahead, though, and built a township there. And in 1958, sure enough, it flooded big time. So they built stopbanks to reduce the risk. We have photos and memories similar to what the Edgecumbe people have gone through recently with their flooding.
Interestingly, the stopbank starts on the town side of one of our marae, Te Keeti. The banks surround the township and finish just before another one of our marae, Tārewānga.
So, when the floodwaters reach these two marae, all we do is shift up the hill a bit and welcome all the food that the flood carries into our hands. And, when the floods recede, we go back down to the papakāinga, clean up, and carry on. I guess that shows the Māori perspective on these things.
How about schooling? How did that work out for you, Tom?
I think that our parents were unfortunately, and perhaps unwittingly, complicit in the state education system that didn’t just marginalise all things Māori but abolished all things Māori from the school curriculum. That’s because they believed that knowing our language and our mātauranga Māori would hold us back in the Pākehā-dominated world.
So, many of our stories, like the ones I’ve just related, were sort of accidentally caught. Or, if they weren’t accidentally caught, they were deliberately told separate from the state education system.
But, of course, our stories were told in the language of the elders. So, some of the young people caught the language. But too many didn’t.
I’m told by my aunties and uncles that I spoke Māori before I went to school. But at school, English was the preferred language. And Mum and Dad would speak to us in English at home as well as at marae.
We heard Māori from our elders, but we weren’t encouraged to speak it. So schooling was all about the Pākehā-dominated world, and not until later in life was there any real effort — on my part, anyway — to reconnect with Māori language.
Through my upbringing, though, I knew what people were saying in te reo Maori — especially when they were angry at me. The language of anger, of frustration, of emotion, was Māori.
I did my secondary schooling at Ōtorohanga College, where I ended up as the first Māori to be Head Boy. Then, when I finished my schooling, I got a job at the Ōtorohanga District Council — and I enjoyed the pay so much, I thought: “Oh, boy. This is the job for me.”
But when my uncles heard that I was going to have a career on the shovel, they told me off. One threatened to kick my backside. “Get outta here!” he said. “Use your brain and go to university. Then come back and be a leader in the community.”
So I went to Victoria University and, while I was there, I joined Te Reo Māori Society, who were pushing for a revival of the Māori language because it was in such a dire state. I also got involved with the Wellington chapter of Ngā Tamatoa. And I marched on parliament with them when we presented the petition for te reo Māori in 1972.
When I graduated, I went to training college in Auckland. Spent time teaching in the north and then around Auckland, particularly at Hillary College, in Ōtara. Under Garfield Johnson, the principal, that school, in a way, became the frontier of Māori and Pacific education.
And, still today, I’m thrilled when students from those years, some of them grandparents now, come up to me and say: “Do you remember me from Hillary College?”
But my next move was to start a kōhanga reo in Ōtara. Actually, before the kōhanga reo were launched, we were already talking with elders and families from Ōtara and we’d begun to start our own playgroup, where the only language was Māori.
So when kōhanga reo came along, we jumped on that bandwagon and started Kōkiri Te Rāhuitanga Kōhanga Reo which is still going today and feeds into the wharekura in Ōtara.
And some of the babies from the kōhanga have gone back to be teachers in the wharekura.
So you’ve been a strong advocate for reo Māori for three or four decades now.
When we were working with the kōhanga reo, Robyn, my wife, and I had two children at that stage. Raukura was four or five, and Hariru was a couple of years younger. And their first language was Māori.
But we became concerned that there was nobody of their age group that could converse with them in Māori. That’s why we started this playgroup. But, in a way, our children went to the kōhanga to learn English, because at home, Robyn and I used Maori when we talked to the children. Their first language was Māori.
But the first language of the other kōhanga children was English. So, in order to communicate with them, our children learned English.
When our first cohort was starting to turn six and seven, and by law had to go to school, we didn’t have the wherewithal to start what now is known as a kura kaupapa or the kura Māori immersion.
So we worked with the local primary school to start a bilingual unit. We lobbied the community and, in the school catchment, our Māori whānau in Ōtara canvassed every single house about whether they would welcome a reo Māori immersion unit within the school.
Only one household in the whole of the catchment area was against the idea. And they didn’t have any children at the local school. We got strong, positive support from the Māori households, the Pacific Island households, the Pākehā households, a couple of Indian households and Chinese-Asian, saying: “Why not?”
So the unit started, and we felt safe about sending our children into that space. Then I decided we probably needed to start early in looking at secondary schooling. A job happened to come up at Queen Victoria School in Parnell, and I thought, well, that Māori school with its boarding capacity might be somewhere to begin.
Later I became the deputy principal and we started an immersion unit there. The board, the principal, Judy Clifford-Waititi, and the parents were fantastic. I really appreciated our time at Kuini Wikitoria, where our two younger daughters, Anne and Ata, were born.
But then, after maybe 10 years at Queen Vic, you and the family moved on. Why was that?
Well, Robyn and I could see that boarding schools like Queen Vic were becoming too expensive. Not just in terms of the cost of sending children to the school, but there’s a risk, too, in terms of sending your child away for boarding for four or five years. Not only does your child come back very different, you miss some of the most important years in your child’s development.
We began to work with the Hoani Waititi kura kaupapa and marae, where I became the chair of the board of trustees, and then we moved into looking at wharekura.
Later, I got a job at AUT and started a programme there with accelerated learning of Māori and had what I thought were very good results with people coming in and, within six weeks, being very fluent in Māori, using accelerated learning principles.
However, Robyn won the job of deputy principal at Ngāruawāhia High School. I said: “I’m not a commuting husband, so we’re off”. And I came down to Ngāruawāhia with Robyn and became involved with the marae and the community here as well.
And you were also drawn into Tainui politics, weren’t you? You became something of a go-to guy as regards tribal politics. What were the challenges there?
At that time, the tribe was in dire straits, particularly financially, but also in other ways. Morale was low despite the best efforts of people like Te Arikinui Te Atairangi Kaahu. So a group of us took some responsibility, particularly for the finances, in the wake of what we saw as a mismanagement of the $170 million raupatu settlement.
Since then, Waikato-Tainui has become a billion-dollar tribe, with more than a billion dollars of assets from the careful management of the tribe’s portfolios. That’s been a hugely satisfying development.
We’ve also made progress with a number of programmes to do with our environment and with the river. They’ve been proceeding in leaps and bounds.
I regret — and I think it’s really important to note the regrets — I regret that some of our people are still on the poverty line. I regret that some are still homeless. And I’m sad that too many of our people are in poor health. So we need to do much more work in those areas.
When the raupatu was first settled, we had this vision that we would take care of the Treaty’s Article Two issues and the Crown would live up to its responsibilities with Article Three. Article Two was about taking care of our possessions, our own taonga, forestries, fisheries and so on. But I don’t believe that the Crown has lived up to its Article Three Treaty promise for Māori to be equal and enjoy all of the rights and responsibilities of British citizens.
We’ve recognised that. And now we are pushing our iwi to make progress on health, education, housing and employment. Really, those are Article Three responsibilities of the Crown. So we’re challenging the Crown to participate in depth with programmes like Whānau Ora. And we’re putting together memoranda of understanding with the Crown as another way of making progress and of taking responsibility for the tribal future.
I note that, along the way, you’ve accumulated a Master’s degree, a senior lecturer’s role at the University of Waikato — and you’ve gathered up a PhD as well. And your four daughters have all had academic success. But there’s an unusual twist in your PhD work because there was a focus on the flora and fauna of Tainui. What prompted that?
Well, my PhD is in translation. I assert that the translator is a cultural mediator. Language and culture are inextricably linked. So we looked at the naming of living things in the Linnaeus classification system of Western science — and we also looked at how we did that in Tainui.
We talked with focus groups in the Waikato, King Country, Hauraki, Bay of Plenty, around the Ōtaki region and also in the South Island with Ngāti Rarua, Ngāti Koata, who all identify with the Tainui waka. And, remarkably, for me anyway, each of them came up with this concept of the mana motuhake of flora and fauna, and how that mana guided how they were named.
Unlike the Linnaeus classification system, which gives the right of naming to a person — which means they can name organisms after themselves — the Māori system is about acknowledging the mana and the mauri of the flora or the fauna.
For instance, the kūkū or wood pigeon gets its name because, before you see it, you hear the sound of its wingbeats and its call. Kuu … kuu. So the bird is called the kūkū because that’s part of the mana of its own being, its own mauri.
I believe I have a responsibility to be a cultural mediator between the Māori and Pākehā worlds. I come back to the idea of mana with regard to these two very different worlds. The mana of each world is maintained and the integrity of each mana is acknowledged.
There’s not a mixing of the mana. It’s like when you get a mosaic and you put all the bits together and it comes up with a beautiful artwork where each piece in the mosaic maintains its own integrity but the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It has another, independent beauty of its own.
What do you sense as the biggest challenge for our people going forward?
If I may, I’ll come back to this idea of mana for a moment. Mana is a self-image thing, but it also has a very important element of reciprocity. If I recognise the mana of the land, the sea, of other people, then there’s almost a demand that they reciprocate. If I look after the land, the land looks after me. When I look after other people, other people look after me.
I think people miss an element when the All Blacks do the haka. To be sure, they’re asserting their mana, but they’re also acknowledging the mana of the opponent. So, nowadays, the opponent lines up and there’s this reciprocal recognition of the mana of the haka.
It just lights my world. I love it.
That’s the first aspect of a Maniapoto perspective with what is known as “mana whatu āhuru”. The second word in this concept, whatu, is an interesting word because it can have three meanings. The first is the eye. A person with this mana needs to have an eye out and in, understanding him or herself, but also understanding what’s around them, what’s in the environment, the context that they’re moving in.
The second aspect of whatu is as we see in whatu tāniko, which is weaving and weaving patterns. So a person with this mana must be able to weave the contexts that they’re in, weaving themselves, their own and others, in making something of value work.
The third aspect of whatu is a stone. Our Tainui stories say that Tāwhaki climbed the heavens to fetch the baskets of knowledge, but he also fetched the stones of consolidation. The baskets of knowledge are fine. People take stuff from them or people are given stuff from the basket of knowledge to help them and to progress their people. But it doesn’t work unless there’s some sort of consolidation.
So our tupuna, Tāwhaki, fetched the stones of consolidation as well as the baskets of knowledge. And those stones were called the whatu-kura. One is the stone of consolidating formal knowledge that we get from universities and other institutions. But the other is the consolidation of informal knowledge. When we’re having a cup of tea, knowledge of a different kind is imparted, and that cup of tea can help consolidate the knowledge.
The last part of the phrase is āhuru. Te āhuru-mōwai is the whare tangata, the womb where the foetus, in its developing stages, is safe. It has a comfort zone. Te āhurutanga o te whare tangata is sometimes a phrase used for that place, that sanctuary.
So, the people who carry this mana whatu-āhuru, carry those concepts, those principles.
And those principles, according to the Maniapoto story, connect us to the fabric of the universe, in that this mana is passed down from Io through to Tiki, the first human being, to Hoturoa, the captain of the waka that brought our people to Aotearoa, through to our tupuna, Maniapoto, and from Maniapoto to his descendants. That mana whatu-āhuru has all of those connectors, like I say, to the fabric of the universe.
I assert for my Waikato-Maniapoto whanaunga, understanding that mana and our place in the universe is absolutely key.
One facet of that challenge is technology. My mokopuna is six years old. When I’m stuck on what I should do with what’s happening on my phone I say: “Moko, me pehea?” What should I do about this? “Me penei, koro.” And it’s done. It’s amazing.
The effect of technology on te whatu-āhuru is going to be huge. Artificial intelligence is just around the corner, if it’s not already here. What can be done with artificial intelligence blows my mind. And if we have this opportunity with robotic instruments, the clean-up of the environment, the housing of people, the health of people — it’s at our fingertips.
But we’ve got to have a principled, ethical morality — a mana whatu-āhuru linking us to the fabric of the universe — or we’ll find that technology running away from us.
The issues of health, education, housing and employment are all part of Article Three of the Treaty. So, the use of future technologies can be very, very helpful. But only if we have this base understanding of mana.
And the absolute, essential cornerstone of mana is that idea of reciprocity — which is missing in so many explanations and descriptions of mana today.
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