I was born at Te Hapua, on the shores of Parengarenga Harbour, New Zealand’s northernmost village. Although poorly endowed, the parents in our village fought for their children to be educated. Even the old people who had missed out on schooling altogether were vehement about its importance.
“Go and get the Pakeha clever,” they would say.
From the cradle, Maori was the only language spoken, and, by the age of five, fluency in our mother tongue was almost on a par with that of our parents and elders. Even family pets like dogs, cats and horses responded only to commands in Maori.
It was no big deal then. Like any other isolated Maori community, te reo Maori was the only means of communication. From dawn to dusk and deep into the candle-lit night, the language in all its shades, colours and textures flowed, trickled and boomed over us.
My first experience of the sheer emotional power of te reo Maori occurred at a tangihanga when I was very young. Our parents normally forbade us from the marae on such occasions. Why they relented on this occasion remains a mystery to me, as they have both passed on.
The tangihanga was for a revered kaumatua who had died suddenly at home. Authorities could not verify the cause of death, so they took him to hospital where an autopsy was carried out.
Our homefolk waited a day and a half for the body to be returned—an agonising period when each hour and minute counted. This was normally the time for the living to plumb the depths of the soul: to orate, sing, wail, laugh, cajole, weep, pay homage and even rebuke and reprimand the tupapaku for their shortcomings and misadventures while alive and kicking.
In essence, this is when the cloak of words, song and incantation is woven; the finest korowai to bedeck the loved one before their final journey ki tua 0 te arai (beyond the veil).
The haunting blare of a non-stop vehicle horn ripped through the air, signalling the arrival of the tupapaku. Minutes later an aging dilapidated Chevrolet truck, one of only three vehicles in the village, rumbled, spluttered and came to a gasping halt outside the marae. Several passengers were in the cab; the rest were on the tray. The immediate family were huddled awkwardly around the casket, their faces and clothes smothered in dust.
Even before the engine cut out, a scream of frightening intensity exploded from within the bosom of the meeting house. Instead of the traditional solitary female karanga, this time every kuia was crying out. Howling, shrieking, sobbing pitifully, punctuated by moving phrases, extolling memories of the deceased.
I had never been so frightened in my life. I screeched my head off with the rest—not in sorrow but in absolute fear. I realised then why mum and dad had kept us away from tangihanga. Fortunately, I was able to follow threads of most of the speeches. I understood, too, the reason for the huge outpouring of grief. The tupapaku had been the first Ngati Kuri to go under the mortician’s scalpel. For gati Kuri this was an absolute transgression that they were not ready for, nor prepared to accept. The human body is sacred. And in death, it becomes even more so.
Almost fifty years on, I vividly recall one of the kuia calling out pitifully:
“I haria atu koe he tangata, hoki rawa mai, kua tapatapahia, ano nei he kararehe. Aue! Te mamae e ngau nei i roto eel”
(You left us a complete man—you return today, lacerated, like the proverbial beast. Oh! The pain uncoiling from the pit!)
Once the lament had subsided, an elder and contemporary rose to deliver his eulogy. He walked over to the body and proceeded to beat the casket with his walking stick. He did this for several minutes with hardly a murmur. He turned to face the assembly with tears streaming down his craggy face:
“He aha ahau i whakarerea ai e koe. Ko koe, ko hau anake 0 te ao kohatu. Ko wai hei hoa korero moku?”
(Why did you leave me? You and I are the only ones of the stone age. Whom can I talk with now?)
Tangihanga these days have become far less emotional and passionate. Perhaps we’re becoming too self-conscious and no longer able to give our emotions as free a reign as our tupuna did.
Yet the supreme’ importance of these occasions was rammed home to us from early childhood: “E tamariki rna, te wa e pakari ake ai koutou, me haere ki nga tangihanga. Koina te tohu e mohiotia ai koutou he tangata. I tua mai 0 tena; hei hiki i te pouritanga i runga i te whanau pani. Te kanohi i kitea i te marae; he kanohi e kore e wareware- tia. ”
(Children, when you reach adulthood go to your tangihanga. Therein lies your nobility. Besides, you can help ease the sorrow of the bereaved. A face seen on the marae is a face never forgotten).
“Koina te tino whare wananga Maori e rongo ai koe i nga korero tawhito, pakiwaitara, whakapapa, waiata ngeri, korero tara, korero whakakatakata hoki.”
(That is the real Maori University where you can hear history, legends, genealogies, songs, poetry, incantations and even bawdy tales and light talk for making laughter).
Those halcyon days of te reo, however, came to an abrupt end when we went to school. Overnight, it seemed, the language and culture that we’d been nurtured in and told to be proud of became a hindrance and a cause for much physical pain. Punishment for speaking Maori at school came by way of a thick leather strap or a springy supple-jack.
For Maori people the attack on language has its roots in the Treaty of Waitangi, and the fact that it has never been honoured. At this year’s 15Oth anniversary treaty celebrations at Waitangi, and in front of the Queen, the Bishop of Aotearoa, the Rt Rev Whakahuihui Vercoe, reiterated these sentiments in no uncertain terms.
“Since 1840,” he said, “the partner that has been marginalised is me—the language of this land is yours, the media by which we tell the world who we are is yours, the history of my people that is now beginning to be written is written by Pakehas, so that when my tupuna speaks he speaks in immaculate English. He spoke in Maori, why don’t you quote him in Maori.”
In the past these words came mainly from the mouths of radicals. It is more than appropriate that 150 years on, a Maori bishop of this nation’s founding faith should make such bold pronouncements.
One of the great things to happen to the Maori language in the 1940s was the emergence of Wiremu Parker as a broadcaster. He was initially appointed to relay to families news of the 28th Maori Battalion—those who’d been killed, injured or reported missing in the war zone. Wiremu, however, gradually expanded the news format until the programme became a forum for all tribes.
Wiremu’s items were always embellished with proverbs and aphorisms pertaining to the particular tribes where the news had emanated. His programme was compulsory listening for our family. We’d gather around our battery-driven Mullard wireless, hanging on to every mellifluous word that he let loose over our islands. (When the broadcasts began, a woman actually rang the station complaining about interference by a foreign language programme!)
“Tihe mauri ora. Ko te Reo Irirangi tenei o 2YA e panui atu nei i nga pitopito korero o te wiki.” (I sneeze—it is life. This is the Spirit Voice of 2YA bringing you this week’s Maori News… ”
For the first time, too, te reo Maori became accessible to everyone on a national and permanent basis, and my own love affair with the language had begun. Wiremu was emphatic that the Maori ear needed to be caressed and teased with the finest language that one could summon up.
Years later, when we worked together, he would say, “He reo ana rna te kai papa; he reo ana rna nga atua.” (There is a language for the cigarette smoker, and a language for the gods.)
A ‘language for the gods’ was a particular interest of the late Dr Pei Te Hurinui Jones. He had continued the work on Nga Moteatea (Maori songs) begun by Sir Apirana Ngata in the 1920s, but he also had a deep appreciation of world literature, and set about translating The Rubaiyat and The Merchant of Venice into Maori.
Te Hurinui admired tohungatanga (priestly prowess) universally. An opportunity to translate great literature like that of Shakespeare or Omar Khayyam meant hoisting Maori language to new heights.
Maori scholars who had enjoyed just the English version now had an opportunity to hear Shylock (Hairoka) speak like a wise old kaumatua. Here is Te Hurinui’s translation of Shylock’s memorable speech: “Mehemea werohia matou, kaore koia e heke te toto i a matou?
Mehemea me whakangaoko matou, kaore ia nei matou e kata? Mehemea paihimitia kaore e mate? A, ki te tukinotia matou e koutou, kaua matou e whakautu?”
(If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?)
The formidable spark for Maori renaissance can be traced directly to the 1975 Maori land march from Te Hapua to Parliament Buildings, Wellington. The march scooped up thousands who’d been torn from their cultural roots and gave them their first taste of living, vibrant, pulsating Maori life as they moved from marae to marae en route.
Some of today’s orators and waiata exponents began their journey of cultural exploration during those heady, volatile times of Te Heke Nui (The Great March). That extraordinary matriarch Dame Whina Cooper used her gargantuan skills to establish and lead the march. She bestrode Maui’s fish like a mythical figure herself, sharing her taonga with all and sundry. Dame Whina peppered the march with fiery speeches and witticisms which gave direction to the myriads who followed in her wake.
Such individuals carry their verbal arsenal in their heads. I’ve known orators who possess tauparapara (introductory chants) for every possible occasion. And there are also the creative ones who can compose original tauparapara on the spot, drawing on the environment and the philosophy of the hui for inspiration.
One of the most forceful orators that Dame Whina Cooper ever saw was Te Pairi of Tuhoe. He did not wear shoes on the marae, preferring to feel the pulse and heartsway of Papatuanuku (Earthmother).
Whaikorero for the aged patriarch was tantamount to warfare on his opposite numbers. This was shown by the ferocity of his thrusts and parries. He used guile and explosive rhetoric to outfox his opposition. Te Pairi’s cultural depth, though, told him when to stop.
The marae was Te Pairi’s amphitheatre. An arching rainbow, a thunderclap or scrawl of lightning over the meeting house would be pounced on as added imagery and embellishment for his whaikorero. On such occasions he would naturally claim that the gods had intervened on his behalf.
At one large hui, Te Pairi was airborne and still winding up to launch his salvoes when his foot came slapping down on a rusty nail. The pain was so excruciating that the octogenarian leapt even higher, to cheers and exultation from his admirers, who were oblivious to what had happened. His next landing impaled the nail completely into his foot.
By now the old man was roaring, captivating the assembly in a way that had never been done before. Te Pairi continued his whaikorero and ritual incantations to the bitter end, without once flinching.
On another occasion his swishing hands exploded a tin of wax matches in his coat pocket. Undeterred, our inveterate performer continued his mind blowing performance. Although reduced to an animated scarecrow and shrouded by flame and smoke, the booming voice was still right on course. Concerned folk quickly dowsed the flames, but the old sage had the last word:
“Tu mai te tangata e taea ana te whakamura ana korero.” (Stand up anyone who can turn his words into a fireball.)
Te Pairi epitomised the power of Maori creativity, the sacredness of the spoken word and the sheer joy of testing his intellectual mettle with a live and responsive audience.
The importance of oratory is summed up in the following proverb:
“Ko te kai a te rangatira he korero.
Ko ta te ware, he muhu kai.”
(The food of chiefs is talk. The commoner merely gobbles up food.)
The complete orator is a highly esteemed figure in Maoridom. He has at his command genealogies, chants, proverbs, pungent humour and wit. at only is he erudite, he is also a compulsive and consummate actor.
In 1984, Maori elders were invited to Wellington for a national hui. From the outside, it appeared to be a typical government public relations exercise. Kaumatua, however, had other thoughts. They yearned for a worthwhile kaupapa to sink their teeth into. Numerous topics emerged, but there was one that gripped the assembly. They discussed the establishment of Maori language units for children throughout the country.
When the hui ended, Sir James Henare and Tilly Reedy stayed on to formulate philosophy and kaupapa. They searched for a name to embrace the quest by the young for their mother tongue. After heaving words about, the name ‘kohanga’ surfaced. It was merely formality to add ‘reo’ to it, and the rest is history.
Kohanga reo, the language nest, was born. In no time nests began to sprout up from North Cape to Bluff. They operated in sheds. barns, basements and old halls until new premises were built. Grannies, parents and fluent speakers came into their own, throwing everything they had into the programme. Who better to retrieve the language but the very people themselves for whom te reo is their heritage?
Very soon blue-eyed, green-eyed and brown-eyed mokopuna would have phrases in perfect Maori rolling off their infant tongues. For many of our old people this development had come as a godsend. Their ihi and mana is in te reo Maori; and what better taonga to bequeath to their mokopuna and to generations yet unborn?
The thought of a marae in the future denuded of its own tongue is a tragedy beyond comprehension. For many of us who are city dwellers, the yearning is always there to be enveloped by the ancestral house and to bathe in korero and waiata. To hear a kaumatua’s healing powhiri:
“Haere mai ra kia pa mai koe ki au, kia pa atu au ki a koe. Kia rongo au i tou mahana, kia rongo koe i toku mahana. Kia kai tahi, kia kor81″o tahi, kia moe tahi, kia tangi tahi, kia karakia tahi, kia kata tahi ai tatou… ”
(Welcome that you may touch me and I touch you. So that I may feel your warmth; and you feel mine. So that we can eat together, sleep together, talk together; weep, pray and laugh together.)
Samuel Johnson summed it up eloquently after a tour of the Hebrides more than zoo years ago:
“I am always sorry when any language is lost, because languages are the pedigree of nations.”