Stacey Morrison has a new and official role at this year's Auckland Arts Festival – and it's one she couldn't be more proud of.

The much-loved radio and television presenter is a te reo Māori ambassador along with husband and Māori Television stalwart Scotty Morrison and friends and colleagues Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Hemi Kelly, Jenny May Coffin and Jarod Rawiri.

Always a keen supporter of the AAF, Stacey says instead of attending and enjoying shows, she'll host events, including the one-night waiata extravaganza Tōku Reo Waiata, read at the festival's Whānau Day, and talk with fellow festival-goers keen to improve their reo.

"Māori art and performance has always been a really big part of New Zealand art and performance but perhaps we haven't always recognised that in a genuine way," she says. "It's been more like, 'let's have a pōwhiri because that's a cool Māori thing' rather than considering what day-to-day engagement looks like. I think this is more of a genuine commitment rather than just paying lip-service and I really respect that.

Advertisement

"It recognises a movement across quite a few years – and we have to recognise the people who done this work across time – that is more reflective of how our society is and how the arts can lead the way in terms of societal shifts."

The ambassadors are part of the Toitū Te Reo (uplift te reo) programme, which uses the arts to promote and champion the everyday use of Māori language. It includes plays in te reo, bilingual signage and programming material and the ambassadors, all fluent language speakers, who can connect with non-speakers.

"And we'd rather, as ambassadors, have people feel comfortable to have a go at saying some words and phrases; we're never going to shoot someone down for giving it a shot."

The Hits Drive-time host Stacey Morrison admits she was embarrassed at not being able to speak te reo. Photo/Doug Sherring.
The Hits Drive-time host Stacey Morrison admits she was embarrassed at not being able to speak te reo. Photo/Doug Sherring.

But if you'd told Stacey at age 17, she would one day be a fluent enough te reo speaker working towards a Master's degree in the subject, publishing books and raising her three children in a bilingual household, she may not have believed you.

The then Aranui High School student didn't speak any te reo. Instead, speaking English and Japanese, she went on a year-long American Field Service (AFS) to Utsunomiya, where it hit home how much being able to speak your own language – one that reflected your heritage and values – meant.

Stacey recalls writing to her grandmother, te reo teacher Katerina Daniels, who lived on the West Coast, saying she would make a commitment to learning the language when she returned.

"I think my experience is quite a typical experience for many Māori if you look at my age group," Stacey says. "My nan's now 88 – she's amazing – and while she was a fluent speaker, she didn't teach it to my dad. I think my dad [Stacey's father is well-known Canterbury broadcaster James Daniels] ... "

She pauses, trying to think of how to say her father wanted to cultivate a more English-sounding broadcaster's voice: "Well, let's just say people would compliment him and say, 'you don't sound like a Maori.'"

Advertisement

But Stacey acknowledges her early attempts to learn te reo were piecemeal and that finding the time between work and home was sometimes difficult.

"I was also whakamā [embarrassed] - I felt that this was part of me that I should know it but I didn't. With Japanese, there was no expectation. My face says I'm Maori but I couldn't get my tongue to catch up … "

Monthly total immersion weekends at Christchurch Polytechnic were a great help and she and Scotty also committed to raising their children – Hawaiki,12, Kurawaka, 10, and Maiana, 6 – in a te reo-speaking household because they considered the language to be the children's birthright.

She's heartened by the phenomenal growth in awareness of te reo and the desire to learn. Having already co-authored one book, Māori at Home, Stacey and Scotty now have roles at Massey University's School of Māori Art, Knowledge and Education that take them into the community to teach.

Stacey and Scotty Morrison with their children Kurawaka (left), Hawaiki and Maiana back in 2017 when their book Maori At Home was released. Photo/Doug Sherring
Stacey and Scotty Morrison with their children Kurawaka (left), Hawaiki and Maiana back in 2017 when their book Maori At Home was released. Photo/Doug Sherring

"I am aware of my te reo bubble because when you are a Maori speaker, you interact with different people so you get a different picture but we also teach. At TVNZ, we have three classes that are full, with more people waiting.

"I think that gives me a fair picture on the fact that the desire has changed and that's the first step – the desire and the status of the reo is changing. You can't say that's just the achievement of one act so that's also why the arts festival stepping up, and everyone looking at the input they can have, is important."

She points to the increased coverage of events such as the national kapa haka championships Te Matatini and even the blockbuster movie Aquaman as evidence that excitement about te reo and Māoritanga is growing.

"I mean, Jason Momoa spoke Māori in that and held the trident like a taiaha so when the rest of the world starts to think it's cool, it's important that we live that in our real New Zealand way."