Sherilee’s te reo journey

Ko te kai a te rangatira, he kōrero ~ The sustenance of leaders is communication

I whakapapa to Taranaki iwi. I have recently discovered that there is written record of our whakapapa all the way back to Te Kāhui Maunga – the ancestors that predate Taranaki maunga’s journey to the western seaboard. I am a direct descendant of our whānau’s eponymous ancestor, Te Kāhui Kararehe, a prolific story teller and rangatira of our hapū, Ngāti Haupoto. It is thanks to Te Kāhui that uri of our hapū are able to find out so much about their own whakapapa. Te Kāhui, along with so many of his contemporaries, was sent to Dunedin to do hard labour for his part in the passive resistance movement at Parihaka. Later in his life he thought he could do more for his people by working with the coloniser government, rather than against it. I cried as I read through his manuspcripts, written in te reo Māori, except for a page where he had practiced writing his new title in perfect cursive: “Native Land Assessor”, repeated again and again…

Unfortunately – and predictably – working with the government would prove to be ineffective. One hundred year leases and other racist practices served to relieve our whānau and hapū of the majority of our land. Despite this theft, our whānau continued to be based in Rāhotu, with stints in Lower Hutt. I grew up spending summers at my grandparents’ house close to Lower Kahui road, hearing how Grandad wasn’t allowed to speak te reo as a child, how the farmer who owns the land where our original urupā sits won’t let us visit the site, how all of these farms sit on stolen land.

My father, like so many of his generation, was never given the opportunity to learn te reo growing up. Grandad was of the opinion that it was dying and wasn’t going to help them get ahead in the world, so why bother? I’m so grateful to those women who thought differently and started the kohanga movement. Some aunties were among these amazing women; I recently learned that none of them could speak te reo themselves. I can’t even begin to imagine the courage and tenacity it would have taken to do the work they did in those early days of the movement. We all owe those wāhine so much.

I grew up in the Hutt Valley, hearing the Māori names of my classmates and the landmarks around us butchered by ambivalent Pākehā teachers. It wasn’t until I went to Naenae Intermediate that I had my first Māori teacher. Mr Anaru Pewhairangi helped me and many of my peers to discover and affirm our Māoritanga. As “urban Māori” few of us had grown up with strong connections to our marae. He led kapa haka, which I fell in love with, as well as teaching us te reo. I will be forever grateful to the Pewhairangi whānau for the work they did with us. I feel so privileged to have had their guidance as I began the journey of reclaiming my birthright – my reo Māori.

While I have always been somewhat of an anomaly, with my blonde hair and green eyes, I always felt like I fitted in. Even when at high school I was asked why I didn’t just dye my hair brown or wear contacts. Maybe it was because I can sing, swing a poi (obviously, I whakapapa to Taranaki!) and have a mean pūkana – in any case, I felt confident in my Māoritanga. Until I got to university.

I was predictably the fairest Māori in my class. No surprises there. What was surprising was that I didn’t feel like I fit in with most of my classmates. There were only a couple of Pākehā in our class; this was a time before “woke” Pākehā flooded our reo classes, leaving Māori high and dry sitting on waitlists. And while I felt isolated, I watched with envy as my Pākehā peers were lauded for what felt like deigning to study our reo. I felt awkward and out of place, and came to hate going to class. It was devastating. I decided after that paper I wouldn’t continue, using the excuse that it wasn’t my major and that I needed to focus my energy elsewhere (spoiler alert: no future employer will ever be impressed by your literature degree in a language you were already fluent in!). 

And so I went through my twenties not prioritising my participation in te ao Māori; most people around me were Pākehā or Tauiwi, or other Māori doing the same as me. It is very easy to do in the city, in the fringe art scene – and even easier to do when you’re essentially rolling incognito.

Except that it’s not. It’s denying who you are with every breath. And it’s untenable.

Like with so many others, it was the birth of my first baby that drew me back. Regardless of my shame, my awkwardness, my fear, I owed it to my son to bring him into the world knowing who he is and where he comes from, so that he can live as his full self.

So the next chapter of my reo journey began: I started right back at the beginning, learning te reo at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. In the first year I was lucky enough to be able to have my baby with me in class. I could pop in and out as I needed and didn’t stress about missing anything. It was exactly the environment I needed to support me to re-engage and I am incredibly grateful to my tutor for accommodating me. I continued to study until this year, where I found myself pregnant again. I finished Te Aupikitanga, but knew there was no way I could sustain full-time study in Te Pīnakitanga with a newborn baby and a four year old, on my own. So I made the difficult decision not to re-enrol.

When I announced my decision to the class, some well-meaning Pākehā challenged me, furnishing me with examples of Pākehā, partnered women who were able to continue studying, despite having babies. It is because of sentiments and behaviour like this, that shrug off the impacts of intergenerational trauma as if it’s something that can be overcome by just sticking with it, that I don’t think intensively studying te reo Māori alongside Pākehā is a safe option for me. The micro-aggressions and cultural faux-pas are constant. And of course they are – it is a learning environment. It’s meant to be a safe place to make mistakes and learn. But how are Māori students kept safe in this environment? Arguably we can’t be.

Ironically, I understand that some Pākeha will be upset reading this. People will think I’m being unfair. And my challenge to those people is: ka aroha. If you really want to be an ally, if you honestly consider yourself a tangata tiriti, you need to give up the power that our colonial systems grant you by default of your pākehā-ness. This means giving up your space on the waitlist so that Māori can learn their reo. It means when you are in class you are mindful of the space you take up and that your Māori peers have overcome all odds to be there next to you. It means making sure your tamariki aren’t taking the place of tamariki Māori at kohanga. You know that the aunties didn’t risk everything to save our reo, just so you could continue to colonise us through taking te kai a te rangatira straight out of the mouths of our babies.

Until I see this change I’ll continue on my own path. I’m currently revising what I have been taught so far, with my baby bouncing on my hip. I’ve enrolled my children in bilingual ECE and school respectively, so that they can start their journeys earlier than I did. And I will continue to support them by continuing to learn, even if it can’t be in a formal setting right now.

Mauri ora.

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Ko Taranaki te mounga
Ko Pungaereere te awa
Ko Kurahuapō te waka
Ko Taranaki te iwi
Ko Pōtaka te marae
Ko Ngāti Haupoto te hapū
Ko Sherilee Kahui tōku ingoa

Sherilee earned her Master’s degree in Theatre (Directing) from Victoria University of Wellington and Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School in 2013. As well as an extensive background in performing arts, Sherilee has also worked for various NGOs and in government. Due to the demands of single motherhood, Sherilee has pivoted to re-focus her creative energy on writing. Thanks to the support of Tawata Productions’ new writing festival Breaking Ground, she has been given space to find her own indigenous voice, developing a new work, Mokomoko, due to be presented at BATS Theatre in March 2022.

Capital celebrates Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori with a collection of personal essays about learning te reo Māori.

Read more “My te reo journey” essays below.

Leo’s journey

The first time Leo got lit up by reo Māori was at a Trinity Roots concert.

Kate’s journey

In her 60s Kate became interested in the language of our indigenous people.

Taurapa’s journey

Growing up Taurapa always felt there was a stigma about speaking Māori.


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