The Long Hīkoi Home

Image: Trinity Thompson-Browne

Image: Trinity Thompson-Browne

For me, acquiring my language, te reo Māori, has been similar to navigating the oceans on a starless night. My whānau are not a reo-speaking whānau and my Poppa, who was a first language speaker, passed away before I embarked on this journey. It has therefore taken a little solo exploration, a huge amount of dedication, and an unwavering enthusiasm to arrive at a place of understanding and spoken ability. I must acknowledge the inspiration offered by my many teachers who planted kupu like stars to form the constellations that guided me.

My whānau lost the language when my Poppa fell victim to the oppressive policies and attitudes that saw te reo Māori beaten out of him in school. This meant my Dad grew up without te reo Māori. He was taught in order to be successful he needed to be ‘Pākehā’. It was a mana-destroying mindset that passed down, through the generations, a whakapapa of silence.

Dad grew up in a small town just south of the Hokianga. As was common, his was a big Māori whānau with many mouths to feed.  Hunting game, fishing, the farm and their large gardens provided their kai. But when you’re trying to provide many hungry mouths with food, feeding your children their language is not a priority. Times were hard and this community, like many others, knew the unkind touch of violence, alcohol and gambling. Dad doesn’t speak about it much, and as my Nanny says, “it’s just the way it was back in those days.” But my sister, cousins and myself believe silence passes on different kinds of legacies, so we talk, laugh and cry regularly to ensure our stories are not sidelined or silenced, so we don’t have to carry any burden on our own. It’s the greatest gift of growing up in a big whānau.

Still, Dad shares fond memories of growing up on the farm. His eyes nostalgic when he speaks of adventures and mischief, ghost stories and Percy the pet pig. He has other tales to tell too, ones that weave together a deep mamae of fallen brothers, of loss and feeling lost. They are the kind of stories that are harder to articulate, but when voiced, they quietly speak of resilience and strength. And a skill we’ve mastered is a little humour, a good feed and a sing-along can heal almost any wound.

When studying at law school I took part in a survey assessing the state of te reo Māori in Aotearoa. It was a confronting situation for me: I had to admit despite my efforts I still couldn’t speak my own language. At the end of the survey, the interviewer (who was a good friend of mine) must’ve sensed my frustrations, because he said, “You might not have a Māori tongue yet, but you have a Māori heart and that cannot be taught. Be patient, the words will come, in time”.

Something inside me came unstuck that day. I realised that despite the shame I carried for my lack of knowledge of my own history, whakapapa and reo, and despite being made to feel like two halves (half Māori and half Pākehā), I was completely, utterly and imperfectly, whole. All I lacked could be learnt, and all I dreamed of could be attained, in time.  It’s the advice I pass on to anyone I recognise to be stuck in that awkward space between longing and belonging. Discomfort is a good thing; it is usually a sign you are on the brink of transformation. Embrace it, for on the other side of the confusion, te ao mārama, the world of enlightenment, awaits.

I made the decision to dedicate a year to my language when I finished up at law school. I had grasped the tools of the Pākehā, and with Tā Apirana Ngata’s whakatauāki ‘E tipu e rea’ in mind, it was time to holdfast to the taonga of my tūpuna. For one year, I learnt the language full time at Te Wānanga Takiura o ngā Kura Kaupapa Māori o Aotearoa. So effective was my course, I was speaking the reo within a few weeks and conversational within a few months. I remember Dad telling me how my Poppa was a skilled speaker in English but when he spoke Māori,  he was an orator. My Poppa was the most authentic version of himself speaking his natural tongue, just as I am, speaking mine.

Takiura gave me the foundation to continue in the outside world and I’ve been learning and improving ever since. I’ve also seen the flow on effects it has had on whānau, friends and work colleagues. One person’s courage to speak a language in a situation or place where it is not expected or normalised opens the minds and ears of all of those around. Although I have not yet arrived at my desired destination in terms of vocabulary and fluency, the confidence I gained from that year reassures me I will get there, in time, and this language will be an intergral part of the rest of my life. Te reo Māori is the legacy I will pass on to my mokopuna.

Months before my Poppa passed away, just like my Dada (Great Grandfather), he reverted back to te reo Māori. This is not unusual for our old people who are teetering on the edge of this world and the next.  When he started speaking again it was clear that, although his tinana remained, his mind had already started the journey back to Te Rerenga Wairua. He had set out on the hīkoi home, wandering amongst the kauri in Waipoua, chatting away to old friends. I remember thinking how amazing it was that his safe place was his language, his culture. Despite incredible attempts, the reo could never be truly taken away from him. When I think about that now, I realise the same can be said for me. I didn’t grow up speaking my language but it always belonged to me. It was hiding somewhere deep down, running through my veins, waiting to resurface. And with a little effort and a little time, the reo returned. Now it is my rongoā, my healing tool, the powerbase for my identity and my home.

I feel no fear for the future of te reo Māori. All historical efforts to eradicate it and all contemporary attempts to diminish its importance have not and will not work. It is as safe as it has ever been within the loving hands of those who protect and cherish it. And because I chose this path, I have taken on the role of kaitiaki too. Because the whakapapa of silence, that plagues my whānau, ends with my generation. Because the words I so deeply longed for now rest on my tongue and my heart, as though they never left.  Because one day, when I too set out on that hīkoi home, I’ll be reunited with my Poppa and we will have the long overdue kōrero we never got to have in this life.