An Ode to Te Reo Māori

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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

 

This language,

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

A gift

Of language

That I will fight for

A gift

Of language

That I am here to take back

 

 

6 comments

  1. I can very much empathize on several levels. Living in Europe for some years, people often say, “Say something in your Indian language!” In any case, after learning German, some Russian and Finnish and never really concentrating on indigenous languages, I said I’d never learn another Euro-tongue before going back to my real Muttersprache.

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  2. Stevie, You are a strong woman that I admire! So proud of you and the journey youu are taking… Take my daughter with you, teach her, so that the next generations to follow will be strengthened by these taonga we have failed to capture… Love love love your korero!

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  3. Beautiful darlin..loved it all.So proud of you.Looks like to me you are taking back that …that was taken from you.All that is good and true and that the Lord wants for you will be restored .

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  4. Love your mahi Stevie. We are all the result of colonialist hegemonic practice. My father and mother were both strapped at school for speaking te reo. As a result I not only missed out on learning Maori. I was ridiculed for pronouncing my own name properly. People would “correct” me and say …oh you mean Pikerry. In those days growing up in a presominately Eurocentric province I was weak and allowed that continuation of hegemony to overpower me. Then I grew up and was able to stand my ground and educate those who needed it to say my name correctly.

    Ironically i will most likely end up learning to soeak my ancestral language in the foreign nation of Australia.

    Keep up this important mahi Stevie.

    All power to you darling.

    Like

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