Vini Olsen-Reeder will soon graduate with Victoria University's first PhD in te reo Māori — an achievement all the more remarkable seeing he didn't even know he was Māori until he was at high school, and didn't set foot on a marae until he started at university.
In this interview with Dale, he talks about the challenges and the lessons he's learned along the way.
Kia ora, Vini. There’s no doubt that you’re a rare specimen because here you are at Victoria University with a PhD in te reo Māori almost signed, sealed and delivered. To be reaching such heights, is quite a climb. Way beyond the reach of almost all of us — which leads me to the thought that you must’ve got a great start with the language.
Well, no. That’s not how it was. In fact, I’m not even sure whether I knew I was Māori until I was at high school. It wasn’t until I was there, at Rathkeale College in Masterton, that I can recall being acknowledged as someone who was any different from others. Perhaps looking a bit different. But I don’t recall being regarded as definitely Māori. What I do remember though is that the other Māori students started acknowledging me as Māori.
I think that was probably a turning point for me and my own identity because I thought: “Oh, yeah. This is something I’d like to know more about and be proud of.” That’s because I saw they were really proud of it. So I think I probably wanted a bit of that.
I’d been to a few family occasions, Māori occasions, as a kid, and here I was becoming a teenager and realising there were people in my family who did things differently — and noticing there were people in my family who spoke te reo. And so, about fourth or fifth form, I began to want to acknowledge that side of me.
And what was your next step?
I went straight from seventh form at Rathkeale to Victoria University to study music and te reo. I’m not an amazing musician or anything, but the desire to play music and be in that creative space is really huge for me. I realised, though, that studying music wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I eventually stopped that and just pursued te reo. And I fell more and more in love with learning the language.
I don’t like to romanticise it too much because I think we over-romanticise te reo. But there is this poetry to it. I don’t think I’m very good at it, but I do really enjoy it.
At home, we didn’t have a lot of reo. And there wasn’t a lot in our whānau, or even our extended whānau. We’re getting more and more now, which is awesome. But Victoria University’s marae, Te Herenga Waka, was the first marae I ever went on in my life.
I was shit-scared about the pōwhiri. When I walked in there, I remember thinking: “Oh, my God. I’m the only Māori person in this world who can’t kōrero Māori. Everyone here is doing it.” All my mates at school had had some sort of exposure to the language. But I’m going: “Man, this is just me.”
Te Herenga Waka, though, was a huge turning point for me. A few key people around there accepted me as a Māori person — and they understood my journey. And I realised there was a whānau there that I really have to mihi to.
That’s the Higgins whānau from Tūhoe. There’s Te Ripowai, who until recently was the taurima here for Te Herenga Waka. She took me under her wing, particularly in the last five or six years and exposed me to a wide range of language. I’m really thankful for the time I’ve been able to spend with her. And there’s also her daughter, Rawinia, who was my PhD supervisor. She’s been a key mentor and has always helped me understand the language-learning journey.
But another important influence has been my nan, Parewaitai Reeder. She’s the boss of our whānau and she’s a first language speaker of te reo. So we’re now in that position where we’re trying to change our speaking behaviours a little bit, from English to te reo.
Then there’s her dad, Riini Paraire, although I never got to meet him. He passed away just after I was born. But he wrote a manuscript in te reo Māori. And that book has helped me not just to understand how he spoke, but also helped me try to speak more like how he wrote.
Well, we mihi to them. But there have been other influences, haven’t there? And some of them beyond Wellington, even though that’s where you’ve spent a lot of time in the course of your academic work.
Te Herenga Waka was the first marae I went on to in my life — and spending a few years around here was amazing. I’m so thankful for those years. But the more time I spent here, the more I realised that there was this other marae that I needed to venture off to. At some point, I needed to go home.
So, my sister Shanna and I went to stay with our uncle Colin who still lives on our whānau land in Kairua, Tauranga. And he took us on the marae, and started reciting our whakapapa.
In the past, I’d been there a couple of times, but there was never anyone there and the door was always locked. But, this time, this was my marae. And this was my whakapapa. Here was all the genealogy about this house — with all its ancestors coming right down to me. Here was my connection.
That was awesome. Really cool. And it was also pretty freaky. I’m not sure whether people who’ve grown up around their marae can understand how challenging and confronting it can be when you go to your own marae for the first time.
So it was not only freaky, but also really rewarding and amazing. I remember coming back to uni and feeling like the whole journey, the reo and the identity, was easier now because I felt so much more connected.
My nan lives in one of the papakāinga now, so I’m able to go back to see her there and be on the marae again. I feel really lucky to be able to pack up and go there, whenever I can afford or whenever the time allows. And the whole whānau can congregate there for Nan. It’s pretty choice.
That’s Ngā Potiki o Tamapahore in Welcome Bay, isn’t it? Ngāti Pūkenga and Te Arawa as well. That must’ve been heartwarming for you, Vini, to arrive there and to be recognised as being from there — and not as a stranger.
Actually, when we went there, it was just with our uncle. Nobody else was around. But the first time I was back home for a kaupapa and there were people around, they didn’t know who I was. And I got challenged a couple of times.
There were people asking: “Where’ve you been for 20-odd years?” Or something like that. And, “Who are you?” Or I’d be walking with Nan and they’d go: “Why are you walking with my nan?” That’s the one I’ll always remember.
It was quite funny. Nan has taught a lot of the students there, and she’s their nan. And, for my whānau, she’s definitely their nan. But she’s mine, too. So it was a real challenge for me — and hard to listen to that. But they had a point. They were within their right to ask questions like that.
My mistake, though, if it was a mistake, was that I’d always thought I’d need to learn te reo before I went home to my marae. So, I learned te reo and then went home to my marae. But that had people wondering: “How come you can speak Māori and you’re not here? How come you’ve never been here? How can you be in te ao Māori and be such a stranger to your own marae?”
That’s what was going through everybody’s head at the time — mine included. But I just have to accept that they are what they are. And I have to be easy on myself and just say: “Yep. That hurt a bit.”
But they’ve got a point. And it’s okay for them to be like that. My job now is to make sure that I’m going back and I’m contributing in meaningful ways to home, even when I’m not there all the time.
Thanks, Vini. That explains things. I was kind of hoping that they knew of you and that they’d be welcoming the return of the prodigal son and the long lost cuzzy. But it wasn’t quite like that?
No. Not quite.
Okay. Can we pause for a moment so that you can fill us in a little on your family background?
Some of that comes through in my full name. It’s Vincent Ieni Rubhen Coire Olsen Reeder. The Vincent (or Vini) comes from my grandmother’s maiden name. Rubhen and Coire were just names that Mum liked.
Ieni comes from my Ngāti Whakaue side. My tipuna there is Retireti Tapihana and his little brother was Ieni. Olsen is from my mum Erin's side. That was her dad’s last name. And Reeder is from my dad Bill's side. My sister and I share that double-barrelled Olsen-Reeder surname.
Actually, Reeder is an anglicised German name. It came from one of our tīpuna on our dad’s side. He came over to England and changed his name from Reimer to Reeder. And that’s how it’s been ever since.
I grew up mainly in Gonville (Whanganui) with Mum’s side of the family although we had an awesome relationship with Dad, who was a teacher. He moved on to Feilding, Palmerston North, Auckland, the UK, and then back to Auckland.
And Mum has been a finance administrator. She’s in that role now in Auckland, working for the Sisters of Mercy Hospital in St Mary’s Bay.
They’ve both been really supportive parents. They weren’t especially supportive about te reo when I first showed an interest in that. Just supportive in general. But I have noticed that the family is now incorporating more Māori language into their own lives. They realise that’s an important thing for me. I think that’s really cool.
Now, here you are, some years later, a young academic, just 28 years old, and already having packed in a fair bit of research into revitalising the reo, and into bilingualism.
Well, some of this academic work is a bit geeky. And it can be hard to follow. But it comes from simple, everyday experiences in the course of learning te reo.
For example, I can remember a couple of times when, if I was speaking English, people would challenge me on it. They’d say: “Oh, you’re just being māngere.” Well, I’m not a lazy guy. So I’d go: “No. I’m not really a māngere person. That’s not in my nature. I don’t think that that’s true.”
But they’d have a point — because there I was speaking English. So, what’s that all about? And that sort of stuck with me for a bit. Then there’d be other times when people would talk about being whakamā. And I’d feel whakamā speaking te reo around certain people but not in front of other people.
And someone could walk into a room and that would change the way I felt about my reo, and I’d switch to English. Or, on the other hand, someone could come into the room and I’d feel okay speaking te reo.
Those experiences had me trying to figure that out academically. And the more I got interested and the more I read as an academic student, the more I realised that this isn’t about language revitalisation. It comes down to us being bilingual. We’re all bilingual to some degree.
So I’m suggesting that we should be thinking about ourselves as bilinguals first — and that we should take that into account when we’re formulating how to go about revitalising the language. I’m not sure that my thesis says anything remarkably new but it does provide some evidence and some stats on this issue.
So your PhD thesis has now been accepted? Is that where we are?
Yep. The PhD is through the gate. It’s been defended and accepted — although I’m not allowed to use the title until I officially graduate and shake the chancellor’s hand and get the certificate. But that’s coming in December.
Kia ora to you, soon-to-be Dr Vini. And it is interesting to consider whether we’re using bilingualism as effectively as we might as a tool to learn and teach te reo Māori. I’m aware from my own experience last year what a struggle it can be to get your head around te reo Māori.
And it’s clear that even the most intelligent people can have a lot of trouble getting any traction with the Māori language. Take Helen Clark for example. Sharp as a tack. Capable of running country. And still making a mess of the reo. I wonder why that is.
That’s a huge question, Dale. And there are so many factors at play — including all of those internal struggles going on for each of us about what language we should be using in various situations.
We really need to work on our attitudes to Māori language as a nation so that we get to the point where people can choose to use te reo without having to worry about any negative feedback. And that’s a massive job. You could see the resistance in the course of the election campaign when a couple of political parties gestured towards compulsory or universal access to te reo.
So the language journey is really complex. And, for someone who’s non-Māori, there’s the extra concern over whether it’s right for them to learn te reo. At some point they may want to say:
“Actually, this language isn’t for me.” Or they may feel like an imposter stepping into a Māori situation that many Māori don’t get access to.
I know a lot of non-Māori who feel strongly about not taking over. They feel like: “I can speak te reo but it’s really unfair that I can, with my privilege, when that person over there, who’s Māori, can’t. And I’m not willing to takahi their mana by putting them into that position, because that’s not cool.”
But then, for people who are Māori, they’ve also got worries about their identity. Their attitude can be: “If I mess up this sentence, I’m a crap Māori.” So they can feel like they’re never good enough to really master or even learn te reo.
Of course, it’s easier for kids. Children can sort of do whatever. They’re very open-minded and their brains are geared for all sorts of communication. But as adults we don’t have that same flexibility — or the time — so we shouldn’t beat ourselves up over the trouble we have.
Are you suggesting that we should be a bit more positive?
I am. I feel really strongly about that. We’re doing an okay job. We hear people saying: “Te reo is still dying. And te reo is this. And te reo is that.” But I’m not sure that’s true. So we should stick to the positive.
The other day I got my class to look at the idea that we shouldn’t takahi the mana of my ancestors by getting my language wrong. So, we started unpacking that and came up with the conclusion that, actually, you’re going to takahi the mana of your ancestors only if you stop learning.
So we should be doing everything we can to keep learning and making those mistakes, because the only way we can get better, is to make those mistakes.