Lorde’s te reo Māori mini-album Te Ao Mārama has prompted passionate conversation in Māori communities, and exposed the complex layers of hurt and intergenerational trauma being carried by those without their language. Writer and poet Rangimarie Sophie Jolley explains it’s about more than pop music – it’s personal.
Te Reo Māori is an integral part of te ao Māori. Its revitalisation has had an uplifting, empowering and challenging lifespan. In the 50 years since revitalisation efforts began, the resurgence of Māori language speakers has spanned generations in ways our ancestors might never have dreamed. Lifetime after lifetime has been dedicated to the revitalisation of our language, and we are indebted to every moment of that commitment. Their hard work has put Māori on the world stage as leaders in the long process of decolonisation and in many ways, we have been praised for exemplifying the modern liberty of Indigenous peoples.
This week, Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori, during Mahuru Māori, is a time to celebrate those efforts. Many of us born in the 80s and 90s were privileged to reap the benefits of our parents, grandparents and others’ hard work to bring te reo Māori back from the brink. We were privileged to experience te ao Māori in a whole new way and as a result, there are a plethora of opportunities for us to criticise the ways in which our efforts for revitalisation are changing.
Many in our generation are found fighting for things that seem very trivial in the face of the wider revitalisation movement. We’re scrappy about it, too. So when Lorde’s reo Māori EP was released, it came as no surprise to many of us that it quickly became a polarising topic. We operate in a micro-society that breeds a new generation of empowered native speakers on one end, and second language learners who are still wading through intergenerational trauma on the other. And yet, it’s surmised that around 80% of our people are not yet fluent in te reo.
For the most part, we seem to agree that the future of our reo remains imperative to the survival of our culture and benefits the health of our people. Where we tend to disagree is in the methods by which the revitalisation continues. And for those of us without, those for whom the reo revitalisation strategies haven’t yet been realised, the issue is very deeply traumatic and personal.
I’m of the group that don’t speak fluent te reo, but I have been very lucky to have had numerous opportunities to learn. I attended a Māori medium kura until I was nine years old, at which point my parents were concerned that I would need more of the English Language in my life and took me out. I took Māori at high school but was too busy being a teenager to try very hard. I sucked at kapa haka. I attended wānanga and dropped out when I became a single mother and needed to work. I attended nightly reo classes until I noticed that Pākehā class members were correcting some of the kaumātua in our roopu and myself. The little bits of reo that I’ve gained along the way are utilised as much as they possibly can be. My situation is both unique to me and common amongst our people.
By contrast, my daughter attends a Māori medium kura and has the type of education most of us only dreamed of. I’ve spent most of my life trying to reclaim my reo and like many others, that pressure is constant. It looms over me, disregarding the demands of my daily struggles. It infiltrates my relationships, demanding a level of tuakana / teina in every space I enter.
For us, regardless of how or why, the use of te reo just isn’t normalised yet, as we still have so many hurdles to cross to get our reo as natural upon our tongue as it is in our hearts. In some ways, being bereft of our native tongue can make us extra territorial, like a bird that knows its meant to fly, but has never seen the sky so it flaps its wings extra wide and screams real loud.
So when someone like Lorde, with her good intentions and her allyship, requests an opportunity for collaboration in the reo Māori music space, of course it can be very triggering. It’s hard to accept that her intentions are good when we know that she’ll profit from the white-saviourism (even if the proceeds are being donated, all press is good press).
It’s also hard to see the lateral violence on behalf of her, when Māori begin to undermine or attack other Māori for the sake of protecting her. Pākehā have no place at the centre of the reo revitalisation movement, those with whakapapa Māori do. And until every single one of us, every kid with Māori ancestors, every whānau dispossessed, every rangatahi chanting Land Back and dreaming of their whenua, every aunty in the kitchen who thinks it’s too late – until every one of us has got our reo where it needs to be, the mamae is gonna carry on. It’s very real and it hurts in a way that is difficult to describe when we operate in a largely westernised framework. That doesn’t make the pain any less valid though.
Many have responded to the criticism regarding Lorde and her intentions by asking why this wasn’t an issue when Waiata Anthems was created, and subsequent Pākehā artists were seemingly able to release their songs without criticism. They’ve communicated that it must be due to the size of her platform. To put it simply, the artists who collaborate through Waiata Anthems are invited in and they take a risk on that kaupapa. There is no such risk for Lorde.
She’s got a team of suits who know exactly how profitable indigeneity is right now, and that’s what the criticism is really about. It has nothing to do with Lorde, or the translators, the intentions of those involved or even those who think it’s a good idea for non-Māori to be praised for creating Māori content.
For some Māori (like me), who are still on the journey of reclamation, the situation is very complex, multi-layered and extremely personal. In fact, the whole thing might have blown over and been swept up by the positive power of Te Wiki if it hadn’t been for scathing calls such as “What have you ever done for our reo?” and “Don’t complain if you’re not the one doing the mahi”. These statements simply reinforce the fear we face anyway, and remind us that sometimes, the only people celebrated for learning te reo are those who don’t need it and want it because it’s cool.
That in itself speaks volumes about the revitalisation efforts. It speaks even more to the nature of our battle, in that we can be so consumed by our passions that we forget who the real benefactors of our efforts should be. When the invalidation of intergenerational trauma seeps into our activism, we know we’ve reached a turning point in our cultural reclamation.
When we invalidate our own mamae, we recolonise our own people.
There was also a large amount of criticism about the fact that anyone was complaining in the first place, and that the complaints came from a place of trauma.
“We can’t let trauma be our identity anymore” they reckon. Like trauma is a trigger that’s suppressed by good intentions and positive vibes. If it were that easy, would we even need these Māori language moments? Would we still have Māori so consumed by this issue that the power of Te Wiki o te Reo Māori would be consumed by it, leaving the labour of Māori artists in wake? How many posts, comments and stories this week have reflected the unity of our vision, versus those which draw hard lines between the righteous and the wronged? How much of this week’s attention has been on a Pākehā who did this for themselves, and how much positive attention has been on Māori who do it all day, every day, for their people?
Is Pākehā allyship and exposure so important that the mamae, hard work and needs of our own people can be disregarded?
Granted, there is still much resistance to te reo from fractions of our population. The very real, very racist members of our society who continue to haunt comment sections are, for the most part, of a dying breed. Their anger is directed towards a different time, and has no place in anyone’s future. Most of us know, or are even related to, those who believe that Aotearoa and New Zealand are battling for supremacy. They’re the minority now, and they know it. Hence the volume by which they protest our reo and any semblance of Mana Motuhake in the current mainstream. However, their children and their grandchildren will know a different country than they did, and our revitalization efforts face a new, more intricate and nuanced challenge with them. A challenge that doesn’t necessarily require advocacy, but one that requires clearly defined boundaries.
The real issue is global. We’re dealing with a world in which cultural appropriation is harder and harder to define. Our arts, our books, our songs and our way of life is suddenly experiencing the phenomena of capitalism and the colonial manifesto in its contemporary form. Its good intentions are wrapped in profitability and are, in many ways, only an exercise in being woke enough to be relevant.
Our reo has value that goes beyond our current experiences of the world and its stages. Liberating our indigeneity is decolonisation in action, and many of us are sitting at various intersections of society and seeing the similarities between each argument. Whether you think the EP was a good idea or not, whether you think our Pākehā allies are getting it right or not, whether you weaponise money or mana, the issue remains the same. We live in a world where indigenous knowledge is harvested, manipulated and appropriated by colonial forces.
Our colonisers perfected the art of going from island to island taking only what worked for them and leaving nothing but destruction in their wake. In the remnants of this whole debacle lie Māori hearts and minds in their own contemporary hara. There are also a slew of Māori artists, visionaries and talented creators who have released their own works this week. I look forward to a time when those headlines are in circulation and their efforts are appropriately celebrated. A time where I don’t have to see all of the pain being caused, knowing that a sophisticated marketing team would have seen that this storm would happen, and caused it anyway.
Therein lies the real issue.
When it comes to this particular discussion, we’ve got years and years of evidence telling us which way we might turn. What we need, though, is a critical perspective of what we face in years to come. Lorde knows we need to be prepared; their colonial efforts get more and more sophisticated every year.