If you’ve stopped at a bookshop recently to pick up a copy of Keri Opai’s book on tikanga, chances are your name went on a waiting list. The first print run of Tikanga: An introduction to te ao Māori sold out within three weeks, and a second is now underway.

Here’s Keri talking to Connie Buchanan about why the book has struck a chord, and who he really wrote it for.


When it comes to te reo Māori and the health of our culture, it’s easy to get the impression from TV and radio that: “Oh, wow, it’s all going really well.” There’s even the crowd who think we’ve gone too far and that the Māori stuff is taking over the country. 

But my experience tells me just the opposite of that. 

I’m a teacher. I’ve taught thousands of Māori people over the last 30 years. And the fact is, we’re still in the same boat where the vast majority of Māori aren’t being brought up speaking our language and knowing our tikanga.

I was recently at a pōwhiri at Waikeria Prison. And I looked out at a sea of Māori faces. There must have been 350 Māori men there. And I thought: “Jeez, not one of you has had a good male Māori role model, can speak your language, or even really knows where you’re from.” 

Because if they had those things, they wouldn’t be in there. I know that.

Most of us are still growing up being embarrassed about who we are. In the classroom, I haven’t experienced all these amazing and strong native speakers coming through. Our reo is not in a good place. It just isn’t. My own Taranaki dialect, for example, I believe, could yet die out. 

My focus all my life has been to re-educate Māori people who don’t know about the Māori world. I try to teach our people who they are, where they’re from, and how amazing and boundless the Māori universe really is. These are the things they should be growing up with as a basic human right.

We have so many of our people who are trying to do it the hard way, on their own. They’re working full time, they’re bringing up their kids, they’re struggling to survive. Then they’re trying to get to their reo class or their tikanga class. They’re having to find the time and pay the money to reclaim these things which should be theirs as a birthright. I know a fair few people doing it that way, and it’s ridiculously hard to do.

I was very lucky to be taught by my elders here in Taranaki. I learned at the feet of my kaumātua. I absorbed so much, as taiohi (young people) do, by osmosis, like a sponge. And I ended up getting my interpreter’s licence when I was 21, which is pretty unheard of, simply because I was growing up in that world. 

If there’s anything the government should be throwing money at, it’s not the universities and the polytech courses. It’s alleviating the struggles of our whānau so they can bring up their children in te reo and te ao Māori. That’s what will make the difference.

Later on in life, I did translations of children’s books, and then the publishers came down to visit and said they’d like me to write a book about the basics of tikanga. 

Tikanga is, simply and broadly speaking, a Māori “way of doing things”. It’s the customary system of practices and values that are expressed in every social context. Based on the root word “tika”, to be right, correct. It sets out what the appropriate thing to do is in the circumstances. It is the constant, yet flexible, gravity of the Māori universe.

So, the book wasn’t my idea. But I saw it as a challenge because I’d never written anything like that in English before. And I also knew from my years teaching just how deep the need was. 

I wrote the book for our own people who are still disenfranchised and don’t know the first thing about their own culture. And I also wrote it for Pākehā and Tauiwi, too. Because we now have non-Māori who are making genuine efforts to understand te ao Māori, and who are also making excruciating mistakes in their enthusiasm for our culture.

A lot of Pākehā people do see our culture as their right. They’re born in New Zealand, therefore they think they have every right to whatever they want to take out of the Māori world. 

I don’t know if it’s just the nature of politicians, but it’s some of the ministers and those high-up ones who do the most terrible things. Trying to run before they can walk. Over the years, I’ve seen how they’ll throw cash at any old Mikaere down the road, tell him to give them something impressive to say, and then they get up and mangle it. 

I recall one politician who belted out a tauparapara, which is a component of a traditional whaikōrero. But it had nothing to do with the kaupapa of his speech in the first place, was only done by him to show off in the second place, and he got it completely wrong in the third place. He butchered the pronunciation so badly that he effectively shouted out:

My tit cries!

My shit cries!

On the plus side, at least it rhymed.

A more common thing is Pākehā who have no idea how to approach doing their pepeha. But a pepeha is becoming an essential part of work life for many non-Māori now. So they will stand up and they will do it all wrong.

That’s because most of them mistakenly think a pepeha is about introducing yourself. They follow a template they’ve been taught, or that they’ve heard Māori use. They might say the name of the mountain or the river that’s closest to where they live. But, no, that’s not their maunga. If they say that, it means they’re part of the hapū which has a thousand years of being part of the water cycle which originates in that mountain. 

You do not say, as a Pākeha, “that’s my mountain, that’s my river,” unless you are affiliated to the hapū.

I do, however, believe that it’s appropriate for non-Māori to have and use a pepeha. But it must be structured differently from a Māori one. 

The purpose of a pepeha is to make connections with one another. So, in the book, I’ve laid out a way for Pākehā to structure a pepeha that allows them to do that in an appropriate and respectful way to both Māori and their own heritage, with an explanation at each step about why it’s said that way. 

There’s a similar focus throughout the whole book on the “why” of all these things that we do as part of tikanga Māori. Because it’s the “why” that we’re most at risk of losing as our culture gets taken up by others, which is increasingly happening at an organisational and national level.

We’re in such a tenuous place with the survival of our reo and our tikanga, but as a country we still want to take Māori things and use them to decorate our national identity and sell our products. In all the adverts, the marketing, the safety videos or whatever, they chuck in Māori stuff. Any time we’re on the world stage, it’s Māori things front and centre. As if those things are in a strong and healthy state. As if we have a bicultural country.

And that’s because the Māori aspect of our country is the truly unique thing. If you go to Australia or England or wherever everyone speaks English, there are differences, but many of the dominant cultural components are very similar. The Māori aspect is what makes us easily stand out. 

To me, we’re just not mature enough as a country for that representation to be a true reflection of who we are. And that’s because of the power difference. 

Ultimately, it would be great to have a bicultural nation, but Māori people need to have tino rangatiratanga first. Everyone wants to skip that part. We don’t want to talk about how the land was taken. We don’t want to open that can of worms. There are some who think we can just jump over all that and go straight to being a bicultural, or even a multicultural, society. But we have to acknowledge the pain of the past and our history. You have to grieve for it, you have to go through that process. 

And Māori people need to be able to be Māori people fully and first have the language and customs and thinking be a natural part of who we are. That makes some people uncomfortable. There are some who will throw around words like “apartheid” when we talk that way. 

But if you’re Pākehā, you can spend your entire life not having anything to do with anything Māori at all. You can make that choice. If you’re a politician who has made a mistake on the marae, you can just walk away. You can just go: “Oh well, they laughed and I wasn’t really received like the big king I am, so I’ll just bugger off back to my own world.” 

Or someone else can say: “Well, I felt offended and uncomfortable that no one was there to translate for me and explain everything, and I wasn’t in control, so I’m just not going to do that again.” That’s a real choice that Pākehā have.

But Māori don’t have that choice. If you’re born Māori in this country, you’re born into a Pākehā world. We don’t have that ability to say: “I don’t want anything to do with Pākehā things and Pākehā language and food.” 

Unless you go and live in Rūātoki. That’s one of the only places left where you need to be able to speak Māori because it’s still spoken as a living language there. I spent a little bit of time there when I was young, and I loved it.

So, really, it’s about having that same ability to walk into a world of our own, where we feel the most comfortable, and to enjoy the benefits of that world for ourselves. Where we speak our own language, and we know our own tikanga. Where my cousin can take his little children to the sea and they don’t see a resource for human use, they see their ancestor Tangaroa. 

Once we have that, then we can go off from there and be part of the national identity. We can send our children to be lawyers, or doctors, to go overseas, because we’re taking our strong and secure place in life with us, our Māoritanga, wherever we go. 

Until relatively recently in my life, I hadn’t met many Pākehā people who really wanted to contribute whatever they could to supporting these aspirations, and these things that we want for ourselves as Māori. 

But in the last 10 years, I’ve met some Pāhekā people who actually grew up with their family saying: “Hey, we’re benefiting from the stolen land that we’re on, and so we’re going to significantly contribute to Māori things and Māori people.” 

So nowadays a question that I do get asked by Pākehā is: “How can we make good relationships with iwi, with hapū, with whānau?” Here’s how you do that. You make all the effort, you spend the money that’s needed, you do the sweating, the running around, and then you don’t ask for anything in return. 

That’s how you build relationships. Especially if you’re from the dominant culture which has benefited from a situation up until now. You go and contribute to the iwi, the hapū, the whānau, and you don’t ask for anything in return. 

I think that’s a bloody good start. It reflects what I would hear at home growing up — everyone is welcome on the marae, if they have a teatowel in their hand. 

Being bicultural in Aotearoa would mean having two distinct cultures that have the same amount of funding, support, everything else, so that we realise the fullness of each. We’re such a long way from that. It’s going to take a long time and it needs significant investment. 

It’s my hope that the book plays a small part in that, by helping educate and take us all in the right direction together. 

I always encourage my readers to be respectfully curious. And I apply that to myself too. As much as I know, as much as I have been taught, as much experience as I have, I still feel a childlike fascination with te ao Māori, and a deeply respectful curiosity for its subtleties and wonders.

The best reward I’ve had so far is a woman who came up to me and said: “You know, I’ve been ashamed of being Māori for 45 years. But reading what you wrote, I’m now so proud.” 


Keri Opai is a linguist and educator who advises widely on cultural issues. He is the creator of Te Reo Hapai, a Māori language glossary for mental health, disability and addiction. He works as Pou Tikanga and Co-Deputy Chief Executive at Tui Ora, a kaupapa Māori community-based health and social services provider in Taranaki.

Keri will be presenting three sessions at the upcoming Auckland Writers’ Festival, where he will focus on pronunciation and pepeha.

As told to Connie Buchanan. This piece was made possible by NZ On Air through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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