Cornell Tukiri sat down with his Te Wānanga Takiura o Ngā Kura Kaupapa Māori o Aotearoa classmate Te Karere to talk about his relationship with te reo Māori, and what the language revival means for his whānau.
Cornell Tukiri: Mōrena, why don’t we start with you telling me a little about yourself?
Te Karere: Ko Te Karere Whitiao Scarborough tōku ingoa, he ingoa tino roa (it’s a long name). My mother is from a place called Poroti just outside of Whangārei, and she came to Auckland in her mid-20s following her brothers and sisters. My father is Pākehā but my matua whāngai is who I would consider my Māori father, who’s a fluent reo speaker, brought up by his grandmother. He comes from Ngāti Haua and has strong connections all over the Waikato. I was brought up in Onehunga and what’s crack up is in Onehunga there were more Tongans than any other nationalities and so growing up outside of my cousins, a lot of my best friends were Niuean or Samoan or Tongan. I loved growing up in Onehunga.
You are Māori and you are learning the language formally now. Why do you think some of us left it so late to connect with the reo? I mean we may connect with our marae, we may connect with our whānau/whanaunga but we don’t connect with the reo, we don’t give it the full push sometimes as Māori. What’s your view on that?
I went to kōhanga, and the reason I didn’t go to kura was because it was too far for my mum, so a part of my reo journey as a kid and as a teenager is wrapped up in just the realities of trying to get your kid across the city.
I was always brought up around Māori things, but in reflection I realise that I was able to get away with being in Māori contexts by using Shortland Street Māori [katakata], you know? All the Māori words that a place like Shortland Street would use, I knew all of those words. I could be Māori enough in those contexts not to be excluded. Just busting the word ‘whenua’ out every once in a while, or ‘hapū’, or taking your ‘kia ora’ up to a ‘tēnā koe’ [katakata]. You know, just whatever the Māori actor at the time needs to say or do to demonstrate any form of cultural responsibility. And I realised actually that most Māori I knew existed within Shortland Street Māori. And now that I realise that 78% of people can’t speak Māori, I can understand why.
You touched on being around te reo as a child. Did your mum ever think that as you’d been to kōhanga she’d really want you to keep going, aside from geographical issues?
I think so. I straight out call out my mum or other people who were brought up in the generation above me, especially the generation above that. We make jokes around who is more colonised, and the joke is how Pākehā do we think we need to be in order to get a job, in order to be financially stable, in order to fit into culture? Even though we turn it into a joke, it’s a very serious question. My mum was part of the kōhanga reo movement, she’s fought on behalf of Māori for social work bi-culturalism. Her real gift is me not being as inhibited in my desire to be Māori, that is actually what she’s fought for.
I think the difference now is I say to my son and to everyone I know, ‘Māori are going to rule the world, man’. Those people who can stand in taha Māori and taha Pākehā, those are the people who are going to be looked for for positions. Would people have said that 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, outside of Māori circles?
What aspects of te ao Māori are needed in our society? Can we transfer aspects of te ao Māori to Aotearoa, to the world?
That’s a good question. I am Pākehā and I really care about Pākehā, but I see the Western worldview as a prison for other ways of being human. When I sit within a Māori context I feel connected and I know belonging. And I know that my relationship to those people isn’t based on just what I achieve but it’s based on 500 years of lineage of whakapapa together, the idea that we uplift and memorialise history so we are trying not to make those mistakes again. All of those concepts, they don’t exist within a Western paradigm post-industrialisation. I think about an adult, a Pākehā, who literally has to invent their own meaningfulness, they need to create a brand, people talk about their own personhood as a brand, they need to create things to hang meaning off. We just don’t have that crisis that they do, and I actually think the Pākehā identity crisis which is already here will negatively affect us.
There are things within te ao Māori that can mirimiri, that can support Pākehā in that sense. Outside of that, indigenous perspectives on environmentalism, on trust, on partnership, on connectedness, on forgiveness, the idea that within a Māori context we keep people accountable in a public setting, is actually a really good safety net.
He aha te mea nui (what is the biggest thing) facing Māori and the reo, ki a koe (to you)?
In 2013 there was some census data brought out and one of the questions that was asked of Māori and non-Māori was around their versions of their well-being indicators. For Pākehā I think it was health and education. The most important thing for Māori above wealth or education, I’m pretty sure was whanaungatanga. So if for Māori, we describe flourishing or wellbeing or toiora as being connected to one another, for me the question is – what are the barriers to our ability to be connected to one another? It’s distance, it’s economic realities, it’s some of the social challenges that impact us generations down. But our version of flourishing isn’t propagated by mainstream culture, our version of flourishing isn’t supported by the education system, and anything less than our version of flourishing is an imitation. It has already been proven that it doesn’t work for us.
The biggest thing that faces us are the different challenges and barriers to us being connected to one another. In terms of the reo, reclaiming something is so much harder then losing it in the first place. I’m optimistic though, bro. My kids are 11 years old, six years old and then our three years old. And in the space of my son’s childhood, 11 years, my motivation to speak Māori has changed. He can speak fluent Māori. I reckon in five years I will be fully fluent. So that is a five generation turnaround in 15 years. Now the question is, are their kids going to speak Māori? And are their kids kids going to speak Māori?
What are your thoughts on Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori? Is it one week of the year we celebrate Te Reo Māori as a country? Is it something you see as important as it is now? Does it have other potential iterations?
I like Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori because it’s almost like an annual litmus test around where culture is at. I reckon if you have a look at how people have engaged with it, it is a lot more popular now because corporates or schools are getting way more onboard then they were. I think Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori is a really good expression of all of that stuff that’s happening throughout the year. I love it because it engages mainstream in a way that almost meets their appetite but is realistic for them. You can see even within mainstream media for example the different journey that people are going on, it may be ‘kia ora’ for channel One news, but then you’ve got Guyon Espiner on the other end really going for it. I think that spectrum on the Guyon Espiner end, people are moving towards that and I think that’s cool.
I don’t think Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori is a waste of time. My kids are going to Maungakiekie and they’re going on a march to promote Te Reo Māori, I think those types of activities are really cool and really important. But, I’m more excited about Mahuru Māori [where Māori only is spoken for the month of September]. A good friend has committed to only speaking te reo Māori for the entire month, to shopkeepers, to café owners. She is trying to text people in her whānau who can’t speak te reo Māori and they are having to ask for help. Would that have happened if Te Wiki o Te Māori had never happened? Mahuru Māori? I think there is a cascading or a building that is happening there, I think it is a positive thing.