“Ko te reo te taikura o te ao mārama” - language is the key to understanding.
For Māori, the value of our reo is obvious, among other things it carries our history and future, and links us to one another, an understanding that can be encapsulated by the word "whanaungatanga". The meanings within this kupu however, are not restricted to just Māori as many Tauiwi have discovered through their own experiences in learning te reo Māori.
Here we invited five Tauiwi learners of te reo Māori to write about their experiences in learning te reo and what, beyond the language, they have learned.
Ka nui te mihi ki a koutou.
'It’s taught me to be patient, keep a ngākau māhaki' - Sophie Barclay
I started studying te reo after discovering more about the real history of Aotearoa - not the stuff they feed us at school, but the gut-wrenching history of one culture dominating another. Why are we not celebrating the proud history of places like Parihaka - the anti-colonial, non-violent movement predating Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, in school? Why wasn’t I told?
As a Pākehā in a colonised country, learning te reo is a mark of respect and acknowledgement to the indigenous people. It is a commitment to the partnership of Te Tiriti; a promise of a hopeful future. It’s also an official language - meaning that it’s EVERYONE'S responsibility to keep te reo alive and well. An easy way to start is to with pronunciation - the difference between tao-poh and toe-paw.
I love languages, but learning te reo is different. There is a whakataukī saying “ko te reo te taikura o te ao mārama” - language is the key to understanding. Discovering the mauri that lies in rocks and rivers makes me look around with wonder. The concept of kaitiakitanga makes me reflect on differing worldviews, and how, in the name of “progress”, P1akehā destroyed many of the places where Māori harvested food for centuries.
In reo class, we learn in a different way, a collective way - through singing, listening and helping others. Learning te reo is a journey. It’s taught me to be patient, keep a ngākau māhaki, a humble heart, and to be respectful. And it’s also reminded me that history is written by the victors.
*Sophie is a freelance journalist and environmental scientist. When not attempting to write children's books she can be found around, under or in the ocean.
'I was able to return home in a fuller way than I have ever been able to before' - Ahilapalapa Rands (iTaukei no Whītī, Kanaka Maoli no Hawaiʻi, Pākehā no Aireni)
Last year my partner Ella Grace and I relocated from London to Ōtaki in order to study full time at Te Wananga o Raukawa. I could see more clearly than before that if I wanted to continue to work in the arts in Aotearoa, if I wanted to be part of supporting the changes we need as a society, then I actually needed basic cultural literacy of this place.
Learning a second language, any language has a long list of pros, you have better recall, improved memory and language acquisition becomes easier and easier. But in addition to this with te reo, it’s inseparable from tikanga and ahurea. So you’re learning protocol, culture and history.
Earlier this year, I was able to spend three months in my homelands of Hawaiʻi. Thanks to the knowledge shared with me by my whanaunga of Aotearoa I was able to return home in a fuller way than I have ever been able to before. It’s pretty unique to learn a language that also opens the door for learning who you are and how you relate to the land you live on and the land you come from. He tangata tiriti ahau, he tangata o Moana nui a Kiwa hoki.
*Ahilapalapa Rands (Kanaka Maoli, iTaukei, Pākehā) works in the arts and is the illustrator behind @Keen2Kōrero. She holds a Bachelor of Visual Arts from AUT, Tāmaki Makaurau and a Diploma in Te Reo Māori from Te Wānanga o Raukawa, Ōtaki.
'I was challenged to re-learn my subjectivity in the world' - Anisha Sankar
My journey with te reo Māori has primarily been one of healing. My decision to learn te reo was initially influenced by questioning what it means to live on Māori land.
My aim was to gain a familiarity with Māori worldviews, so that I could support decolonisation in areas of political and social life. What I gained from te reo has been a lot more personally affecting than I anticipated.
The most important for me so far has been to access Māori customs of relativity – relating to the land, those around you, those who have passed. I felt that I was challenged to re-learn my subjectivity in the world.
I came to Aotearoa from India when I was five years old and grew up feeling largely divorced from my cultural heritage. Reciting my whakapapa, and positioning who I am as a culmination of all my ancestors has been profoundly healing, when I consider the shame and disassociation that came with growing up as an immigrant in this country. Reclaiming my ancestral roots has been a powerful and liberating step forward in my personal growth and understanding of my own identity.
*Anisha is from Tamil Nadu in the south of India, and grew up in Madras, then Naenae. She currently lives in Tāmaki Makaurau where she is doing postgraduate study in political and decolonial theory.
'Learning te reo Māori has taught me gratitude and humility' - Julie Zhu
I started picking up kupu Māori in primary school and somehow the kupu always stuck with me.
In my first year at uni I did the Māori 101 course and loved it, I couldn’t get enough. Initially I was just interested in learning the language but now I recognise what deep insight into te ao Māori understanding te reo gives you. Even the sentence structures of verbs before subjects shows that emphasis is placed more on actions than individuals.
For us as tauiwi especially, it’s so important that we acknowledge the history of the land that we are on. That we acknowledge the suffering and what was stolen through colonisation, and how that impacts on today. There are often divisive narratives pitting Māori and Asians against one another in mainstream media but through whakawhanaungatanga, and better understanding of our different cultural perspectives, we can overcome this.
Learning te reo Māori has taught me gratitude and humility. I know I occupy an immensely privileged position to have been able to learn te reo Māori when so many Māori do not have access to the time or resources to learn, when so many Māori were historically beaten for trying to speak it. But when Māori hear me speak reo for the first time, the reaction is always amusement and joy, there is never any sense of resentment. For me, this just goes to show how deep manaakitanga and aroha runs for Māori, and why we as tauiwi must do our part to honour and reciprocate this.
*Julie Zhu is a theatre producer, filmmaker, photographer, and occasional politician for the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand. She is a member of Asians Supporting Tino Rangatiratanga and Racial Equity Aotearoa.
'The ability of te reo to connect people of different ethnicity' - Sonya Withers
Before I came to Te Papa I was working in the private sector of fashion. I recall on my first day with my previous employer using the little te reo I knew as an opportunity to break the ice in an industry that can be very intimidating and competitive.
Being Afakasi Samoan, a lot of people assumed I was Maori, but when I proceeded to explain my heritage a lot of my colleagues began to open up about their background, even responding to my emails with "Kia ora". I found this very valuable in building a team that respected each other and had each other’s backs in times of pressure and absence.
It wasn’t until I came to Te Papa that I decided to advance my te reo. I think it’s one thing to greet folks with "Kia ora", but it’s another to be able to engage with a culture by actually absorbing the values embedded in their language exposing tāngata whenua, our history and, most importantly, the ability of te reo to connect people of different ethnicity.
*Sonya Withers is of Samoan decent and has a tertiary background in textile design and a professional background in menswear. Her passions lie in Pacific textiles and is the Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Intern at Te Papa shadowing the NZ History and Pacific Cultures team.