Nichole's daughter

Turning Māori Language Week into a life-long celebration of te reo and whānau

Nichole Brown shares her love of te reo Māori and her hope that together, we can turn Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori into a lifelong celebration for our tamariki.

This week marks another Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori – Māori Language Week – and as much as we would love a nation united in preserving and celebrating the taonga of language every single day, a week where more attention is pointed directly at te reo is a nice start.

It has been over 40 years since Aotearoa began celebrating Māori Language Week. In fact, celebrations stretch back around 12 years before te reo Māori was recognised as an official language of New Zealand in 1987.

As a non-fluent speaker who, after a lifelong strugggle with self identification and white washing, proudly identifies as Māori, the battle to learn te reo is one so many of our generation face.

But the narrative around te reo Māori is changing – no longer are we only hearing that te reo is a dying language and that it holds no value or relevance to life here or anywhere else in the world. Instead, we are hearing buzzwords like ‘resurgence’ and ‘revitalisation’, ads run in our newsfeeds for free language resources like Toro Mai, and apps like He Aha Tēnei and Kupu are becoming more readily available.

But how can we turn this one week into something more? How can we turn Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori into something with a deeper value and meaning?

And where do we even start our journey that began hundreds of years ago, before our lands were colonised, before we traded our luscious green for gunmetal grey, and before our language was caned from the hands of our grandparents?

I like to think about our journey of learning te reo Māori like weaving a simple harakeke flower.

First, we take ourselves – the harakeke. We look to the outer leaves of the bushes – even though the inner leaves are younger, unblemished, unweathered – and we start there. That’s how I feel about us, our generation, starting our learning of te reo and te ao Māori a little later in life. A little weathered, words both too sharp and too blunt, but the strength to be woven into something more beautiful, something with more than just face value.

Then we break down the harakeke – we strip it from the middle up, pulling it strand-by-strand until the entire frond is held together only by the base. That base is our roots, and those strands are the layers of ourselves we need to work through, identify, and dismantle before we can begin weaving everything back together. Those strands are whakapapa, whānau, prejudice, shame, time, and any other factors – both struggles and suppports – that make up our journey.

Once we have stripped and prepared the harakeke, we work from the very bottom, pulling the strands together tightly and moving from the inside out. Then, moving in circles and layers around the centre until all the loose ends meet, our putiputi is done, and our loose ends have nowhere to go.

And so it is with us. Once we have established our base, our roots, our whakapapa and foundations, we can start to weave in greetings, place names, small instructions, colours, and numbers, until our simple words become sentences, and our sentences become conversations, and our conversations become a much deeper understanding of this taonga we hold on our tongues.

I am no expert in either weaving or te reo, nor in tikanga Māori or even in my own whakapapa. My understanding of te reo more than quadruples my ability to korero, and my clumsily formed sentences may never match my mothers poetic and languid enunciation.

But as a Māori woman, a Māori māmā, and a single Māori māmā, I feel the full weight of colonisation in my bones as I look down at my tamāhine – still so early in her life’s’ journey, but already speaking te reo with far more grace and appreciation because walls are being broken down all around her every single day.

When I met with Labour MP Willow-Jean Prime recently, she said something that will stick with me for every single minute of my mission to become bilingual. It went against everything I once spat at my mother when she encouraged me to korero Māori. She said, “Every job I have ever had came because I could korero Māori”.

And that is such a powerful message that needs to be remembered long after Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori runs its course. Being able to korero will open doors for us – both to a brighter and stronger future with more opportunities and better representation and to a past sullied by colonisation and whitewashing, a past littered with names changed and Anglicised to create comfort for those who could not pronounce our vowels.

Being able to korero Māori will create a bridge between then and now, between the ‘us’ and the ‘them’, and it will teach us more than just words and vowel sounds. It will open our minds to a deeper understanding of the history of Aotearoa. It will enable us to communicate with a much higher level of respect. It will help us understand each other a little more, and hopefully, for people like me, it will help us learn a little more about ourselves.

This Māori Language Week, take the time to slow it down, pick apart the words that still feel uncomfortable behind your teeth, and work on simple things like the towns and cities that are already translated for you during the morning and nightly national broadcasts. And if you have tamariki, listen to them.

Kids lean into language learning without any walls, without any prejudice, and with a level of gentle excitement that the years may have worn away from us.

Kaua he whakamā ki te korero Māori. Ahakoa he iti, he taonga.

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

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