Lieutenant-Colonel Tā Harawira Gardiner (Image: Supplied)
Lieutenant-Colonel Tā Harawira Gardiner (Image: Supplied)

ĀteaDecember 20, 2021

Sir Wira Gardiner on learning te reo Māori late in life

Lieutenant-Colonel Tā Harawira Gardiner (Image: Supplied)
Lieutenant-Colonel Tā Harawira Gardiner (Image: Supplied)

After a storied military career and roles in the Waitangi Tribunal and Te Puni Kōkiri, Sir Wira Gardiner realised in his 40s he needed to leave his safety net behind and jump feet first into learning te reo Māori.

It is a tired cliche that only the young can pick up a new language. While the elasticity of a child’s brain offers certain advantages in language acquisition, there are comparable benefits to approaching a new skill later in life. An increased knowledge of learning techniques, a well-developed work ethic and the ability to access a wider range of resources all help, but most importantly, an older learner has something even better – a reason why.

Lieutenant-Colonel Tā Harawira Gardiner (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Pikiao, Whakatōhea, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui) spent the first 40 years of his life unable to korero te reo Māori. Gardiner grew up in Rotoiti, at Tapuaeharuru, surrounded by te reo, but inside the home spoke only English.

“My father and mother were reo speakers but my mother for some reason decided that she wasn’t going to speak at home,” says Gardiner. “I don’t know whether my mother said she didn’t want any of that Māori mumbo-jumbo in the house or what. I do not know.”

He says his father was in his late 50s when he assumed his place on the paepae. “In Te Arawa they’re very strict, it has to be the elder, and so he had to wait until his father died. It’s not as if he wasn’t matatau o roto te reo, he was very good, but that was Te Arawa. And so we were exposed to reo, but not practiced in it.”

Gardiner’s familiarity with te reo came only through osmosis on the marae, and this trend continued through his schooling and into entering the military as a young man. Today, soldiers are expected to learn waiata, haka and are inducted into the state-created iwi Ngāti Tūmatauenga upon entering the army. But in the 1960s, these were the responsibility of the Māori concert band only, and so when Gardiner left in the 1980s, having seen combat in Vietnam and risen to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, his fluency in te reo was much the same as two decades prior.

“I think the military today are a good model for a platform for expanding understanding of culture, practicing elements of the culture and then logically moving on to te reo Māori, and the tikanga and all the other things that go along with it,” says Gardiner. “But back then, while my soldiers were Māori, and Māori was spoken and you picked up some along the way, there was no effort to learn or to try and grasp it.”

While Gardiner’s tour ended in the 1980s, his public service career had only just begun. Gardiner joined the Waitangi Tribunal aged 40 and soon became director. Gardiner was surrounded by te reo, moving on to administrate the Iwi Transition Agency (Te Tira Ahu Iwi) and eventually Te Puni Kōkiri in 1992.

“I realised that I couldn’t avoid it any longer. That I had to understand reo and I had to start speaking reo. And so what I did initially was to set up a nga tuarā – that is, a group of four or five elders who were my magic carpet. Wherever I went, to any marae in the country, I didn’t need to whaikorero, or try, because all of these koroua would do it for me.”

“After two years they came to me and said “We’re disbanding”, and I said “Why? You’re doing a very good job”, and they said YeaH, we’re doing a good job for your department, but we’re not doing a very good job for you. You have to stand up and do it yourself”’.

And stand he did. Gardiner’s first step, he says, was to jump in the deep end. The osmosis of childhood provided some sense of grammar, and structure. But in the absence of a vocabulary, Gardiner was far from matatau.

“My hapa, or my sins, were numerous, but the listeners, even though you could see them screwing their faces up, nevertheless they paid me the tribute of not saying “E noho ki raro, kāti ki te waha – sit down and shut up”.”

Sir Wira Gardiner receiving the Insignia of a Distinguished Companion of the NZ Order of Merit for services to Māori from Governor General Anand Satyanand, September 4, 2008.

For many who come to te reo later in life, whether tangata whenua or not, the unavoidable mistakes made in public can create a deep sense of whakamā. For Māori, it can stem from a feeling of not being “Māori enough”, a kind of learned imposter syndrome and inherited colonial trauma. For others, it can simply be enough to feel a bit dumb. But Gardiner says, there’s no escaping embarrassment and all that is left is to try.

“Kaua e whakamā me nga hiahia, don’t be ashamed. We have to get into a mindset where mistakes will be made, and mistakes are a stepping stone to learning and becoming adept and proficient at the language. And for those who know te reo Māori my advice is to be gentle and be kind.”

Gardiner’s growing fluency paralleled his rise through the public sector. He became chair of Te Māngai Pāho, a ministerial appointee to the council of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa and deputy chair of council of Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi. And with fluency came a wider appreciation for te reo, me ona tikanga and the ways in which it is understood from iwi to iwi.

“Without an understanding of reo me ona tikanga, and the kind of dialectical differences across the country between Whanganui, Tūhoe, Ngāi Tahu and others, you’re going to be impoverished in your overall considerations in the context of trying to serve them,” he says.

“I think the greatest driver for human-kind is self interest, and so I wouldn’t be unhappy if to be a CEO you have to demonstrate a competence in the language. I don’t think it’s an axiomatic requirement but I would have thought it’s an obligation given that Māori is an official language and that many of the heads of the largest agencies of the Crown are dealing with Māori issues, whether that’s Oranga Tamariki, or housing – unless you understand the client base from which you are trying to serve, then you will not serve to the fullest extent that might be possible.”

The difficulty, says Gardiner, is in divining the most effective method to encourage up-take. In the lead-up to the 2020 election, the Māori Party ran on a platform of compulsory fluency in state broadcasters. Elsewhere, the subject of compulsory teaching in schools has proven a lightning rod for division both in Māori communities and the greater electorate.

“The main obstacles to te reo come from my generation. They were brought up and their attitude is “I was brought up in New Zealand when English was the only language and we got on very well with Māori. In fact, my father had friends that were Māori’ – that kind of stuff. I don’t know about compulsion, but what we do need is an increasing socialisation of te reo.”

Efforts like Te Wiki o te re Māori, the adoption of Matariki as a public holiday and the growing inclusion of te reo on platforms like RNZ are bringing reo into the mainstream, says Gardiner – most importantly among the youth. When the language is no longer rereke, or different, when even Pākehā can whaikorero, the roots of te reo run much deeper. From there, an uptake at the executive level is inevitable. In short, Gardiner is optimistic.

“I think we’re much further on than we were 20 years ago, I think there’s still much to do, but I think the kind of programmes like this are all part of that kind of socialising the context and encouraging the language through talking to people like me who started at the age of 40 and can now converse reasonably comfortably, can stand up on a marae and do all those kinds of things – if an old koro like me can do it, anybody can.”


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Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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