Ramari Jackson-Paniora is the daughter of one of the main faces of the 1972 Māori Language Petition – but her relationship with te reo Māori is more complicated than people may assume.
My whānau’s journey with reo Māori is typical of many Māori whānau across Aotearoa. Looking at my parents’ achievements, it may be surprising to some that growing up, te reo Māori was not spoken in our home. There was frequent use of many kupu; everyday Māori words that have since found their way into New Zealand English, like “whānau” and “kai” were commonplace, as well as simple sentences we’d learn from mum and dad or our wider whānau.
Despite not being fluent speakers of te reo Māori we were firmly grounded in where we were from. We often spent time in our parents’ tribal areas, at the feet of our maunga Taranaki and Hikurangi, going to our awa, and staying on our marae. We also got to know our hapū and our iwi, spending quality time with our extended whānau. Identity was an important aspect of our upbringing and being whāngai added whakapapa complexities – ones my parents ensured we understood.
I was a deeply shy child. When I was about 7 years old Mum took me out of school and we both went into a total immersion Te Ataarangi rakau programme. I was the only child there – expected to join in on the individual assignments and kōrero back to the wider group, a task I struggled with enormously. When the programme was finished, I was put back into school with no other reo Māori speakers or teachers, and was asked to speak English. Thus began my journey of coming in and out of my reo Māori – a journey full of trauma that I have carried for much of my life.
In late August of last year, together with local iwi and hapū, my whānau officially launched the I Am Hana project to commemorate my mother, Hana Te Hemara, who was a campaigner for indigenous rights and a driving force behind the 1972 Māori Language Petition. The project started by connecting Māori muralist ‘Mr G’ Kereama Hoete to Taranaki through historical sites of significance including Muru Raupatu Marae, Parihaka and Mounga Taranaki. The next day, Mr G started painting the words from the 1972 Māori Language Petition on the wall outside the Puke Ariki Library in New Plymouth.
This was the beginning stage of what is now a five-storey mural of my mother, overlooking her hometown. Our goal was to connect a historic step in reo Māori history to wide-ranging audiences and commemorate the 50th anniversary of the presentation of the Māori Language Petition at the steps of parliament, on 14 September 1972. My mother was a visionary wahine Māori, a leader and a daughter of Taranaki, whose image is strongly associated with the delivery of the petition.
Despite my whānau being so vocal in this fight for Māori rights, it was never expected of us kids to be fluent. My parents – especially my father – raised us with a strong Māori identity and one of his many philosophies was that “no one can ever tell you how to be a Māori.” He truly believed that our Māori identity is not determined by what we don’t have, but by the whakapapa we do have. We grew up knowing we were not less Māori because of not having fluency in reo, living at the marae or the tonal colour of our “brown-ness”.
Centred around the mural of my mother on the Puke Ariki Library wall in New Plymouth, the words “I Am Hana” aimed to speak directly to the message of the campaign: “I am Vibrant, I am Fearless, I am Iconic”. At the heart of these kupu was a drive to encourage Māori to build self-confidence, and to think and speak positively about oneself and our people – a lesson I have taken to heart too. This is exactly what my mother represented in her lifetime.
This project was challenging, exciting and sometimes frustrating but with sheer determination and an incredible team that worked tirelessly, we made it happen. The team included representatives from the local iwi, Te Ātiawa; local hapū, Puketapu and Ngāti te Whiti; New Plymouth District Council and officials from central government. We were also fortunate to receive support from many Māori owned businesses. The kaupapa created a community around it.
I Am Hana was a significant success – embraced locally, nationally and internationally, but one thing I was not expecting to come of it were the many discussions our team had about overcoming intergenerational trauma centred around Te Reo, acknowledging this trauma as a barrier and talking about what we needed to do to overcome it. This community reaffirmed my own antipathy toward learning the language and my need to resume my journey toward fluency.
The truth is, my journey with Te Reo has been frustrating. Like my parents, my understanding of the language is strong, however, over the years my confidence to speak it has waned. To rebuild this confidence, my adult children, my wider whānau and I have teamed up to go on the journey together.
We have created a reo Māori safe space online to learn together with confidence. Some of us are beginners, some are fluent and others are somewhere in between. We are a very close whānau, supporting each other in the kaupapa with humour and aroha, and we stretch far and wide. About 15 of us are on the journey from Aotearoa, Canada and the United States. My nephew Campbell Te Paa, whose business teaches reo Māori and translations has become our reo navigator. It’s a whānau affair where we can make mistakes, ask all the awkward questions, build confidence and have fun learning.
Despite my mum’s work in Māori language and indigenous rights advocacy, I never felt the pull to re-immerse myself in reo until I got older. Now, more opportunities are available for my learning style, and it feels right to be coming back to the language of my tīpuna. Like the tides, the strength of my te reo Māori has come in and out throughout my life, but now I continue on with confidence. I am not just immersed in te reo Māori, but in the support of my whānau, and although I am not yet fluent, I feel as Māori as ever.