My Te Reo journey began about 12 years ago when I became serious about taking classes. Prior to that my language acquisitions were very limited. I actively disliked three years’ French and two years’ Latin lessons at college. I think I became particularly despondent when I realised that in an assessment, if I had enough errors, I might achieve a minus score! Science and Maths were more to my liking.
A number of years on when doing the great “OE” I quickly became aware that in Europe it was the norm to be at least bilingual and frequently more. My schoolgirl French was of very little use except to count and say please.
I grew up in a family that didn’t hesitate to discuss issues of the day around the evening dining table (except we were forbidden to speak at all during the ten-minute BBC 6.30pm news). Politics was all-absorbing for my father (a career army officer of a right wing persuasion), and rubbed off on us all. However I cannot recall any discussions about Māori people or associated issues, other than occasional references to the Māori Wars or the current activities of prominent Māori politicians.
When beginning my work life in New Zealand in the early 1970s I enrolled in an evening Te Reo class for ten weeks. I recall little about it except I greatly admired the tutor for his kindness and enthusiasm to impart knowledge of his people. I was working as a social worker for the government, in Porirua and on the Kāpiti coast. I had never previously mixed with Māori families and I was struck by the dichotomy between the wealth of the mostly Pākehā families I visited on the Kāpiti coast, and the sometimes severe poverty of the Porirua families, many of whom were Māori. In many ways I was poorly suited to the position as, being only 22, I was grossly inexperienced in life and hardly capable of advising others.
Fast forward to the late 1990s and early 2000s, and I was teaching primary school in a small rural primary school in the South Island. I became aware there was very little ever said about the Māori people (tangata whenua), much less the language. The school roll was almost entirely Pākehā. However there was the beginnings of a realisation that the teaching staff needed training and professional development in Māori language, Māori culture and protocols. There was at that time, no discussion about the arguably parallel importance of the history of New Zealand’s Indigenous people.
I became interested in the place of Māori in our New Zealand culture and started taking short day-long professional development courses, usually covering basic greetings with a nod to tikanga or marae protocols. (For some time school classes had been invited to overnight at a marae, and I went as a parent to our closest marae in 1989, but there was little in the way of preparation or follow-up.)
In 2009 I enrolled in a Level 1&2 Te Reo course provided by the Wananga O Aotearoa at the Omaka and Waikawa Marae in Marlborough. This was the real beginning of an eleven-year journey, and I was entranced from the first day. Participating students were a diverse mixture of Māori wanting to reconnect with their culture, and pākehā keen to learn about New Zealand’s first people. The courses entailed a three-hour weekly class, a monthly weekend “noho” (being domiciled) at a marae, homework, and periodic assessments. We had many interactive activities and games, were eating and staying together on marae, and in this environment were thus exposed to many different points of view. There were several oral presentations, usually given at the end a weekend immersion on the marae. Over the years I worked my way up to Level 5 Te Reo. But this was interspersed with courses relating to history, especially of tangata whenua, and marae tikanga (protocols). I also took a beginners’ paper at Massey University and an entirely online course through another wananga, the Wananga o Raukawa.
The all-pervasive culture of the study with the Wananga o Aotearoa was one of inclusiveness and support. Each class was essentially regarded as a single entity, in that we were all on a journey and we would all reach completion together. There were some students who dropped out from time to time, but it was usually for personal reasons rather than difficulty with the course requirements. The result, apart from our learning a basic level of Te Reo, was a guided immersion in the culture and identity of being Māori. We stayed on many marae in Marlborough, and ventured as far as Wellington and Kaikōura. We learnt waiata, karakia, whakapapa, how to mihi each other, and the formal procedure for entering and being on a marae. Karanga (being called) and kōrero were shown and practiced for presentation before arriving guests and dignitaries. We also studied Māori history or Te Ao Māori, through pūrākau and learning of the old beliefs, often through ancient poetry and songs. We learnt that these often underpin current thinking and actions, particularly the responsibility for manaakitanga (hospitality and care for others) and Kaitiakitanga (guardianship, stewardship).
I am now 74 and it has been a privilege to have been welcomed into the Māori world. I try to use my experiences to encourage respect and understanding amongst those in the mostly Pākehā world around me.
Mā te wā
This is web exclusive content. Get more Capitalhere.
Kate Bristed is a retired pākehā wahine who, about twelve years ago while still teaching, became interested in the culture and language of our indigenous people. Fortuitously, when investigating sources of learning, she stumbled on the Wananga o Aotearoa. Thus began a ten year journey of being welcomed, guided, taught and encouraged, all on local marae.
Capital celebrates Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori with a collection of personal essays about learning te reo Māori.