For many Māori, reclaiming the reo can come with a lot of baggage. Here Moata Tamaira writes about the “twisted, hard knot of guilt” that she carries for not being able to speak te reo Māori, as another Te Wiki o te Reo Māori ends.
When I was around five years old, my Māori father asked if I would like to learn to speak his language. I declined.
When he asked me why, since I seemed happy enough to speak my Pākehā mother’s tongue, I said that it was because it “sounded funny”.
There’s a part of me that knows that it is pointless to feel guilty about something that you said when you were five. But there’s another part of me that wonders how things might have been different for me if I’d been less spooked by the notion.
If we had shared a common bond in the form of te reo Māori, would my father and I have been closer? Would we have had more to say to each other? Would I have grown to be more confident in my “Māoriness”? I suspect so, but my Dad died when I was 22, so . . . what do I do with that?
As it was, at the age of five, I was already consciously distancing myself from the Māori world. I already knew that to be Māori was to be less than. The same way that my son knows that pink is not an acceptable colour for boys to like. I protected myself from othering and ridicule the same way that he does. He now tells people his favourite colour is red.
The great irony is that I grew to love language. I was always curious about words and the names of things, people, and places, and by adulthood, it was a passion. I studied linguistics. I took three years of te reo at university.
Negation. Passive constructions. Verb-Subject-Object. (Most of it is now forgotten, or dormant, maybe.)
I also took beginners’ French. Later, I spent a year studying Mandarin Chinese. I became a writer. Words are my tools and my playthings. I take great joy in the flow of them. My love of language will be lifelong.
And so it is Te Wiki o te Reo Māori again and I am confronted by my failure once more.
Not only do I not speak te reo Māori with any great proficiency beyond a slightly wobbly mihi, some very basic grammatical constructions and some key phrases and vocabulary — I sign my emails off with “Ngā mihi”, of course — I have also failed to pass it on to my own child.
I often wonder why.
This frequent wondering has led me to few satisfying conclusions.
I suspect the answer is a tangle of several messy, gnarly things, but foremost among them must be shame and its close friend guilt. There is a twisted, hard knot of guilt that I carry in the depth of me that I cannot seem to be free of.
In other aspects of my life, I harness guilt and shame to drive me to be better, to do better. But this one has stopped me in my tracks.
It should be fairly simple for me. I am educated, intelligent and comparatively well-resourced. I have actual academic training that makes learning another language easier for me than for other people, and though it’s work, I do have some aptitude for languages. And I’ve learned te reo before. Oh, and I’m Māori.
The barriers — at least the obvious ones — are few.
And yet I do almost nothing.
I am extremely supportive of campaigns and initiatives that strengthen the reo. Kia kaha te reo! But I feel no real drive to do anything about my own comparative lack of skill.
And every time I hear someone waxing lyrical about the reo skills of Pākehā like Guyon Espiner, it presses something sharp and vicious into that knot of guilt.
I bear Guyon no ill will, nor Lorde for that matter — quite the opposite. If te reo Māori is to thrive, it will need to be spoken by New Zealanders from many walks of life.
But their very public actions juxtaposed with my own inaction makes that knot in me pulsate with a shameful fury. It pains me. Sometimes it’s like the knot has travelled up through my wooden insides and lodged in my throat.
I know that my pain is not anyone’s fault (other than that bitch, Colonisation) so I usually try not to let it show. I am careful not to let it make me bitter, though bitterness is very much its prevailing flavour.
I suspect that this paralysis is wrapped up in feelings and regrets about my dad, and of that distancing I put in place as a child. Dad wasn’t always there . . . but my mum was and she was Pākehā (and so was most of everything in Ōtautahi in the 1980s). So why wouldn’t I lean toward that side of myself?
I try to be kind to that child that I was because, while a knot is often considered a weakness in wood, I know, from my firewood chopping forays, that a knot can also stop a log from flying apart under pressure. A knot is hard but also protective, in its way.
I think for Māori, taking back the taonga that is te reo — one that was systematically removed from us, or made so unappealing that we simply never recognised it for the taonga it is — comes with a lot of baggage. Or at least it does for me.
I once asked a question of Hana O’Regan who was keynote speaker at a conference I was attending. She is hardcore and has always spoken to her children exclusively in te reo. I asked her for tips on how to pass more te reo Māori on to my child.
I stuttered and faltered in my question and was obviously apologetic about my abandoned attempts at gaining more te reo for myself.
Her answer was a gift that I often come back to and it helps to loosen the knot in me sometimes. She said that it takes one generation to lose a language but three to get it back, and as long as your child is getting more te reo than you got, then you’re doing well. You’re on the right track.
Even now, thinking about it chokes me up. If there hadn’t been several hundred people in the room, her answer would have made me sob (I held it in as best I could but some leaked out the sides, I think). Because she, arguably the most prominent advocate for te reo Māori in the South Island, gave me permission to put down the guilt. She told me that I was good enough.
I wish that this alone had been enough to let me lay down my burden . . . but it’s something. It’s a stepping stone. It’s a little shelf of solace on a bloody great cliff of regret.
So all this is to say that I am trying to make sense of all this and own as much of it as I am actually responsible for. And I’ve always written things as a way of making sense of them. Formulating the thoughts as a way of getting to the words and vice versa.
I need to get this knot out of my throat so maybe I can kōrero anew.
Moata Tamaira (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Pākehā) is a web content editor and librarian who hails from Ōtautahi Christchurch. She has a BA (Hons) from the University of Canterbury and an MLIS from University of Victoria Wellington. From 2007 to 2014, she wrote Moata’s Blog Idle on Stuff.co.nz for which she won Best Blog in the 2009 Qantas Media Awards. She can often be found complimenting strangers on their shoes.
This piece was first published on Moata’s blog.
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