Opinion: My te reo Māori journey - Oriini Kaipara

"Te reo Māori isn't just a language, it's a safe haven for many like me."
"Te reo Māori isn't just a language, it's a safe haven for many like me." Photo credit: Newshub.

Opinion: I love hearing and seeing te reo. I always have. 

Like water to fish or air to all living things - te reo Māori is my sustenance. 

I was born into te reo Māori, immersed in total Māori education from nappies to adulthood. Te reo was the only language I could speak during my childhood, and tikanga was a way of life we practiced daily, at home and at school.

My reo hero was and still is my koro (grandfather), Hori Te Pou. He only spoke te reo to me, which is why it's so important to me. 

It was our 'love' language, and my nan - his wife - carried it on when he passed away in 1996. 

Losing my koro devastated my entire whānau. It left all our homes bereft of te reo and tikanga. He was our pillar, our tower of strength when it came to our whakapapa. 

We stopped going to our marae, and te reo was hardly spoken at any of our whānau hui. The only place I could practice te reo was at school and when I started performing kapa haka at a senior competitive level. 

As a teenager, I was exposed to more of the 'outside' world, which meant life outside the comfort of my kura (school) and kāinga (home). It was unsettling. I started to notice strangers sneering and jeering when I'd speak Māori in public with my friends, then it started happening amongst my own whānau who couldn't speak it. 

I slowly stopped speaking my reo and felt ashamed to do so while around any non-speaker. 

It came to a point where I lost a bit of myself, and it's taken me a while to regain my courage and strength. My moko kauwae is a part of that journey of healing trauma - not just my own, but that of my whānau.

My school friends, who I'd grown up with, were and are now in a similar situation. Losing our grandparents and some of our parents during our teenage years brought us all closer together. 

For more than 30 years we have grown from a tight bubble to a community that includes our own tamariki (children) and mokopuna (grandchildren). Life for many of us revolves around kapa haka, our kura, and our Hoani Waititi Marae in West Auckland. 

Te reo Māori isn't just a language, it's a safe haven for many like me who were born into a world that is disappearing with the loss of so many of our kaumātua, our elders, across the country. They were the stalwarts of the 'old Māori world' we can now only read or learn about through secondhand accounts.

Te reo Māori is a living language - he reo ora - and in order to really cultivate its intrinsic value it has to be experienced rather than instructed. It's one thing to be able to utter one or some words, but to breathe the essence of the reo and understand its depth is key to being able to view and navigate the world through a Māori or indigenous lens. 

When I reflect on this year's Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori I am filled with pride.

The official launch at parliament on Wednesday, 50 years from the day the reo petition was presented to the government, reduced me to tears. It was a historic moment where te reo brought thousands together including senior ministers and officials, to celebrate. 

Koirā te wā tuatahi kua kite, kua wheako au i tērā tū āhua nōku e ora ana - that was the first time in my life I had ever seen that. 

I've been moved also by the amount of reo taken up by my Newshub colleagues and cast across our platforms and prime-time programmes. I've felt compelled to watch just because I'm witnessing mainstream media not just embrace our reo, but normalise it.

That wasn't the norm a decade ago, and it certainly wasn't allowed when my grandparents were still alive. So, to have seasoned news anchors and celebrities kōrero even a little throughout this week gives me hope that my language may just survive. Moreover, it gives me hope that my culture is finally being accepted and valued. 

I do ask though that we keep our efforts going beyond Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori. Please. 

I don't want my tamariki or mokopuna to feel displaced nor know the feeling of whakamā (shame) and mamae (trauma) from not being able to speak their ancestral language because society doesn't accept it the other 51 weeks of the year. 

And to my fellow reo speakers, please don't be arrogant. That's one thing I heard from the Ngā Tamatoa reunion in Taranaki this week. There are reo speakers who are making our own people feel bad for not knowing. Reo trauma is real. Help our people heal. 

I'll end with a whakatauāki (proverb) I saw on The Hori's Instagram account, "you can champion te reo Māori without being a champion of te reo Māori".

E ora ai te reo me kōrero - for the language to survive we must speak it.