More than words: Learning te reo with my daughter

Nichole Brown shares a beautiful personal essay about how her daughter’s thirst for knowledge has reignited her love for her te reo Māori.

Shoes inside. That was my ultimate act of defiance against my mother’s tongue. Wearing shoes inside.

It might not seem like much, but inside I felt like I was screaming rebellion at my skin.

I would rush in the door after work and pretend to be too busy to remove my shoes, while enjoying the feel of marching around my home with shoes on indoors. I would get the biggest rush telling visitors that shoes inside was fine in a pitch so phony I didn’t even recognise my own words.

Because we do not wear shoes inside. We have grown up knowing that shoes stay at the door. In ramshackle piles on the concrete steps of the mahau, on wooden shelves outside the front door at the home of our Koro, shoes were not to be worn inside the home.

It’s not just about paru, dirt, dust.

The outside, the forecourt, the surrounds of the wharehui, belong to Tumatauenga, the God of War. The inside of the wharehui belongs to Rongo, our God of peace. The dust of war should not be brought into our house of peace.

We carve our wharehui in the likeness of our tupuna, our ancestors. The tekoteko, the maihi, the tahuhu, and the heke represent the head, the backbone, the arms, and the ribs of our ancestors. We pay respect to our tupuna by removing our shoes in their house.

Wearing shoes inside made me feel white, clean, powerful. Because outside our home, the people I saw on TV, in the ads, in the media, were all white, all powerful, and all wore shoes inside.

Before I could reclaim my reo, I had to start before the words. I had to go all the way back to my Mama, to our marae, to our whenua, and rebuild the respect I had tarnished with my desperate need to thrive inside a society that systemically disadvantages Māori.

So there, in that smoky kauta, I spent the last few days of my life in Aotearoa listening to my Mama. She sang, and she explained. She coaxed words out of me that my heart could not forget, and she filled in the silence that my years of rebellion against my whakapapa had created.

There was no lecture, no telling off for all the years I had pushed our Māoritanga aside, and no want of an apology.

Just the poetic flow of her flawless reo, and the cackle that came with it.

Nichole’s marae

Recently I sat down with my tamahine, who I homeschool while we are travelling, and began to work through her pepeha with her. She wants the opportunity to mihi one day when we return home, and she embraces learning te reo side by side with English.

But you can’t just learn the words like it’s a high school speech competition, because these words are the living connection to a whakapapa that dates back to generations when we had no written language. You can’t simply learn the words. You can learn the labels, like awa and maunga, but to speak of your maunga you must understand how and why you are bound to these places.

Unlike my Mama, my taonga, my fluency will come from books. I admit to wasting my chance to learn more from her when I was growing up because I listened to the silence that told me that te reo and kaupapa Māaori would close the doors to success for me. I remember spitting almost those exact words in her face while wearing a button up blazer that made me feel more powerful than her. She was wandering barefoot through her patch of kamokamo, singing as she went, checking on each bright yellow flower and blessing it with her waiata.

I was wrong. Because there is more to te reo than words. This is something I feel so deeply now.

After years of stamping out anything that connected me to te ao Māori, after pretending to not know my iwi when I filled out doctor’s forms, and butchering any place names I could, my daughter, with her little golden face and her thirst for knowledge has reignited my love for our reo.

My daughter is Māori. She knows it because she hasn’t heard the world tell her otherwise. I won’t let that happen to her as it did to me. So if she is Māori, then I am Māori, and I will journey with her to learn together.

She proudly announces that she is Māori to everyone we meet. She counts the swooping crows tahi, rua, toru, wha, she takes any chance to slip the few words and phrases she knows into conversation, and she invites people to her marae despite living thousands of kilometres across the sea.

Her pride in her heritage inspires me to open up and share. We went walking with friends recently and while we were walking I told the girls the pūrākau of how Māui slowed the sun, a story I have never told, and didn’t even know I remembered.

A teacher once told me that the best way to know if you’ve understood something is to teach it to another. If you can explain it for them to understand, then you understand. And this is true for te reo. Teaching my tamāhine how to kōrero reinforces my knowledge and love.

Nichole’s daughter

Sometimes she gets frustrated at not understanding, and her furious face takes me back to being on our marae, sitting at the back, angry and bored because I couldn’t understand the kōrero of the kaumātua. Everyone would laugh – except me. Then they would look sad and sullen – all except me.

The next time my baby and I sit along the wall of our tupuna, we will both laugh, and we will both sigh, and when it comes time to stand and waiata for our kaikōrero, we will stand with our fellow wāhine toa, and we will waiata together.

To learn two lines of her pepeha took us an hour. More important than the words are the story that they tell. And if like me, she ever forgets the words, these stories will be her way home, where we will leave our shoes at the door.

Nichole Brown is Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Hine. She blogs about single motherhood and much more at Happiest When Wandering.

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