Any new learner of te reo Māori has likely heard the waiata Kei hea taku reo? (Where is my reo?) It was written and made famous by singer-songwriter Whirimako Black about the loss of her first language — and now it’s the focus of a new documentary which airs on Whakaata Māori tomorrow night. Siena Yates has been watching and finds it unlocks a familiar set of emotions.
The first time I spoke to anyone about the mamae, the pain, that comes with learning the reo was a game-changer for me. I was able to talk not just about the difficulties of learning a new language, but about the real, deep-seated, intergenerational trauma that comes with it.
There was the mamae of whakamā, of shame, and of feeling out of place and tripping over every syllable. The fear of messing up, being judged, being deemed “not Māori enough”. The anger of having to work so hard to attain something that should’ve been mine from the start.
Up until the point of saying those things out loud to someone else, I had felt the mamae but had never been able to put a name to it, let alone any type of reasoning. Talking about it and learning that I wasn’t the only one carrying it, allowed me to finally face up to it and begin to move, not quite past those feelings, but around them.
So when I committed to full-immersion reo learning last year, I knew I wanted to write about that mamae, to document and share it not just with my classmates, but with anyone who cared enough to read it. I wanted people to see that the struggle is real and, albeit in different ways and to different extents, universal among te iwi Māori.
The thing most of us need to hear is simple: “You’re not alone. I understand what you’re going through. It does get better, I promise.”
That’s very much the message within Te Ōhākī, a new Whakaata Māori documentary that follows a group of Māori musicians coming together to release a reworked version of Kei hea taku reo?, the famous Whirimako Black waiata from 1995 that asks: Where is my reo?
The documentary is much more than a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into writing and recording a song.
It opens in a small room in which the cast and crew introduce themselves and, as part of that, talk about their reo journeys and why they’re there. Right from the start, we’re talking about spirituality, identity, pain and healing.
To me, it’s a beautiful snapshot of the kinds of real, unguarded conversations our people are having these days.
As far as everyone’s “why” for the project goes — yes, the participating musos are friends or whānau of the Black whānau — but more importantly, they relate to the song’s message.
Kei hea taku reo? was born out of Whirimako’s own reo struggles. She was raised in the reo by her late māmā, Anituatua Black, who was an artist, poet, teacher and champion of the reo.
However, when Whirimako moved to Australia, she began to lose that early foundation, because she never had anyone to speak the reo with.
In Te Ōhākī, she speaks candidly about the mamae of that loss and the fear of returning home where everyone would hear how her reo had deteriorated. She wrote that mamae and those fears into her song, so others who could relate might find some comfort in it.
That’s what brought the other musicians to the kaupapa.
Artists Tiki Tane and Kings open up about their own mamae, growing up without access to the reo, with parents who were disconnected from it and had no clear path back to it.
Kings says: “I always felt something was missing, I never knew what it was. As I go through life, I realise that a lot of people have this yearning for a piece of them that’s missing.”
Most of us have been affected by the loss of the reo through the generations. One generation was physically punished for using the reo, so the next learned very quickly to focus on te reo Pākehā, leaving the following generations to dig decades-deep to find their reo again.
Tiki talks about how his father moved from Waitomo to Christchurch — where “he learned pretty quickly not to speak the reo. So I think in his eyes, he was thinking he was doing us a favour — ‘Why would you need to learn that when we’re trying to fit in?’”
On the other hand, emerging artist Mareikura speaks from the perspective of someone who escaped that fate but found another kind of struggle.
She was raised with the reo, but she feels too whakamā to use it in a world where her kind of reo, the reo of the kāinga, or home, is deemed “wrong” by recent learners, who are often non-Māori and have learned grammatical structures in academic environments.
“I wouldn’t say it’s lost. For me, the frustration is, it’s right there. And I know it’s there . . . that’s the battle I fight with myself all the time,” she says. “It’s just finding the courage and the confidence again.”
Before I’d set my sights on full-immersion reo learning, I had a kōrero with Stacey Morrison, who’s a mentor and role model for me.
At that point, I was still scared to even say “kia ora” to her in case I somehow messed up the pronunciation — because she was the Stacey Morrison.
But then she opened up about her own learning journey and her own struggles. She shared stories about the times she messed up or was scared to speak in the first place, and she reassured me that the mamae and the anger I was feeling was a totally normal response.
It’s one thing to chat about these things with friends, but to hear them from a role model, is something else entirely.
It’s a feeling of: “Oh, even they feel this way. Even they stuff up. Even they get scared.” It gives permission to feel those things, validates our struggles, lessens the burden.
So I think that’s what the documentary will do for the many people, especially rangatahi, who look up to the likes of Tiki and Kings. They’ll get to see them talk about their journeys with raw honesty and vulnerability.
The beauty of Te Ōhākī is that it reflects how we work as Māori. The storytelling doesn’t just sit in the pōuri, the sadness, of the kōrero, but by switching between kōrero and waiata, crying and laughing, loss and creation, it lifts us to a place of hope.
It does that by focusing on whakapapa.
It lays out the whakapapa of the song. First, the kaupapa of reo revitalisation handed down to Whirimako by her late māmā, lost and rediscovered by Whirimako, then revitalised by her son, Te Kanapu Anasta, who came up with the idea for the film and served as a reo advisor for the reworked version of the song.
Tiki and Kings appear as both sons and fathers. Their parents speak their own truths around the reo, and how it affected their families. And they themselves speak about how having children has influenced their journeys.
As a father, Tiki says his focus is how to avoid “passing on the same hang-ups from generation to generation”.
Similarly, Kings says his reo journey is determined by the legacy he wants to leave his daughter.
“We’ve spoken about property, we’ve spoken about money, but I think, more importantly, it’s who we are. I’m like,‘Shit, I should figure out who I am before I tell her who she is’ . . . You don’t know who you are until you know where you come from.”
Mareikura speaks about influencing the younger generation. She’s hoping she can be part of the driving force that encourages people her age to go home, connect with their culture and discover their reo.
All of this is compounded by Whirimako’s kōrero to her late māmā. Through tears, she reassures her mum that three generations of the Black whānau have come together and are carrying on her legacy, continuing to fight for the reo as she wanted them to.
This is why the piece is called Te Ōhākī which is a reference to a dying wish, or someone’s final words.
Te Ōhākī shows us how our reo journey is not about the individual. It’s about reclamation for those who came before us, and the inheritance we leave those who come after us, as Anituatua did for Whirimako, as Whirimako did for her whānau, as these artists are doing for their own whānau and for anyone following their music and journey.
It’s a beautiful story about the reo. How it connects us, the healing it can bring us, and the future it can show us.
As the song’s lyrics go: Ka ū te whakapono, ka rea te kakano. With unwavering faith, the seed will grow.
Siena Yates (Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Kuri, and Tainui) is an E-Tangata journalist. She was born in Morrinsville and grew up in Te Puke in the Bay of Plenty where she now lives.
This piece was made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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.