Awa writes a story in te reo Māori, his first language, as his younger brother, Winiata looks on. (Photo: Cornell Tukiri)

How do you raise your children to be reo-speaking Māori who can comfortably inhabit te ao Māori, when you yourself haven’t been raised in that world? Here’s Cornell Tukiri on how his whānau is meeting that challenge.


I watched my eight-year-old son as he came to show me his mahi. He’d been beavering away on a story, written in pencil on pages of A4 paper. “Who’s in it?” I asked. “My mates from kura,” he says.

He then goes on to describe the fantasy world that he’d created in his writing. It’s about a quest with his best friends. I take a look at the pages all written in te reo Māori, the medium of his learning. I’m reminded of his achievements, and his little brother’s, as well as ours as a whānau.

Much like my son and the friends in his story, we’re on a quest too.

We are the first whānau in our wider whānau to send our tamariki to puna reo (Māori language pre-school) and then on to kura kaupapa Māori (Māori language primary school). It was a big decision.

As a whānau, we weren’t brought up at the marae, nor were we brought up in te ao Māori (the Māori world). So, we had to convince not only ourselves but those running the puna reo and the kura that we’re committed to the language and to the kaupapa. What is the kaupapa? Well, that’s everything you can think of in a Māori context. Supporting is a huge one. Listening is another.

When you haven’t been exposed to te ao Māori during your upbringing, you’re making up for lost time as you get older. Listening, learning, and asking questions. For us as a whānau, it’s been a journey — and we know it’s one that will never end.

There have been constant markers or milestones on our whānau’s quest in te ao Māori. By outlining some of these, I hope they may provide some insight into our world.

Kaupapa (events and things).

By attending as many as you can, you’re exposed to te ao Māori and, in particular, to te reo Māori and tikanga Māori. Wānanga, tangihanga, hura kōwhatu (unveilings), huritau (birthdays or anniversaries), kura reo, Koroneihana (coronation anniversary celebration for Kīngitanga), pōwhiri. Drink it in.

Even if you’re scared, do it anyway. I was shit-scared in the first three years of going to wānanga or events knowing te reo Māori would be māori, or natural. Actually, I’m still shit-scared, but by experiencing more, you learn more. You understand more and more. It becomes a magic process.


Go back to your rohe or marae (if you don’t live there) to connect with whānau. It took me a few years of going backwards and forwards to kaupapa (there’s that kupu again!) to sit and listen, make a cup of tea, and do the dishes.

By immersing yourself in the kaupapa, you pick up on the issues and you may pick up kōrero tuku iho (handed-down stories) that are the tūāpapa or foundations of your whakapapa. That’s crucial for you to understand who you are — and, if you have children, who they are. That piece was missing from my childhood, but I think it’s paramount that our children know.

Kōrero me whakarongo (speak and listen).

It’s a given, but, for te reo Māori to thrive in our whānau, we must speak it. My wife and I make plenty of mistakes, and we’re corrected, usually by our eight- and six-year-old boys. They laugh at us when we muck it up, but they’re also learning empathy (I think).

I see the positive in this. They’re really listening to what we say in te reo Māori. They hear us. We’re speaking a lot more at home, and we have times where we’ll say: “Mō ngā miniti e toru tekau me kōrero Māori mātou.” (We will speak Māori for 30 minutes.) It’s hard, and we get that. English is everywhere. It bombards our kids. So, we allow for that. And we keep imploring them to remember that our tūpuna fought so hard for the language to live, so we must speak it.

Rūmaki (immersion).

Tune your world to te ao Māori. I remember when I’d try to listen to Pāpā Tīmoti Karetū on YouTube. There was a feeling of fear in trying to understand someone of his atua-like level of te reo Māori speaking at 100 mph.

But, over time, you get more experience from learning and listening. It does become slightly easier. Listening to mātanga reo or language experts helps to attune your ears to faster reo being spoken. You also pick up kīwaha, nuance and kupu hou to add to your kete. My go-to programmes are Taringa podcast, Te Karere, Te Ao Māori news, and Waka Huia (archive episodes too). And don’t forget YouTube.

I know these things are easier said than done. When I’m learning at a kaupapa or wānanga, it sometimes feels like my brain is overflowing with information and can’t take in anymore. But then I think back to those of our tūpuna who were chosen to hold and share our most important knowledge. I think of their whare wānanga and how they recited whakapapa to their waka.

We know our quest won’t end — and we’re okay with that. That’s what makes learning about who you are so exciting from a Māori perspective.

Seeing our children flourishing in te ao Māori is something we weren’t prepared for. When we see our kids doing kapa haka or pīpī kōrero (speech-making), we have a tangi. Why? Because te ao Māori was tucked away within my wife and me. But now, coming out from the core of our children’s beings, we can see the wildest dreams of our tūpuna.


Cornell Tukiri (Ngaati Hikairo, Ngaati Whaawhaakia, Kāi Tahu, Sāmoa, Pākehā) is a photojournalist, documentary photographer and writer. He is based in Auckland with his wife Tania and their two young boys. A few years ago, they returned from Johannesburg, South Africa, where they lived for six years. Cornell studied at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg where he completed the Photojournalism and Documentary Programme (PDP) in 2013.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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