Opinion: My te reo Māori journey - Arohanui West

"I speak Te Reo because they tried to take it away from us, and they failed."
"I speak Te Reo because they tried to take it away from us, and they failed." Photo credit: Newshub.

My mother Kirimatao is Māori, from Te Arawa whānui. My father Michael is from Helsinki, Finland. I am Arohanui, a mixture of Māori, Scottish, Finnish and English and here is my story of how I reclaimed my language.

To start at the beginning, my mother's mum, my Nanny Te Ao Kapurangi Murray, was fluent in Te Reo Māori but she never spoke to my mum in the language. 

She says in those times it was a common, colonised belief that Te Reo Māori wouldn't get you places and as a result entire generations lost their ability to speak their native tongue.

Although my mum couldn't speak Te Reo Māori she spoke using her hands, her language may not have been verbal but she could weave Korowai, Piupiu and Tāniko that spoke for her. 

She also had a decent ability to understand and kōrero (speak) basic phrases, so I grew up very familiar with kupu such as "Taihoa" (wait) "Turituri'' (be quiet) and "Kia tere" (hurry up).

Myself and my four siblings all carry Māori ingoa (names) and I remember being very proud of  my Māori whakapapa.

I attended Catholic schooling from primary right through to high school so there wasn't too much opportunity to further the basic Te Reo I had, although I did take Māori as a class option for a year and joined the kapa haka roopu (group) all throughout my schooling days which I adored.

It wasn't until I got my first summer job when I realised I don't look as Māori as I feel.

I was working as a tour guide at Te Puia and I would have tourists from all over the world question me everyday because they had come to Aotearoa with a preconceived idea of what a Māori looks like. 

I received comments like "are you really Māori if your dad isn't?", "you don't look like a real Māori" and "is Arohanui your real name?".

I realised it was actually never Māori who made me feel not "Māori enough" instead it was those who believed we had to talk a certain way, eat certain kai or act in a certain manner in order to be Māori. 

Upon leaving school I decided to follow in the footsteps of my tuakana (elder-sister) Te Rina who had attended a kura reo (language school) to learn Te Reo.

I spent a year in a full immersion classroom setting at He Kainga Mo Te Reo in Rotorua.

For me, I feel very grateful to say that the reclamation of my language was a very exciting and joyful experience.

Every new kupu (word) learnt. Every time a new sentence structure clicked in my head. When I would be at a tangi (funeral) and understand every word of the Whaikōrero (speech) I just felt so whole.

I learnt my reo so I wouldn't feel whakamā or embarrassed when someone would speak to me in Te Reo. 

I learnt Te Reo for my mum who was never afforded the privilege of growing up with her language. 

I speak Te Reo because they tried to take it away from us, and they failed.