Everyone on a language journey must ask questions to find the way. And they must be the right questions. Tainui Stephens shares more of his reo journey.
Let me introduce you to Mr Pinhead. It’s a selfie I took of my shadow one sunny day, which shows my head to have been reduced to the size of a pin, relative to the rest of me. I’m fond of it.
I’m standing at the start of a long dusty road in the Far North: Kimberly Road, Waihopo, Houhora. It’s the road that leads to what used to be the Stephens family homestead before World War Two.
My father, Vince Stephens, was born here in 1935.
In time, he was to marry Adrienne, our Pākehā mum, and become father to me, my brother Dale, and my sister Māmari.
When I turned 17, I needed to know of our Māori connections and heritage, but Dad had been long gone. Lost to Australia.
My journey to speak Māori became an act of reclaiming my identity. I had to know who I really was before I could speak Māori fully. Otherwise, all the learning could be only an intellectual exercise.
One way to find my roots was to answer the common question: “Ko wai koe?” Who are you?
There are better Māori ways to ask that same question. The answers are profound, and unique to everyone.
Cathy Dewes, a lifelong reo Māori advocate and “talk-walker” once told me there were three questions that her father, Koro Dewes, deemed essential in establishing a Māori person’s identity:
Nō hea koe? Where are you from?
Nā wai koe? Who are you of?
Mā wai koe? For whom do you exist?
For me, my journey to answer two of those questions started with another question: “How can I learn to speak Māori?”
Some answers took me to my grandfather’s people so I could claim my place among Te Rarawa and know my whakapapa. Other answers led me to a career serving the fertile dreams of Māori television and film.
But to answer the question “Nā wai koe?”, I had to find my old man.
In Dad’s early years in Waihopo, he was surrounded by a big, loving whānau. The move to the city saw things change for the worse. His uncles went to war and his aunties and mother had their own families. He never knew his own father.
He lived in different homes. His life was tough, and he suffered the explicit and casual racism of the era. But he found the love he needed with one aunt in particular. That was Aunty Clare.
Clare and her big-hearted freezing worker husband, George Kipa, always made their warm home in Stonex Rd, Papatoetoe, open to their troubled nephew, and he ran away there often.
Like so many young Māori men of the 1950s, he went south to Invercargill’s Ocean Beach freezing works. He aimed to become a master butcher like George. Then he met my mum and, eventually, they moved to Christchurch.
They did well in the meat business with shops and factories up and down the country. But, by the time we got to live in a really nice house, the whole shebang fell in a big heap, and Dad shot through to Aussie.
We never heard a word from him for several years, until I tracked him down after many illicit toll calls. It was quite a conversation.
He sent me air tickets and I flew to Sydney to see him. In those days, as you got your luggage and cleared customs, you could observe the waiting crowds through the arrivals hall doors. I looked for my father but, as far as I could see, they were all Italians there.
When I finally walked through, one of the Italians came up to me, and it clicked. I said: “Are you my Dad?” A big question by itself. And yes, he was.
He lived way out west of Sydney, past Windsor, at Wheelbarrow Ridge Road, Colo Heights. Very rural, and hot as hell. I was thrilled to discover three Aussie siblings (Mary, Colin and Lisa) and their mum Cheryl. Less thrilled, though, to discover long arsed snakeskins around the outside loo. From then on, bugger the jandals and barefeet!
On the other hand, it was wonderful to have free access to the old man’s rather excellent CX Citroen. Stylish powerful wheels for the long roads into Sydney, and access to Kings Cross and another world.
Before I gapped it for my first Friday night in the city, Dad gave me a phone number to call if I got in trouble with the law. In due course, I was to discover that he’d led a most interesting life.
We became close and I’d spend long stretches in Sydney learning about that life. He was now unafraid to come back to New Zealand, although his rift with our mum was too great to heal. In time, though, the rifts between all of us would smoothen out.
I had known of the racist treatment he received at school, but I now learned of what he endured as a successful Māori businessman in the 1960s. One memory that still rankled was of bank managers who’d deny him a seat at meetings. They sat. He’d have to stand.
Throughout that business life, he always listed his occupation as butcher. All through his life, Dad smelled like a butcher to me. Many of the men in our family have meat in their blood.
I asked him once why he liked living in Australia. Right away he said: “Because as far as the Aussies are concerned, you’re just another bloody wog!” We laughed because that was true.
After I gave him some books by Ranginui Walker, I could see how Dad’s powerful mind was responding to Ranginui’s acute insights into the trauma of colonisation. It was exciting to see him being liberated and awaken to the beauty of being Māori. Sadly, all this was new to him.
What I also discovered was the joy of taking him back to Clare and George’s in Papatoetoe. I’d grown close to the Kipas, and to have Dad come home to them was wonderful.
From then on, whenever he was in New Zealand, Dad would swing by Stonex Road and the usual range of cousins and whānau would turn up. The kitchen would disgorge cuisine that us true lovers of meat, seafood, root vegetables, puha, and pudding would always welcome.
The crowded table would explode with laughter, often triggered by a smartarse, truth-laced crack from Aunty Clare — or Dame Kipa as she was called. And, in the lounge next to the kitchen, Koro George would be sipping on his beer, checking out the horses with his Best Bets, and watching footy on telly.
That’s how those gatherings would go. They’re part of my answer to the question: “Nā wai koe?” Who am I of?
But there are other parts to that answer. Other seats at other whānau kitchen tables. As the years slip by, more homes and more kai tables become the focus of branches of my extended family. And the family names grow as fast as the mokopuna.
The Stephens family of Waihopo is linked into the Roberts and the Lee and Walters and Williams and the Kerehoma families of Wainui Junction, Ahipara. So too, to the Kipa, Munce, Browne, Campbell and Key whānau of Tāmaki Makaurau. I am second cousin to myself 176 times. I’m married to a Hakaraia, and there’s a whole heap of them!
Who am I of? I am of all of these people.
Dad died in New South Wales. We had his tangi in Tuggerah and decided to bury him at Wamberal on the coast, well north of Sydney. Our beloved “Mozzie” whānau deserve a place where they too can weep over a father who found a peace in Australia that had escaped him in the land of his birth. Ciao Dad.
To know the place of your origins upon Papatūānuku, to be connected to the people who give you life, to have a reason and purpose for joyful being — these are our native birthrights. This legacy is key to creating Māori thoughts that can be reflected by the appropriate words you choose to use, when you speak your reo.
In 1989, before travelling to Europe and Africa to make a documentary about the Māori Battalion, the legendary padre Wi Huata said to me:
“Please ask us the right questions. We have things to say but nobody asks us the right questions.”
I have never forgotten his plea.
Questions are such an essential element of our everyday lives. We get nowhere without them, especially in the digital realm. We also have to ask the right questions of ourselves. Only then can we unlock the things we have to say.
When I look at my photo of Mr Pinhead, I’m reminded that in order to get to where I need to go on my language journey, I must be humble. In the search for answers, we quickly discover that we are not alone. We’re all on a life journey. We’re all in this together.
‘Ko wai koe?’ is the wrong question, because, in the end, it’s not about you.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.