Siena Yates, who’s at the baby stages of her reo journey, has been getting some advice and inspiration from some of the winners of last year’s Ngā Tohu Reo awards run by Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission).
Here she is talking to Kristin Ross of Punarau Media, about how the challenge of raising children in a reo-Māori speaking household led to an award-winning business.
(Te reo Māori version is available here.)
Not long ago, I bought my nephew a Pipi Mā doll, the world’s first Māori-speaking toy.
So far, he’s only used it as a pillow — he much prefers things that he can smash and crash — but my hope is that it’ll fast become his favourite. I want him to have at least one toy which reflects him and the world he comes from.
Pipi Mā is made by a company called Punarau Media, which is run by Kristin Ross and her husband Hōhepa Tuahine. They also produce entertainment content and have branches in e-commerce, property investments, and digital innovations like their online entertainment platform MāoriNow, which they’re launching next year.
Last year, they won a Māori language award for their web series Living by the Stars with Professor Rangi Matamua, which was “made by Māori, for Māori, in the Māori language, about our Māori stories on Matariki”.
The couple’s reo-Māori mahi began nearly a decade ago, when they were expecting their first child (eldest daughter Hinehui, who’s now nine years old) and “very naively” made the decision to raise her in a home where only reo Māori is spoken. This was a brave decision, seeing that neither Kristin nor Hōhepa grew up with the reo. Both of them learned it at university, but they were determined to give their daughter the head start they’d never had.
Of course, that turned out to be easier said than done. When Hinehui arrived, it quickly became apparent that they were missing a few tools in their kete.
For one thing, their decision to be a reo Māori-speaking household instantly cut off friends and whānau who either didn’t agree with their decision or found it too challenging to communicate solely in te reo — and therefore easier to stay away. So there was a sense of community missing.
And then there were simpler, though no less important, problems, like not being able to find swimming lessons or personalised lunchboxes in te reo Māori. Or the lack of toys that reflected the reo-speaking world they wanted their children to inhabit.
“There were plenty of educational resources,” says Kristin, “but kids don’t want to play with those all the time. And there wasn’t much when it came to play. Think about Fisher Price toys where a toy phone sings numbers and letters to toddlers. Or shape cubes which have songs about colours when you push the buttons. There was nothing like that.
“So that’s where Punarau really came from. Out of our necessity as a whānau to live a normal life using te reo Māori as our main means of communication.
“We knew what we needed in our life, but we weren’t sure who to approach to make those things a reality. So when we registered our business in 2014, we called it Punarau, which means plentiful spring, because we didn’t know what we were doing really. We had so many ideas and so many things we wanted to explore, so we thought we’d just encompass everything.”
Out of that leap of faith, sprang Pipi Mā.
“When we were dreaming of a world for our daughter, we wanted her whole world to have te reo Māori in it, not just her parents in the house that she lived in. So, when she goes to play, there are things that reflect her reality. When she watches TV, there are shows that reflect her reality. When she’s in the shops, or she’s at The Warehouse or Farmers or Kmart, there are things on the shelf that reflect her reality. And so that was the catalyst for Pipi Mā as well.”
Kristin grew up in Auckland and went to Glendowie primary school and then Selwyn College. Her Ngāti Kahu family had been in Auckland for three generations, but her father, Darryl Ross, made sure that she and her two brothers regularly went home to Northland, so they’d stay connected to their whenua and marae.
Kristin says she loved kapa haka and telling her friends all about te ao Māori and what it was like going home for the holidays. But when it came to te reo Māori, “I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really interested.”
That changed at the end of high school. Kristin’s plan had been to go to law school to follow in the footsteps of her aunt Jean Hindman, who was a barrister and a big influence on Kristin — and, at 18, she took the first steps on that path when she started work as a clerical secretary at a conveyancing law firm.
But her two-year stint there came to an end after she overheard one of the firm’s clients talking about some land he’d bought in Northland.
“He was boasting about this new piece of land that he’d got for a pittance, and when I saw the file and I saw the address, my heart broke. Because the land he was talking about actually belonged to my people and my hapū. At that point I decided that, ‘No, this is not the world that I want to be in. The world that I want to be in is my own.’”
The other push came from Hōhepa. He’s from Te Arawa and Tūhoe and grew up in Rotorua where he’d gone to Rotorua Boys’ High. The two met in Rotorua, when Kristin was in the seventh form and Hōhepa was 21. He was working in a bar at the time, but after they became a couple, they decided to go to university together.
“We were very staunchly Māori. I remember when we lived in Auckland, as young 18- or 19-year-olds. It was around the time of the election and we were so proud to have the Māori Party. We had this beat-up Toyota Corolla, and I remember we put these tino rangatiratanga flags and Māori Party flags on our back window, and we’d drive around Auckland. We were just so proud.
“That was the kind of thing that brought us joy — our Māoritanga. And the only thing that was missing was our language.”
The couple started their reo studies at Victoria University in Wellington, and a year later they moved to Hamilton and finished their studies at Waikato University and Te Panekiretanga o te Reo. But the thing that “really put the fire under our butts”, says Kristin, was the arrival of Hinehui.
“We thought: Okay, now this is real. Now it’s not just the degree, we need to implement the language in our life everywhere, every day, in every way that we can.”
Hinehui has since been joined by siblings Marere and Te Uruhuia.
I’m in awe of what it takes to go from being disinterested in the reo to raising your kids in a household where only te reo is spoken. And being at the very beginning of my own reo journey, I can’t help but ask for advice. Because if you don’t have a Hōhepa spurring you on, or a pēpi lighting that fire under your butt, where do you even start?
The answer, according to Kristin, comes in three parts — with one very important caveat: “Above all else, if you don’t desire or crave the language in the first place, learning will be a struggle. You must want it like you’ve never wanted anything else in your life before.”
With that in mind, the first step is to find good teachers. Not just the ones doing the courses, but in your whānau and in the company you keep. “It doesn’t all have to be on your own shoulders,” says Kristin. “Hōhepa and I are at this point because of the people who’ve taught and influenced us throughout our life. I’m forever indebted to all of them. We’re so grateful.”
Step two: Find your people, your community. Because, no matter what you’re doing, “if you’re in the minority, the greatest challenge you face is the majority”.
And, finally: Be selfish. If we don’t think about ourselves as individuals, we can’t contribute to the collective, so anybody who’s thinking about filling that void, be selfish and do it. Go and find the place where you’ll be able to learn, says Kristin.
“There’ll always be things in our life that will get in the way, but I truly believe if you commit yourself for one year or two years to your language, to filling that void, the small sacrifice you make in that two years will come back tenfold.
“Once you finish and come out with your mother tongue, that hole will definitely be filled and everything in your life will start to be fulfilled.”
Kristin Ross and Hōhepa Tuahine’s company Punarau Media produced the web series Living By The Stars with Professor Rangi Matamua which won the broadcasting and media award sponsored by Te Māngai Pāho at the 2019 Ngā Tohu Reo Awards and is a finalist at the 2020 New Zealand TV Awards. This series was made possible with funding from Te Māngai Pāho.
Siena Yates (Te Rarawa, Te Aupouri, and Ngāti Kuri) is an Auckland-based journalist based in Auckland who has worked for Stuff and the New Zealand Herald. She was born in Morrinsville and grew up in Te Puke in the Bay of Plenty.
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