Siena Yates, a reo-beginner, has been picking up tips from some of the winners of last year’s Ngā Tohu Reo awards run by Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission).
Here she is talking to Eli Smith whose family won the Whānau Award, sponsored by Te Mātāwai, for their work teaching and revitalising te reo Māori within their community.
As someone who grew up without the reo and always wished I had it, it’s easy to feel envious of those who’ve had it all their lives. I always think how different my life would’ve been growing up in a whānau where going to kōhanga reo and kura was the norm.
And I can’t imagine being anything but totally grateful for that nurturing.
But that’s not always the case, as I found out from talking with Eli Smith.
Last year, Eli, his wife Te Wairua, and their five tamariki, won one of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo’s awards for their work. They run various wānanga and kura reo Māori development programmes in their Northland community of Moerewa and in nearby Kawakawa.
Eli also works as part of the Māori response unit for Tai Tokerau police, as a kind of cultural advisor, and he’s studying for his bachelor’s degree in te teo Māori at Waikato University.
Eli was born and raised in Whangārei along with his sister, Amber, and brothers, Kaine and Brenna. He now also has a younger adopted brother, Matiu, who’s 16. His mother, May, is a caregiver and his father, Ross, is a te reo Māori teacher.
And while he says now that he was privileged to be brought up in a Māori environment, he’d be the first to tell you that there were times when he didn’t always recognise how lucky he was.
It was largely thanks to the push from his grandmother, Te Auraki Nan Kapa (nee Heke). She was the one who, 30 years ago, told Eli’s dad that he needed to start putting the reo into his children’s world. Although they both spoke te reo, Te Auraki wanted to make sure that her mokopuna wouldn’t miss out.
So when Eli’s younger sister Amber (now 30) was born, his father promised to do everything he could to immerse his whānau in the reo. That included sending Eli and his siblings to kōhanga reo and kura, and bringing them up to be skilled in mau rākau.
It sounds like an ideal upbringing to me, but it wasn’t without its pressures. Eli found the expectations tough-going — and when he hit his teens, he started to rebel.
“I started seeing other things that really appealed to me. And being Māori and practising Māori things and portraying Māori values, to me, wasn’t the cool thing to be doing. So I started going down a bit of a crooked road, hanging out with not very good people from the age of about 15.”
Eventually, his parents “shipped him off” to Queenstown to work, to get him as far away from Whangārei and the bad influences as possible. It was only then that Eli started to appreciate what he’d had.
“I started realising the benefits of the values my father had instilled in us. Straight away, I found a job doing Māori culture performances. I was getting paid really good money at the age of 17. I also got a job teaching and getting paid to teach Māori martial arts. Then I realised, actually, this is what Dad was preparing us for — a bigger and better world.”
At 20, he returned to Whangārei and quickly realised how much reo he’d lost in his five years away from home and the rich reo environment he’d grown up in.
“Coming home and then having my father speak to me in Māori, and me actually having to give it a second thought before I could answer him, was a real shock to me. It was a shock to my father and a shock to my family, too. They were like: ‘What’s happening with you? What’s going on?’
“At that point, I really saw the wrongs of what I’d been doing, turning my back and rebelling. I thought: ‘Sheesh, I’m never ever going through that again.’”
Not only did he make that vow to himself, but he also vowed to make sure his children never had to go through that same kind of loss.
“So from 21 to now, 32, I’ve been making sure that I carry on giving it my all, 100 percent, to revitalising those teachings and values that my father instilled into me, into my children.”
For Eli, that journey was largely a personal one. Less about wānanga or particular projects and more about cultural appreciation, gratitude, and perseverance.
“I made sure that I never took what I had for granted. I learned to appreciate and value all that my father and my family had instilled into me about my culture. And I worked to ensure my children were all brought up learning who they are, and learning the values of their culture.
“And that was achieved by persistence, hard work, and never giving up despite the world we live in and all the challenges it throws at us.
“They say it takes a generation to lose the language, but it takes three generations to revitalise it. My family is one of the lucky ones. We have almost four generations of te reo Māori speakers in our family. My goal in life before I leave this earth is that those teachings will funnel down to the next three generations after my children. Then I’ll know that my job as a parent has been fulfilled.”
Eli’s challenge now is making sure his children — Tuhoronuku (10), Taiahoaho (9), Ohomairangi (7), Te Kohuroa (4), and Te Aumarire (2) — don’t wind up with the same attitude he had in his teens. He’s working on managing his own expectations of them and just letting them be kids, particularly when it comes to his eldest, Tuhoronuku.
“I know my father had very high expectations. You had to, at a certain level — and, in all honesty, I’ve been like that to my son. But I’m lucky to have my wife there to say: ‘You need to slow down. Your expectations are too high, you need to know that he’s only 10 years old’.
“Even when he goes to school his teachers at his school have a high expectation of him because they know the type of family he comes from. So it’s also reminding them, too, that you’ve gotta give him an opportunity to just be a kid.”
The Smith kids are all involved in the whānau’s community mahi. They set up the classrooms and help design the lesson plans, and they look after the opening whakatau and karakia for each class.
Eli says it’s a handy way to show their students one way in which they, as parents, can help preserve protocols and language, because “a lot of people haven’t had the opportunity to actually see what the future of te reo Māori can be”.
“So by having my children be a part of our class, my goal is to show that it’s normal, and that it’s their birthright to know these things and be able to practise the protocols and the tikanga on a day-to-day basis.
“I just wanted other parents, other families to see that it’s possible. I think a lot of people just don’t know how to get their waka started, so our classes are really just about how to start, to help spark the fire within themselves.”
It’s not just his own kids Eli’s worried about. Because of his past, he can relate to rangatahi who might be straying down the wrong path.
“I definitely think that if a lot of the youth had the privilege of the same upbringing that I had, the road for them would’ve been a lot different . . . I think that our culture, our reo, can play a big part in redirecting a lot of our youth.”
He says part of the solution is helping them to develop meaningful relationships — letting them know that they’re not alone, but also showing them an alternative path without pressuring them into it.
“We have the opportunity now to create some future pathways for our youth. It’s definitely a hard job, but if we can change it, bit by bit, we have a good chance of giving them a better future.”
The Smiths won the whānau award, sponsored by Te Mātāwai at the 2019 Ngā Reo Tohu awards, for their work teaching and revitalising te reo Māori within their community. This series has been made possible by funding from Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori.
Siena Yates (Te Rarawa, Te Aupouri, and Ngāti Kuri) is an Auckland-based journalist, formerly with Stuff and the New Zealand Herald, and now working for Woman magazine. She was born in Morrinsville and grew up in Te Puke in the Bay of Plenty.
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