For anyone on their language journey, embarrassment can slow you down. It’s sometimes described as a taniwha that needs to be vanquished. But there are other ways to defeat your shame, writes Tainui Stephens.


Our tribes have stories of taniwha as spiritual guides in the waterways, or protectors of their lands. Other taniwha were creatures of murderous intent and had to be avoided at all costs. 

The power of taniwha is also invoked to caution learners of Māori not to be overcome by embarrassment: Patua te taniwha o te whakamā. Beat the monster of shame.  

I’ll never forget Buck Bell. He was a lovely guy who truly thrashed that taniwha. 

I met him when we were studying Māori together in 1980. He told me he started to learn the language because of a tragedy — and shame. 

The tragedy was the death of Margaret, his innocent daughter, the year before, in a drive-by shooting outside an Auckland nightclub.

His shame came from not understanding what the many people at the tangi had said in Māori, to his beloved Margaret.

The aroha of strangers had moved him, and he dealt to his shame by committing himself to his language. Buck’s enthusiasm was infectious. His mistakes never deterred him. They actually made him smile because he knew they were clues to getting it right. I so admired him.    

Fortunately, my own doses of shame came early in my language journey, and when the tragedies of a normal life came later, I was able to understand what was said in the farewells to my own beloveds.

The last half of the 1970s was a time of growing political consciousness and anger. I was a student at Canterbury University and had somehow become the president of the Māori club. We were a friendly bunch with a modest knowledge of reo and tikanga. 

In those Facebook-free years, we were disconnected from the momentous events happening in the North Island. It was only when people were visiting that we got a feeling for the intensity of the political struggle. My middle-class mind was focused more on the culture, and less on the struggle. I didn’t yet know that they’re one and the same thing.   

One of the annual gatherings of Māori university students, Te Huinga Rangatahi, was at the Ōtākou marae just outside of Dunedin. Our club was to host students from the North Island at Te Rehua marae in Christchurch, before travelling south on a chartered bus. 

When we met the students, I was impressed that a good number of them were native speakers. I’d never encountered anyone my own age who could speak te reo so fluently, and those of us in the club held them in awe.

But not for very long.

It became quickly apparent that some of our northern peers didn’t hold us in any kind of regard at all. Our humble club didn’t have any language experts apart from a Te Aute old boy and a clever Pākehā chap. We could do basic mihi and hold simple conversations in short sentences. We had a small number of action songs, and one traditional waiata. That was the extent of what we knew. (Although, to be fair, we had a huge repertoire of party songs.)  

But we knew enough of the language to understand that a few of our guests were scornful of our ignorance. They’d speak at lightning speed and then burst into laughter. My shame at my inability in te reo made me want to stay away, but they were our manuhiri and I was the club president. So, I had to interact with them.

On the morning we were to travel, our bus was late, and I could feel their impatience. At the same time, a local primary school came to the marae for a short visit. Their contact person hadn’t arrived, and the teachers asked me if we could give them a pōwhiri.

I was excited to ask our guests if they’d help us welcome the children. It was rare to hear speakers of our age in Christchurch, and it would’ve been great to see them in action. However, they took one look at the kids and sniffed: “We’re not welcoming those Pākehās!”

I looked at the group of about 30 children lining up to be called on to the marae. Sweet kids. Mop tops and freckles.         

I fumed and thought: “That’s bullshit. That’s not the Māori way!” 

I didn’t know what the Māori way actually was, but I knew it wasn’t about disrespecting visitors or using children to make some kind of political point. 

Our small group welcomed the school by ourselves, and everything worked out, although I did notice a couple of the northerners join in to sing our waiata. I was proud of our club’s efforts to manaaki the tamariki despite the withering gaze of others. I knew it was the right thing to do.

During the five-hour bus trip south, my clubmates were subdued, and I was embarrassed for them. I was shamed by my utter inability to speak with our fellow rangatahi in anything they would acknowledge as passable Māori. And to speak English felt like defeat. 

Some of the northerners got a bit pissed at the back of the bus. If I’d had any balls, I would’ve suggested that going on to the marae drunk may not have been a good thing. In the end, they did just that. I can still see their lead speaker swaying on his feet, as he belted out what I thought was an amazing speech. 

After the pōwhiri, I met, for the first time, Tīmoti Kāretu — or Sam, as he was known then. He whirled by our group looking for the sozzled students. He wasn’t happy, and he had some words for them.    

The hui itself was a revelation to me. There was a wide mix of students from many iwi, and the discussions were serious. It was one of those hui where there was shouting and tears. Everything was heartfelt. 

There was earnest debate about a petition concerning Māori broadcasting. There was vigorous blame placed on Pākehā in general for the sorry state of our position in society. Nek minnit, one of my club members stands up. He sobs deeply and anguishes over his identity as an adopted half-caste man. He uses clawed hands to reveal himself being ripped into two pieces.

In another session, a student from Rotorua rose to make an impassioned point. He finished his eloquent speech and launched into a fiery version of the haka “Ka Mate”. I was so impressed. Then I saw some of the local kaumātua scrambling to their feet or knees, shouting him down. 

He sank to the mattress, deeply traumatised. I had no idea why, until someone whispered that to perform Te Rauparaha’s haka in Te Waipounamu, where the Ngāti Toa chief had massacred many of their Ngāi Tahu ancestors in the 1830s, is very offensive indeed. Māori mental note to self, ka tika.

Tīmoti/Sam made a deep impression on the hui, and on me personally. He had a huge reputation as a language teacher par excellence. His kaupapa then, as it is now, was that, if we don’t speak Māori, how do we know we’re Māori? 

I’d never heard anyone speak te reo so fast and I didn’t understand a word until he said in English, quite without irony: “I shall now translate for the benefit of those who are not multilingual.”

When the hui was over, we bid our formal goodbyes. I stammered out a few feeble words, and a bad joke about all the wonderful hospitality making us too heavy for the bus. On our way home, I reflected on a few days of sheer embarrassment about my reo, mixed up with affirmations about an emerging picture in my mind of the plight and pains of the people. 

I vowed that I wouldn’t allow myself to be shamed by my ignorance again. As I think back to that long ago hui, part of me realises that all I had to do was get over myself. 

But I didn’t know myself back then. My shame felt real at the time, as it did for my mates in the club. The reality of those feelings return to me whenever I see others going through their own moments of ignorance and inability.  

I now see patterns of behaviour that lead to knowledge, and some that lead to understanding. They all start from a point where you felt something — in your mind, your heart, or your gut. 

E mea nei te kōrero: Mā te rongo ka mōhio, mā te mōhio ka mārama, mā te mārama ka mātau, mā te mātau ka ora. (By feeling something, you come to know. Through knowing, you are enlightened. Through enlightenment, you come to understand. Through understanding, you come to be truly alive.)

There is a rhythm to the journey of our awakening. It beats with the rise and fall of every faculty and talent we have, and swings between what we can and can’t do. It seems to me that taniwha exist to give us direction. 

Sometimes it’s wise to embrace the taniwha. The best way to vanquish the monster we presume it to be, is to cleave to the guardian we can choose it to be.


Tainui Stephens, of Te Rarawa, has been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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