May 10, 2021

Maori News & Indigenous Views

In praise of Pākehā learning and teaching te reo Maori

6 min read

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(By Mamari Stephens via Sparrowhawk/Kārearea blog)

I had one of those lump-in-the throat moments the other day watching Jennifer Ward-Lealand on Native Affairs talking in te reo Māori about her journey into te reo Māori. (Watch it here: She was suffering from a bit of a cold, and she chose her words carefully, and she was gorgeous to watch and marvellous to listen to, giving hope to many an aspiring reo learner judging by comments on social media. I found my own emotional reaction a little surprising.

After all, what’s new about people learning te reo? What, especially, can possibly be new about that kind of interview during Maori Language Week? Get a grip, girl! At any rate I found myself analysing my own response (yes the inside of my own head can be a pretty annoying place at times). One stream of thinking in my mind was the cynic. She is often present and not always pleasant. ‘Riiight’, she sneered. ‘You need Pakeha approval of our language just to be able to feel good about it. Typical behaviour of the colonised mentality.’ ‘Ah shaddap’, I told my cynical self. But on the other hand there might be a grain of unwelcome truth there. As someone who has had to learn how to be culturally Maori over the last three decades or so, perhaps I really haven’t left behind that insecurity that has me fear that I will some day be found out as a cultural fake. As the late and very great Barry Barclay said to me in an interview once, he always felt like he was in a ‘spiritual wheelchair’ during his journey to learn to be culturally Maori as an adult. By this he meant that he always felt at a level of disadvantage that perhaps was only perceptible to him. Maybe, if I still have the remains of that kind of cultural ‘dis-ease’, maybe I still need ‘validation.’ Perhaps I really do need Pakeha I admire to like and respect things Maori in order for me to ‘have permission’ to feel good about them myself. I don’t know. I hope not.

But there is another slightly (actually substantially) louder voice in the hubbub. That’s the voice that reminds me how absolutely grateful I am to certain Pakeha who cropped up at critical times in my life to let me know that not only was it OK to be Maori, the Maori language is truly a thing of genius as well as beauty. My Pakeha mother raised me to believe it was good and special and enviable to be Maori even if she was never quite sure what that meant. (My Maori dad, I don’t think, gave a patero in the high wind for the language, for much of his life.) It was Dr Winifred Bauer at Te Kawa a Maui in 2007 who opened my eyes to the brilliance of the language. I knew how to speak and write it by then (to a useful but not fluent degree) but I had no idea that the language I had been learning was so bloody GOOD. Yes, I know all languages are good. I just think I had taken it for granted up until that point, and being in her class was like taking the back off a Swiss watch and seeing for the very first time the unbelievably intricate mechanisms that lay behind the smooth and beautiful face.

Then there are the Pakeha who are fluent in te reo Maori that I just happened upon over the course of my working life, people like Anaru Robb, Tipene Chrisp and Mary Boyce just to name a few. There were the many Pakeha and Tauiwi students that formed some part of my own language learning journey. Something I have learned over the years is that for Pakeha learning te reo there may be quite a heavy personal cost as they can be challenged about their right to access te reo Maori, and for those that attain fluency and go on to teach the pressure they can experience, the challenges placed before them because of their Pakehatanga can be substantial (as alluded to in this article: Not only do such individuals sometimes face challenge from Maori about their right to participate in a language that has been lost to so many Maori already, they will often face challenges from other Pakeha and Tauiwi questioning the utility of their choice. That decision to plough on regardless takes a certain kind of bravery.

I have heard it said that if Maori is to survive in this country as a viable language, then Pakeha must speak it. If they do not, the declining numbers of Maori currently speaking te reo may be the harbinger of linguistic doom (as identified in the most recent census here: We need all hands on deck. If that is indeed the case (and I agree that it is) reports this week of the low numbers of non-Maori studying te reo at school (4% of the total student body in year 9 and above) are concerning (see here: The Maori and Pakeha learners of today are the reo Maori teachers of tomorrow. One of the key argument against making te reo compulsory in schools has been that due to the low numbers of te reo Maori teachers the bulk of the people who would need to deliver te reo to the school kids would be Pakeha, and in many cases, inexperienced and underprepared to do a good job. As calls for compulsory te reo Maori at primary school level start to gain a bit more of a head of steam (see for example: it becomes pretty obvious that there would be a massive problem in delivery. That would be so even if the compulsory element is only in the offering of te reo Maori, rather than in ensuring every child must learn it. But I don’t think the lack of human resources comprise an effective argument against compulsory reo in schools, rather, that is a logistical problem that will need to be solved by governments – governments that have a shabby record in solving logistical problems as far as the Maori language is concerned, at least. (if you need evidence of this, have a look at the te reo Maori chapter of the WAI 262 report (as profiled on Carwyn Jones’ Te Ahi Kaa Roa blog, see

I don’t know what the new language strategy holds for the future of Pakeha learning te reo Maori, but without those Maori and Pakeha dedicated to, and loving, te reo, I would not be able to hold the conversations that I do. I know how lucky I am, and how grateful I am to all those who have helped me over the decades of my reo journey, Maori ma, Pakeha ma. Tena koutou katoa, nga manu tioriori. But the flight path you leave has to be a wide one, so it seems, if enough of us are to follow.

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Mamari Stephens

uncropOtakiMamari Stephens is a Christchurch born and raised, Wellington-based writer and law lecturer whose marae (Wainui) is in Ahipara. Naturally. Typical post-urban migration confusion, then.

She was lucky enough to find and marry Maynard Gilgen, and between them, they are raising three quite interesting tamariki, Te Rangihuia, Havelund and Jessica-Lee. Political views? Centre left, with tinges of conservatism.

Usefulness? Can make a mean rewena. He uri ia no Te Rarawa (Ngāti Moetonga, Te Rokeka) me Ngāti Pākehā. No te Hahi Mihinare hoki.

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