Summer read: For Stacy Gregg, it’s been a long and sometimes painful road back to te reo, the language her grandmother was beaten for speaking and which, she discovers, is still treated as worthless in certain schools of Aotearoa.
First published on September 18, 2022 as part of The Sunday Essay series made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.
Illustrations by Xoë Hall
A few Christmases ago now, onboard a rather average charter yacht hired by a publishing house for an afternoon of cruising on the Waitematā Harbour, I got stuck in a conversation with the Mad Butcher. In this moment, as he buttonholed me, I learnt a valuable life lesson: never go to a party on a boat because there is no way out. As it turned out, this cruise was to be a rich repository of life lessons, most of them courtesy of The Mad Butcher. “I’m gonna give you some advice,” he told me as I clutched my glass of Deutz and considered swimming for shore. “Sure,” I said, “Shoot.” The Mad Butcher fixed me with a steely gaze and waggled a finger at me in an admonishing way, “Never forget where you come from,” he said.
I was about to tell him I knew exactly where I came from when the Mad Butcher suddenly stopped talking to me, reached into his pocket and took out a dictaphone.
“Phil, mate?” he bellowed into it. “Got another beaut thought for the book!” It turned out that the Mad Butcher was in the process of writing his autobiography and his preferred method of filling the pages was to send ad hoc voice messages to his ghostwriter Phil Gifford to knock into shape for posterity.
I’m not sure if the book ever got published but if it did I bet it’s full of gold. And to answer your question, Mad Butcher, I come from Ngāruawāhia. The place where the mighty Waikato and Waipā rivers meet, historic seat of the Kiingitanga movement, or as Heather Du Plessis-Allan refers to it, a “rotting” town where she’d refuse to even stop for a pee. I remember reading that quote and thinking fuck you Heather Du Plessis-Allan, that’s my town and if anyone is going to insult it, it will be me. Time moves painfully slow when you are growing up in an isolated Waikato town. I spent a lot of years in Ngāruawāhia making a list of its deficiencies and dreaming of being elsewhere. When I did leave town at the age of 16 after my mother died I could barely bring myself to look back. Ngāruawāhia by then had become an open wound for me, bordered by a freezing works at one end and the pā at the other. Yet it always remained where I came from.
Ko Taupiri tōku maunga, Ko Waikato tōku awa, Nō Ngāti Mahuta raua ko Ngāti Pukeko ahau, Nō Ngāruawāhia ahau.
Ngāruawāhia has been on my mind more than ever this past year. I went back home in July last year, on the cusp of what would turn out to be a two-month lockdown, set up camp at my cousin’s house overlooking the misty brown Waipā and started working on a book loosely based on my childhood. Back then, we lived on the other river, on Waikato Esplanade. Location is important in Ngāruawāhia because it speaks to who you are. We were the Māoris from the town side – the Pākehā side. The other side of the river where Tūrangawaewae stood, formidable and imposing, was where the real Māoris lived. They were the ones who knew tikanga, spoke the language and lived the culture.
The disconnect between urban Māori and the marae is often spoken of. What is less recognised is the separation that happens in a small town between those Māori who connect to their marae and those who do not. We were right there, right next to what should have been our place too, but we knew it wasn’t ours. There was quite literally a river dividing us.
I had paler skin than my cousins so they were Māori and I was “part-Māori”. We compared skin colours a lot. We calculated blood percentages. We discussed whether it was better to be Pākehā than to be Māori and how trying to hold onto who we had once been would only hold us back in the world. When I cycled to high school on a winter’s day with the frost biting my face I would look through the fence palings, peeking past the warrior faces that barricaded Tūrangawaewae, and wonder what went on inside. I am Ngāti Mahuta and Tūrangawaewae is my marae, but I feared it deeply. I had no grasp of what it would take for me to ever make it inside. For a long time I quietly blamed my family for the void that existed between me and my birthright. Then I blamed the marae for excluding me. And of course I blamed myself because colonisation is the ultimate gaslighter.
For me, the decision to learn te reo was the moment I woke up and realised that I wasn’t to blame for having my culture taken from me. Neither was my mum, who fulfilled the health statistics of what it is to be a Māori woman and died at age 42. Or my nan, who still felt the sting of being hit with the ruler for speaking Māori at school and thus encouraged her whānau to lose their old ways because that stuff wasn’t going to get you anywhere in a Pākehā world.
My experience is mine but it is equally, sadly, universal. In her book Hui, Dame Anne Salmond writes about te reo as “a language in retreat in modern life”. At the time of publication of Hui, 1975, she cites that less than 10% of Māori are able to speak their language. Te reo, she says, only continues to be unassailable in the ceremonies of the marae.
“Within this context [te reo] reigns supreme,” Salmond writes, “those who can’t speak Māori, even elders, rarely stand to express themselves on the marae unless they have to, and in that situation they apologise for speaking English and try to preface their speech with a few sentences in Māori. At one hui I attended, the minister of Māori and Island Affairs was the honoured guest. Two old men, both Māori speakers, thought to make things easier for him and delivered their orations in English. They were cried down and criticised and soon after left the marae,” she writes.
For Māori who could not speak the reo, then and now, the marae is a daunting environment where “even their own people criticise them”. “‘Look at this young boy,’ says an old man on a marae, ‘black as the ace of spades and can’t speak a word of Māori!’ Some of them join gangs, such as the ‘stormtroopers’, ‘Nigs’ or the ‘Mongrel Mob’ and find identity there, while others look to the marae.”
There is an argument here to be made (and I’m not saying Salmond is making it) that English could have been adopted long ago on the marae, spoken alongside Māori to give the young kids and bored-to-tears manuhiri a foothold in a world where the language was a barrier. If Māori had done this, I have no doubt that our language would have been lost completely. It is only because of the foresight and determination of those who kept Māori as the first and only language of marae protocol that we have our language now. Waikato Māori lost their land to colonists who forcibly took our means to self-determination. But we kept our language. And if you really, really want to destroy a race, the death blow is to take away their language.
“The government tried to kill te reo once. It’s only fair that they pay for you to sit here and get it back,” our kaiako Matua Bruce would tell us as we discussed the fees-free policy at the Te Wānanga ō Aotearoa. Matua Bruce taught us Māori, but he also gave us a degree in culture and politics at the same time. He would constantly remind us that the fault was not ours that we didn’t speak Māori. “This was done to you. They stole your language from you. But guess what? You can get it back.”
At te Wānanga our classes were full immersion. That’s three hours in the reo without a break. If we ever did speak English it was to engage in debate on the politics of what it meant to be learning te reo. The conversations were raw, confronting. We could not get through a noho marae without tears of guilt from the Pākehā students who felt heart-wrenching guilt for the colonisation wrought by their ancestors. “It’s not your fault,” Matua Bruce reminded them, “and you are welcome here.” Although not everyone agreed on that point. We had brutal conversations with each other about whether Pākehā whose ancestors almost destroyed the language should now be praised for trying to speak it. We talked about whakamā, and how Māori who’d lost possession of their language through no fault of their own could feel shamed if a Pākehā one-upped them by wielding the reo without sensitivity. If you are lording it over someone with your virtuoso grasp of the language you stole from them, are you not colonising them all over again?
Learning te reo is not like doing French at school where your worst fear is that you will get laughed at by a snobby waiter while having a go at ordering a croissant in Paris on your OE. This is an emotional high stakes activity. Te reo is more than language, it is everything. At times when you’re flailing with it, it feels like the deficits in your soul are exposed for the world to see. Once, on a noho marae in an attempt to step up and commit to giving a karakia, my nerves got the better of me and I faltered horribly and in that moment I made a whati, a break in the rhythm, and the dead air I had created was suddenly filled by the lilting notes of a waiata being sung by a kuia who had sensed the void and stepped in to sort it out. I didn’t feel grateful, instead I was mortified. The overwhelming sense of whakamā in that moment haunts me still. Mistakes have to be made so you can learn, but when you care so deeply you feel their sting. I think of Maui’s father, making the hapa, the mistake in his prayers when he blessed his son, and how that hapa in the end resulted in the death of Maui. Stepping up and speaking up, finding your voice in te reo, takes a kind of humility and deference and vulnerability that the Pākehā world neither values nor understands.
At the point when I felt I had mastered enough reo to attempt a passable mihi in public, I tried to incorporate it into my day job. I write children’s books and one of the key reasons I wanted to learn te reo was to normalise the language in schools, to make it heard. The first school I tried to speak at was Remuera Primary. I went in with high hopes and opened with my kōrero in front of a hundred or so pupils aged 6-10. I was a couple of lines in when the heckling started from the kids upfront. “Stop speaking Māori!” one of them shouted angrily. “Yeah!” another one yelled. “We’re not Māori! Don’t talk Māori at us!”. A rumble of dissent washed over the room. I looked to the half dozen teachers standing on the sideline watching me being shouted down by a bunch of junior schoolers. They didn’t step up. They stayed silent. And so I gave up on speaking Māori and I switched to English and I floundered with the worst presentation I had ever given in my life and I left the school in bits. When I went back a few weeks later to sit in the headmaster’s office and explain how upset I was, and to question the culture of a school where children aren’t expected to hear te reo on a regular basis so that they come to expect it as part of an introduction or to respect the treaty, well… let’s just say I felt colonised big time by his reply.
Tōku reo, tōku ohooho, tōku reo, tōku whakakai māhiri, tōku reo, tōku māpihi maurea
My language is my awakening, my special treasured possession, my adornment, the object of my affection.
This whakataukī, this proverb, crops up a lot during Māori language week. It’s a beautiful sentiment, lyrical in its expression like so many whakataukī. For me though, te reo is not a possession. I consider it in the same way that I consider my maunga or my awa. It is my responsibility to care for it. I feel the burden upon me to safeguard it, to nurture and protect it for future generations.
The word Māori translates as ‘normal’ – and that is what te reo should be. It should be normal for us to speak it. If that is challenging for the sort of people who can’t sit politely through a pōwhiri because they can’t cope with not understanding it, or those who feel threatened when a newsreader rattles off the names of our cities in Māori as well as English, for the people who have to make protest signs that this is New Zealand not Aotearoa, or for people who can’t buy a chocolate bar because they don’t comprehend that it’s chocolate if it has Māori words on it, I encourage you to sit with your discomfort and ask yourself why it is that you are such a fragile snowflake that you can’t allow another culture to express their identity without feeling like you will lose your own?
I mihi to those in te ao Māori who are doing the good mahi right now when it comes to bringing te reo back to life. To the brilliant teachers at institutions like Te Wānanga ō Aotearoa, to the podcasters like Hemi Kelly with his focus on conversational Māori that you can use every day, to Scotty and Stacey Morrison with their commitment to making Māori Easy, and to Paraone Gloyne, Erica, Te Puaheiri and Snowy for creating the progenitor to all podcasts, Tāringa, my constant companion in the car. And to Whakaata Māori, with amazing shows like Kōrero Mai – a special mihi to Nicole Hoey, producer and mastermind of Poni Poni, the show for tamariki that I wrote earlier this year, directed by Te Atamira Jennifer Ward Lealand, with reo translation by Herea Winitana, due to air very soon on the Whakaata Māori network. There is a te reo renaissance right here, right now in Aotearoa and the people making a fuss about a few words on a chocolate bar are fighting the tide because they feel it in their bones. Change is coming. Tihei Mauri Ora!