This essay by Tīhema Baker placed second in the Landfall essay competition this year. It describes his first kura reo, a week-long full-immersion Māori language course — a harrowing experience in more ways than one.
I used to wonder what makes a person worthy of the title of New Zealander of the Year. What does it mean to be the epitome of New Zealandness?
Then, one day, a New Zealander of the Year was crowned and they happened to be someone I’d met. It all made sense after that.
We attended the same kura reo, a week-long full-immersion Māori language learning experience. It was my first time at a kura reo, and this one happened to be hosted by Raukawa te Au ki te Tonga, one of my own iwi, in Ōtaki where I grew up.
I figured it was only fitting that the first kura reo I attend be at home, where I’d feel the most safety and manaakitanga — and where the teachings themselves would be informed by the reo of my own hapū and iwi.
There was, however, another reason for the significance of this kura reo. One that is likely shared by countless other Māori like me every time they enter a full-immersion environment.
I was terrified.
I’ve heard it said that every Māori is on their own reo journey. Some have yet to depart, others have climbed to the zenith and still continue onwards. I’m probably milling somewhere around the treeline, having ventured into the higher elevations during my university studies only to come back down to what feels like relative safety since.
My reo journey is one of constant conflict. There are times when the reo just flows out of me, from a place that I believe lies somewhere both within and beyond myself.
Then there are times I can’t even string a basic sentence together. Times I feel a profound pride at my ability to stand and speak, at the resounding intonations of “kia ora” in response to my words. Times I feel utterly inadequate next to a true orator in the midst of a whaikōrero I can’t keep up with. Times I feel deep unease when I wonder if my kaumātua who don’t have the reo feel that way about me.
This conflict is only exacerbated by my white skin. Learning to be comfortable in it is a whole other journey I’ve probably made much better progress in. But, as an 18-year-old forging his own identity, an ugly need to “prove” my Māoritanga was what led me to study te reo in the first place. So I could weaponise it. Bear the dismissive looks from other Māori; the natural, split-second assumptions made about me based on my fair hair and blue eyes, then revel in the thrill of that satisfying moment when the realisation showed on their faces: He’s one of us.
Whether or not this pressure to prove myself as tangata whenua exists in reality or only in my head, it is ever-present — as is the fear of failing to do so. I knew my proficiency with te reo had diminished in the years since I’d studied it at university. I’d avoided confronting this truth for long enough. When the opportunity to attend the kura reo came around, it felt like an undeniable tohu: it was time to continue my reo journey. But that didn’t make the path looming over me any less frightening.
So it was with barely concealed, all-consuming anxiety that I joined the ope of tauira being welcomed to Te Wānanga o Raukawa at the commencement of the kura reo.
It was easy to spot the regulars — the ones who greeted each other with big hugs, already deep in reo Māori conversation. By comparison, I felt somewhat alone. I didn’t know anyone and couldn’t spot any familiar faces. As I took my seat during the pōwhiri, I stared up at the whakairo of tūpuna on the house and tried to tell myself that their presence meant I wasn’t as alone as I felt.
After the pōwhiri had finished and we’d been fed, we were invited to speak to any of the kaiako at the front of the wharekai, who would assess our proficiency and suggest which rōpū we should join. I was placed into Rōpū Tuawhā — Group Four out of a possible eight — which felt like a very optimistic placement by the kaiako, but a challenge I accepted nonetheless. Putting on a brave mask, I joined the others who’d been sorted into Rōpū Tuawhā and introduced myself. They were all far friendlier than I anticipated, swiftly putting me at ease with warm welcomes.
This is how I met the future New Zealander of the Year. She arrived at our table soon after I did; white-skinned, like me, but without a trace of my crippling self-doubt. She seemed to part the crowd of tauira with a sort of regal stride that I could only envy. To feel as comfortable in my skin as she looked in hers, to carry myself as confidently as she did herself! She arrived at our table with exclamations of joy at familiar faces who she greeted warmly. Another kura reo regular, it seemed.
And yet, I learned when she introduced herself to those of us who didn’t know her, she was Pākehā. If I wasn’t already too nervous to speak, I would have been stunned into silence. Her reo was excellent, at least by my standards. My impression of her went immediately from one of envy to awe. If only there were more Pākehā like her, I thought.
Once our classes started the following day, she only continued to impress me. It quickly became clear that she was well-known among the kaiako, who would address her as if an old friend, and she never hesitated to answer any of their questions or contribute to group kōrero. It’s a common tikanga for one tauira to mihi to the kaiako at the end of each class on behalf of everyone else, and this was a role she assumed for one of our earliest classes.
By contrast, I felt like I was barely scraping by. I had regular trouble comprehending the kaiako, and occasionally found myself struggling to break through a wall of miscommunication with my fellow tauira in group work.
In my very first class, when responding to a direct question from the kaiako, I accidentally used the word “haurangi” (drunk) rather than “pōrangi” (crazy, insane) — which received a confused raising of the eyebrows from the kaiako and a few mutterings from my classmates. The more I tried to stumble through an explanation, the more incoherent I became.
Thankfully, another tauira somehow figured out what I was trying to say and swooped in to save me. But by then the damage was done, and if I could have dissolved in my seat, I would have.
By the second day of classes, I was already exhausted. Like I’d dived into an ocean when I hardly knew how to swim, labouring from one island to the next, and just when I felt like I’d caught my breath, it was time to move on to the next one. I became obsessed with the clock in each room, counting down until my next break where I could be free, if only for a while, from the merciless onslaught of anxious nausea.
The insidiousness of it all was the guilt left in its wake. After class ended and I beelined for the door, for fresh air and space, the self-interrogation would begin. Why wasn’t I trying harder? Why wasn’t I soaking up all the rich knowledge these tohunga of the reo had to offer? This is what I came for, wasn’t it? What would my tūpuna think?
What would my tūpuna think?
I was left asking myself this after an encounter with Tā Tīmoti Kāretu. His reputation preceded him: a taniwha of a kaiako, one who demanded perfection from his tauira. After a particularly tough class with him — in which I felt, for once, like I wasn’t the only one having a hard time — he called out to me on our way to morning break.
“Baker,” he said after catching up to me. “Ko wai a Matenga ki a koe?” Who is Matenga to you?
“Ko tōku tūpuna koroua,” I told him. “Te pāpā o tōku koro.” My great-grandfather.
I had wondered how long it would take for someone to make this connection. Koro Matenga was a renowned orator of his time, a rangatira of Raukawa who played a key part in Whakatupuranga Rua Mano, the iwi development initiative that led to the establishment of Te Wānanga o Raukawa itself.
Tā Tīmoti hummed in acknowledgment before sharing some of his memories of Koro Matenga with me. It was a moment of levity I needed, providing the connection and grounding I had yearned for since the kura began. A timely reminder that Koro Matenga was here, with me.
But my own traitorous mind forged this into a double-edged blade. It took Tā Tīmoti’s simple gesture of whanaungatanga and turned it into perceived expectation, an unachievable target set for me. How disappointing was I, uri of Matenga Baker, the master kaikōrero, to someone like Tā Tīmoti? How disappointing was I to Koro Matenga himself?
That question haunted me into the third day, which was when my class was tasked with that evening’s kauwhau: a speech or lecture given by one member of each rōpū after meals. During a break between classes, we discussed who would be willing to speak on behalf of our rōpū.
Expectedly, there were no self-nominations. Despite the memory of Koro Matenga — or maybe because of it — I immediately ruled myself out too. The kauwhau from other rōpū so far had all been fantastic, ranging from theatrical to hilarious to inspirational. Another standard I doubted I could live up to.
Then, puncturing all this internalisation, was a voice. “Tīhema, māu pea?” Tĩhema, how about you?
It was the New Zealander of the Year. She was seated somewhat casually, arm draped over the back of her chair, face resting delicately on one hand. But her voice carried so much authority. I could sense my classmates’ eyes on me. Relieved, perhaps, that they hadn’t drawn her attention.
I fumbled through a response. What I wanted to say was that I didn’t feel ready. I wouldn’t know what to talk about. I was already struggling to keep a full-blown panic attack at bay each class, and the added stress of having to do the kauwhau to a wharekai full of tauira and kaiako might just break me.
But I didn’t know how to say any of this in te reo Māori. And I wasn’t going to break the reo Māori-only tikanga of the kura reo for it.
All I could manage was: “Kāore au i te tino hiahia . . .” I don’t really want to.
I wasn’t sure how I expected the New Zealander of the Year to react. Maybe to just move on to someone else, or simply offer an understanding: “Kei te pai, e hoa.” But it certainly wasn’t the way she recoiled, as if I’d just sworn at her. The way she rolled her eyes and muttered: “Kāore tātou katoa i te tino hiahia.” None of us really want to.
A dismissal. Whatever answer she’d been hoping for wasn’t the one I’d given. While she cast her scope elsewhere in search of more worthy challengers, I replayed the whole five-second interaction in my head. Maybe I had offended her? Maybe I was the one who’d come off as rude? She was so lovely to everyone else, so respectful and reverent of all the kaiako, and clearly so familiar with the struggles of learning te reo that she would surely understand my position. It must have been my fault for not being articulate enough.
Whatever the case, that was all it took for me to add the New Zealander of the Year to the steadily-growing list of people I’d let down so far.
This list only grew larger over the final day-and-a-half of classes — or at least, my own name kept appearing on it more often. In one class, where we were asked to create our own whakataukī on certain topics, I crafted one that likened a pair of lovers to the pūtangitangi (paradise shelduck), which mate in pairs for life.
Somewhat proud of this creation, I summoned up the courage to share it with the class when the kaiako asked for volunteers. His response was: “Ehara tēnā i te whakaaro Māori.” That’s not a Māori way of thinking.
This shattered any vestige of confidence I had left. By the time I dragged myself to our final class the following day, I was simply ready for the experience to be over.
To clarify: I harboured no ill feelings towards any of the kaiako, or to the concept of the kura reo itself — which I firmly believe, despite what this account might be at risk of portraying, is an invaluable exercise that any reo speaker should try. It was just that I — as a reo speaker of average ability, suffering a debilitating conflict of identity between my whakapapa and white skin, and countless other forms of colonised hangover — found it utterly gruelling. Unpicking these parts of our identity is harrowing, yes, but a necessity in the fight to reclaim ourselves.
Thankfully, our final class was about the language and slang of rangatahi. We’d already heard from other tauira that this was the most enjoyable of all the classes, because it mostly took the form of games and quizzes. Which it did. For the first time, I never felt tempted to check the clock, instead losing myself in the laughter of silly word games and light-hearted competition with my classmates. It was the most fun I’d had in the whole kura reo.
That was until, during the mid-class break, I sensed a presence standing over my shoulder. The New Zealander of the Year. Smiling sweetly down at me, she asked me in a gentle tone, like a primary school teacher to one of her pupils, if I was willing to be the one to mihi to the kaiako at the end of the class. It was a simple enough request, and one I actually felt comfortable doing. I’d given plenty of mihi before, and I’d also had the benefit of hearing what others had said in previous classes to draw on.
But in that instant, where her question lingered in the gulf between us, a barrage of realisations occurred to me. As far as I knew, no one else had been pre-emptively asked to mihi like this. It was always a natural thing, an unspoken expectation that someone would do it because it was just the right thing to do. I was one of several class members who hadn’t done it yet — not because I hadn’t wanted to, but because I’d just been beaten to it on every occasion that I did feel confident enough to try.
That was exactly why she was asking me, I realised. Because I hadn’t done it yet. Because I hadn’t done the kauwhau. Because I hadn’t spoken enough in class. Because I hadn’t answered enough questions. Because my thinking wasn’t Māori enough. The charitable side of me thought that maybe she was just pushing me to get the most out of this experience while I could. The cynical side of me thought that she didn’t think I’d put in enough effort.
Whatever the case, one thing was certain: I hadn’t met whatever benchmark she thought I should have.
And I wanted to say to the New Zealander of the Year: Who the fuck do you think you are? You, a privileged, wealthy Pākehā who carries your head high and proud, because you don’t have centuries of intergenerational trauma to drag it down. You, who shamelessly flaunts a tongue steeped in the language beaten out of my grandfather. You, who seems to think the significance of acknowledging a kaiako for the mātauranga shared is simply the act itself — not the intent, not the purpose, not the manaakitanga shown by expressing what lies in the heart rather than the soulless, manufactured stage direction you’re attempting now. You, a manuhiri to this land, who thinks you can stand over me, in my rohe, on my whenua, and expect me to do anything you think I should.
But I didn’t know how to say any of this in te reo Māori.
So, instead, I forced a smile and nodded back. Placated, she swanned off to morning tea.
When the time came, I stood and delivered. I’d spent the rest of the class drafting something in my head, taking particular note of certain lessons or jokes I could make callbacks to. I thanked the kaiako for lightening up a grey and dreary day — which I meant for both the rain lashing the windows outside and the storm raging inside me. Being our final class together, I also took the opportunity to acknowledge my fellow members of Rōpū Tuawhā. It was all received well, by both the kaiako and the rest of the class.
Perhaps I should have been proud. Celebrating this private triumph of making it through the challenge of kura reo. Maybe it was appropriate that the final say for my class rested with me, uri of Matenga Baker, on my tūrangawaewae. Maybe I should have been grateful to the New Zealander of the Year for the opportunity.
I just felt hollow. Every moment of shame, doubt, and self-loathing I’d battled with over the last few days embodied in that moment of compliance. Of submission. Of compromising my own mana for the sake of obeying the rules, of avoiding conflict, of protecting a white woman’s ego.
She was awarded New Zealander of the Year a few years later. When I think about how New Zealand came to be — the motivations that fuelled its creation, the doctrines on which it was founded, the very reason kura reo exists at all — I can’t think of a more fitting title.
Tīhema Baker (Raukawa te Au ki te Tonga, Ātiawa ki Whakarongotai, Ngāti Toa Rangatira) is a writer and Tiriti o Waitangi-based policy advisor from Ōtaki. He holds a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington, for which he wrote his first novel, Turncoat.
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