Meriana Johnsen sitting outside Mangamaunu marae in Kaikōura.

My te reo journey: journalist Meriana Johnsen

This is the te reo journey of one very colonised Māori, writes journalist Meriana Johnsen.

In one of our te reo classes, we had to choose a whakataukī that resonated with us. I chose:

Ko taku reo, taku ohooho, ko taku reo, taku mapihi mauria.

My language is my awakening, my language is the window to my soul.

I am the fifth generation in my whānau without the reo – my great-great-grandmother was the last to speak it. Mum would use the odd Māori word here and there but we never visited our marae or spoke te reo. We knew we were Māori and we knew our whakapapa but that was the extent of it.

The difficulty is when you’re Māori there are certain expectations of who you should be, how you should act and what you should look like. My fairer skin with dark features too frequently invites the question: ‘Where are you from?’ To which I reply, ‘I’m Māori’ and they say, more often than not: ‘You don’t look Māori’.

My response used to be, ‘Oh I’m only a quarter’.

It took me until adulthood to unlearn internalised racism such as blood quantum. Growing up in the rural South there was only one other Māori whānau in the area. My frame of reference for being Māori was what I saw on TV – and we all know how terrible mainstream representations of Māori are. I’ve been told that I’m not really Māori, and the sad reality is that I used to agree with them. I was an exemplar of what early colonisers wanted to achieve with aggressive assimilationist policies.

My identity issues only intensified in high school. I was put in the Māori form class and it was here that I learned that my name had been pronounced wrong my whole life. I gave kapa haka and te reo a go but I quit because I didn’t felt like the culture belonged to me.

It wasn’t until my final year of university that I was brave enough to give te reo another go. I can’t actually remember why I wanted to do it – but I fell in love with the language. I felt a rush of pride when I stood up to do my mihi. I love the way the words feel in my mouth, how they roll off my tongue, how my brain feels like it’s being twisted when it grapples with new sentence structures and concepts.

Stepping in to my journalism major I started introducing myself as Meriana rather than ‘Mary-ar-na’. I realised that if I was to work in media I wanted to own my Māori identity, I wanted to wear it with pride. But I knew that this would come with more questions that I couldn’t answer. I was asked to give a presentation to the class about tikanga Māori. I said I didn’t have the mātauranga and was met with a blank look. I went home and cried – I felt I had failed as a Māori.

I decided to study te reo at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa in Lower Hutt this year so I could have some more answers to those questions. Auē, I was not prepared for how emotional the process would be. I’ve wanted to give up. I’ve wanted to change my name so I could avoid being identified as Māori. I’ve turned red with whakamā when I’ve opened my mouth to speak and all that’s come out is a jumble of nonsensical sounds. I’ve been frustrated when I haven’t been able to find the words to describe what I’ve wanted to say. I’ve been angry at the thought more Pakeha might end up speaking te reo than Māori – the injustice of the colonisers speaking the language of the colonised after they took it away in the first place.

But through all the anger, frustration and sadness I have persisted because this is bigger than me. It is about bringing te reo back to my whānau. It is about my nieces and nephew who I want to grow up knowing who they are. It’s about my future tamariki who I want to raise walking in both worlds. It’s about my tīpuna who had their way of life systematically stripped from them, acre by acre, word by word.

Now when people ask where I’m from I say proudly I am of Ngāi Tahu and Rangitāne descent. I get a rush of excitement when I realise I’ve just understood something in te reo. I have discovered the beauty of Māori music and poetry, explored our history as told by our people in books and documentaries. I feel so much aroha when I can have a basic kōrero with someone. I’m humbled by how much there is to learn. I am beginning to accept that te reo isn’t something I can acquire through a few years of night classes – it takes patience, practice and good support around you.

This story was supposed to talk about my te reo journey but I cannot speak about the language without talking about my identity. Because learning te reo has been the key to opening the door to te ao Māori for me.

I want to mihi to some of the people who have helped and continue to help me on my reo journey. To my wonderful friend Trinity – check out the amazing work she does with Fruit From the Vine –  thanks for answering my constant nagging questions and reassuring me when I’m overwhelmed with negative feelings about te reo. To my akomanga hoa mā – ngā mihi nui ki a koutou mō e hapai ana au, but most importantly showing me that learning te reo is fun and full of laughter. To my māmā, who is now on the reo haerenga with me – I know you wish you could’ve given us the reo but I’m so happy we get to do this together (also I apologise on behalf of teenage me for ripping you out for using ‘random Māori words’).

Even if you don’t know your pepeha or you’ve never stepped foot on your marae, nau mai haere mai ka ako koutou ki te reo Maori. Kia kaha e hoa mā! And remember this whakataukī when you feel overwhelmed by the journey ahead: He waka eke noa. We are all in this together.

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