The Māori language is part of who I am as a person, as a New Zealander and as a Māori living in this country. If I did not have it, I would not be who I am. It is part of my identity, it gives me purpose and validates me as a person.
There were four marae in our community of Manutuke in Gisborne. We lived right opposite one and we were pretty much raised on them. When we moved to Hastings, it was to my mother’s whanau who lived on the Kohupatiki marae and, in those days, the marae was the bastion of the language - it was spoken all the time.
My father, who is 84, grew up with Māori as his first language from birth. His grandmother, who raised him, could not speak English - he used to translate for her. Like a lot of older people who are native speakers, he lived through the era when you were caned at school for speaking Māori.
I feel fortunate that my parents ensured that we grew up totally bilingual. When I moved to Wellington to study at Victoria University, there was no official marae at the time but the buildings were there. I met many other Māori students and we were often together in those buildings.
So I wanted to make sure my sons had the same opportunities. They were enrolled in Kōhanga Reo at 10 months old and later went to kura kaupapa schools – so they had 10 years of total immersion. But learning Māori is not simply about the language, it is about engaging with our culture, it is about understanding our roots, where we come from, the importance of being welcoming and looking after your fellow man.
So, alongside Māori language immersion, I made a conscious decision to take my two boys to Hawke’s Bay often so they would have a relationship with and respect for with their wider whanau. From a very young age they have kissed the aunties and shaken hands with the uncles and not been fazed when they’ve walk onto the marae and been handed a teatowel and been expected to pitch in.
I strongly welcome supporting the language development of parents so they can, in turn, teach their tamariki. My ideals would be to see teaching of the language normalised, with some basic Māori taught in every school. I would like to see everyone in New Zealand given the opportunity to learn reo – if only to understand the pronunciation – and the chance to appreciate its unique beauty.