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Heidi Brickell, Artist 19.09.21

Heidi takes us through the journey Tāngata Whenua undertook to reach Aotearoa, walking us through the history and the importance of upholding the revitalisation of Te Reo.

"Languages need speaker to live. And the more people that speak, the easier it is for others to speak... More people speaking creates a population that creates demand for resources and makes it viable for companies to create them."

The Polynesian ancestors who first discovered these islands and over time became Māori were explorers, perhaps the most innovative ones in all of human history and definitely the most expansive in their reach. They were the first humans to leave the stability of living on land to navigate the vast expanse of ocean that covers a third of our planet. They were traversing Te Moana-nui-ā-Kiwa (also known as The Pacific Ocean) for five thousand years before any other peoples developed their own versions of technology to enable them to do so too. When those first ancestors discovered this whenua, between eight and twelve hundred years ago, they brought with them a language that had evolved off the back of the ocean. Five thousand years of communication centered around a relationship with water.

Maybe you can imagine how its metaphors to express feeling and human experience and relationships and all of the other more abstract ideas that every language has scaffolded off, of its landscape and the materials used for everyday survival. Pacific languages share this unique basis, so different from the material histories that the English language is grafted from.

The chunks of land we call Aotearoa broke off from the Gondwana super continent eighty million years ago. And they were among the last ones on earth to be settled by humans. So, similarly to the languages evolve as new situations require new approaches, the trees, the plants, the dinosaurs, the birds, the bugs that evolved here in symbiosis which each other are genetically unique among their type species of the world. And when our Polynesian ancestors discovered these islands, they brought with them an ocean language. That language evolved for around another millennium, adapting all the while to express intimate relationships with this idiosyncratic landscape and all that was needed to use and sustain its sources of food, shelter and other resources. And much of that is again embedded in the everyday metaphor and idiom used to express relationships and systems too.

That’s a tiny evolutionary history of where we live, in answer to a question about my own journey in learning te reo Māori. I talked about all this there though, because I want to express the richness and importance of our indigenous language for deepening a sense of belonging to this place. I always wanted to learn Māori as a child. I descend from Ngāti Apakura, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāi Rangitāne and Ngāi Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Airini (Ireland) me Ngāti Kotirana (Scotland) through my mother. She never taught me to speak Māori though. Neither had she been taught it by her mother as those generations internalised the messages that te reo Māori wouldn’t help you survive in a world dominated by Pākehā here. As an adult now, most of my work over the the past ten years have been within Māori governed spaces. As I began to increasingly to spend time in these spaces, I grew to recognise how fundamentally Māori my mother is, in her relational orientation and in the way she connects things in her mind. I’ve also experienced affirmation for ways of thinking and doing things in Māori spaces that had been negated in some of the Pākehā governed institutions I’ve been through. I don’t want to put these spaces into heavy binaries, but these experiences have given me a tacit understanding of how cultural bias operates.

Back to my own beginnings, I picked up pieces of the reo from school and all through childhood. When I went to high school I finally had the opportunity to learn to use the reo more coherently. I had incredible teachers who not only taught me to articulate my thinking through the delineations of Māori language, but in doing so they also passed on a lot of history that I’m often surprised other people aren’t aware of. There is so much knowledge that embeds itself involuntarily in the way you think when you learn te reo Māori, and sometimes it takes a while to see it. At some point though, you get a sudden recognition that your brain is using new tools to understand a situation. It’s pretty mind-blowing digesting Aotearoa’s indigenous language.

I’m a visual artist and I spent my early adult years entirely focusing on that, but by the time I finished an MFA (with many detours in between) I missed te reo so much that I took an immersion course and ended up studying and working further in the field of Māori Medium (language) Education. In 2014 I assisted on a research project about Māori Language Health, and for this special, important language, this repository of deep knowledge that was engineered out of use by colonising policy makers over the approximate two hundred years of tauiwi settlement here, the statistics seemed to spell doom. But at the same time it seemed in my everyday life, like more people were speaking te reo around me. I was starting to see parents talking to their tamariki in Māori at the supermarket, I would run into the odd fluent speaker in a bar, and drunkenly make note of some novel pickup lines. I wondered if I was just noticing these things because I could speak too now, and had just never noticed them in the past. But now it’s very clear that a wave was just starting at that point. It’s amazing to see the uptake of te reo in this country in the years since then. Languages need speakers to live. And the more people that speak, the easier it is for others to speak – I say this with a caveat that I’ll come back to in a minute. More people speaking creates a population that creates demand for resources and makes it viable for companies to create them. And having those resources makes it ever more appealing to speak te reo, as its resources cater to an ever wider range of diverse individuals.

I have always encouraged everybody who lives here to yes! Please! Learn to speak Māori. It’s such a cool, cool language, and it will expand your mind. As a desire to make things right with our atrocious colonial history in Aotearoa and to embrace te reo Māori is growing, there is a justice issue of access which becomes more apparent. There are so many Māori who are still living with the inter-generational impacts of two centuries, of what can only be likened to a relationship with a narcissistic abuser in the form of settler government. Robbing, physically abusing, lying, using, befriending and then discarding, humiliating, degrading, and always with the message explicitly conveyed (in so many historical documents if you go and have a look for them) that “You are inferior to us” has imposed some profound trauma on so many of our people. Socio-economic status and the laws and norms that protect that status quotient are a massive perpetrator of that. This means that many Māori today don’t have the privilege to be studying or picking up night courses while they are still carrying those impacts.

I personally believe that it is so important for as many people as want to and can, to learn te reo Māori, to support its growth, to enjoy it, and enrich themselves with it. But it needs to be about relationship. It is fundamental to recognise that if you are blessed with any of free time, money, educational advantage, and freedom from shame and heartbreak every time you try to use a language that you feel you should already know because its connected to your identity, how painful it can be for the survivors of colonisation – survivors of abuse by a Pākehā Crown – to watch members of the group that has inflicted all that mamae acquiring your cultural knowledge when you don’t have the chance to. I don’t have a direct answer for what to do about this, except to say that for tauiwi learning te reo it should be done in a way that is committed to ultimately achieving the co-governorship that Māori were promised in Te Tiriti. Privilege and inequality have existed as long as humans have and the world isn’t fair. I know this, and I still feel gratitude everyday, for example, where the lives of everyone I know have been spared from corona virus, while I still have the knowledge of how the rest of the world is suffering and the injustice of that. I also feel grateful for the lock-downs, which I personally love, as they afford me so much time on my own terms, even though I wouldn’t trade that individual gain for all the suffering of many if the choice was mine. I think its okay to feel thankful for all the privilege you have in the one life you get. I don’t think guilt is productive, but gratitude is. Because generosity, empathy, humility and respect are what spills out of it.

Like my mother, who speaks no Māori, but still infuses every environment she enters with distinctive Māori aroha, manaaki and openness, Māori people themselves are carriers of so much of what the language expresses, whether or not they speak te reo. And their voices and perspectives should always be centered and not side-lined in any space to do with their taonga and in other spaces too, because they have so much to bring to it. For tauiwi blessed with the opportunity to learn te reo, it should be gone about with a willingness to understand structural privilege and with commitment to playing your part in redistributing it. In my experience, the richest personal relationships are the ones in which power is shared and mutual respect is fostered. Learning te reo can be a beautiful pathway to embark on building those kinds of relationships between Tangata Whenua and Tauiwi.

Written by Heidi Brickell

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