National | Te Reo Māori

'It's more than a language, it's a soul searching experience'

Rawinia Higgins (Ngāi Tūhoe) was the first second-language learner of te reo Maori to be appointed chairperson of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (The Māori Language Commission). Juan Zarama Perini / The Post

By Joel Maxwell, Stuff

Learning your true first language on the second time around is a soul-shaking experience, reporter Joel Maxwell discovers in an interview with Māori Language Commission chairperson Rawinia Higgins.

The roving, lifeless hand of mediocrity falls where it sees fit – clumsy, cold, endlessly grabbing for another shoulder.

If it catches us, we must accept that our great work in life is the anaemic push against boundaries that forces us, not the boundaries, into retreat; our mission is the desperate maintenance, if not the inevitable lowering, of the bar.

In this life we are shooting for the stars but have already missed our Uber.

Heoi anō, i te awangawanga au. Tērā pea, karekau e taea tonu te piki ake ki ngā tihi o tēnei maunga ‘Ako-i-te-reo’, he wharau noa māku, he puni pea, ki ngā rekereke tonu.

I was feeling a little anxious. I’d been learning te reo Māori for five years and everything felt like it was flattening out. I was stuck in a hut, camping in the foothills when I should be hitting peaks.

Rawinia Higgins, on the other hand, assures me that when Māori learn te reo as a second language, they pole-vault over mediocrity – by the very nature of their experience – to the sweet slopes of the extraordinary. Or, you know, that’s how I heard it.

Higgins is the chairperson of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (The Māori Language Commission). She is deputy vice-chancellor Māori at Victoria University, and a member of Ngāi Tūhoe.

Appointed in 2018, she is the first chairperson to be a second-language learner of te reo. This offers a new perspective on learning: that of the self-starter. It was at her own request as an 11-year-old that she attended bilingual Te Wharekura o Ruātoki (under then-principal Tawhirimatea Williams with his wife, Kaa), and went to live with her kuia, Te Uru McGarvey.

At the school, which in 1978 became the country’s first bilingual kura, she was initially upskilled in a remedial class for te reo. A remedial class! Now she chairs the Crown entity charged with promoting, expanding and improving reo as a living language.

I spoke to Higgins for tips from her experience and knowledge to help Māori who started learning te reo only after the most formative language school: the crib, the bouncinette, that freaky table-cum-wheeler thing that babies charge around in, like jam-smeared tarantula. Early childhood, I mean.

Māori, she says, should understand that learning their heritage language will be an emotionally charged experience.

“So the learning is not just about being orally proficient, but actually reconnecting to our identity. And that, in and of itself, is more than just a language… It becomes a whole soul-searching experience.”

Joel Maxwell: “I was feeling a little anxious. I’d been learning te reo Māori for five years and everything felt like it was flattening out.” Jericho Rock-Archer / Stuff

When you factor in that te reo can be a healing mechanism for mamae (hurt) passed through generations, then this only adds to the pressure Māori must conquer.

“I want to encourage people to own your fear, see the taniwha, slay the taniwha and know that we can scare ourselves into paralysis, or we can overcome our fear and just spit it out at some point.”

So you’re shaking up your soul, and finding your identity, and healing intergenerational trauma, and learning about passive-tense sentences and plural possessives.

Higgins says you need to “set some rules” around how you approach it, and who you want to help you.

She encourages learners to say the magic words “aroha mai”, which in this context translates into “I’m just learning, please be kind”. “Aroha mai gets you a long way in the Māori world, I’ve decided.”

Tā Tīmoti Kāretu can be a daunting co-panelist on the subject of te reo Māori. (File photo) Whakaata Māori / Supplied

Most of all, we need to use te reo, despite the personal risks we take in exposing ourselves as Māori – or we simply risk losing it, Higgins says.

“And you know finding those people around you who are supportive is always going to make that easier. If someone’s just a grumpy person you probably don’t want to talk to them in English either, so it’s all relative.”

Growing up, the first language in her home was English – her mum, Te Ripowai Higgins, was a native speaker but mostly only used te reo with visiting whānau. The richness, the laughter, the smiles during those visits – Higgins knew she wanted to learn this language, so she asked to go to school in Ruātoki.

JM: I tērā wā, he aha ōu whakaaro, ia wā, ia wā, e rongo ana koe i te rere o te reo Māori?

RH: I te tino hiakai au, ki taua reo, nā te mea, i a rātou [ō a Rawinia whanaunga] i kōrero i te reo Māori, i te kata rātou, he mōmona te ahua o ō rātou kōrero … e whakaaro ake au 'kei reira tētahi kōrero ataahua, kei te pirangi au ki te ako'. Nō reira, i au 11 pea taku pakeke, ka pātai au ki āku mātua, pēnā ka whakaae mai rāua kia haere au ki te kura a Ruātoki i te taha o tētahi o ōku kuia, noho ai mō te tau.

For heritage languages in a multigenerational restoration plan, every effort, large or small, contributes to the ultimate goal, Higgins says.

Tawhirimatea Williams was the tumuaki of the bilingual Ruātoki kura where Rawinia Higgins learned te reo Māori. He is pictured with his wife, Kaa Williams, a kaiako there as well. (File photo) Abigail Dougherty / Stuff

“And so I always try to encourage people to not try to solve it with themselves.”

That’s good advice, I think, and maybe the person who went from remedial learner to language commissioner even follows it sometimes.

A week earlier, Higgins was in a panel with Tā Tīmoti Kāretu and Pānia Papa, “gurus of the language”. “The anxiety is real,” Higgins says. “The fear is real, it doesn’t matter how good you are.”

This, I shamefully admit to myself, is good stuff. Exactly what I needed to hear. I realised for people in a mediocrity-panic like myself, the rongoā we need doesn’t always come from the uplift.

Higgins says as a second-language learner you sit there, and you listen to the reo, and you compute it, and you analyse – probably overanalyse – and you think, “What did that mean?” then you formulate an answer, and you wonder if it’s correct – should this be an “i” or a “ki”?, “What grammatical structure am I using?” – and then after much mental reassembling, you spit it out, and realise you got it wrong anyway.

The thing is, we make similar mistakes in English all the time, says Higgins, but we don’t care. Te reo Māori is personal.

“Because you know, [you think] ‘Does that make me lesser-than in my identity?’ It’s that real deep-seated emotional connection to your identity, and particularly an identity that has been under threat for the last 180-plus years.”

Meanwhile, it’s been 50 years since the Māori language petition was delivered on the steps of Parliament, starting a resurgence for te reo Māori me ōna tikanga. Those decades of effort since the petition are paying off, Higgins says. But we must “kōrero, kōrero, kōrero”.

“Each of us contributes in our own way, to restore that broken link, and I just want to encourage people. Use is hard, but use is essential.”

Those people who went out and gathered 33,000 signatures sure didn’t know what fruits would come from their mahi. Higgins points out many had no reo themselves.

If there’s one thing I learned from our kōrero, it’s how outrageous it was that I ever thought my achievements, good, bad, mediocre, were mine at all. The awakening, the infrastructure, the resources for my journey came from their work.

Their excellence, I can keep in my pocket, like a photo – dog-eared but beloved – while I sit here and contemplate the peaks ahead.

Translations of the reo Māori passages were incorporated into the English sections of this story.