My Language, My Awakening
By Nkhaya Paulsen-More
(Ngāti Maru ki Hauraki, Ngāruahine, Ngāti Pūkenga)
Ko tōku reo tōku ohooho, ko tōku reo tōku māpihi maurea.
My language is my awakening, my language is the window to my soul.
I treasure the tikanga behind pōwhiri. It grounds me. It connects me to my tūpuna, and reminds me why I chose to reconnect to them.
The last one I went to was in July, in Tāmaki Makaurau. The sky was grey, threatening to rain on us at any moment. A small crowd of students, who’d travelled from all over the country, stood outside the gates of the marae, unsure of our call time. Questions like “what’s the waiata?” and “are we ready yet?” filled the empty space.
I wore a pōwhiri skirt; of course, one that sits below the knees. My dad told me it had to be below the knees a few years back, when I put on a different skirt for a pōwhiri at our marae that didn’t meet the dress code (he made me change back into my jeans). I didn’t know back then that it had to be below the knees.
I stood at the front of the crowd, next to our kaikaranga. I know now that wahine stand in the front of the procession, but sit behind the first row in the marae. I learnt that after my first pōwhiri as a student representative, when another girl and I rushed to the back of the crowd because we arrived late. They didn’t start until we awkwardly shuffled forwards to join the rest of the women at the front.
Eventually, we were called onto the marae, and we settled down in the wharenui. It all felt very simple by then, but of course, I’d been to so many of these by this point in my life that the process was second nature to me.
I love listening to people speak at pōwhiri. The air changes when you hear people speak. Through them, I hear the centuries of our tūpuna speaking to us, retaining the traditions that have kept us alive throughout time.
And then I think, “What the fuck are they saying?”
I’m pretty good with languages. My mum started teaching me how to read and write in te reo Pākehā when I was four years old. My dad enrolled me in kōhanga reo around the same time. I speak fluent Afrikaans now, thanks to the nine years I spent living in South Africa. But I’m still not fluent in te reo Māori.
I started out bilingual, chattering away in English with my mum, and speaking te reo Māori with my dad. My parents, my sister, and I lived in Auckland at the time. My kui told me that I was well on my way to fluency back then. My mum told me that I had to translate for her when my kōhanga kaiako refused to speak only in English to her.
That changed when we moved to Wellington.
My parents decided to send my sister and me to a Catholic school when we moved to Wellington. There, we retained very little of our reo. We learnt how to count up to ten. We learnt the colours song. Both equally tedious for two children who’d progressed beyond that point.
We began to lose our reo.
Before we left our kōhanga, my classmates surprised me with a collection of cards they’d written for me. It was probably a phrase that our teacher recited to them, and they repeated in the cards. Something about being sad that I was leaving, and they were going to miss me.
I don’t remember the reo Māori kupu they used exactly, but I do remember the one word that was used in almost every card: “mokemoke”.
I get frustrated with myself for not understanding te reo Māori. Sometimes, I feel like I have to grieve for losing the connection I had to my language.
I signed up for reo classes two years ago, determined to rebuild my vocabulary, relearn sentence construction and grammar rules. As it so happens, reo classes offered by certain tertiary providers are free to New Zealand citizens and students.
Fuck it, I thought. Why not?
I went to those classes alone. I wasn’t able to convince my flatmates to join me. I didn’t make any friends in those classes, either, but a middle-aged couple who were in the same class as me tried to reach out to me and take me under their wing. They were there for the same reason I was.
The shame I felt in not retaining my language made me retreat into myself during these classes. I was happy with myself for learning again, but I wanted to be good at it from the get go. What I didn’t know then, and what I do know now, was that I didn’t have the ao Māori knowledge to compliment the reo Māori education I was getting. I learnt about the tikanga behind pōwhiri because of those classes. Our teachers understood that we couldn’t just learn te reo Māori on its own.
One night, we took turns rehearsing for the next week’s class. My pronunciation was near-perfect. People in my class were surprised. My teacher just nodded after I finished speaking.
We were walking back to the marae when I overheard two women from my class talking about me.
“She sounded great!”
“Yes, I wonder where she grew up?”
“I can speak Afrikaans,” I told them, and they turned around. “It uses the same vowel pronunciations as te reo.”
“That makes so much sense,” the first woman said, and they moved on to another topic.
I don’t know why I didn’t just tell them that I was a kōhanga kid. The shame of being a kōhanga kid who didn’t speak te reo bubbled up in my gut, slowly curling up into a fist in my stomach.
After I completed the first level, I didn’t go back to finish the other three. Life caught up to me. I picked up a part-time job as a tutor, laser-focused on my studies, and joined my Māori Students’ Association.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start, and it was enough to keep me on the path to reuniting with my indigenous identity.
There’s this thing going around social media about immersing yourself in all things Māori. If you’re learning about Te Ao Māori, then you should also be learning te reo Māori. The knowledge of one won’t make up the knowledge of the other; they work in tandem, complementing each other, contributing to your understanding of our culture as a whole.
At first, the sentiment offended me. As someone who had perpetually felt disconnected from her cultures, regardless of which continent it came from, I thought it went against our collectivist nature. It felt like a way to abandon those of us who never even had a chance to learn about our whakapapa and our shared histories.
It took me a long time to understand what it meant. It took me a long time to realise that it was okay to feel this way, too. The shame of being divorced from my cultures was an intergenerational shame that I’d inherited from colonialism—not from my tūpuna. Amalgamating my culture and my language was a way to claim that shame, and transform it into healing.
The thing is, this approach isn’t an attempt to isolate our tauira who don’t know their reo. It isn’t an attempt to demean your journey so far, if you’ve decided to embark on one. And the biggest reason why I understand it now is because of my own journey.
My tongue stumbles around sentences in te reo Pākehā when I’m trying to explain Māori concepts. Te reo Māori sits apprehensively in my palate as I try to mould new vocabulary around English ideas. The languages I grew fluent in are beginning to hinder my journey as I step more comfortably into my indigeneity.
And that’s a good thing. It’s a great sign. It means I’m stepping further into my identity, growing closer to my tūpuna, returning the pride that they passed down to me. The discomfort of learning te reo Māori most likely won’t leave me, not for a long time—but I’m doing this now so my future tamariki don’t have to feel the mamae and the whakamā when they learn their reo. I’m doing this so my future mokopuna have an ancestor to look back at if they forget who they are.
We’re all doing this so we can share the collective pride in our identities with each other, encouraging each other to continue with our education so we can protect our taonga.
So, if you’re spending your daydreams staring at an enrolment page for te reo Māori classes, one click away from hitting ‘Submit’, and then exiting out of the page because you chickened out and what if your pronunciation sucks and what if you mispronounce that “really easy” word in front of your tutor and they think you suck—shut up. It’s okay to stumble when you’re new to it. I still suck at English sometimes and I have a degree in it.
I’m here to tell you to do it.
Go for it. The rest of our reo speakers are here to awhi you, wholeheartedly.
Originally published in Massive Magazine