Everyone should learn te reo - but not everyone carries the weight of its history

9:05 pm on 20 September 2020

By Aneta Cram*

Comment: "I am currently learning Māori. It's just so cool. I get to create a whakapapa." I sat there. Why would someone showing enthusiasm about learning my beautiful language make me feel so uncomfortable, Aneta Cram writes.

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Not too long ago people were punished for speaking te reo, Aneta Cram writes. [file pic] Photo: RNZ / Te Aniwa Hurihanganui

In the space of a few weeks I had heard three Pākehā people talk about how they have either taken a course in te reo or were on a waiting list to learn.

Great, I had thought. Of course, everyone should learn te reo Māori. It is one of our national languages after all. But still, there was a heaviness, a feeling of unease that crept up inside me.

Maybe it's because they spoke of learning te reo without the weight of understanding and feeling the struggle of many generations to get to the place where it's now encouraged.

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Aneta Cram Photo: Supplied / Aneta Cram

How in the 1980s fewer than 20 percent of Māori knew enough te reo Māori to be regarded as native speakers. That 10, 20 years ago, learning te reo Māori wouldn't have been spoken of with such wonder and enthusiasm by Pākehā. That Māori were still fighting for te reo Māori to be a subject available in school let alone kohanga reo and kura kaupapa being seen as a viable option for children to get their formal education.

In fact, not too long ago people were punished for speaking te reo Māori which has led to generations of people not being able to speak or understand their language.

Now it's hip to learn te reo.

I am a white presenting Māori. This has meant that I can move in society in a different way to other Māori. People feel comfortable showing their racism in my presence. I can travel and no one looks at me sideways. This also means that I need to announce my Māoritanga. It isn't something that is announced before I open my mouth because of my appearance. The person who told me about his experience learning te reo didn't know I was Māori. Still doesn't. Not everyone gets that part of me. It's not for them. It's not for him.

I think about my own journey with te reo. I went to kohanga reo in Stokes Valley, Lower Hutt. From there, I went to Te Kura ā Rohe o Whaingaroa, in Raglan. We spoke te reo Māori often. It was normal. I learned about the Kingitanga in Tainui, Waikato. We went to marae. We went to tangi. I joined the kapa haka group at high school and we were good.

Since then I have dived into the Pākehā world. I studied philosophy and religious studies at university. All my professors bar one were Pākeha and male (but that's another issue). I have been living and studying overseas and I haven't been back in Aotearoa to live since 2014. I recently came back from living in Chicago to start a PhD exploring the importance of Indigenous evaluation frameworks at Victoria University.

My mother was getting a moko kauae at the end of last year. I had planned to return to Aotearoa after this date but circumstances meant that I had to fly back into the country two days before she was to get it done.

We sat in our marae in Mohaka. I held her hand. I cried. I cried for myself. I cried for us. I cried for the number of Māori women who were claiming their right to moko kauae after years and generations of not being able to. I cried for the women in my family, my tīpuna who married white men because they wanted their children to have a good life and appearing white meant they had a better chance at this.

I cried in my marae with my tīpuna watching over us from the walls, the ceiling. I cried with sadness. I cried with joy. I cried because it was beautiful. She is beautiful. My mother, a fluent speaker and teacher of te reo Māori.

I speak of this because te reo Māori is so intertwined with who we are as people. Language is a birthright. It is imbued with whakapapa. Language flows through my veins and when it leaves my lips, the taste - reka. Te tino reka o te reo Māori.

When I got to Wellington, I decided to build on my reo. It had been years since I had spoken it. It was an attempt to reconnect to my identity as Māori. I found a few courses. They cost a few hundred dollars.

I tried to register. The class was full. I searched for another. There were only a few available at my level (level three - conversational Māori). There was only one offered through Victoria University but it had been discontinued for the year. I stopped searching.

When the three Pākehā spoke of their courses, I decided to start my search again. Again, I found full courses and waiting lists and prices. I found one that was at a good time, didn't cost anything and was at my level. It is in Auckland. Maybe I'm looking in the wrong places.

I asked the man again recently, as we are still friends/acquaintances, how many Māori were in your class when you were learning? He responded two, including the teacher. He was in a class of 18.

Maybe the low numbers of Māori are due to the fact that there are low numbers of Māori who live and work in Wellington CBD. Maybe it was just that cohort of students. Maybe the programme is targeted towards Pākehā. Maybe Māori don't like the course structure.

It's great that te reo Māori is having a resurgence. It's great that everyone wants to learn it.

But as I think of that one Māori student in my friend's te reo class, as I think of the cost and having to pay to learn my own language (that was denied to my tīpuna), to claim a part of myself, my birthright, as I think of my grandfather who didn't tell my grandmother until late in their marriage about his Māoritanga, who hardly ever spoke te reo to his children even though he was fluent, as I think of the many Māori who don't know how to speak te reo (a few that don't want to or don't see the point, and a few that are whakamā), as I think of my Pākehā boyfriend who I shared the idea of writing a piece about trying to build my reo and the challenges that I am coming up against who then went on to say, 'I should learn Māori', as I think of sitting on a waiting list behind Pākehā to fight to be that one Māori student in the classroom, that feeling of unease, discomfort and pain in the pit of my stomach rises.

*Aneta Katarina Raiha Cram is of Ngāti Pahauwera, Ngāti Kahungunu descent. She is currently studying a PhD looking at Indigenous evaluation frameworks and their impact on Indigenous communities. She is also working as an evaluation consultant for Dovetail Consulting.

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