What are we without te reo Māori?

A call to kōrero from Curator Mātauranga Māori Matariki Williams, who is guest-editing for The Wireless for Te Wiki o te reo Māori.

“He aha te reo Māori ki a koe?”

This was a prompt put to contributors at a day-long wānanga held at Te Papa as part of this year’s Te Wiki o te Reo Māori offering from The Wireless.

We went around the table, taking turns to answer the question, and it was evident that “disruption” was a dominant aspect of people’s relationship with te reo. Though many had been through kōhanga reo or kura kaupapa, for most this was interrupted at some point. For the native speakers present, there was disruption in their whakapapa as parents had endured the loss of their language or younger whānau were facing it.

For me, te reo has always been on the periphery of my life, something that comes with not being a native speaker. Growing up, te reo may have been at the edges, but it was always there. Being Tūhoe and heading home to Rūātoki meant our reowas inescapable but as a child who was unable to understand it, it was white noise. Thinking about that now, it saddens me to realise how much I would’ve heard but was unable to understand.

Having children made me think again about my relationship with te reo. After becoming fluent-ish while attending university, my competency lessened while overseas and away from other speakers. I’d always said that I would speak to my kids in te reo so as to save them the labour of having to rediscover their reo at a later stage. This was easier said than done and I adopted an attitude of “I’ll get to that later”.

Complacency is a slippery slope, when you start on one pathway it’s hard to get off it, and I had continued on the assumption that one day we would move home and they could be immersed in their own reo. This halcyon "one day" of our future has not yet materialised and every day, they grow older. Again, I am faced with the question, “What is te reo Māori to me? To my children?”

Illustration by Te Hana Goodyer, courtesy of The Wireless

Sharing personal stories during the wānanga was an awe-inspiring experience. However, there was a reality check in the form of a kōrero delivered by Te Papa’s Head of Mātauranga Māori, my boss, Dr Wayne Ngata.

Wayne also happens to be the chair of Te Taura Whiri i Te Reo Māori | The Māori Language Commission. Wayne talked to us about the ‘state’ of the Māori language, that diagnostic way that statistics force us to view our reo by. It’s easy to have such damning numbers wash over you, for example “only four percent of all New Zealanders can speak te reo Māori” or “only 21 percent of Māori can have a conversation in te reo Māori”.

We turn from them because we want to. However, imagine the chair of Te Taura Whiri is sitting in front of you and says, point blank: “People ask me all the time if I think our language will die out. I tell them ‘yes’.” You’d cry too.

And so the question changed from “What is te reo Māori to us?” to “What are we without te reo Māori?”

I was able to look around where we were sitting, on the colourful and innovative Te Papa Marae, Rongomaraeroa, put together by the hands of ever innovating Māori artists, underneath a carving of Māui capturing Tamanui-te-Rā, and think, “What would Māui do?” I realised that, as Maui did before him, Wayne had given us a wero, he was provoking us to change the future while it is in our hands.

Matariki Williams, 2017. Photograph by Tim Onnes. Te Papa

The incredibly talented contributors who have worked to make Te Wiki o te Reo on The Wireless such a diverse snapshot of te ao Māori, they are part of the solution. They have the passion, they understand the politics and the nuance of the situation, but they are also armed with ngā rākau a te Pākehā.

Within their work next week you will see the mamaeof loss, the pride in holding on, and the understanding that what is best for our reo is that we work together, amongst Māori and with Tauiwi. Within their work you will get a snapshot of the profound beauty of our reo, the deeper meanings behind those seemingly unpronounceable names. You will see a hope for a better future for our reo, and consequently, for our people.

With every census we see a decline in speakers, and with each year that we put learning off, is another year that gathers loss. Take this as a call to kōrero. Koinei te wero i mua i a tātou, me haere ngātahi tātou ki te whakanui i te reo Māori. Kōrerotia i ngā wā katoa, i ngā wāhi katoa, ahakoa he iti noa ngā kupu. Kia kaha tātou i raro i te tūānui o tō tātou reo rangatira. Arohatia te reo Māori.

*Our Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori series launches on Monday.

Special thanks to Hine Parata-Walker, Te Aniwa Hurihanganui, Te Hana Goodyer, Chevron Te-Whetumatarau Hassett, Te Ao Marama Ngarotata, Bridget Reweti, Kauri Hawkins, Kahu Kutia, Ranea Aperahama, Ahilapalapa Rands, Dr Wayne Ngata, Ati Teepa, Shannon Haunui-Thompson, Joan Costello, Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho, Migoto Eria, Luke McPake, Olly Coddington, Trinity Thomson Browne, and Māni Dunlop.

This article originally appeared on The Wireless