Tīmoti Kāretu and Moana Maniapoto in Havelock North. (Photo supplied)

Many students of te reo see Tā Tīmoti Kāretu as the godfather of the Māori language movement. At 84, he’s still the authority. 

Tīmoti comes with a Tūhoe and Kahungunu whakapapa, a knighthood, a fearsome reputation, and an eye-roll for those whose reo he rates as mundane, mediocre, or pedestrian.

Language is his thing. And Te Tā has some serious reo skills. In French and German as well as in Māori and English. 

I’d rarely heard him speak English where, as with his reo Māori, the man is the fastest speaker in the world. So I’d spent the last 40 years trying to avoid a conversation with him. 

But when mutual friends kept going on about how witty and wicked he is — and how he loves nothing better than a debate — I thought: “Why not?” 

So, I took a deep breath and gave Te Tā a call. 

“Yes,” he said. “I watch your show.”

Nice. Warm feeling.

“You’ve improved.”

Right. Good to know. 

Then, when I sat down with him for a rare interview in English, I discovered that his habit of dishing out — and, he insists, “taking” criticism — is something he attributes to his mentor, the late John Rangihau. 

The Tūhoe leader, best known for his seminal work Puao-Te-Ata-Tū, once told Tīmoti that, if you can’t take criticism, “get out”.

After spending the day with Tīmoti, I realised how much I’d missed out on over the years. He didn’t spare me from the trademark barbs. Like: “This is such a boring conversation.” Or: “We’re waffling here.” Or: “This has been tortuous.”

Yeah, thanks for that, Te Tā. 

I’ll be back, though. Once I’ve had a chance to pimp my reo.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview for Te Ao with Moana, which took place in his Havelock North home.


Moana: It’s said that you’ve got a memory like an elephant. Do you remember the first time we met? I think it was around 1979, 1980. You asked me and my mate Erana Hond Flavell to go into the kapa haka because you knew we were St Joe’s girls. We practised our little hearts out and then you delivered the news that we weren’t required anymore.

Tīmoti: For the coronation whakataetae, you were only allowed so many performers. But Erana was there — it was only you that got cut! Erana was in the original group and she’s in the photographs. And the Parata girls were in there. Hekia and Hiria. But Hiria was never in the front row. She would never have made the front row. She couldn’t poi.

You were a pretty tough taskmaster?

We were trying to establish a reputation, you see, and you don’t want to be considered inferior even before you started. We were just beginning way back then. 

The Whare Wānanga’s number one difference with all the other groups was that Māori was the language of the group. I just suddenly thought we needed somewhere where the kids could hear the language all the time, even though it was coming from me rather than from themselves. 

And so the kapa haka wasn’t really meant to be a kapa haka as such. It was supposed to have been a gathering place for those who wanted to just speak the reo all of the time. 

That was the original intent and then suddenly everybody wanted to get into whakataetae. 

When I went to Waikato University, I remember going into your office and you said: “Nō tēhea kura?” Which school are you from? And I said Hato Hōhepa, and you said: “We’ll knock that out of you.” Traumatised me for life!

Because I remember the girls from Hato Hōhepa were always so painfully shy. And for haka ladies, you’ve got to have wana and ihi, that gusto and force, which Hato Hōhepa girls don’t have. They are not wana-ihi types of performers. They’re sweet. It’s that “Ave Maria” thing. They sing sweetly, but they’re not haka material. 

You need aggression. You need passion. You need panache. You need all those things to be a good haka lady. 

One year, I judged the competition and I said something along those lines about St Joseph’s. They’ve never performed in kapa haka since, not in whakataetae anyway. You’re supposed to be able to take criticism. That’s what life’s about. You get criticised all the time.

How are you at taking criticism? 

Well, it depends on how true it is! I don’t mind criticism at all. John Rangihau was the one who said to me: “If you can’t take criticism, get out now.” Because you’ll only get better by accepting criticism. And if you’re ego-driven like I used to be, and I probably still am ego-driven, that was one of the most valuable pieces of advice I think I’ve ever received.

It’s like when you correct someone’s reo in a class. I sometimes get: “Kei te takahi koe i taku mana” — you’re trampling on my mana. And I think to myself: Well, you’re murdering my language. Which one is it going to be? Murdering my language or your mana? 

And, for me, it’s always going to be murdering the language. So, ana te kūaha, haere. If you can’t take it, there’s the door. Go.

John Rangihau was at Waikato University with you. It was a very impressive Māori mafia that was kind of running the place in that era?

True. We had a reputation for being that, because there was Te Wharehuia Milroy and Hirini Melbourne, and Rangihau initially. Then we got people like Ngahuia Dixon and those ones coming in. 

It became our number one requirement that all the staff had to speak Māori all the time, so that the kids coming in could hear the language going all the time. We didn’t want to be like all the other universities where Māori was only used in the classroom and nowhere else. It would seem to be a bit dopey to do that. So we had this philosophy that ahakoa haere ki hea, ka rongona te reo — no matter where you are the reo should be heard.

So Rangihau was a mentor then?

Yes, a mentor. The first time I saw him after not seeing him for some years, we sat down and had a father-son talk. And he just said to me: “Kia kaha te mahi, ko te mea nui ko te puta te ihu, he whakahīhītanga mō te iwi.” That’s what he said to me. And then all that weight is on your shoulders to live up to the requirements.

You’ve spoken to E-Tangata before about your whāngai upbringing and the formative influence of your parents Tame and Mauwhare Kāretu. You grew up on Waimako marae in Waikaremoana until the age of about 12 and then you moved to Waimārama. What was the difference for you living between Waimārama and Waikaremoana?

Waikaremoana was a Māori-speaking community, all the way through to Waimana. The whole of Tūhoe was Māori-speaking in those days.

Whereas Waimārama was Kahungunu with a vengeance and had no reo Māori at all. That’s how big the difference was.

There was no Māori spoken in Waimārama when I went back there. The language was already lost. The Māori that was spoken was by women who’d married into the community from other tribes. So I became this cute little thing, this little smart arse, who could kōrero Māori i ngā wā katoa. 

Because of my mum, that was the language of the home, you see. It was a blessing that happened quite fortuitously, because you didn’t have to consider: “Should we speak Māori or not?” It was the only language she knew, so that was the language of the home. 

People came to visit us and tried in their fractured way to speak to my mother. We would understand one word here and there, and she would realise: “Ah, they want some kamokamo, or they want something else.” Because Mum and Dad were very green-fingered. They had huge paddocks of kai. Kamokamo, potatoes, corn, and all the rest of it. 

So it was the old style of living. We had a one-room dirt-floor hut in Waikaremoana, which people can’t reconcile me to. But everybody lived like that in Waikaremoana. It wasn’t just us. 

People talk about poverty now, but I suppose that’s a different kind of poverty, for we were well-fed. You know, you would go to the bush to shoot pig and deer for meat. That’s what people did. They grew paddocks and paddocks of kai. There was an orchard where everybody could go at a certain time of the year to get fruit. It was really communal living as we don’t know it anymore. 

People can’t conceive of that sort of way of living anymore. We are nuclear families with our own interests and our own requirements, and to hell with everybody else. 

Although the younger generation keeps talking about trying to go back to those ideals, I think it’s a romantic dream. I’d like to think that they could do it, but I think it’s difficult in the contemporary setting. 

Where did you get your love of language from?

I went to one of those boarding schools, Wellington College, that was rigidly streamed. So if you were in a certain stream, you did Latin, you did German, and you did French. So I had German and French and got to like them. I moved in a crowd which was very fond of language, but also very fond of reading and literature generally. That was my world.

So when you were head of Te Taura Whiri, the Māori Language Commission, what was your key focus there?

To raise the profile of the language. The number one order was to raise the profile of the language, normalise it, get it out there amongst the government departments particularly.

That’s why government departments started wanting Māori names. And quite often the board, Kāterina Mataira in particular, queried that. She said: “What a waste of our time! If they’re just going to use a name and end it there.” And I think she was right. 

One of the things I hear people complain about is, for example, Oranga Tamariki having that name when they don’t think it’s appropriate, or having the word pirihimana on the side of police cars, how do you feel about that?

If that raises the profile of the language, I’m all for it. With Oranga Tamariki, I think the problem there is that Oranga Tamariki is not doing its job. I think it’s a prejudice against the department and what it does. Not the name. But there are more important issues to worry about. 

But I understand that you didn’t like the name “He Puapua”?

Well, only because the meaning of “he puapua” is the labia. That’s one of its meanings. Because in the Māui story, it says: “i tāmia e nga puapua o Hine-nui-te-pō”. That’s what she strangled him with. So I still don’t get what relevance “he puapua” has, what it was supposed to be about. 

Most Māori people who know the word would just react. You know what we’re like. We immediately start to laugh at something no matter how serious it is. 

I would assume that you can’t stand transliterations? Things like “Mane” and “Turei” for Monday and Tuesday?

Transliteration is different from borrowings. You’re talking about borrowings. Every language has borrowings, otherwise they wouldn’t survive. And I think English is the exemplar par excellence of that, because it borrows from every language and quite shamelessly. 

And I think that’s how languages survive. You’ve got to keep moving and employing a language that the children or the younger generations are going to use. There are a lot of words coming out now that I find a bit strange, but that’s only because I’m not keeping up with the play.

We know that the reo is a window to the Māori world. An example from an interview I did with Moana Jackson was when he said there’s no word in Māori for “guilty”. Is that your understanding? No Māori word for “guilty”? I think he meant that, in terms of the Māori concept of justice, you unpack who it is that you’ve committed an offence against — as opposed to you, the individual, being guilty. 

The old people said: “Hē o te kotahi, hē o te katoa.” The mistake belongs to the collective. Everything’s collective with us. Because that’s the only way you can get any discipline — by saying you embarrass us all when you do whatever you do. It just doesn’t work anymore, which is sad because it was a good way of keeping the community well-behaved.

Do you think sometimes we’re a bit romantic about our values?

I think we are. It’s coming from a generation that never lived through those philosophies or ever experienced them firsthand. And I think my generation is probably the last of the dirt-floor generations where we went through that way of living with no extremely deleterious effects. 

In the end, you can’t go on blaming Mum and Dad or your tīpuna or whoever. There comes a time when, whatever brain you’ve got, you should try to use.

Apirana Ngata is quoted as saying that without the reo you’re not Māori, basically. I’m paraphrasing here, but how do you respond to that? 

There’s no validity to that. But I think the point of the argument at that time was that he was worried that, already, English was intruding. By that time, by 1910, the reo was already down to 90 per cent of our population. We’d been 100 percent reo-speaking up until then. 

And I think he suddenly realised that his philosophy of “more English” was going against the general welfare of Māori language. 

But, no, I don’t go along with that idea that you must have the reo to be Māori. Just like I say to myself, I don’t need to be tattooed all over my body to prove that I’m Māori. I know, and that’s all that matters to me. I have that little trickle going through my body that makes me who I am. No matter what anyone says, my whakapapa says “I am”.

I know Māori in my circles who actually are quite traumatised by their inability to speak Māori. They try, but the thought of actually pronouncing te reo when they haven’t grown up with it, is traumatic. I feel really sorry for them. Do you understand that, as someone who’s never struggled like that?

We come from a culture where the best had to be the best. You wouldn’t want to be mediocre, so you make a greater effort, don’t you?

Pania Papa, Scotty Morrison and others, they all have a Pākehā parent, but look at them. So that can’t be an excuse all the time, that because you come from a mixed family, English is going to be the dominant language. You still have time somewhere along the life scale to make a decision. Do I want to speak this language? Do I not want to speak this language? So you go for it. 

I think we should always congratulate people who make the move to speak reo Maōri, even if they don’t do it very well. We can’t keep blaming history. It happened. Let’s move on. 

For some people, it’s like I’m not a real Māori because I don’t speak the reo. And then it just kind of gets stuck in them.

That’s a tragedy when they think like that because, while you’ve got blood in your veins, you’ve got every right to say: “I am Māori.” If your whakapapa tells you that you are Maōri, you are. None of us can deny that, just like we can’t deny the Pākehā blood that’s getting in the way in a lot of cases. 

So, in my case, on the Kāretu side, there was no Pākehā. But on the other side, there’s so much of it that you’re embarrassed by it, really.

But for me personally, I always felt I didn’t have to be dripping greenstone and be tattooed on every orifice to be considered to be Māori. I know who I am and what I am, and you accept that or go away. Life’s too short to have to justify your every move.

You once said, and let me quote you, Māori people don’t want our language.

The biggest enemy that the language has is ourselves because we’re just not bothering. And I think to myself: Now why would that be? You would think that any Māori who wants to be Māori would want to learn the language at some stage. 

We don’t have to worry about Pākehā, we need to worry about ourselves. I mean, you expect them not to bother, but why don’t we bother? And that’s my question which is rhetorical because I don’t know what the answer is. 

You’ve translated a lot of songs from English into Māori. Which do you prefer — a literal or metaphorical approach? What is the art to good translation?

I prefer a metaphorical approach but quite often those are just too obtuse for most people to understand. 

There’s a brand of English around these days that, for people like me who speak English, is difficult to understand. But if you get the composer with you, and ask: “Now what does this line really mean?”, then you can translate it properly. 

With newly composed mōteatea, I don’t think the lyrics have changed but the style of singing has. We’ll end up like the Hawaiians if you actually harmonise them. That’s still the number one no-no at the moment. You do not harmonise because once you harmonise it, the Pākehā tune has got in.

You’ve been involved in kōhanga for many, many years and I remember going to the Arctic Circle once, and my partner and I landed there and we thought we’d be the first Māori that anyone’s ever heard of. And the lady comes up and goes: “Hello, are you the Māori from New Zealand? Do you know Tīmoti Kāretu?” And then took me to their kōhanga!

Yes, I’d already been there before just to see what they, the Sami people, were doing. And they had come to us, to Te Taura Whiri, to visit us. Their journey is a bit different from ours, but the language is still being spoken. That’s the main thing. 

My band has travelled the world, and we’d go to Canada, to Hawai‘i, and people spoke very warmly of the language revitalisation strategies here as if we had sorted it all out. What’s your assessment?

We haven’t sorted it out. But I think when I compare ourselves to most of those, we are ahead — just not streets ahead. Apart from the Welsh, which I was very impressed by, we’re not doing too badly. We could do better

We found in Ireland the compulsion thing didn’t work. Irish has always been compulsory in the schools. And when we were there, we were told that people hated it. 

But when I went to Wales the first time, the kids would come in with only English and the teacher would refuse to speak it. Most of the kids were crying. But then, by the end of the first year of school, they were pretty fluent. The teachers believed you can’t give in. They’ve come to learn Welsh and Welsh it’s going to be. I don’t know whether they still use that philosophy. But I saw it working. 

Do you think that Māori should be compulsory here?

I can’t make up my mind about that one, because compulsion doesn’t always work. If you try that on your relations here, and you say to them: “Right, you lot, you’ve got to learn Māori whether you like it or not” — see what their reaction is.

I think the resource, teacher-wise, is the problem. What you’d need to do is change your philosophy and train more people. We need to look at the teaching fraternity first, get it up to scratch, and then go with a vengeance.

Teachers aren’t really as valued as they ought to be?

No, that’s right exactly. We were revered in my day. Like learned people from out of space. And I think teachers were given their due regard, which they’re not given anymore. The kids are with teachers who really have no good command of the reo at all, so they’re getting worse reo and worse reo.

That’s not quite correct because my daughter’s teacher is one of your graduates.

Well, she’s lucky, but there are so few of those sort of people. I mean Te Ahunui (Farnham) is really one of a few. We need thousands of Te Ahunuis, and then we’ll be right. 

Are you all good with Pākehā learning te reo alongside Māori?

I’m good with anybody who makes the effort. I’ve learned other languages and they’ve been quite tolerant, too. So I believe that if the effort is sincere, then give them all the help they want.

I also think we’ve got to rub off on them because it’s about more than just the reo. We’ve got other things that are positives that they need to learn, too. And I think that, unless they’re in our presence, they’re never going to acquire those things.

How do you feel about Pākehā teaching te reo? 

If they’re good at it, why not? Because I teach English, too. If I can teach English, why can’t they teach Māori?

Are we winning the battle for te reo?

I think the only way we’ll ever find that out is if somebody got to every home in New Zealand just to see what our numbers really are. 

But I’m very impressed by the younger generation in the 20- to 40-year-old age bracket. That’s where the most Māori is being spoken. Once you get to 50-plus, that’s where the paucity is. 

But I’m very impressed by the younger speakers. As long as they don’t get too whakahīhī, as some of them do, but generally that’s not the case. 

What are their mokopuna going to be like? That’s going to be the test.

With Te Panekiretanga, can you tell me where that word came from?

At the southern end of Waikaremoana, there’s a bluff called Panekire. So we took the word. It means the epitome, the apotheosis, the acme, the zenith — all those sorts of things. It’s the cream of the crop. 

I was worried about kids coming out of university. They could brag that they had a degree in Māori but they couldn’t string a sentence together that made sense. 

So I thought, well, why not take those ones who already have the grounding and give them another year of just extension of language? And getting poetic and getting literary instead of being mundane and pedestrian. 

Because a lot of people who come out of university are very mundane and pedestrian in their reo. You can listen to a lot of Māori programmes and hear just mundane and pedestrian language. Banal. Maroke.

How do you respond to criticisms of elitism?

We are a society that believed in elitism. We had rangatira status and we had slave status. People who speak Māori these days are an enviable lot. People envy them. So through no fault of their own, they are considered to be elitist. They just put in the effort, they spent the time, they made the commitment. So they deserve to be praised. 

And if it’s called being elitist, so be it.

I watch sometimes on the marae and there are some very mundane speakers. Do you think it’s time that we rethink the concept of why women shouldn’t speak? 

I don’t see why not — but she needs to get her karanga right. Some of the most mundane karanga you hear are on the marae too. They really are pretty bad. These days, one poor woman is made to carry the responsibilities. 

Come on, wāhine mā, start doing your thing. Start playing your role. Don’t worry about the man so much, worry about yourselves. 

But if, in the end, there are women who are better than men at speaking, then why not?

Did you ever see speakers sat down by women?

No, but I’ve seen them sung down. Women these days don’t know about that power that they’ve got. They don’t use it. The mana that women have, to sing down the man, but also, when you come on to the marae. Because men can’t do anything until the women have sat, and women don’t seem to know that. While the women are standing, the men can’t whaikōrero or anything. That’s the power that they have.

And, strictly speaking, you can’t go on to any marae until the woman gives you permission. But a lot of marae don’t have karanga women anymore. You have all this Mickey Mouse carry-on on some marae. But women really have a lot of power, which they don’t seem to be aware of.

It’s just one of those sad things, as we become more and more sort of deracinated — as we lose our cultural roots.

I think we are a culture that believes in getting it right. We’re too happy now with “near enough is good enough”. That’s not our thinking. You would not get a piupiu that wasn’t properly made. A wharenui wouldn’t have been opened if the carving wasn’t up to scratch. So why are we accepting mediocrity?

What makes a good orator?

Somebody who is able to link himself to the manuhiri, to stick to the purpose of the hui, whatever it might be. If it’s a tangi, then we were taught by the old people that you never mihi to your own mate, that you just acknowledge that they’re dead, and all the mihi go to the manuhiri for coming the distance. 

Your role is to ennoble everybody who comes on to your marae because they’ve come a great distance to pay their respects. And therefore they should be thanked for that. And that’s where all your mihi should lie. And I really believe in that.

You don’t know how far people have come. How much it has cost them to get there. All of those issues are real issues in our contemporary world. So trying to find some link with the manuhiri, whakapapa-wise, history-wise, and acknowledging the fact that they are who they are and that they’ve made the effort.

What gets on your goat the most?

The lack of observance of kawa. And yet I know there’s a new philosophy that says: “I will break with tradition to keep the tradition alive” — and Pou Temara espouses that philosophy. He’s probably right up to a point. Sometimes you might have to break the rules because otherwise certain things won’t happen at all. 

But I think ignorance of our requirements of protocol is such a hōhā. We have manners, too. Not only Pākehā have manners. We have things that we need to do, to acknowledge our hosts and for the host to acknowledge us as tangata whenua. We both have roles to play and we should not ignore those things. They’re part of our reputation. Your mana is high when you observe what’s correct. 

What about in terms of te reo? Is it stink grammar or stink pronunciation that gets on your wick the most?

Stink grammar. Just not caring about it. It’s fair enough to make a mistake. Everybody makes mistakes, no matter what language you speak. Native speakers of all languages have a slip here and there, but to not correct it is the problem.

You must accept that you’re not as good as you think you are and do something about the gaps you have. There’s nothing worse than kaumātua insisting they be on the pae when there’s lots of younger speakers and the mokopuna is probably more fluent than he is. We have to accept that the time comes when you make way.

Who’s your teacher’s pet?

I don’t have teacher’s pets. But Pania (Papa) and Leon (Blake) will have a special place in my heart forever and a day. They will have a special place in my thinking because of their devotion and their commitment. But I’ve been lucky that we’ve had nobody really obnoxious in Panekiretanga. A lot of them come already good and it’s just a bit of icing on the top of the cake from us. And others really had to work hard. 

But when you consider most are second-language learners — I think we’ve only had two native speakers — you have to doff your hat in admiration. 

Without the second-language learners, this language would not survive. This language owes its survival to second-language learners who’ve made the commitment to keep it alive and have dedicated themselves to the proposition that the language must live and be retained.

When I think back to the Māori activist movement, a lot of them didn’t speak te reo. But they fought like hell for it, eh?

Yeah. And that’s what I admired about them. The people who didn’t have it, wanted their kids to have it. And they did everything to make that possible. 

You have to admire that because that can’t be easy. The kid comes home from school and is talking the talk and the parents can’t help him in any way. But the kid knows that he’s being supported. And I think that’s the important thing. 

The whole situation has changed now, and I’m feeling, not quite like a dinosaur, but people probably look at me and think: “There’s another dinosaur.”

I don’t think so. I think they look at you as an icon.

(This interview was screened on Te Ao with Moana on Māori Television, on Monday July 5. It has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2021

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