Growing up in an era long before American fast foods, our takeaways were usually egg sandwiches made that morning, or fish and chips on a blanket as we kids all gathered around eating.
We were all entitled to the same amount of food, nobody higher than the other. Food was a leveller in those days.
Now I lead a rūnanga that as of this year serves an estimated 23,500 Ngāi Te Rangi who stretch from all corners of the universe. The centre of that universe is Tauranga Moana.
Roughly 30 per cent of our whanau can hold a conversation in reo rangatira, conversely, that means 70 per cent cannot. Nearly 60 per cent of our Ngāi Te Rangi people live outside of Tauranga Moana, with a large percentage living in cities, the "Burban Māoris" they call themselves. Many of these people are our future leaders, we simply cannot tap into them effectively.
Māori society is in a major rush to preserve this most sacred language of our people, it forgets how difficult it is to get there for the beginners. If you were born with one language, that is your language every day, you take for granted what it is to seek its elusiveness.
Learning your language in front of people who are less than patient with you because they believe you should already know your own reo is totally daunting.
For many new speakers, their parents and grandparents were punished for speaking reo rangatira, and nowadays they are ridiculed because they themselves were never taught by those who never knew our language. How do you begin to even untangle that, with all its hurt and pain?
So I ask myself – how do I make space for the 70 per cent? For those who are afraid, those people who felt the humiliation of not being ALL of a Māori, those who they feel are being judged by the 30 per cent. How do I apply resources into this space where it has a positive impact on our people – by stopping and understanding and empathising with our people's journey.
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My job then is, how do we open doors so the shy and fearful of making mistakes can tentatively step forward?
My plan is simple - magnetise this space for the 70 per cent, make these environments understanding, empathetic, supportive and accessible. Reversing the statistics of the reo rangatira conversationalists to 71 per cent and the non-conversationalists to 29 per cent, that way there will be more speakers and a larger number coming forward.
As a commitment, we put $3 million of our settlement money to finance our reo rangatira strategy.
Whatever our reasons for learning reo, what it does do is keep our language alive, it elevates people – it elevates you and me, it empowers some and disempowers others, it calms the natives and infuriates the racists.
Reo rangatira is a bridge that traverses cultures and strengthens national identity, but there is a bigger issue at heart – reo Māori is also about forgiveness.
Kai equalises people, reo elevates everyone.
- Paora Stanley is the chief executive of Ngāi te Rangi.