A funny thing happens when someone speaks to me in te reo Māori.
I'm a natural communicator (read: a chatterbox) and I almost always have something to say, but when the language of my ancestors is spoken to me, my brain freezes. Then it panics. Then it rapidly searches for something to cling on to, some tiny shred of understanding. Then it finally figures out what has been said, usually at the same time as the speaker takes pity on me and translates their words into English.
I feel whakamā when it happens. That's the word we have for the shame and trauma that is associated with the loss of our language. It wasn't that long ago that it was spoken fluently in my family. My mother remembers her grandmother speaking it when she was a child, and has retained the odd (surprisingly rude) word from her childhood, but my great-kuia was the last guardian of the reo in our immediate whānau. It is now up to me to seek out the language that should have been my birthright.
I have been learning the reo for two years. I started right from the beginning, although I was lucky to have learnt basics like counting and colours at primary school. I'm making slow and steady progress, though the road ahead is long and steep. I will continue to fight for the reo though. I want my children to have the birthright that colonial policy denied my grandmother, my mother, and I.
We are in the middle of another Māori renaissance at the moment. Te reo classes are jam-packed, with long waiting lists for those hoping to jump aboard the language waka. The language of the land is being spoken more and more on the airwaves. Macron use is becoming increasingly common in major publications. It's an exciting time for people who love Te Ao Māori. Kōrengarenga ana te whatumanawa i te manahau. My heart is overflowing with joy.
Yet I wonder how many people read the words "te reo Māori" and switch off. I suspect that my bicultural bubble, where cultural taonga are celebrated and learning te reo is admired, may not be the norm. Every now and then someone or something bursts into my echo chamber to remind me that not everything is ka pai.
This week – this special, sacred week; a celebration of a language that has arisen from the ashes – has been full of reminders of the importance of our reo fight. I have loved seeing the many innovations unveiled to encourage use of the reo (particularly Spark's Kupu – if you haven't already downloaded the app, kia tere, and get thee to the app store) but at times I have also despaired.
On Sunday, for example, it was reported that Don Brash had been asked to take part in a "debate" about te reo Māori on The AM Show. Surely by this time there is no one left in New Zealand who hasn't been forced to hear Brash's opinions on Māori at some stage. Surely there's no need to invite him to regurgitate his tired old opinions on national television. Surely there are better-informed people to ask to speak on te reo Māori than a man who, by his own admission, knows very little about the language.
Newsroom columnist Emma Espiner declined an invitation to join the panel with Brash and blew the whistle on the Mediaworks show's reported plan to inject Brash, one of the most vehement detractors of te reo Māori, into a conversation that I believe he doesn't belong in, likely for the purpose of courting controversy and attracting outrage.
On Tuesday a cartoon made its way into my pāhopori (social media) feed. It depicted a Pākehā child who was studying te reo Māori at school talking to his parents in broken English. It played on fear and called to mind the ugly ridicule of some Māori speaking styles.
On Wednesday it was reported that an employee at McDonald's in Kirikiriroa had been asked to stop speaking te reo Māori to customers. And almost every day this week, people sent me messages on social media complaining that te reo was "rubbish", "not meaningful", "not useful", and all kinds of other things. You'd think we could have just one week of the year in which we could all celebrate a treasure that is unique to New Zealand, but no.
Māori Language Week – Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori – hasn't been around for all that long, and it didn't come about without struggle. Activists in the 1970s worked tirelessly to save te reo Māori. Māori Language Day - later Māori Language Week – was the result of a 30,000-signature strong petition presented to Parliament. It wasn't an easy fight. My language class heard last week about how some of the activists going door to door collecting signatures for the petition were physically assaulted, such was the antipathy towards Māori.
While the violence that we speak of when we talk of language loss these days is often more spiritual in nature, there was a time when te reo Māori was beaten out of children at school. I mention this because I've seen complaints of te reo being "rammed" down people's throats this week. The irony of such a statement has been largely missed. No one was complaining when te reo Pākehā (English) was being rammed down the throats of Māori schoolchildren.
There's no doubt that the recent history of te reo Māori has been a difficult one, but what has struck me most this week is the excitement of thousands of New Zealanders trying out new te reo words for the first time. In years to come, I like to imagine a future in which te reo Māori is spoken by most New Zealanders, having been taught at school. There is no downside. Bilingualism is great for your brain, te reo is fun to learn, and understanding Te Ao Māori strengthens our cultural partnership.
The future is Māori. Haumi ē! Hui ē! Tāiki ē!