Shelley Burne-Field and her son Wills: “I feel a little ripped off that my baby is teaching me baby reo, rather than the other way round.” (Photo supplied)

“Some of my generation may never receive the precious gift of time and energy to learn te reo Māori. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t cut deeper each day.” Shelley Burne-Field on the pain of being “reo-less”.


I feel stink about not knowing how to speak te reo Māori. Whakamā, you know? 

The shame of being reo-less gathers in the corners of my eyes, always near the point of overflowing. I suspect there are others who feel stink, too. Smelly and shunned as the juice at the bottom of a rubbish bin.

There are bin-loads of guilt and shame in this article. Turn away now if that makes you uneasy.

One of my Pākeha friends is learning te reo Māori. I’m terribly proud of her. And jealous. Let’s be honest. She sends me texts in te reo Māori and I copy and paste them into Google Translate. 

My cheeks turn beetroot red when we’re together and I have to ask her what a certain kupu means. I’m not proud of that and my lack of follow-through. She, on the other hand, supports my stuttered attempts and corrects my tikanga with aroha.

Māori mates are learning, too. It’s wonderful and heart-wrenching to see them try. I feel their pain. We sense each other’s awkwardness, yet push it aside for the bigger cause. We must do this!

Secretly, we each breathe a sigh of relief when my limited lexicon cuts the conversations short. There is so much to do in life, and only so much energy to go around. I wish I was young again, with a quick brain, and a quicker tongue.

Tears prickle when the well-intentioned, who are lucky enough to be fluent, quip: There’s no excuse not to learn Māori these days. Those words are the death knell on the last of my Māori self-esteem. For I don’t possess this taonga, and I have all the reasons in the world why, yet all those reasons never make me smell any sweeter.

I hear cries of: “Learn, learn, learn!” “You’ve got this!”

“Āe,” I cry back. “I know, I know, I know.” 

Still, I try and reason it out and give myself a break. Life isn’t always roses. I’m not Super Wahine and definitely not Super Māori.

It’s not for lack of trying, or lack of intent, or lack of desire. It’s not for lack of respect. Many of us are collecting cortisol on our hips from the shame of not knowing, with worry lines deepening at the reality that we’re running out of energy and years to learn more than just the basics. Many of us are middle-aged and worn out. Our brows are indeed furrowed. 

Not knowing te reo Māori is embarrassing for reasons too embarrassing to state. So I’ll state them here.

I feel stink about not being able to speak te reo Māori because I identify as Māori, I’m proud to be Māori, I look Māori, I feel Māori, I’m seen as Māori in most instances (though not in all, and that’s another story), I live by Māori values, I am Māori — yet I’m bereft of the heart of my culture. 

Being reo-less extends to my very English name “Shelley Burne-Field”. I feel guilty in part because I use my name as a shield against racism when ordering goods or services. Don’t judge. (Find out here about my experiences of racism.) 

However, having an English name when one is Māori, and trading on that name, makes one want to take a hot shower and wash off the shame immediately. Like Pavlov’s dogs, in the past I learned that to bark in English is far more profitable and puts more food on the table than barking in Māori. 

Did I just call myself a kuri? No — I compared our society to a human experiment in language.

Last year at a local readers and writers festival, I was lucky enough to be a volunteer and see some amazing writers and poets. Helen Waaka, Marina Scia Scia, Tayi Tibble. At one of the events, 10 minutes before, the beautiful organisers assumed I’d be able to deliver a mihi, karakia, and the whole works in te reo Māori. I felt the juice seep out of me and into my undies as I explained that wouldn’t be happening any time soon. 

If shame equals weight loss, by the time their faces fell into horrified frowns, I had turned into a skeleton.

When I was a district councillor, I was placing an advertisement in a Māori publication and a fellow wahine yelled down the phone to me: “Are you even Māori?” I’m not sure what she was basing her decision on, and I didn’t bother asking. I had already internalised that it was my lack of reo, and perhaps my lack of “sounding” Māori, whatever that means. 

When it’s your own people rejecting you, it can hurt so much more. The pain is unbearable.

A few weeks ago, my father passed away. I’m fighting the tears — from both grief and shame. When his coffin was taken into our whānau home, our marae by proxy, a friend whispered to me: Is anyone doing a karanga? Do you want me to? 

And I was lost again. 

She took over from there and at the church, too. Through her vocal chords and her wairua, I felt our tīpuna gather. I’ll be forever grateful to her and the friends who came. Ngā mihi nui, e hoa mā. Aroha nui ki a koutou.

Since we’re ripping off the band-aid, I’ll come clean about this article too. My use of Māori kupu here comes mostly from a combination of flicking between the free Māori dictionary website and Google Translate. I can imagine that is highly discouraged by scholars, and grammatical suicide to boot. I apologise. If it’s even a tiny bit wrong, please tell me what else to do. Tell me where else to look?

Here’s the rub. A little kiore on my shoulder whispers to me that being reo-less may make me less in modern day Aotearoa, as well as feeling less in my own soul, less than my whakapapa, less than an invisible legacy, less than what society expects, and less than what my community and everyone else expects — including me. 

I feel my bones cracking and my throat constricting. I’m lost without the kupu to try and find my way. Though my blood sings with my tīpuna’s blood, I can’t karanga to them.

The mamae is real and generational.

My dad’s whakapapa traces both of us back to Urenui. Ko Taranaki te maunga. Ko Ngāti Mutunga te iwi. 

In 2011, our whānau discovered our lost whakapapa with the miraculous help of Māori Television’s Tātai Hono series. Thank you, producer Paula Whetu Jones, from the bottom of my heart. I had longed to find my ancestral marae, and the journey was everything I dreamed it would be.

Yet, I felt stink. I had no language to truly grasp the depth of my bloodline, and the nuances of te ao Māori eluded me. At our newly discovered marae, in the wharenui, I couldn’t understand what Uncle Peter or Cousin Jamie said. Every single awesome person who welcomed me there was loving, accepting and generous. I held on to something that kaumātua Ben Tawhiti had told me on the journey:

“You are Māori. You have the right to speak at your marae. You belong.”  

Yet I couldn’t speak. My brother Pete, a teacher, courageously spoke for us on the paepae, using his limited knowledge of te reo Māori to whaikōrero. I felt so proud of him. And so grateful. 

On the last day of filming, after emotional reunions and jaw-dropping history lessons, I had become sick and was so choked up I barely managed to learn my pepeha and deliver it. I’m sure the snot coming out of me was the loss I’d felt over years. The shame of losing something I never had in the first place. 

Finding my marae, I now had a piece of the puzzle. But without te reo Māori, there was no way I belonged. There was no way I was worthy of my whakapapa. 

Time and place is important. The last 120 years tells a story. In the late 1800s and pre-war Aotearoa, more people spoke te reo Māori than not. In the post-kōhanga-movement 1990s and 2000s, te reo Māori was resurrected by a group of Māori miracle workers and is now taught in most schools and normalised and valued, for the most part, even in work places.

The buzz we all feel when we hear millennial babies and 20-somethings kōrero Māori is like listening to tūī sipping nectar. Those golden-tongued babies are our taonga. I feel prouder than proud.

Sadly, at least three generations have missed out on casting their tongues in a golden mould. They missed out on learning te reo Māori fluently, including my own Generation X. Those of the “middle”.

Most Gen Xers I know didn’t grow up in a Māori-speaking community. Many, like me, were born in the provinces between 1965 and 1979, and never got to learn te reo Māori when we were young.

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in Hawke’s Bay, listening to Boogie Wonderland and then Like a Virgin, the closest some of us tamariki got to experiencing te reo was singing Poi E and break-dancing on a jungle gym, pretending it was the waka at Memorial Park in Pātea during the summer of ‘83.

Gen Xers aren’t the only in-betweeners. Baby Boomers and World War One and Two generations learned through beatings, or from the ever increasing and dominant Pākehā norms, that te reo Māori was “not a useful language”, according to Patricia Grace who has felt the loss, too. 

I compare it to living in the middle of a fly cemetery. Remember those fruit mince slices our parents and grandparents used to rave over? Cakes made from a pango mix of sultanas, orange rind and compost dust which was the “dead fly” layer buried in the centre of two slices of kōwhai-coloured pastry, the “cemetery”. 

I reckon there are a whole lot of us in that sticky era of lost language, stuck in between the sweet years of plenty.

If we’re lucky, the lost reo generations made it past the millennium and are celebrating our 40th, 50th, 60th, 70th, and 80th birthdays now. If we’re unlucky, many are wading through our mid-to-later-life crises, clueless about how to kōrero Māori or understand any te reo, save for the beginnings and endings of emails, learning our mihi and pepeha (probably for work), and stumbling through a few greetings. 

Let’s not forget colonisation. I haven’t. 

When I was a tamariki watching Hollywood movies and advertisements on TV, I used to think my bodily fluids smelled more than a Pākehā woman’s. They don’t. Well, they may smell sweeter. 

On reflection, growing up in post-colonial Hawke’s Bay, I wonder whether I would have wanted to learn te reo Māori when my own idea of being Māori was so negative? 

For my parents, there was such a thing as being too black. Hey, don’t judge unless you’ve ever had to rely on the local Pākehā farmer for a mutton just to feed your kids, or the local Pākehā foreman for a job. Stereotypes aside, for minorities, small provincial communities were once solidly based on the artistry of blending.

In my day, nobody ever said “Kia ora”. I remember clearly the 1981 protests against the Springbok rugby tour when it ripped our little town to shreds. It was like Fight Club up at the corner pub. Broken pool cues, somebody did a shit in the jacuzzi — except we don’t talk about that. 

I now realise with my adult eyes that it was not acceptable to be Māori. Though each and every whānau held their heads up high and continued to be the best version of their Māori selves, they did it on the down-low. 

And being on the down-low meant there was no thought of teaching te reo Māori to this 10-year-old. I’m sure my parents thought it would be like painting a target on my forehead. 

I’m beginning to wonder: when every fibre of my young being was being told to be Pākehā in order to fit into our little slice of assimilated Aotearoa, could all the guilt and shame I’ve carried with me for decades be just bad timing?

Being born and living through a specific moment in time acts as a recipe for human development. It can guide how a language develops or not. It can influence how much care is given to tamariki and when. It seems so obvious. I feel stink not seeing it before. That’s why knowing our own history is a wonderful teacher, and understanding it can set us free.

My tama is 13 years old. He’s living in a time — a burgeoning garden of hope — where te reo Māori is nurtured and encouraged to grow. And he’s loving it. He’s learning to kōrero Māori and has more reo than I’ve ever had in my life. He’s not fluent — not yet — but he knows more waiata than I have ever known, he knows local haka and chants, and he is learning Māori as a subject at his high school. He knows tikanga! And he pronounces kupu with care and clarity. 

He taught me a karakia for kai six months ago, and it took three weeks to memorise it. I still stumble over the order of the words. A friend told me to feel the words rather than analyse. I’m starting to. I’m starting to. I feel a little ripped off that my baby is teaching me baby-reo, rather than the other way round. 

At least I have a free tutor — and I don’t give a rat’s arse if I live my fluent te reo Māori dream vicariously through my tama. He said I was doing a good job on the karakia, so there.

Though, granted, it’s not perfect for these new generations, either. In Aotearoa, compulsory te reo Māori in every school is well overdue. Just like an unborn pēpē’s māmā still carrying low and heavy at 42 weeks, compulsory te reo is about ready to fuck someone up if it doesn’t happen soon.

The taonga of te reo Māori belongs to us all, in all eras, for poor and rich, on every level of learning, body and soul. Yet if you’ve never learned, be understanding of your why. It’s gonna take time — lots of time. Some of my generation may never receive the precious gift of time and energy to learn te reo Māori. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t cut deeper each day. Who wants to be part of Team Bin Juice forever?

But don’t sharpen the mussel shells just yet. We can be Māori and reo-less at the same time. It’s not ideal — especially in the hidden places we never talk about — but we can keep our heads held high. This doesn’t make us less. 

I have hope. As the tide of te reo Māori lifts us and lifts all, I find I’m learning more and more. As the tide of te reo Māori lifts us and lifts all, I find I’m starting to float. And the air up here smells sweet.

My call is to all the new generation babies with the golden tongues: Please keep going! Please! I beg you, for all our sakes. Bring us with you and remember us oldies in “the lost language generations” as you transform our world. Mauria mai mātou! 

When I get a little energy to heal up the nicks in my wairua, to live past surviving, this Gen Xer is promising herself one thing, with your help: Ka ako au i te reo Māori. 

I think that means “I will learn te reo Māori”. Forgive me if it’s not correct.


Shelley Burne-Field is a writer who lives in Hawke’s Bay. She has always worked in “helping jobs” like social services, local government, prisons, healthcare, community and youth development. Her stories find a home at events like union rallies, addiction centres, schools — anywhere that hard but hopeful tales may touch someone’s life for good.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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