By Aroha Awarau
Playing a prominent Māori leader on screen has prompted successful New Zealand actor Miriama McDowell to turn her back on her career for a year in favour of learning te reo Māori.
While working on the 2022 film Whina, where she played the title role of Dame Whina Cooper, McDowell (Ngāti Hine) felt the urge to connect with te reo Māori.
"As I was playing the role of Whina, I felt like I was walking in her shoes. When I first got the script, there were many scenes in te reo Māori. It was a beautiful thing but it was also daunting. It gave me the final push to learn the language," she says.
"When we finished shooting, I felt like I couldn't go backwards. Te reo Māori was calling me. It was a spiritual feeling."
Growing up in Auckland, with a Māori mother and a Pākehā father, McDowell's first years were spent at kohanga reo. That changed when her mother, Te Aroha Henare, a native Māori speaker, and her father, Murray McDowell, separated. McDowell and her siblings went to live with their father.
"When my parents separated, we were separated from te ao Māori. I sometimes wonder if I would've grown up speaking te reo Māori if that connection to my mother hadn't been severed at that time."
McDowell always longed to be rekindled with the language. She had several experiences as a child and a teenager that deeply impacted her.
"I remember when I was eight years old, there was a teacher at my school who was Māori who taught another class. She would teach her class Māori," she says.
"I remember listening to her and feeling in the depths of my soul, wishing that I was in her class and learning the language. That feeling of loss, and desperately longing for something that belongs to you, is something that I have felt my entire life."
Those emotions grew stronger as a teenager. While attending Auckland Girls Grammar, McDowell tried to join the kapa haka group but pulled out because she felt like she didn't belong. McDowell is emotional and cries as she remembers that moment.
"I went to the first practice and everyone stood up and recited a karakia. I didn't know it. I felt ashamed. I felt like everyone knew something that I didn't know, and therefore I felt like I didn't belong there," she says.
"I look back to that young girl and wish I could comfort and console her and tell her that it's okay, go back again tomorrow. You will learn."
McDowell graduated from Toi Whakaari acting school in Wellington in 2002 and has since forged a successful acting and directing career on screen and in the theatre. She's appeared in TV shows like Shortland Street and Outrageous Fortune and starred in films like The Dark Horse, Coming Home in the Dark and No. 2.
Despite her busy career, she decided that this year was the right time to put her acting on hold to attend total immersion classes at Te Wānanga Takiura o Ngā Kura Kaupapa Māori o Aotearoa in Auckland to learn Māori. She already speaks fluent Spanish, which she learned while she was living in Costa Rica in her late teens.
"I was very strict about not accepting any acting work and I haven't been to any auditions this year. I knew if I was going to commit to learning Māori, I had to give it my all and put in 100 percent. If I had lots of balls juggling in the air, then it wouldn't have the same outcome."
McDowell has the full support of her family at home. Her husband, Rau Hoskins, who she married last December, is an architect and a te reo speaker. Her daughters, 12-year-old Talanoa, five-year-old Hero, attend total immersion classes at their schools in Auckland which means McDowell is learning Māori alongside her children.
"My eldest daughter is the first person to correct me when I say something wrong. I love this for her because she feels like she is teaching me. When do children have the opportunity to outwit their parents?"
McDowell is thriving in her classes and can't wait to graduate.
"It's an amazing environment. There is no level of reo you have to meet before you enrol therefore there's no expectation of what you should know. When you take that judgement away then you can learn because you are not afraid to ask questions,' she says.
"The way that we are learning the language is by getting up to speak, like we are performing. I'm an actor, and that's what I love to do."