Ko Lizzie tōku ingoa. Ko Te Arawa te iwi. Ko Ngāti Whakaue te hapū. He Māori ahau. Kāore e taea e au i te kōrero te reo Māori, engari, e ako ana au. Ka whāia tonutia, kia whakahokia mai tōku reo ki a au.
It took me far longer to write that paragraph than it should have. I had to reach far back into my brain and drag the kupu (words) out by their whiore (tails). I felt the whakamā when I sat down to write this column. It took me a whole day. I'm ashamed that I can't speak my language. I'm also angry. I love Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week) but I also hate it. I love that for one week in September I'm surrounded by my language. I hate that for the rest of the year I'm not.
My great-grandmother spoke te reo Māori. My mother, who spent a lot of time with her grandmother as a child, remembers random words and phrases that emerge out of nowhere from time to time. Some of them rather rude. Patero. Pakaru. Ngāwhā. They are the relics and ruins of a taonga that was nearly lost to our whānau. That is still nearly lost to our whānau. A handful of us know a handful of kupu now. Those kupu are the stones tossed asunder when the earthquake of colonisation struck. Now, we're called to put them back together. But the stones are heavy, and there are few of us to lift them.
One of the meanings of the word "reo" is voice. When they took our reo, they didn't just take our language; they took our voices. My grandmother was caned at school for speaking our language. The Crown stole the words from her mouth. It took from a generation of children (and from their children, and their children's children) their freedom of expression, and etched in each red mark left by a whipping or a caning the whakamā, the shame, that plagues many of us today. "When you're a Māori who can't speak Māori, then what kind of Māori are you?" the whakamā whispers in our ears. Which, of course, was the Crown's intention. Assimilation. Which is little more than another word for cultural annihilation.
The reo was stolen from Māori children and it's time to give it back to them. I've been saying for a while that I want my children to speak te reo fluently. Five years ago, when I felt extremely ambivalent about procreation, that was a vague and figurative statement – that some hypothetical tamariki that I might eventually have in the future should have the right to know their language. It was easy to throw cheap words around then. It's much harder now.
Now, my own children (fertility gods permitting) probably aren't that far away. And I feel an enormous sense of responsibility. It is up to me to break the cycle of voicelessness. To give my children their reo and the ability to wield, caress and honour it, so that they will always know how to express their Māoritanga. I want to hand them an abundance rather than a deficit. Building blocks, rather than ruins they have to rebuild.
Which is one of the reasons I feel most ashamed. This year, I haven't been to a single te reo class. I had good intentions but a timing clash meant I didn't enrol for the first semester and then I completely forgot about enrolling for the second. Neither of those excuses is good enough. But they're part of the winding journey that many of us take to reclaim our reo.
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I have fallen out of the waka, as have many before me. The challenge for all of us is to get back in. It's not an easy road, learning a language as an adult. Life is busy. When you're already juggling work, family and friends, even the best laid plans can go awry. Add on top of that that learning te reo means travelling a pathway that can be mired with whakamā if you're Māori and embarrassment and guilt if you're Pākehā. You don't just learn te reo, you have to earn te reo. You have to do the mahi to get the treats.
I know deep down that if I don't get back into the waka, my spirit will drown. I spent years gathering the courage to start my reo journey and while I battled shame and fear, the yearning to know my language never left me. As the saying goes: tōku reo tōku ohooho, tōku reo tōku mapiri mauria. My language is my awakening, my language is my treasure. For many of us Māori who can't speak our mother tongue, the feeling is common. It won't go away. It gnaws at your heart until you're finally forced into action.
If you've fallen out of the waka too and you're treading water wondering what to do next, haere mai! Come back to the reo with me. It's not the fall that defines us, it's what happens afterwards. He iti hau marangai, e tū te pāhokahoka. If anything, watching my reo fade into a haze has made me want it even more.
So next semester, I'm enrolling again. I'm jumping back into the waka, and I'm resolving to paddle faster. I'd better get a move on if I want to be able to teach my future pēpi anything. Otherwise they'll be teaching me!