In high school, I remember having a really heated discussion with a “friend” about how I, as a Māori, couldn’t speak my own language – Te Reo Māori. This is a dialogue I have had to have with so many people, including myself, over and over again throughout the years. The conversation usually consists of mocks of disbelief that I cannot speak my own mother tongue. This is one of the many things that infuriate me. On the surface I can understand that of course it may be odd that a person cannot speak his or her own native language, but this issue doesn’t just exist on the surface. This issue is fueled by years of oppression and assimilation. So let me education everyone real quick on why I, and so many other Māori cannot speak Te Reo Māori.
In the early 1800’s when the first mission schools were set up here in Aotearoa missionaries taught in Te Reo Māori. In 1867 the Native Schools Act was passed which stated that English should be the only language used to teach in schools. In 1903 William Bird (an inspector of Native Schools) introduced the “direct method” which totally banned Te Reo Māori from schools, both in the classroom and in the playground. In many schools this was enforced by punishing students who spoke Māori (we’re talking corporal punishment here).
All right, so let’s take a moment to think about this. Imagine you are 5 years old and it is your first day of school. Your whole life you and your family and friends have only ever spoken in Te Reo Māori. On your first day of school you are punished for speaking the only language you know, whilst being immersed in a language that is totally foreign to you. This is pretty scary. If other students speak Māori to you to try and help you they are punished. You are expected to only speak in this foreign language at school, but when you go home you can only speak Māori because your family doesn’t speak English. Confusing right? As a young child you make the correlation that whenever you speak Māori at school you are punished. You make the decision to learn English, and quick.
This was the reality for my great grandmother and most other Māori children of her generation, who were beaten for speaking the only language that they knew. So out of fear that her children would have to suffer like she did, my great grandmother chose to teach her children in English, and so it continues for generations. My grandmother didn’t grow up learning the Reo, and so neither did my mother (though both tried to learn during their schooling years), and neither did I. When you put fear into a people, a language can die pretty quickly. Between 1900 and 1960 the percentage of Māori who could speak Te Reo plummeted from 95% to 25%.
I didn’t grow up learning extensive Māori. Of course I was taught the basics, but it was still a foreign language to me. At the beginning of year 9 I had to pick a language to learn. Of course ignorant me wanted to choose Spanish because it is such a common language and I could use it around the world. However, my mother was ADAMENT that I pick Te Reo Māori. I remember having an argument about it because in my mind I was thinking how the heck is Māori going to benefit me? Most Māori don’t even speak Māori and it can only be spoken here in New Zealand! (Remember kids: honour thy mother and father). I’m so glad she (literally) forced me to learn Māori. I stuck with it through High School and for 2 years at University. Even though I am nowhere near fluent, I have a great appreciation for our Reo and a burning desire to become fluent.
I don’t think people actually understand how much of a sensitive subject this really is. For years I have felt ashamed for not being able to speak my own language. For real, it’s embarrassing for me. I get super discouraged sometimes when I can’t understand what’s being said on Te Karere and so have to watch the version with the subtitles. Or when other people my age can converse so fluently and I struggle to string a few sentences together. I envy the people who were brought up with the Reo and for whom speaking Māori comes as second nature. But I know that I have a responsibility to learn my language. I want my children to grow up speaking the Reo. I want to be a part of the revitalisation of Te Reo Māori. I want to hold on to this special, important and unique part of my culture. I love our language and I do not want to see it die out. I want to fight for it. To others who may be on the same path as me, please do not be discouraged. Stay the path no matter how tough or uncomfortable it may be.
This year I wrote a poem, as an ode to Te Reo Māori, so I thought I would share it with you all.
Do you know what it’s like to be robbed of your taonga?
When my great grandmother was born
Her mother planted karakia, mihi and waiata in her jawbone
Injected reo into her every muscle,
Planted harakeke in her throat
So when she spoke
Her Te Reo Māori would weave together her people
Into a kete of solidarity in Reo
a treasure for my people
Soon became illegal.
My great grandmother beaten for speaking her mothers tongue
Her mother tongue.
Do you know what it’s like for your own name to become foreign?
Raped in the mouths of colonisers
Dulled down to fit the interpretations of a Bible
Of Gods that had not served us.
Do you know what it’s like to be punished for the colour of your skin?
So when my grandmother was born
Her mother pulled teeth from bone
To implant pearly whites of English syllables
That fell clumsily off her tongue like the burden they were.
Her mother hiding her teeth in closed fists
In forbidden conversations
Kept in secret in the back yard
As if there wasn’t a difference
Between planting and burying.
Is this why we created the tooth fairy?
A dollar for every brown sentence removed
To make room for colonisers in our mouths?
Selling our own ability to speak in order to belong.
See we have become too accustomed to being enslaved,
This rhetoric turned bed time story
Learning to bury our own bones,
Our language dressed in colonisers chains like diamonds
But forgetting the blood that was shed to bind it
Maybe now I understand the meaning of blood diamonds.
When my mother was born
Our people fell silent.
Her mother had no gifts to give.
A language that had no meaning
Or a language that had no purpose.
No pearls of wisdom to pass on
Mouth full of English syllable fillings
Shaved down to fit the mould.
Praying for knowledge
But forgetting that wisdom teeth hurt the most.
I watched two generations of women
Fight to learn their own language
To preserve that which was once stolen.
Do you know what it’s like to be robbed of your taonga
Before you are even born?
To try and explain why you cannot speak your own language?
This is my reo
Passed down from my tipuna
Slaughtered by the hands of greed
This treasure that has been taken from me
And I am here to take it back.
See you had already cut out my tongue
Before you could teach me to speak your language,
Put it on a leash
Taught it to roll over and play dead
But I will not roll over and play dead.
For too many generations you have silenced us
While you sat back sipping on greed
And bathing in entitlement
While having the nerve to call it civilising.
When I was born
My mother sewed cocoons into my jaw
So that butterflies would cascade off my tongue
Planted kauri in my throat so that my voice would grow,
And give life to those around me.
Every day I am stumbling
On my own words,
Getting lost in the forests growing in my wind pipe,
Learning and relearning my own tongue.
My mother gifted me open palms
The world at her fingertips
That I will fight for
That I am here to take back