I'm Pākehā, Speak Te Reo Māori and the Language Isn't Dead

Why we manuhiri need to do better, and stop listening to pale stale academics predicting the end of te reo Māori.

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05 February 2018, 10:21am

This article is an edited version Mā wai te reo e kōrero? broadcast on 95bFM.

I am Pākehā, however my first language was te reo Māori. 23 years later and most of my whānau, both Pākeha and Māori, are second language te reo Māori speakers while my siblings, my niece and my nephews, are all first language speakers. A conscious decision was made to ensure that learning, and living, te reo Māori was a priority in my family. A conscious commitment to te reo Māori has been accepted. That commitment includes a responsibility to ensure that te reo will be accessible to our mokopuna, Te Huawai, Awanuiārangi, Rangipua and Waiariki, and others, in the years to come. There is no choice in the matter. There is no backing down from this kaupapa.

You may have heard by now that Paul Moon, a Pākehā historian from AUT University has released a book regarding Te Reo Māori—with the inflammatory title Killing Te Reo Maori: An Indigenous Language Facing Extinction. Despite what you might think due to this implied authority on the matter, Moon does not speak Māori himself, nor has he been involved in this conversation since its roots.

Before the release of the book a press statement was sent out outlining its main points as follows:

  • The Māori language is facing extinction as a living language
  • Compulsory Māori language in schools will contribute to the language’s demise instead of saving it.
  • Many of the initiatives aimed to save the language are having the opposite effect
  • The insistence on the correct pronunciation of Māori is damaging the language

These are points that have long been discussed by Māori both in academia and outside of it. They are not new.

Te Reo Māori has been systematically targeted by Pākehā for a very long time—and Māori have been resisting this for just as long.

Leonie Pihama, of Te Atiawa, Ngāti Māhanga and Ngā Māhanga a Tairi, and Director of Te Kotahi Research Institute, captured this succinct explanation in a tweet, “Clearly white male academics like Paul Moon believe they are entitled to write about anything—even a language that they have no competency in, have never taught, have never had beaten out of them and have never actively supported.”

Pākehā who are looking to resist this systematic targeting do not help by arguing about whether pronouncing Māori words correctly is hurting people’s feelings too much. Correct pronunciation is not something to be discussed, it is a given. In fact, if you say something in Māori and you say it wrong, you are saying something very different.

Former CEO of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, the Māori Language Commission Glenis Philip-Barbara posted on Facebook following the announcement of the book that only someone with no knowledge of the reo would say that pronunciation doesn’t matter. She noted the difference between tara, which means vagina, and tārā, which is dollar, or keke which is cake, and kēkē which is armpit. Humorous examples aside, when you mispronounce a word or name you are actively disrespecting the whakapapa of that word or name.

And anyway, huge leeway is given to those who make genuine attempts.

Learning a new language takes time. Te reo Māori is becoming more and more normal, but yes, there is a long way to go to ensure its fluency. Te Wharehuia Milroy, of Ngāi Tūhoe and Ngati Koura, once told my group at the Kura Reo in Tāmaki Mākaurau this time two years ago—“Kei te pari o te rua te reo e tū ana”—the language is standing before its own grave. He told us it was in our hands, all of us who are learning, to ensure it was spoken in all places. “He tamariki he mokopuna kei te haere mai i roto i nga tau e maha, mo ratou ke tenei reo. Ehara mō tātou anake”. This reo is not only for us, it is for our future generations.

These conversations are indeed occurring Paul Moon, and I can’t help but think that you weighing into this conversation has been incredibly unhelpful other than you have mobilised a number of people to speak against you. Moon declared in an interview with One News he doesn’t speak te reo and would only attempt to do so if it had a “mercenary reason” to him, like getting a better job. There is a long way to go, and it is even more clear there is a long way to go when it is two Pākehā men discussing on national television how best to support the revival of te reo.

Moon’s interview with Duncan Garner on The AM Show was a fairly vile and obnoxious episode of New Zealand News, and it got worse when co-host Mark Richardson told the audience how he felt bad for himself after mispronouncing the word mōrena and decided he was too uncomfortable after that very brief encounter to try again. He felt too uncomfortable to try again.

In an attempt to address and deconstruct these ideas I spoke with Glenis Philip-Barbara as well as Finn Ogle, a Pākehā accountant in his second year of learning te reo, Max Harris, author of The New Zealand Project and Vincent Olsen-Reeder, a second language fluent te reo speaker lecturing at Victoria University. All of them disputed Moon’s claims. You can listen to the entire piece here.

Harris told me that academics are looked to as experts and it’s important they use their authority responsibly. “I don’t believe Paul Moon’s done that here, and I think his views put him out of step with an emerging generation of young people—led by Māori—who are keen to do more to revitalise te reo Māori while maintaining integrity of the language.”

Ogle sums up his experience learning the language in one word: ”vibrant”. “There are so many people learning and so much passion for it and there’s more resources and materials around all the time and anyone who comes along wanting to learn gets so much support," he says.

That’s a sentiment echoed by Olsen-Reeder, someone sharing his knowledge with students. “I think the general feeling among those of us who work in this area every day is that access is improving and vitality in lots of areas like education is improving all the time, and those things can only be supporting the health of te reo Māori on the whole”.

So it seems that there is quite a bit of resistance to what Paul Moon has to say. In fact, on Twitter, the hashtag #letssharegoodtereostories was soon trending, where people described their efforts to learn, use and support Te Reo Māori.

As I said, this isn't a new conversation. It's an old one, a continuous one and a non-linear one. The condition is that it's a Māori led conversation. Us Pākehā are manuhiri. For the past 200 years we’ve been pretty shit manuhiri, and there is a movement underway to address that, but we are doing a fairly poor job of it. We fail to learn the rules of the marae and operate according to them. We still think Pākehā practices and ways of being in the world are a priority and even a necessity. Actually Paul Moon, I think a lot more research could be done about whiteness, or white privilege, or being Pākehā.

It is important to realise too that learning te reo is only part of the commitment. It is only one part of being a good manuhiri. You must also take account of the position you occupy, understanding the context you come from and how that might be different to different people. To learn you must listen, and as Glenis says, you must make yourself vulnerable. You must give up your position of privilege if you wish to no longer centre a colonial identity and the benefits you receive from that. If you are not willing to consider this and follow through with it, it might be time to take a cheap flight out of Aotearoa.

Listen to the entire audio of Lillian’s interviews here on the bFM website.