“You’re reminded of who you are, what you’re part of, and why you do the things you do, even when they’re hard or inconvenient.” Siena Yates on returning to Kura Reo Ki Rotorua. (Photo supplied)

A year has passed since Siena Yates’ first kura reo. Here she tells what it was like returning to the Kura Reo Ki Rotorua — and how much has, and hasn’t, changed.


Driving in the dark, halfway through an almost-too-strong cup of coffee, 14 potholes down the road to Rotorua, with very little sleep and an ever-increasing sense of anxiety, I started to wonder: “Why am I doing this?”

A year after my first kura reo, they’ve become a bit easier for me, but not as much as I’d hoped. They’re still scary, and still as mentally challenging and exhausting.

On top of the general worries, I was also worried about the work I wasn’t getting done while I was on leave, and the family member who’d just been through surgery that I wasn’t there to support.

But then, as if sensing my inner mid-kura crisis, Te Waihoroi Shortland had my class focus on this sentence starter: “He moemoeā tōku . . .” (I have a dream.)

It was a prompt to get us to think about why we were there and what we stood for — and also just to get us to say something out loud because the majority of us had suddenly turned mute on entering his classroom.

If you’ve ever heard Matua Waihoroi speak, you can probably understand why.

It’s like turning up in front of William Shakespeare and suddenly feeling like you have the language capability of a toddler or — as another kaiako put it — of Tarzan.

As I listened to him speaking about politics, current affairs, and the charisma of Martin Luther King Jr, I had a lot of ideas. But every time I tried to turn them into a sentence in te reo, it amounted to: “Māori good. Colonisation bad. Matua smart. Me dumb.” And also: “Me tired. Want nap.”

Sensing the growing Tarzan-ification of the group, he gave us 10 minutes to write down our thoughts first. But he also gave us a 10-word limit. That was after he revised his initial eight-word limit on seeing our reaction.

Matua kind. We lucky.

When we finally took turns to stand up to speak, it turned out that we all wanted different versions of the same thing.

“. . . kia whakahoki te reo ki taku whakapapa.”

“. . . kia Māori te reo o taku kāinga.”

“. . . kia tū māia au ki te kōrero Māori.”

“. . . kia hoki te iwi ki te marae.”

They all equated to a shared and overwhelming desire to be able to speak Māori and live lives based on our own tikanga, mātauranga and culture, without fear, judgment or reservation.

Most of all, the greatest sentiment was that everyone wanted those things not just for ourselves but for our whānau and te iwi Māori as a whole — including the generations to come, and those who’ve already passed on.

This, I think, is one of the most beautiful things about attending a kura reo, or any full-immersion environment. You’re reminded of who you are, what you’re part of, and why you do the things you do, even when they’re hard or inconvenient. You get pulled out of the little vortex of your world as an individual, and back into the bigger picture.

There was another lesson that Matua Waihoroi was trying to teach us by imposing a word limit on our dreams.

As each of us told him our dreams, he would figure out the real heart of what we were trying to say and deliver our dreams back to us in a more succinct way. It was a demonstration of how a more Māori way of thinking can allow us to say more while saying less.

Last year, when I went to my first kura reo, all I wanted to do was learn some new sentence structures, maybe learn a cool shortcut or kīwaha, and avoid crying in public.

Now, my main goal is to find ways to make my reo more Māori.

There’s that famous kōrero by Tā Tīmoti Kāretu: “Ko te reo kia tika, ko te reo kia rere, ko te reo kia Māori.” It speaks to three levels of the reo: its correctness and quality, its flow and frequency of usage, and the way of thinking behind it.

That means not just translating your reo Pākehā thoughts to te reo Māori but taking a Māori approach from the start. And that includes using ways of speaking that our ancestors used — relating it to nature, mātauranga, whakapapa and ātua.

That’s where classes like that of Matua Waihoroi come in. And his wasn’t the only one.

Dr Wayne Ngata held a session on the signs we get from the taiao, how our tūpuna interpreted those signs, and how those interpretations influenced the reo.

Dr Anaha Hiini held a session that focused on how to reverse (or, as he put it “whaka-Yoda”) Pākehā ways of speaking to make it easier to grasp Māori grammar. As opposed to trying to make te reo Māori abide by English rules.

Dr Rangi Mātāmua based his session on a long list of kīwaha, all informed by te taiao and the lessons our ancestors learned by observing it. He let us try to match the kīwaha to their Pākehā translations before he explained the meaning behind each one, so that we could look deeper into the words and start to change our ways of thinking.

“When I went to my first kura reo, all I wanted to do was learn some new sentence structures, maybe learn a cool shortcut or kīwaha, and avoid crying in public. Now, my main goal is to find ways to make my reo more Māori.” — Siena Yates. (Photo supplied)

The other big lesson was that, now that we’ve reached a level where we technically can speak the reo, we should be speaking it out loud.

All the kaiako made us focus on speaking out loud, but Matua Waihoroi and Karena Kelly especially, had us pay attention to the difference between how something sounds in your head when you read it, and how it sounds with different inflections, pauses, pacing, emphasis and volume.

It was a reminder that ours was always an oral language, and while reading and writing it are great, speaking it adds a whole other dimension and is a huge part of revitalising our reo. A necessary reminder, for those of us still scared to do it.

That’s the one thing that definitely hasn’t changed since last year: confidence remains key. And I’m still trying to grasp it.

Last year, I joined group four, of four groups. Group one was for the most proficient speakers. This year, I joined group three, of six groups. It was a big jump for me. I tried to join group four but was challenged by my hoa to push myself a bit further. I’m glad I did.

Despite that, group one still feels like a far-off dream, especially since past teachers of mine were in that group. And while I know I’d be supported and encouraged if I ever got the nerve to join them, it’s getting the nerve that’s the hard part.

I tried to have a conversation with one of my kaiako over lunch, but I kept tripping over my words. I even developed a stutter. In the end, I gave up on myself and went to dry the dishes. So it’s going to take some more time before I’m comfortable speaking with people who I know and admire.

But there’s been some progress. Even I was surprised at how casually I’d strike up a conversation and crack jokes with strangers in the kitchen. I was even able to mihi to a kaiako without someone having to ask me to.

On the Monday, it took a while for me to re-immerse myself in the reo but, by Thursday, all my thoughts were in Māori and I had to make a conscious effort not to speak Māori in other places like the supermarket.

No amount of reading or writing could’ve got me to that point, especially not in the space of a few days.

When I was sitting in Matua Waihoroi’s class, I wrote down three dreams. One was about fixing the world through Māori approaches and knowledge, and one was about escaping the oppression of capitalism (my Māori sentence wasn’t that well-worded).

However, the one I read out loud was this: “He moemoeā tōku . . . kia aro anō tātou ki te hā o Hineahuone.”

Many people interpret the whakataukī “Me aro ki te hā o Hineahuone” as “Pay heed to the dignity of women”. Recently, I learned that it’s much more than that.

Earlier this month, I went to another rūmaki reo wānanga: Te Hā o Hineahuone, held by Nuku Women. There, we examined the narrative about Hineahuone and the creation of mankind — and what I took from it was that paying heed to Hineahuone is about paying heed to our origins, whakapapa and history.

It’s about acknowledging our connection and responsibility to nature, and to past and future generations. It’s acknowledging how our history, culture and viewpoints were changed by colonisation. And acknowledging the — not just breath, but voice — and the power of sending that out into the world.

So that one sentence encompasses my dream to be confident to stand and speak my reo, even in front of the giants of that world, and for that reo to be Māori — to relate back to our taiao, tūpuna and ātua like Hineahuone.

Of course, when Matua Waihoroi asked me to explain my dream, all of this just came out as: “Women good. R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Still want nap.”

But, in te ao Māori, a dream is more than a dream. It’s a tohu. A sign. A direction. A push down the right path.

Ki te reo ka tika, ka rere, ka Māori.

Koiā te moemoeā.


Siena Yates is an E-Tangata writer, and this piece was made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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