Dear Huhana and Kāhu,
At a wananga this week at Te Ohāki marae, a kaumatua challenged us, he aha tō koutou whawhai?, he asked. What is your generation’s fight?
Later, I stood and gave a mihi to our kaiako in te reo Māori. My heart was racing and for me, the temperature on that comfortable spring day spiked hot enough to make sweat stains pool on the underarms of my shirt. Better not lift my arms.
When it was done, I sat down prouder than any prize or trophy has ever made me feel.
I’m comfortable enough speaking to hundreds about being a killer, and how carrying that truth makes me feel every day. I’m OK sharing how mourning for my big sisters, your aunties Erena and Taina, shaped the way I live and love.
But standing to give a two minute kōrero in te reo Māori, thanking someone for their help, made my throat so dry I could barely swallow. Why?
A couple of years ago, I could hardly string together a sentence in te reo Māori. My hands would shake with anxiety in any kaupapa Māori setting where I might introduce myself through my pepeha. What if someone asks me a question in te reo Māori? I’ve got ta moko on my arms, my name is Māori, if I care so deeply about the success of our people, why can’t I speak our language? I must be a plastic. Fake.
I knew in my heart that te ao Māori was close but my head told me I couldn’t truly connect because I didn’t understand the kupu (words) of that world.
Now that I understand some of those kupu, I know I was always a part of te ao Māori, that my whakaaro and actions have always been Māori. The language doesn’t make that any more or less true, nor does it make our culture what it is. We are our values and actions. Those values come from our whakapapa, tikanga guide those values into actions. It’s just harder to see that when running everything through the filter of a foriegn language. The reo of our tūpuna makes it easier to feel the richness from which they came. It’s the same place we, those values, and our reo come from. I knew manaakitanga was generosity, hospitality and care. Now I know mana aki tanga – mana being prestige, status, spiritual empowerment and so much more, āki being to encourage, to urge and incite, and tanga being the action of doing. Understanding the few words I do gives them a fullness more than just translation.
Over the last couple of years I’ve enrolled in courses at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa and Te Wānanga o Raukawa. Your mum and I both work full time, so these are night-classes and weekend wananga.
Thanks to those universities, and the support of your mum, I can now speak to you patchily in the language your great great grandmother Utauta used when fighting to hold her place on the whenua of Kapiti Island. The language our tūpuna used to shout orders in war parties to slow the colonial forces confiscating their land from future generations, you. The reo they used when debating how to best fight the government’s actions to ‘smooth the pillow of a dying race’, us.
It’s the language that leaders like Whatarangi Winiata, Rongo Wetere, Iwi Kohuru Mangu and others fought to protect generations later by establishing those wānanga as places of learning in an attempt to salvage some hope out of the damage done by government policies of suppression and school systems where the language was caned out of entire family trees, and by a general ignorance from some non-Māori to the downstream effects of systemic alienation from your culture, while tangata whenua face that every day.
For Māori and Pākehā alike, the world can be a big scary place. But you two also face the particular effects of systems and policies of our country which were built on a belief that one race is more entitled to culture and life than the other. Our people are more likely to suffer mental health issues, to feel disconnected from the world and to turn to harmful ways of life in search of that connection we all need.
We’re more likely to find it harder to thrive. I don’t like reinforcing negative realities, but hope and ignorance lie, numbers don’t. You need to be aware of these challenges. Don’t go gently into that fight.
Learning te reo Māori has made it easier for me to connect to our world. It’s made it easier to fight. The kupu weave together like a taukaea harakeke, a rope with one end anchored in the beauty of te ao Māori. I now feel a part of that in my head, heart, and wairua. The stories, waiata, matauranga, and history. I can now start to trace the path of that rope back and connect to a bigger perspective. A wider time continuum than the now.
It’s not just pride in overcoming that anxiety when I kōrero Māori. It’s hope for the future and respect for the past. Every time I stumble slowly over te reo Māori instead of the language caned into my Nana, it’s for her. My words pay respect to the price she paid for the chance to speak our tongue, going back. Those words reach out in hope for you and maybe your tamariki and uri, to feel that connection and place in the world, going forward.
The mornings we spend trying to kōrero Māori in the kitchen are so you know this rope is here when you need it. When you feel alone in the world others built, often without any thought for your future. When you feel the effects of health, education and justice systems built in ignorance of the existing approaches our own people had already built purpose-fit for us.
When you look around the room and you’re the only person like you, don’t question what right you have to be there, feel for the knotted end of that rope. Like Stacey Morrison said, for you to be here, the way you are today, the lives of every single one of your tūpuna had to line up just right. They started weaving that rope in Hawaiiki. You never need to question your place in this world.
We decided not to enrol you in kohanga reo, and you probably won’t go to kura kaupapa Māori. We might regret that in 20 years, I don’t know. What I do know is I can’t rely on the rest of the world to help you understand how important it is to feel a part of something bigger, to show you the beauty of your whakapapa and te ao Māori. It’s up to me, your mum and our whānau to hand you this rope we’ve been weaving since forever.
It’s up to us to point out your tūpuna walking beside you, so you know you’re never alone. That’s how I feel now. And I know that’s always been true but it took starting this journey of re-learning our language, tasting it on my tongue, to truly believe.
It’s up to us to help you more than just hear the words of those tūpuna in the waiata they left us, to feel their tangi and aroha in your bones. Your bones will remember. They remember your place here, they remember your importance. I want your mind to know that too. Know you carry our past and future with you, understand you are a part of something bigger.
There’s no pill or app for reclaiming our language. For me, it takes time away from you, your mum, and other things I love. And the older you are, the harder it is to learn a second language, but not much worth fighting for is easy. Those before us fought and paid a much higher price than night-classes, embarrassment, and guilt at being away from home.
Maybe it’s not pride I felt at being able to give that mihi, maybe it’s relief. Maybe it’s finally knowing how to give you a fighting chance at connection and not getting lost in a world that sometimes won’t feel like yours.
That’s something worth fighting for.
For now, that’s my whawhai.
I won’t go gently into that.