Siena Yates felt “unqualified and unworthy” when we asked her to interview some of the winners of last year’s Ngā Tohu Reo Māori awards run by Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, the Māori Language Commission. But the experience has been life-changing, as she explains here.
My whole life I’ve been scared to speak my language.
First I was scared of getting it wrong, then I was scared that I was wrong to be speaking it at all.
I have very distinct memories of people telling me that was the case. Sometimes overtly: “Why are you speaking Māori if you’re white?” And sometimes inadvertently: “Oh, are you a Mowree? Not full though, eh?”
In particular, I recall attempting to reclaim my reo when I was in university and a (so-called) friend said something along the lines of: “Oh, look at you trying to be a real Māori” in the tone you might use to humour a toddler.
I didn’t “try” again for years.
As I’ve written previously, my immediate family, like many Māori whānau, has been disconnected from our Māori roots for a couple of generations. We knew we were Māori but we no longer knew where we belonged. No one spoke the reo, we never visited any marae (except for a few tangi), and whakapapa was never mentioned.
I was born in Morrinsville and always knew that I had tūpuna on Taupiri Kuao so I assumed we were Waikato Tainui (and we are, if you follow my koro’s mum’s whakapapa). Until Mum told us that, actually, we were Ngāpuhi, and Ngāpuhi, in turn, told us we were from Te Rarawa.
Apparently, we lost our Northland connection because something went down causing Koro’s father to cut ties from the north and move to Waikato. No one knows what that was.
Between what my whānau don’t know and what I suspect they simply won’t or can’t say, there are a lot of blanks to fill. Both my parents are Māori but I have no relationship with my father. My koro was of the generation for whom speaking te reo earned you the strap and Pākehā standards were the only standards, so my mum and her siblings inherited all of the mamae and very little of the culture in what I now know to be an all too common story.
It’s only in recent years that I’ve even plucked up the courage to claim my identity, to proudly say: Yes, I am Māori. Despite my fair skin and tongue, despite the fact my whakapapa is an ongoing mystery, despite not knowing my maunga or marae.
I dropped the “part-Māori” (because blood quantum is Pākehā nonsense), I stopped making jokes at my own expense, and I stopped apologising for the colour of my skin or the “white” way I talk.
But when I first embarked on a series of profiles of last year’s Ngā Tōhu Reo Māori winners, the very thought of it made me sick. At once I felt wildly unqualified and unworthy — and filled with fear that, 10 seconds into every conversation, the person I was interviewing would realise I was a massive fraud and hang up on me or walk away.
People on my list included Naida Glavish, Hinewehi Mohi, Scotty Morrison, Nicole Hoey, and many others who influence entire businesses, have created innovations which are the first of their kind, and who are renowned for their contributions to te ao Māori.
Of course, no one hung up on me or turned their back. No one so much as questioned me.
I approached it from a place of pure honesty: “I don’t know the reo, I want to learn, I’m scared as hell.” And literally everyone I spoke to said the same thing: “Good on you for taking the first step, for trying.”
They all offered me encouragement, some offered me direct personal help, and more than once, I was told: “You’ve got my number now. I’m here if you need me.”
Over and over, people I look up to drummed it into my thick head that it isn’t my fault I don’t have the language. It was beaten out of my koro and his before him, and used against following generations as a weapon which marked us as stupid or criminal.
People like Jeremy MacLeod changed my entire view. He didn’t grow up in the culture — or even in New Zealand — and only started learning when he was 17. He now represents his entire iwi.
I didn’t get to speak to Scotty Morrison but I know he and his wife Stacey came to the reo later in life and they’re now two of our brightest stars. I spoke to Nicole Hoey and she confessed to me the time she took her tamariki to kōhanga and introduced him in te reo as her husband instead of her son.
Lee Timutimu admitted that he too struggles with feelings of inadequacy around the reo, but that he pushes on because revitalising the reo is bigger than any mistakes we might make.
I also spoke to Lee, as well as Whetu Paitai, about merging their love of the reo with their tech-based passions, creating events, games and apps for young people to engage with — proving that there’s more than one way to teach and learn.
I spoke to Hinewehi Mohi and Nathaniel Howe (from Maimoa Music) about how music can not only teach but also make people feel included.
I spoke to Kristin Ross about how even kids’ toys can be powerful tools in learning and reclaiming the culture and language, and the importance of having safe spaces to mess up — and just how inevitable it is that you will mess up, because everyone does. That’s life.
And I have messed up. I’ve messed up in these interviews, I’ve messed up in daily conversation, I’ve messed up in my writing of these pieces, and guess what? It was fine.
I get corrected, I learn, we move on.
Because Covid-19 disrupted this year to such a huge extent, I’ve been working on this series of profiles for a decent four or five months and didn’t get to talk to everyone I wanted to, and also didn’t get to write about everyone I did manage to talk to.
But I’ll forever be grateful to the people I did talk to because it’s thanks to them that I’ve been able to fully embrace my Māori-ness and to use more and more of my reo in everyday life.
It’s because of these conversations that I got the courage and inspiration to start tracing my whakapapa and have been able to connect with extended whānau in the most unexpected places — just from knowing who I am and where I come from.
And knowing that has given me strength and confidence like I never dreamed it could.
I now find myself using what little reo I do have as often as I can.
I find myself specifically seeking out and supporting Māori businesses, products and art.
Perhaps the biggest thing is that I’ve now reached a place where I feel ready to get my first tā moko. I’m covered in Pākehā tattoos with American, Mexican and Japanese influences, but I’ve never felt worthy of tā moko — until now.
I don’t know if that’s because I’ve grown and “become more worthy” or just because I’ve finally allowed people to teach me that it’s my birthright.
The interesting thing is that I always thought I would never feel ready until I knew my reo — there’s that whole saying that you can’t tattoo the skin before you’ve tattooed the tongue.
But this newfound strength and sense of belonging hasn’t come from the reo. It’s come from merely talking about the reo and, through that, learning that it’s a gateway to our culture, not the entirety of it.
Now I want to learn the reo not because I feel incomplete or because I need it to validate my Māori-ness like before. I want to learn so that I can see deeper into our culture, and further understand and connect with our histories, our stories, our practices, and my ancestors. I want to learn so that I can share it with my whānau and pass it all on to my nephew.
Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori’s language awards take place each year with the sole purpose of acknowledging those who are contributing to the revitalisation of te reo Māori in business, the arts, and in our communities.
If doing this series on those people has taught me anything, it’s that the language is stronger than many people know — and there are people everywhere, from recording studios to government agencies to corporations, who are pushing not only to strengthen it further but also, more importantly, to give it to the next generation, so they can continue to do the same.
And every tiny part of that effort counts. Even mine.
In light of Covid-19, this year’s Ngā Tohu Reo Māori (run by Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori/the Māori Language Commission) will acknowledge all those who took part in the Māori Language Moment, which saw more than one million people join together to celebrate Te Wiki o te Reo Māori 2020.
This series was made possible with support from Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori.
Siena Yates (Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri, and Ngāti Kuri) is an Auckland-based journalist, formerly with Stuff and the New Zealand Herald, and now with Woman magazine. She was born in Morrinsville and grew up in Te Puke in the Bay of Plenty.
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.