COMMENT:

I was 7 years old when I heard my given name for the first time.

It was jarring. Unlike the melodic rhythm of my Māori name, Tumanako — and even my nickname Tootie — Lois seemed to be little more than a sibilant sound. The soft hiss of a snake.

And it was confusing. I disliked the name — it wasn't me — and for that first year I flinched each time I was called Lois. I felt like I was wearing ill-fitting Sunday-best clothes that looked ridiculous.

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My Tūhoe family on my Dad's side have always called me Tumanako while my whānau on my mother's side, Tūhoe, Whakatōhea, Tuwharetoa, and Te Whānau a Apanui, call me by my nickname.

As a child, I dreaded my cousins discovering that the outside world called me Lois, for fear of dying with embarrassment. As adults, my sisters and cousins often reflect on our incongruous names and wonder what on earth our mothers were thinking. For the record, I was named after a "lovely Pākehā lady" from the church we attended.

I don't remember a discussion when I was 7 about the name change other than to be told that it was the name I was christened. Attending a new school was the opportunity to use it, they said. We had moved to the small dairy factory village of Waharoa, in the Waikato, where my father had got a job as a factory hand.

I came to understand that my parents, along with many other Māori at the time, gave their children Pākehā names in the hope of improving their educational and employment opportunities.

They were the generation to whom corporal punishment was ruthlessly meted out if they were caught speaking te reo at school. They were the generation conditioned to believe that their children would suffer as they did if te reo was their first language. They were the generation made to believe that Māori/ancestral Christian names would disadvantage their children.

Consequently, many of those in my generation were denied the gift of te reo as their first language and the gift of ancestral or tipuna names as Christian names.

Typical of their generation, my parents navigated colonial ideology and systems without rocking the boat. They were acquiescent and deferential and this was reflected in their parenting style. "You have to be cleaner and smarter than the rest to be the same," my mother would often say, and we were always to be respectful.

It was an uneasy juggle at times.

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My parents worked hard volunteering their services in te reo and kapa haka and earned enormous respect from the Pākehā and Māori communities they moved seamlessly between. But we were often referred to as the "nice Māoris" by one side and the "flash Māoris" by the other. We were "nice Māoris" because we were perceived to be making the right efforts at assimilating and we were "flash Māoris" because my parents did a lot of Pākehā community work, we took cut lunches to school and wore shoes, and we went to Sunday school.

Fifty years later, I've come to terms with my Pākehā name but haven't yet had the courage to reclaim Tumanako as my first name. To do so somehow feels like a personal betrayal - a name that belongs to me and my family.

It apparently takes three generations to effect cultural change. I wanted my five daughters to have Māori Christian names but worried about pronunciation being butchered. My two eldest have tipuna names, Te Kiriwera and Aanihia, but they are mostly known as Kiri and Nani. My three youngest were given names I thought were less likely to be mispronounced and that would be easier for their Pākehā families to say: Katerina, Maia and Reana.

One of my greatest joys is that my grandchildren, some of whom don't appear to have a drop of Māori blood, have beautiful names that they carry with pride: Tiakiwai (a tipuna name from my father's side), Kowhai (named after her great-grandmother), Tāwhirimatea (god of storms), Kahukura (the male bow of a double rainbow), Te Ra Hikoia (the path the sun takes across the sky), Hinepūkohurangi (the mist maiden and mother of Tuhoe), Mihi-ki-te-kapua (greeting to the clouds) and Rāwinia (named after her great-grandmother).

Lois Turei is head of production and director of cultural diversity - content at NZME

Colour me in

Parewai Pahewa Johnson, a pupil at Te Kura Kaupapa ō Te Kōtuku, has drawn this illustration depicting te reo Māori at the heart of everything. Click here to open a larger format that can be downloaded.

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