He haerenga te akoranga

“Maori is a language spoken only in New Zealand, and as such it is the rightful heritage of all New Zealanders. What happens to this language in the future is a matter of concern, not only to the Maori people but also to the Pakeha.” Sydney Moko Mead.

Ko Ngati Pākehā no Kotirani te iwi. Ko Te Oriental te waka. Ko Ngongotaha te maunga, ko Ngongotaha te awa. No Rotorua ahau. Kei Te Whanganui-a-Tara tōku kainga ināianei.

This is Te Wiki o te Reo Māori – Māori language week. The kaupapa this year is ‘Ngā ingoa Māori, Māori names’. What ingoa Māori do you know already? What names are you going to learn this week? Do you know the name of your home town in te reo Māori? Do you know the name of the local iwi? How about the Māori name of the organisation where you work or study?

As a child growing up in Rotorua I knew a lot of Māori place names, mainly because many places didn’t have an English name. I lived by the Ngongotaha stream, behind Ngongotaha mountain. The mountain was named this because a Māori explorer, Ihenga, climbed to the top where he encountered a group of patupaiarehe (sprites). He was very thirsty and a patupaiarehe woman allowed him to drink (ngongo) from a calabash (tahā). She then took a fancy to him and chased him down the mountain, and he had to rub smelly body paint over himself to put her off.

When I moved to Te Whanganui-a-Tara, to attend Te Whare Wānanga o te Ūpoko o Te Ika a Māui, I decided to study te reo. The main reason I wanted to learn te reo was that it is the indigenous language of Aotearoa. The language is also beautiful and I enjoyed learning it. I also believe that through learning another language we can begin to understand things from a different viewpoint. Learning te reo we will inevitably pick up some tikanga Māori, ways of doing things, and learn to see the world from a different perspective. One example is the word mua. In te reo, mua is the word you use to describe something being in front of you. It is also the word for the past. In the Pākehā world we talk about putting the past behind us, but in te ao Māori the past is in front; we are walking backwards into the future.

Last year I had a moment of realisation which surprised me. During my first social work placement I was at a hui of the organisation I was working for. During a workshop, Māori colleagues spoke about the pain they felt having not learned te reo as children. Their parents or grandparents had been punished for speaking te reo at school. One of them was only just beginning to learn the language. Listening to them speak I began to reflect on my own use of te reo. I often use Māori greetings and introduce myself to groups in Māori and I feel proud being able to do so. That day I started to think about what it would feel like to be a Māori service user who did not speak te reo, and to have a young Pākehā social worker come and great me in te reo. For some that might be fine, they might appreciate it. For others perhaps it would be painful. Going to university and learning te reo was a privilege. I was very fortunate to have wonderful teachers and other students share their knowledge with me. It is a treasure not to be taken lightly. That moment on my placement I was challenged to think about whether I was doing something to empower the person I was working with, or to feel good about myself .

I am ashamed to say my knowledge of te reo has regressed a lot in the past ten years. I have not sought out enough opportunities to practice. When I was working at Te Manatu Aorere I relished joining in the kapahaka practice and helping with powhiri for new staff and visitors. Now I spend most of my time at home with Windhorse. I use a few words in te reo with her. One of the first words she clearly recognised and responded to was pakipaki. For a while if she heard the word she would stop what she was doing to clap. Her middle name is Tui. You can read a little bit about the tui and its significance in relation to te reo here. It is a cheeky bird with the ability to mimic other birds and sounds; it can drive people crazy by coping their phone ringtones. It seems a fitting name for her at this point in her life. At the moment she copies me saying “uh uh” and shaking her head at me before doing something she knows she is not meant to do.

As well as te wiki o te reo Māori, it is currently the season of Matariki, the Māori new year. Do you have any new year resolutions? In the short term, balancing studying and parenting, I don’t think I have the time or energy to get my te reo up to the level it used to be. One day I hope to. This week I’m going to take small steps. I’m going to learn a new Māori name each day, and I am going to use a few more words of te reo when speaking to my baby.

Ka nui te mihi ki a koutou. Kia pai ō wiki!