Tainui and his daughter Ariana.

Over the last several months, Tainui Stephens has been sharing his reo journey with E-Tangata readers. That journey began back in the 1970s when a young Tainui first went in search of his Māori roots. And it has continued, as he writes in this piece, with his children.


We all want the very best for our young people. For parents on our own language journeys, we need to bring our children along for the ride. We also need to teach them the value of action.

Every morning, I wake up and think to myself: ”I am Māori.” This personal affirmation is a political act, and a necessary kickstart to my day. It may take the form of a karakia or a short mental note to myself.

It’s all the same because, above all, to be Māori requires action. Without acts of assertion, we die. By learning the language, I’ve seen what comes with it. There is the pride and pleasure of being able to communicate in your own native tongue. But there’s also the challenge of asserting your identity in a mainstream society that doesn’t always welcome it.

One of my first political acts when learning te reo was to always write my cheques in Māori — and to note with interest who was annoyed, and who wasn’t. Even the correct pronunciation of Māori names was, and is, an act of political assertion.

Happily, it’s apparent to most people in the country that incorrect pronunciation in the media is a sign of sloppy disregard and unprofessional practice.

To start a language journey is to make a commitment to action. It requires energy, direction and bravery.

To keep moving forward, to keep overcoming all obstacles and, most importantly, to keep learning, is to recognise that the journey has no end. Even reaching your own end doesn’t conclude your journey. It continues down different roads in the shape of your children. The language you speak to them, especially in their early years, will form the basis of their language for most of their life.

There is no greater practical act than to ensure our indigenous identity by speaking Māori to our children. The good news is that you can do this, whatever your level of language. Even single words count because behind each word is a connection to important Māori values.

It is now common to walk into homes where there are stickers all around the house showing the Māori words for fridge, table, oven, and TV. Equally there are words for karakia or any of the other traditional sayings beloved of our people.

There may also be lyrics for Māori songs, or waiata ā ringa, that are whānau favourites. To use the language in the home in a way that is positive and has purpose, is necessary to give your children a head start on their own language journey.

I remember starting with the pets. You can speak to any pet in te reo without embarrassment, and it’s an excellent exercise in vocalising, trying new sentences, and getting used to the sound of yourself. In due time, the cat may even pay attention.

My daughter, Ariana, grew up with me speaking Māori to her, and although she wasn’t confident in replying, it was clear that, when she had good teachers, her genetic predisposition for the language kicked in — and she learned and spoke it well. It’s in our DNA.

You see the world differently when you go to the 21st birthday parties of the strapping men and women you once held as little bubbas, in your hands. You realise you have witnessed a generation of life on this planet. You start to see the world in a wider perspective. Of course, this is an inevitable consequence of simply getting older.

For me (in my 40s at the time) that point was driven home by a young fulla called Jimmy Māreikura, one of the kids at the Maungārongo marae in Ohakune. It was during the shoot for the film River Queen.

In the early 2000s, texting was new and I was simply sending a text to my wife. As I did so, I heard Jimmy behind me saying to his mates: “Gee. Uncle Tainui knows how to text. Pretty mean for an old fulla!”

I’ve always loved music and I naturally wanted to explore the music of the young people in the programmes we were making. It was especially important to make Māori television that was appealing to rangatahi Māori, and which would turn them on to their language.

In order to do that, I felt our first obligation was to pay our mihi and heartfelt thanks to the kaumātua of Māori entertainment. The series When The Haka Became Boogie (1990–93) did just that by exploring and showcasing our musical elders from the showband era and before.

While we presented entertainment icons like The Quintikis, Ricky May, and The Howard Morrison Quartet to new generations of viewers, we also exposed younger Māori musical artists like Survival and Mahinaarangi Tocker.

Influential acts like Southside of Bombay, Moana and the Moahunters, and Upper Hutt Posse defined kaupapa Māori in popular culture terms. They also celebrated the Māori language by making it an ordinary part of their art. We were then able to propose a TV series that would help rangatahi to enjoy using te reo Māori and make it normal in their lives.

The Ngāti Whātua radio station MAI FM had already made great progress in this regard with the popular “It’s Cool To Kōrero” radio spots campaign. In addition, the station was tearing it up in the cut-throat commercial radio market. Their proactive proud Māori stance struck an R&B hip-hop chord with many young Māori and Pasifika.

In 1994, we experimented with a television version of the MAI FM style. It was “radio with pictures” really. Not a new idea, but one we thought was timely. In order to get the funds to make a new stand-alone series we piloted the format within the Sunday morning Marae slot.

It got a great response from viewers, so I took the idea upstairs to the commissioner in charge of Television New Zealand’s Channel Two which was dedicated to programming for younger audiences.

As I outlined the proposal to the commissioner, it was plain to see she was grumpy that we had even attempted the idea. She dismissed a programme for Māori youth with the glib line that “there was no point because they spend most of their time in the video parlours playing spacies”.

I remember thinking to myself: “Fuck you. We’ll do it anyway!” So we piloted the series for a second year, after which time there was a new commissioner, from Australia. When I put the case to him that we deserved our own slot for a programme for Māori youth, he didn’t blink before he said: “Yes, you can have 45 weeks.” He told me that he was new to Māori culture and didn’t have the preconceptions of local Pākehā. He felt that our plan made sense commercially and culturally.

Mai Time debuted in 1996. It was a runaway success, because of the music, the style, and the Māori language that we made central to the show. We had a posse of five young presenters which was a novel idea for the day. Stacey Daniels (later Morrison), Quinton Hita, Teremoana Rapley, Mike Haru and Bennet Pomana were stunning young people who brought a sense of fun and natural indigenous empathy to a TV taonga that showed rangatahi that it’s cool, and even sexy, to be Māori.

At the meeting house in Ahipara. The walls are lined with the photographs of those who’ve passed, including Tainui’s son Aotea.

When I was a rangatahi myself, and first entered our meeting house of Te Ōhākī in Ahipara, I didn’t know any of the people in the photographs that lined the walls. Now, when I enter, I recognise so many more of the faces within the frames. They are kin whose stories I remember, and whose voices I can still hear. My son is there, too.

In one of my early visits to Hokianga, I stayed with Pā Hēnare Tate. He was such a knowledgeable and lovely man of our northern iwi. He gave me a book about the history of Hokianga and wrote inside “Kōrerotia ko wai rātou!” Tell them who they are!

Thanks to him and so many other men and women and their acts of insight, patience and love, I know who I am.

One of the best things I ever did to pass on te reo Māori, was to sing to my children before they went to sleep — in particular a waiata whakaoriori I wrote for them that speaks of their maunga and moana, their heritage as peacemakers, and their links to the past and present.

Somehow this simple lullaby that I sang to my son and then daughter every night, put them at peace and in a mood for sleep. Worked every time, no matter how restless they were because they knew Daddy meant business.

E hine piki atu ki Whangatauatia
Whakarongo ā tai
Kariri Kura e
Tiro haere, kimi haere e

E hine uia nō wai tāua?
Nō Te Rarawa iwi
Pōroa me ngā ture
Hei kahu iho nei

E hine uia ko wai tāua?
He wairua tuku iho
Nō ngā tūpuna
Kāti rā whakarongo e

E hine uia mā wai tāua?
Puritia te aroha
Hutia te rito
He tangata hei tangata e …



Tainui Stephens, of Te Rarawa, has been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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