Hēmi Dale was born in Auckland, and has spent most of his life in Māngere. That’s not an automatic pathway to reo fluency, but he was lucky enough to spend his early years with his reo-speaking grandmother — and, later, at Māngere College in the ’70s, to come under the wing of teachers who nurtured his love of the language.
That’s a gift he’s passed on to hundreds of students as both a Māori language teacher and a teacher of other reo Māori teachers — a role he’s played for the past 21 years at Auckland University’s teaching degree programme, Te Huarahi Māori, which he now runs.
Here he talks to Dale about why the reo matters for all New Zealanders.
Kia ora, Hēmi. One reason I’m talking with you now is that you’re such an accomplished speaker of te reo Māori. You’ve been not only a Māori language teacher, and a teacher of reo Māori teachers, but you’re now in Te Mātāwai’s team guiding the development of the language throughout the country. But your background wasn’t automatically steering you down that path, was it?
No, it wasn’t. My mum was part of the generation who made the trek down from the north to Auckland which is where I was born. And I wasn’t born into a reo Māori-speaking community. But we lived for some years with my grandmother, Raiha Hunia, in Ponsonby. And she spoke Māori to me. So the family story, urban myth possibly, is that that’s what gave me my start with the Māori language.
Let’s hear a little about your mum.
Her name is Billie, although, for a long time, she thought she’d been named Katherine Lillian. Then, in her late 30s, when she got a passport, she found out that she was really Kathleen Eliza.
One side of her family was the Hunia side and on the other was our tupuna, Te Huhu, who signed the Declaration of Independence on behalf of our hapū. So our connections are with Te Rarawa and Te Aupōuri in the far north.
Billie was the youngest in a family of seven kids. Her father, Leslie Lee, was a farmer and bushman who, among other things, hauled kauri logs out of the local Warawara forest with his bullock team. Sometimes, Mum would go with him into the forest as his billy girl — it was her job to fill and heat the billy. And the name stuck.
At our family reunion a few years ago we heard another explanation — that when Mum was brought home Nana referred to her as her “Billie Middleton” after an attractive woman in the local community at that time.
Another story recounted to us was about going to the pictures in Broadwood in the 1940s and 1950s. At that time Pākehā families sat in one part of the picture theatre and Māori families sat in another.
But where did you sit if you had a Māori mother and a Pākehā father? Did you get to choose where you sat?
The answer was that you went and sat with your mother and the other Māori families. Your identity was constructed for you.
Later on, my grandfather was killed in a landslide on the family farm. My grandmother tried to make a go of it on the farm for a couple of years or so, but it wasn’t economic.
So she brought six of her seven children down to Auckland in 1953 and bought a house in the old Parnell. It wasn’t gentrified in those days. I was born in 1961 and we lived with my grandmother in Ponsonby, where she was by then, until I was six.
And what about the Dale side of the whānau? What’s the story there?
Actually, my father is English. Colin Dale. From Liverpool. He came to New Zealand when he was 20 or 21 — and he met my mum over here.
He left Liverpool, largely I think, because he felt stifled over there. He said it was a very structured society. Everybody had their place — and knew their place. And New Zealand looked to him like a place where there were opportunities.
So he came and worked as a health inspector for what was then the Auckland City Council. Then he moved across to the Manukau City Council, worked as a health inspector, then in community development — and eventually he became the CEO of the Manukau City Council.
He had that role for more than 20 years, until he retired a few years ago. And, since then, he’s had two terms as the acting chief executive of the Far North District Council. He’s just completed 60 years in local government. So he’s had a full work life. Turned 78 this year, but he’s still sharp and active.
With your dad landing a job in Manukau, it was logical that the family would settle out that way. And, so I understand, you became a Māngere boy.
Yes. And that’s where I started school. At Miller Road School, which later became Mountain View School. Then I was part of the first year of Arahanga Intermediate, which is now Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Māngere. Then on to Māngere College.
So I’ve got a real connection to Māngere. So has my wife, Barbara Alaalatoa. We’ve both done pretty much all of our growing up and schooling in the Māngere community. We both taught in local schools in Māngere. And we still live there — very much by choice.
It’s a special place to both of us. There’s a negative image of Māngere which sometimes is fostered in the media. But it’s different for those who’ve grown up and lived there. Relationships last a lifetime.
And there’s also been a strong connection with the local iwi within Māngere – Te Ākitai and Te Waiohua. I’ve grown up with people who’ve taken on some of the leadership roles within their tribal groups. And I was fortunate, too, that a lot of the pākeke — like Maurice Wilson, Jumby Matatā — and a whole heap of others who’ve passed on now, gave us their support and a sense of connection.
There’s talk at times of the effect of the big diaspora, with Māori migrating to the cities and people growing up outside their own tribal areas. And, sure, there are those who, as a result, are disconnected and disengaged from te ao Māori.
But a lot of people have lived their lives within their urban communities and have still maintained close ties with their own iwi— even though it’s hard getting back on a regular basis to your own papakāinga. And that’s because of the economics of travel and work.
I’ve known plenty of occasions where there’s a tangi back at home — and the question isn’t whether you want to be back at the tangi. It’s whether you can afford to get back there. These are very real challenges.
Thank you, Hēmi. But let’s go back to your time as a teenager. What do you remember of the ’70s in Māngere?
I have pretty positive memories. If I think back to my Māngere College days, lots of my mates were Māori, Niuean, Cook Island Māori and Samoan. I suppose we were lucky, in that we were able to build our own relationships there — even though there were times when things got a wee bit testy. Like in our basketball games up at the Māngere Recreation Centre, which was like a second home for us all.
Now, if we cut to 2017, there are lots of Māori-Pacific relationships. Our own two mokopuna, Jaeda and Odette, have their Māori whakapapa and their Samoan whakapapa as key elements of what makes them who they are.
And the words that stick in my mind about Māori-Pacific relationships are the words we’d hear on the marae from our pākeke. When they had a Pacific Island group there, they’d always refer to “ōku whanaunga” — to my relatives. And “e ngā tuakana” — to our elder siblings. And “e ngā tuāhine” — our sisters.
Our old people understood our whakapapa relationships when they made references to Hawaiki-nui, Hawaiki-roa, Hawaiki-pāmamao. We don’t know whether that’s Hawai’i or Ra’iatea or some other place in the Pacific. What we do know, though, is that over a long period of time, our tūpuna undertook major navigational journeys, and the relationships that were formed as part of these journeys are important and need to be remembered and maintained.
Occasionally, I get upset when I hear some of our people talking disparagingly about others, saying “coconuts this – coconuts that”. But, when they talk that way, they’re missing out on an understanding of the relationships we have. We should be celebrating those important connections that bind us all together.
Kia ora, Hēmi. Let’s turn to the reo now. You’ve mentioned the grounding you got from your grandmother when you were a little fulla. But you got another boost when you started at Māngere College in 1975, didn’t you?
Well, there weren’t many among all our cousins who spoke Māori to any degree at all. Perhaps just three of us. But my timing was good because our generation had the benefit of the struggles by Ngā Tamatoa and Te Reo Māori Society to have the language available in secondary schools.
So, when I started at Māngere College, I was able to choose to learn te reo Māori. I had the choice of taking French or Māori. Mum wondered whether I’d be better off learning a language of what some people saw as having more esteem. Like French. Or an Asian language.
The concern was whether you should be choosing a language that would help you land a job. But now she and her generation are grateful that I’ve become a reo Māori speaker.
And I’m grateful to the teachers there who fostered in me a love for the language. There was Hēni and Hone Green. Kuku Wawatai. Ben Tangaere. And, just as I was finishing at Māngere College, Jimbo (Te Ururoa Flavell) arrived and began teaching there. So I was fortunate being in a place where there were great teachers who gave me quite a bit of momentum.
And, since those Māngere College days, you’ve invested a good many years in fostering the reo talents of many, many others.
Well, there’s been a lot of personal satisfaction in training others to be teachers in our immersion classes.
They arrive with a whole lot of hopes and dreams and I guess, you help them grow the language they have — and then they go out and make contributions, do great things in various areas. In schools. In broadcasting. In the health sector.
I’m extremely fortunate to have a job where these committed, dynamic people are really wanting to make a contribution, not just to te ao Māori, but to Aotearoa as well. They see themselves as builders of Aotearoa — as people who’re helping build the kind of Aotearoa that we want for our mokopuna. There’s lots to get excited about.
There’s certainly a lot to do — there’s no denying that. But we’ve got plenty of good people. And there’s all sorts of interesting research going on.
For instance, there’s the work that Alison Jones and Kuni Jenkins did leading up to their book on Tuai. He and his hapu, Ngāre Raumati, were on the southern shores of the Bay of Islands at the time of the initial interaction with Pākehā.
He and others, like Hongi Hika, could see the benefits of making use of the Pākehā technologies. And one of the things he did was go to England about 1817 and become more familiar with what that industrialised society had to offer.
He worked with Thomas Kendall in Sydney, too. He taught him to speak Māori — and also helped him develop a Māori alphabet so that Thomas could write Māori.
So Alison and Kuni have shone a light on Tuai and helped us become more aware of the active way our people have been engaged with Pākehā. It’s an example, too, of how we’re becoming more familiar with these events of the past. And learning our language is part of that mix as well.
Now that you’ve been appointed to the board of Te Mātāwai, I suspect that you may be feeling a greater national responsibility — not just in promoting te reo Māori among our people, but among non-Māori too.
You’re quite right, Dale. The language is important to all of Aotearoa. And what we want is goodwill towards the language from all New Zealanders. We need more and more people who see our language as one of our identity markers.
It’s already there to some extent. Like the haka from our sports teams. It’s become just one of those things that mark us out as unique in the sporting world. It’s just something we do in Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s been normalised. And so has singing our anthem in two languages.
Sometimes we’re reminded of that when visitors respond to what we’re doing. I’ve spoken with lots of our indigenous whanaunga from around the world — and they’re amazed at some of the things we’ve been able to do.
When you’re living it, of course, you’ve got a different perspective. You’re always aspiring to do more. It can feel as if we aren’t doing enough. But we are achieving. We are making progress.
There’s another element too. That’s the flow of students who aren’t Māori but who’re coming through language programmes. We’ve had Pākehā students. We’ve had Samoan students. Niuean students, too. And so on.
I’ve told them: “You are the people who’re going to bring new words into our language. Words like: trilingual and tricultural.” They are showing what’s possible.
It’s unfortunate that our history has been one where the emphasis has been on just one language. On monolingualism. And some people are still stuck with the idea that English is the way forward.
But I see any number of people who’re supportive of the language — and who want to learn it. So the important thing for Te Mātāwai, I guess, is being able to feed that broader appetite. We can’t put all of our eggs in one basket.
Sure, we’ll have to choose our priorities. But we have to find ways to be as inclusive as we can be. To enable our people, Māori and non-Māori, to have access to the language. To learn the language. To provide the opportunity for our children to learn the language.
If I have to have an inscription on my tombstone, I think it might be something like: He wanted the language to be compulsory in all our schools.
The reason I say that is because I believe in the beauty of our language. And I believe in the research that tells us that, if we start learning a second language, we become better thinkers. That’s because, when you learn another language, you learn much more than just the language. You also learn the tikanga that goes with the language.
So, if our kids are exposed to the language at school, we’re going to produce a generation of children who see the language as a natural part of growing up in Aotearoa New Zealand. I think we need to provide them with that opportunity.
We’re told that there aren’t enough teachers to do that. And so on and so forth. The problem with that argument is that, if you buy into it, then there’ll never be enough people to teach the language.
But, if we’re prepared to put a stake in the ground, and be bold, we can make this happen.
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.