For local and government staff whose work requires engagement with iwi, getting the basics right is no longer optional, writes Aroha Gilling — it’s a job requirement.  


Treaty partnership is a widely-used term, thrown around by local and central government departments and staff.

But so often it seems like an abstract concept assigned to the wider organisation, not something individuals themselves are committed to.

I want us to think about our responsibilities at an intimate and daily level. To consider what it really means, from a personal perspective, to be one half of the partnership. It requires conscious effort and a willingness to embrace discomfort.

I’m fortunate to work alongside colleagues who are doing their utmost to build knowledge and develop the skills to interact respectfully with te ao Māori. This reflection is not for them or for their peers across the country.

This is for the colleagues who make excuses, take the easy way out, or are openly antagonistic. It’s for the ones who tell me, “I don’t do that Māori stuff” or “I can’t be bothered with all that kee-ah-ora rubbish!”

You need to rise to the challenge, accept the discomfort, and not lurk around in the back row mumbling resentfully and looking at your boots. After all, no one dies from being uncomfortable.

As Crown, local body and legislative demands increase on iwi, professional expectations for engaging with those iwi are also intensifying for local and central government staff. Getting the basics right isn’t optional anymore, it’s a job requirement.

Pōhiri are often the first point of formal engagement with te ao Māori for many Crown and local government employees. A pōhiri can be rich with tension, awkwardness, and points of cultural abrasion.

I’ve observed that agencies often turn up at the gate with no plan as to how they will appropriately get in the gate.

They need a kaiwhakautu (a caller for guests) and at least one kaikōrero.

Traditionally, women would be mentored and supported into the calling role by their aunties, mum and cousins. Slowly, skills would be practised and developed on marae according to the tikanga of the hapū, under the watchful gaze of tīpuna, whare and whenua.

Colonisation has disrupted the educational continuum and women are frequently thrown into the role underprepared.

It’s not unusual for a Pākehā male manager to instruct a Māori female staff member to undertake this vital activity. But she may not know how, or she may not speak te reo Māori. She may have elders in the role and be unwilling to trample on their mana, or she may be unable to tell her male boss that she’s menstruating. She may be too young or she may be completely disconnected from te ao Māori.

It’s unreasonable for any employer to expect her to fulfil the calling role unless this has been discussed openly and the terms agreed well in advance. Managers and agencies who undervalue the role, culturally compromise their own staff and the women concerned.

They must also understand that each marae has differing expectations. Some will accept a youthful caller in a learning context, while others are adamant that young women have no role as callers. The same is true of Pākehā in the role, yet agencies continue to put forward candidates as callers who are not appropriate.

I hope the day will come when organisations consider their employment policies, and either recruit women with calling skills, or support staff to train for the role and recognise this in their job description, pay and allowances.

Even if there is an experienced caller, I’ve often seen other staff ignore their direction and guidance. But your caller has a crucial ongoing role. They can direct the inexperienced to the appropriate seats. They may decide on the correct waiata to add depth to the speeches, lead the waiata, and through subtle and not so subtle indications, they can send the inexperienced in the correct direction for hongi and harirū.

They may also communicate through glance and gesture with the senior women on the host side in order to support the process and talk, through glance, gestures and whispered-aside to the male speakers in the front row. In this manner, the senior women and men hold the rōpū safely in a protective embrace.

If you are Pākehā, remember this is not your world. Follow the guidance and you will be safe.

The callers also serve as kaiwaiata, and reserve the right to select waiata and change them to suit the moment, sentiment and purpose of the gathering. This skill has no opportunity to be used, or to flourish, when many agencies taking part in pōhiri rely on the Te Aroha fall-back.

The popular and memorable waiata Te Aroha was written by the late Morvin Simon. He composed a song with more than one verse, but today, if you search for it online, no matter how deep you dig, it’s the lonely first verse replicated time and time again.

At countless pōhiri across the country, the first verse is the waiata of choice because it’s catchy, easy to remember and has a positive sentiment. But it’s also the pathway of least resistance.

I often wonder what the host paepae think. What is their perception of the effort the visitors have put into engaging with them? Do they just sigh politely and smile, or sometimes join in to bolster the flagging voices on yet another rendition of the lonely first verse of Te Aroha?

I work with colleagues who have a spectacular range of practical and academic qualifications often to very complex and accomplished levels. I remind them regularly that they have the capacity to take in and recall large amounts of information as demonstrated by the letters or titles on their email signatures. Therefore they can learn to sing a song with more than one verse!

My position is not popular. I have struggled for years to understand why people who embrace challenge in a range of areas baulk when it comes to extending themselves to engage with te ao Māori.

I recall a Crown entity who arrived with a caller wearing trousers, a karanga that was written down, and one waiata distributed on pieces of paper with the tune recorded on a cellphone. As it transpired that day, they ended up with three speakers but could only offer up the one waiata utilising the cellphone to lead the song. Their effort lacked mana, vigour and spirit, and diminished the dignity of the process.

When it comes to oratory, the speechmakers at pōhiri must rise to the challenge and deliver their very best in te reo Māori, drawing on metaphor, simile, experiences, imagery, sayings and whakapapa to present and enhance the appropriate messages.

Oratory can be vivid, evocative and stirring. It should be a mix of artistry, alchemy and a wee bit of creative flare.

But so often I’ve heard agencies begin in te reo Māori, and then when the content demands more than rote learning, they lapse into English. Or agencies who send an emissary (often the sole, hapless Māori staff member) into the marae to ask if they can speak in English. I’ve listened to another agency which realised that if their speaker used the region’s full name repeatedly they could fill in more time. They used this tactic at least eight times before I stopped counting.

Te reo Māori pronunciation continues to present a significant challenge to true partnership. It’s incredibly difficult to focus on the content of a kōrero when the delivery screams a lack of respect.

I’ve sat with iwi at resource hearings and watched the tension in their shoulders as tīpuna names were repeatedly distorted. I’ve also seen the relief and the pleased smiles when local and central government staff make an authentic effort. Māori are adept at recognising effort even when the result is imperfect.

I don’t think anyone expects fluency. But care, attention to detail and a thoughtful approach to te reo Māori should be foundational for all central and local government staff. The same effort staff use to pronounce technical language, master departmental acronyms, respond to Official Information Act requests or write for their minister, mayor or chief executive should be applied to te reo Māori.

The importance of careful reo Māori use cannot be overstated. I sat in an iwi hosted meeting where a place name had only two letters different from a neighbouring iwi name. The two names were frequently used interchangeably with no understanding that the iwi are engaged in a significant dispute.

The importance of good vowel sounds in te reo Māori is also extremely important. Poorly expressed vowels may result in words such as “uri” and “ure” being used inappropriately. I’ll leave it to you to look those two words up.

I frequently hear, “I just don’t have a good ear for languages” or “it’s not a current priority”, as explanations for lack of effort or poor pronunciation. All government employees are subject to government policies and directions such as Maihi Karauna, which sets out a te reo Māori vision and a shared agenda for actions across government agencies (and ministerial portfolios) — and the various local bodies have professional development expectations. It means this is an integrated part of all employees’ roles. It’s not optional — just as it’s not optional to reconcile expense receipts or meet reporting deadlines.

The flipside is that if you’re fortunate enough to have had tutelage in te reo, please recognise the privilege and use the skill with kindness and consideration.

Remember that colonisation has taken away our reo Māori through organised and systematic destruction. The deep and fundamental pain of losing our language is part of most whānau, hapū and iwi experience. Learn to recognise where people are on their language journey and be gracious and gentle about your language use. Te reo Māori is not your weapon.

When you do commit to learning about any aspect of te ao Māori please consider a balance between that enthusiasm to learn and the requests you make for knowledge. You may embrace waiata but be mindful that the person writing or teaching the waiata to you may have had to go through a considerable battle to reclaim lost knowledge in order to be in the position to share with you. Māori knowledge is not yours by right, but by generosity.

What you say is also just as important as how you say it. I listened to an experienced ex-government official, now in a local body role, tell iwi how nice it was to see them working so well together and not fighting. In a very robust manner, it was pointed out to him that the single most divisive element in iwi relationships has most often been the Crown.

True Treaty partnership requires commitment, honesty, and a conscious and continual process of self-scrutiny, critical thinking, balancing and analysis. Then this thinking must come to life in new behaviour that demonstrates a real investment in changing the status quo.

We all have a role to play at a personal, not just departmental, level. Pull up your socks, pull out your finger, and pull yourself together, central and local government staff.

You can and must do better if you are to truly be a Treaty partner.


Aroha Gilling (Te Whānau a Apanui) is an adviser to government departments on Te Tiriti o Waitangi and mātauranga Māori. She has a Master of Indigenous Studies from the University of Otago, and a background in adult education and social work. She lives in Nelson.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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