I caught up with the movie Poi E! the other day, and tears welled up at the sight of Ngoi Pewhairangi, of Ngāti Porou, who wrote the song made world famous by Maui Dalvanius Prime and the Patea Māori Club.

Dalvanius was a dynamic, colourful, overwhelming personality — almost a force of nature, who simply overpowered any resistance and opposition that he met.

Ngoi was a rock. Quite an unassuming person to meet, but charismatic, a brilliant communicator, and a paragon of all the values and principles that she so passionately advocated — preached, really — in her songs.

One of my all-time favourites is Ngoi’s Whakarongo (ki te reo Māori e karanga nei), which contains the following lines:

Whiua ki te ao, whiua ki te rangi, whiua ki ngā iwi katoa.

Kaua rawa e, e tukuna noa kia memeha e!

Her song is a passionate and moving plea to uphold and maintain Māori language and culture for future generations. I would translate these lines as:

Proclaim them defiantly to the world, hurl them to the heavens, insist on them with all people.

Never just allow them to be diluted away.

For a long time, I assumed a causation between the two — that by doing the first, you were doing the second. But now I read these lines as two separate instructions, with a potential contradiction between them.

Because if Māori want to hold fast to their language and culture in dealings with Pākehā, then surely Pākehā need to embrace te reo me ngā tikanga Māori.

And therein lies a risk of them being “diluted”.

Now, I’ve always looked forward to Aotearoa becoming a fully bilingual nation, if not multilingual, because I’ve benefited so much from Māori people sharing their language with me, and I wish everyone could share in that. Over the past 40 years, we’ve made much more progress than I once believed possible.

But, as the bilingual reality approaches, I’ve become more cautious about how we manage the transition.

And I guess one key question is: What is the role of Pākehā, and how do we handle ourselves, as we move towards a stable national culture of bilingualism?

I had the great good luck to start learning Māori in 1974, at university in Wellington. The Kirk Labour government had given a nod to Māori language and the Treaty of Waitangi, so it was a bit trendy.

About half of my introductory Māori class was Pākehā, but that proportion dropped rapidly as I progressed through my degree. I think only one other Pākehā completed stage three, so we were an unusual minority.

I was welcomed into Te Reo Māori Society, and later Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo, and I was taken under the wing of many outstanding mentors: Koro Dewes and his whānau, Huirangi Waikerepuru, Maaka Jones, Hirini Mead, Pae Ruha, and many, many others. I’ve also been employed by Māori or Treaty-based organisations. So if I stuffed up, it was clear who should correct me.

From time to time, I wondered why so few Pākehā made the effort to really get immersed in te reo Māori, when Māori were so keen to share. Now, in recent years, I’ve been to a couple of hui with Pākehā who are fluent speakers of Māori. It’s been quite an eye-opener. I was a bit ambivalent about the whole idea at first, because I’ve never thought of myself as a representative of Pākehā people. But, then again, I thought, we must be part of the wider picture of language revitalisation.

The first hui was really just a preliminary discussion about the potential value of having a group. Was there a need, what would we do, what would our role be?

The participants had come into a Māori world through various different pathways. Some, like me, had started as adults learning Māori. Some started at school. Others had gone to kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa Māori. Some had lived in Māori communities from childhood and had grown up with Māori language and culture around them. Others had married into Māori families and wanted to support their children’s Māori identity.

At the second hui, we discussed more specific issues that had confronted us.

For instance, is it appropriate for a Pākehā to use a pepeha in a formal speech, identifying by name their maunga, their awa, their moana? What responsibilities do we have to help and support other Pākehā who are keen to start learning but who have no personal contact with Māori communities?

Actually, there are lots of simple issues that raise deep questions.

What should we do when we hear a Pākehā community leader trying to speak Māori, but making such a hash of it that it’s embarrassing? Or if we see a Pākehā sitting on a table at a marae? Is it our responsibility as Pākehā to offer guidance or advice, or is it the job of the people whose language or marae it is?

The more we delved into these questions, the more I started to see risks in the whole idea of having a Pākehā group at all. As individuals, Pākehā students are in some way accountable to their mentors. But as soon as a Pākehā group is formed, with a kind of mana motuhake within a Māori world that arises from Pākehā looking after each other, any stuff-up could be seen to reflect on Pākehā as a group.

I mean, if a Pākehā has no contact with a Māori community, is it appropriate that he or she should be helped to learn Māori by other Pākehā? And if Pākehā take responsibility for each other’s Māori language learning, doesn’t that confuse the lines of responsibility for maintaining and upholding te tino rangatiratanga o te reo me ngā tikanga Māori?

And, yet, times are changing. There are stronger calls for Māori to be taught in all schools, so a generation of Pākehā children who are speakers of Māori may be just around the corner.

I think that changes the dynamic. They will not just be a lot of Pākehā individuals, but Pākehā as a people, or as a culture, growing up as speakers of Māori.

And what will be the role of competent Pākehā speakers of Māori? How do we step up and support bilingualism without overstepping the mark? How do Māori maintain standards and control the development of te reo Māori — and not let it get diluted away?

I don’t have the answers myself, just some personal experiences.

When I decided to learn Māori at university, I just assumed it would be like learning French or Spanish. The blinkers got blown off my eyes at my first meeting of Te Reo Māori Society, and I confronted my total ignorance about Māori people and culture and the history of our country.

I found myself groping in a cultural darkness, quite helpless and embarrassed, questioning the foundations of my knowledge and learning to navigate a totally strange landscape all around me.

What rescued me was the generosity of my friends and their families, and the gift of their language and all the insights it revealed. So I am quite certain that, however we go about becoming a bilingual nation, that fundamental transaction — the priceless gift by tangata whenua of te reo Māori and all that goes with it — must be fully acknowledged.

That starts with the idea of a gift freely given. Pākehā have no right to be taught, and if we are lucky enough, let’s be grateful. (I’ve said in a previous column that Māori have many competing priorities for teaching resources, and Pākehā may need to wait our turn.)

It also felt very important to me that all my teachers were Māori. The gift was given in person. I think if te reo is to be taught in all schools, we need to acknowledge that it’s not just any old language, and it should be taught by Māori teachers.

So we are asking a lot of Māori people, and if we, as a nation, are prepared to accept this gift, we must consider how we’re going to reciprocate. And that brings me back to the key question above: what is the role of Pākehā, and how do we step up without overstepping the mark?

Again, I don’t have the answers, but I think they may be found by exploring the idea of te tino rangatiratanga o te reo. To me, it embraces the ideas of ownership and control of the language, which should ensure its cultural authenticity — the belief that the language spoken today is a direct descendant of the reo spoken by the ancestors and not some bastardised invention.

It includes the cultural value of the language, so the reo is a meaningful and useful way to communicate and transmit all aspects of a living culture, and is not a purely ritual artefact for ceremonial occasions only. And that implies that the reo is itself a living, dynamic, creative and changing expression of the world around it.

All these ideas are relative, not absolute, and there are trade-offs required. So, for example, the reo Māori of today is not exactly the same as that of 200 years ago, because the world has changed. But it remains authentic because it has modernised naturally, as all living languages do.

I think sharing the language with Pākehā will increase its value by making it more widely useful as a means of communication — but that inevitably involves risks to Māori ownership and control of te reo. I think that’s what Ngoi Pewhairangi was referring to in the lines of her song.

It’s not a zero-sum equation — in other words, that the more te reo Māori is shared, the less control Māori will have. It is te tino rangatiratanga o te reo that gives it such great value to me, too. If Māori comes to be seen as a government-controlled language that’s not specially relevant to Māori life and culture and tradition, it loses its value to Pākehā as well. So perhaps a group of Pākehā who appreciate te reo Māori do have a role to play.

In many ways, the changing status of te reo Māori reflects our changing relationships as Treaty partners — and, in the process, our identities as Māori and Pākehā are evolving. Open and honest communication is vital. The challenge facing us all, Māori and Pākehā, through turbulent times ahead, is to ensure that, in our efforts to promote Māori as a truly national language, we strictly protect and enhance that critical element: te tino rangatiratanga o te reo.

Tēnā, kia purea e te hauora e,
Hei kupu tuku iho mo tēnei reanga.
So, let it be cleansed by the fresh air
To be a message handed down to the next generation.


Andrew Robb is a former reporter with Mana News and Te Kaea in Wellington. He’s been involved with Te Upoko O Te Ika radio station, worked in parliament as an adviser to the Māori Party, and is now a big-time cattle rancher, rooster victim and fly fisherman in Central Hawke’s Bay. 

© E-Tangata, 2017

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