I grew up in middle-class New Zealand. My folks are both teachers, but reo Māori wasn’t a huge part of our lives beyond Tūtira Mai Ngā Iwi and the All Blacks’ haka. I went to school in Te Puke, where Māori-influenced Kiwi slang was as common as doing bombs off the bridge. Chur!
The first time I got lit up by reo Māori was at a Trinity Roots concert (circa 2005) and there was this electric energy in the air – you could tell everyone could feel it. Warren Maxwell said some words I didn’t understand and then everyone around me yelled “TINA!” I was blown away! Then he said “Haumi e, hui e” and everyone shouted “TĀIKI E” super loud!
Something powerful in the music had brought everyone together, and the words he said spoke it into existence. But what was it? Looking back through time I felt a sense of kotahitanga (unity, solidarity). The words he said were a common ritual ending to a speech or prayer, and they go like this.
Speaker: Kia tina | Draw together Crowd: Tina! | Affirm! Speaker: Haumi e, hui e | Join, gather, unite Crowd: Tāiki e! | United as one!
Since then I’ve really come to appreciate how the wisdom and the values of mātauranga Māori (knowledge, worldview) are baked into the language of Māori. In contrast, it takes creativity and many more words to convey the same amount of meaning with the English language.
Iti te kupu, nui te koreō | Small words with a big meaning
What fuelled my curiosity initially was discovering words that translated into English would take entire sentences to describe matters close to my heart. One example of this is manaakitanga, which often gets translated into hospitality, or care, but there’s much more to it.
Mana ki tanga
Mana can translate to authority or status, but it also goes hand in hand with tapu (sacred), encapsulating our spiritual power and charisma too. When we share our mana with (ki) people (tanga), we are acknowledging the mana of others as equal to or greater than our own. In a world defined by “power over”, I am moved by how “power with” is culturally embedded in te ao (the world of) Māori. This is expressed by a strong focus on mutual respect, generosity and being hospitable to others – especially our guests.
In reality we are guests. And our continued presence in Aotearoa is an extension of the manaakitanga offered by Māori when settlers first arrived. I recently learned there were about 2000 Pākehā when Te Tiriti o Waitangi was signed, compared to around 200,000 tangata whenua (people of the land). I was blown away!
I thought, if only more people knew this – these numbers demonstrate how generous Māori were by welcoming Tauiwi (other bones) settlers to live in these abundant islands – quite the opposite to the image I received growing up in New Zealand.
I’m glad they’re teaching this history of Aotearoa in schools now, because it’s taken quite some effort to un-learn some of that conditioning I received. In a poetic twist of fate, my te reo teacher here in Wellington also went through school with me back in Te Puke. His name is Jamie Hoare. In class we learn through ako – the pre-colonial process for information exchange, which holds that knowledge and understanding can grow out of shared learning experiences. In ako, the teacher and the learner are the same. Wouldn’t it be great if Māori and Pākehā could swap between being the teacher and the learner every once in a while?
Learning the history of Aotearoa can bring up some uncomfortable feelings, whether we identify as Māori or Pākehā/Tauiwi/Tangata Tiriti, or both. Lots of folks these days avoid discomfort at all costs, but I’ve learned that’s where the best lessons live. Through confronting my privilege and humbling myself to the process of decolonising my own mind, I’ve been able to find solidarity with tangata whenua.
The same process of colonisation that affected the indigenous people of Aotearoa also displaced my ancestors in Scotland, Ireland, and Scandinavia.
When tracing my whakapapa (ancestry, lineage) I discovered tīpuna (ancestors) from England. Thus, I am holding the identity of the oppressors, and the oppressed.
The main difference I can see between the world-views within me is that there are people who believe the land belongs to them, and people who believe they belong to the land.
Through the process of discovering my own indigeneity, a new identity has emerged – one that puts the Earth first. My choice to learn the reo is to learn the language that will empower me to fulfil my purpose. In te reo Māori there is a word for this; Kaitiakitanga – the guardians and gardeners of the planet.
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Leo Murray is a vibe architect and a changemaker who moved from Mount Maunganui to Wellington to set up a worm farm subscription service. His interests include waka voyaging, making epic sandwiches, and throwing ridiculous parties. He’s currently unlearning the numbness of being a New Zealand male, and learning about sensing nature and belonging on Earth.
Capital celebrates Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori with a collection of personal essays about learning te reo Māori.