Siena Yates (Photo: Charlotte Marama)

There’ve been many firsts and breakthroughs for Siena Yates this year. She’s been learning te reo Māori at Waikato University’s total immersion reo programme, Te Tohu Paetahi, in Tauranga — and here she writes about breaking down her biggest barrier to do her first karanga.


My whole life, I’ve felt out of place in te ao Māori.

And there was nowhere that compounded that feeling more than the marae.

When I started Te Tohu Paetahi, the best I hoped for was just to be able to go to the marae and understand what was being said, to laugh at the same time as everyone else, and to get a vague grasp on what was happening and why.

But last week, we marked our final week of Te Tohu Paetahi with a noho in Maketū, and not only did I accomplish those things, but for the first time in my life, I felt completely at home on the marae.

The major transformative moment that led to this feeling, as it turns out, was never about the language. It was about the connection.

And it came when I broke down my biggest barrier of all and found myself doing a karanga.

There’s a lot to this story, but the short version is that, at some point, in all our preparations for the noho marae, I felt this urge to do the karanga.

A lot of it was because we’d had many wānanga about it which were incredibly deep on an emotional and spiritual level — many tears were shed! — and I learned that a big part of the karanga is calling to your tūpuna to stand at your side as you enter the marae and begin whatever kaupapa you’re there for.

Once I knew that, I couldn’t ignore the thought of being the one to call my Koro to stand with me on this journey that he couldn’t be here for in person.

The other part was far more practical. I knew this could well be my only chance to do it.

I’ve never spent much time at marae, and I’m not entirely sure how much that might change in future. But even if it does, there are so many other wāhine who are more practised and better suited to do the karanga.

Also, this was still under the kaupapa of Te Tohu Paetahi. It was clear that we were students, still learning and practising. In other words, the stakes were relatively low. I wouldn’t be stepping on toes or tikanga — and if I mucked it up, it would be okay.

And so, I did it. And the sound that came out of me was one I never expected to hear. It didn’t even sound like me. When I said that to my friend, she said: “That’s because that’s the voice of your tūpuna.”

My voice trilled and broke just like I’d heard other women do. It was loud and clear and in a pitch that I don’t think I could replicate in any other situation. My hands did the hardest wiri I’ve ever felt, and I wasn’t even trying to do it. Not like in kapa haka where I often have to remember to force the movement.

I only did one part of the karanga as three of us split it up between us. But in the short time I was calling, to be honest, I think I had a kind of out-of-body experience.

I don’t really remember much of it. I don’t think I closed my eyes but everything around me faded away anyway. I was aware of my voice, but I was also aware of feeling like it wasn’t mine. Despite having run over the words a thousand times in the days leading up to it, at that point, my head was empty, and words just came out of their own accord. Were they the right words? Couldn’t tell you. No idea what I said.

I was barely aware of moving my feet to keep approaching the wharenui. It wasn’t until I was done that the world came back into focus, and I remembered to breathe again. I remember feeling a bit dazed as the Aunty on the other side started her call in response, sort of like when your ears pop when you didn’t even know they’d been blocked.

By the time I reached the wharenui, my whole body was shaking. And after the pōwhiri, I was absolutely shattered. The comedown was real.

Obviously, a lot of this is to do with the fact that I did a thing I was terrified of doing, and I did it in front of a lot of people. My anxiety had built up over days and then was relieved.

But that wasn’t all it was. It was also just this sense of peace.

For me, doing a karanga was a huge tohu of who I’ve become in this past year. A person who breaks her own boundaries. A person who can connect to her tūpuna and do work on a spiritual level and not feel afraid of that anymore. A person who can step forward and say, “Yeah, I’ll do the thing,” instead of the person who hides in the back because she doesn’t feel “Māori enough” to even be within 5km of a marae.

I’d called to my tūpuna, and I felt like they had answered. Like all they’d been doing was just waiting for me to reach out.

You often hear people say that the reo is a gateway to the culture, but when you’re so far on the outside of it all, it’s hard to imagine the extent of what that means.

It can be as literal as the fact that, without the reo, I wouldn’t have been able to understand what the karanga means, and I may not have felt the call to do it otherwise.

But it was more than that. Being in a space like TTP, and spending all of my days unlearning Pākehā ideas and relearning Māori ways of thinking and feeling and processing the world around us — which you have to do to grasp certain aspects of the reo — had opened me up to all these new levels of emotion and connection.

I’m incredibly lucky to have had tutors who understood the power of tapping into those things and who helped us to do so. They encouraged us to lean into our feelings, to cry in front of each other, to sit with our discomfort, so that we could begin to unpack and move on from it.

That kind of work allowed us to connect to the language, to our history and culture, and to each other and the parts of ourselves that many of us had been denying until now.

Yeah, it’s cool to go to the marae and understand what’s being said, and to get all the jokes that are being made, and to understand the instructions and the layout of the proceedings.

But, more importantly, you get to feel comfortable there.

I remember telling my classmates a few months back that I wanted to practise hongi because throughout my life I’d very rarely had the opportunity to do so — and when I did, I avoided it because the hongi was another thing that scared me. It was a bit too intimate, and a very Māori thing for someone who didn’t feel very Māori to be doing.

In recent months, I’ve been to a few marae where I’ve done more hongi per minute than I’ve done in my whole life. Yet it still felt a little bit awkward, a little bit performative.

But after we started learning about karanga and tapping into that spiritual side of te ao Māori, things changed. And by the time I arrived at this noho marae, the hongi felt natural. It made sense, even if I did awkwardly misjudge the placement and kiss someone’s nose, or clash foreheads, or smash glasses together.

When you do it and you really think about that exchange of breath and energy in that moment, it means something. You can have a whole conversation without words.

It’s not having the reo that makes you comfortable. It’s because the journey to get the reo inevitably unlocks every door separating you from your Māoritanga — and pushes you through each one. That’s why it’s such a confronting and painful journey for many of us to take.

Engari, mā te rongo ka mohio, mā te mohio ka marama, mā te marama ka mātau, mā te mātau ka ora. But with discussion comes knowledge, with knowledge comes light and understanding, with light and understanding comes wisdom, with wisdom comes wellness.

I still have so much to learn and my reo has such a long way to go. But for the first time in my life, I feel whole. I feel spiritually well. I feel Māori. And not because I can have a short conversation in the reo, but because I finally feel the connection.

I’ve always known it was there — I just didn’t know how to access it. Now I do.

And that is the greatest gift I never even dared to hope for.


Te Tohu Paetahi is officially finished for 2022 but Siena will continue to study through the programme’s optional additional summer paper (MAORI313) and will continue to share her experiences. 

Siena Yates (Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Kuri, and Tainui) is a journalist who has worked for Stuff, the New Zealand Herald and WOMAN magazine. She was born in Morrinsville and grew up in Te Puke in the Bay of Plenty, where she’s now studying te reo through Waikato University’s Te Tohu Paetahi programme.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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.