The appointment of Te Atamira Jennifer Ward-Lealand, a Pākehā actor, to the board of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission) has drawn criticism from some Māori. We asked respected reo Māori champion and broadcaster Stacey Morrison for her view on the controversial appointment.
I didn’t realise that I was part of a debate until I got a message from a friend, protectively feeling upset on my behalf. They’d read that Te Atamira Jennifer Ward-Lealand had been appointed to the board of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori and thought that I, and a few other wāhine Māori they mentioned, should have been chosen instead.
I wasn’t aware, but also wasn’t surprised, to hear them say that they’d seen others debating this topic, some reacting strongly to a Pākehā being appointed to the board by the Minister of Māori Development, Willie Jackson.
It’s a sure-fire way to take the wind out of an opinion piece to say “I can see both sides” — but I truly do. Feeling unsettled and perhaps triggered by this appointment doesn’t need to be seen as an attack on Te Atamira personally, but an attack on the frustrating reality so many Māori live in — not yet able to speak our ancestral language fluently, while some Pākehā can.
Te reo Māori was besieged by legislation and all other levers of the colonising playbook to the brink of extinction. Generations of Māori adults like me found ourselves yearning for the heritage language denied us, then shocked at the exhausting reality of what it takes to learn and reclaim our reo.
Our monolingual schooling set us back behind the starting line in our learning — that’s if we can even make it to the starting line over our whakamā (deep shame) and mamae (emotional and spiritual pain) at being bereft of our reo.
Pākehā, like Te Atamira, who dedicate themselves to learning te reo Māori have my respect for the huge effort that takes, but it’s also fair to quote a new kiwaha, or colloquial saying, in English and note that it “hits different” for non-Māori.
Learning te reo Māori is challenging, no matter who you are, but having reached a conversational level in Japanese before I started learning Māori, I can tell you my engagement was much easier with Nihongo/Japanese as I didn’t constantly feel “I should know this” and embarrassed about what my lack of reo revealed about my whānau upbringing.
What inspires us to keep going, to revitalise te reo Māori in our homes and whānau, is a deeply personal intention, making us understandably sensitive about our struggle to learn the language that should have been our birthright.
Having seen Te Atamira at many kura pō (night classes) wānanga reo (language seminars and live-ins) including kura reo for many years, I personally appreciate and recognise the hard work she’s put in to continue to learn te reo Māori and advocate for its value to the wider community.
I remember when she was gifted the name “Te Atamira” by Tā Tīmoti Kāretu and Te Wharehuia Milroy years ago, recognising her role on the stage (atamira). Within this naming they also embedded a responsibility to use her public roles to encourage non-Māori to respect te reo Māori too.
Knowing this, I can see how heavily this request from Willie Jackson would have weighed on Te Atamira, and how seriously she would have considered the question of whether she should accept the opportunity to be the second Pākehā to sit on the board of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, after Professor Ray Harlow, a member of the foundation board.
The words of our reo luminaries who named her no doubt rang in her ears. It’s relevant to note that the role of the Māori Language Commission has been altered since Professor Harlow’s time. Now, the commission sits under Te Maihi Karauna (the Crown arm) of Te Whare o te Reo Mauri Ora (the national Māori language strategy), and Te Mātāwai is Te Maihi Māori (the Māori arm) distributing funding previously held with the commission.
Te Mātāwai’s mission,“Kia ūkaipō anō te reo” — to restore the language “as a nurturing first language” — is Māori-focused, and all its board members are Māori. The mission of Maihi Karauna (and therefore Te Taura Whiri) is to focus on a macro approach,“Kia māhorahora te reo” — “for the Māori language to be widespread” — by focusing on creating conditions for te reo Māori to thrive and ensure government systems support that.
Their goals include one million (or more) New Zealanders having the ability and confidence to talk about basic things in te reo Māori, by 2040. That is also the date they aim to achieve at least 85 percent of New Zealanders valuing te reo Māori as a key part of national identity.
That percentage is far more than the current Māori population, so this is where Pākehā, like Te Atamira, are natural advocates to have on board. As Minister Jackson said in a Facebook post: “If we really want to encourage Pākehā, shouldn’t we be making some space for them also? Particularly for Pākehā who challenge other Pākehā over their ignorance and racism.”
This board appointment is a governance role rather than operational, so I can see the lane that the minister is describing, and why he considers Te Atamira to be a natural fit for that.
Many readers of this article will know how tiring it is to rebut those who find the use of te reo Māori in mainstream media “divisive”, so I wouldn’t envy the second part of that assignment.
From what I know of her, I’d imagine Te Atamira will show an example of how embracing te reo Māori can enhance our collective culture more than engaging in low-level debate on its value. She also has board experience in the arts setting, which is relevant, as the tikanga/protocols of the boardroom can take time to adjust to. Having just completed my Translator and Interpreter licence with Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, which is a fees-free course, I’ve had recent experience of where they still hold the mantle of upholding our language with high standards and protection.
We were all Māori on that course, to my knowledge, and it was challenging, time and expertise wise. But there we all were, continuing to learn, to work hard for our reo.
When we expend so much energy and effort to regain our fluency and revitalise te reo Māori, it’s fair to have strong opinions about how these issues are approached. I orea te tuatara ka puta ki waho — a problem is solved by continuing to find solutions. Board appointments are one approach to reach a solution. For me, continuing to raise my tamariki in a reo Māori environment is just as worthy a focus.
He kura hoki te whakarau kakai — debating these problems and solutions is valuable too, so we challenge our thinking at every step of this critical strategic approach. But rather than hate the player, hate the game. The game that means our reo still needs all hands on deck, in order to survive.
Stacey Morrison (Ngāi Tahu, Te Arawa) is a broadcaster, writer and reo advocate. She is the author of several books on te reo Māori, including My First Words in Māori, Māori at Home and Māori Made Fun, and Kia Kaha. She was the 2021 winner of the Waipunarangi—Te Reo and Tikanga Award, and is also co-chair of the Mana Trust which produces E-Tangata.
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