Talia Marshall (Rangitāne Ō Wairau/ Ngāti Kuia/ Ngāti Rarua) is working on a poetry book that will hopefully be out before she turns forty and is officially middle aged.
When I first started publishing essays I had to think about macrons. Those dashes that crown a Māori word with a pōtae or tohutō and tell you how long to hold a vowel sound in reo.
I mean I had to make sure they were in the right place before they were published so if people read my work and found a macron missing over a Māori word, they wouldn’t get too upset. I didn’t want to give anyone the pleasure of being this upset.
It meant checking what I knew by ear on the Māori online dictionary a lot, and this process of checking what I knew as a Māori who had learnt Māori at school against an online medium struck me as being as inauthentic, that thing the macron is meant to act as, as a badge or emoji, a flat black halo of authenticity. A sign that you know what you are talking about.
One of the reasons people take to social media is this performance of knowing what you are talking about. It’s definitely one of the reasons I gravitate towards it. Recently during some fuss, I noticed a Pākehā man on Twitter sighing about the stupidity of people other than himself, and of course being WOKE he’d used “Auē” to sigh, oh-weeehh except he’d got so excited the macron was in the wrong place.
So, if he was actually declaiming over his keyboard like a kuia he would have sounded hōhā as. I got so excited about his error I immediately deactivated my embryonic twitter account as the urge to correct someone I’d never met was strong. It was a Friday night and I was at home telling myself to get a grip over macrons. Maybe I had been possessed by the macron taniwha. I guess it’s also important to point out here that macrons can change the meaning of some kupu in reo but on the marae or in homes where Māori is the first language this would be conveyed with sound not text.
And I’m only being trite about my Twitter non-encounter because the history of macron usage amongst early Māori scholars and Pākehā missionaries tasked with turning the reo into alphabet was haphazard. Until the establishment of the Māori Language Act in 1987 the use of double vowels to express length was interchangeable with macrons or both were entirely absent as a pronunciation tool. As late as the 1940s even that great classicist Apirana Ngata’s use of the macron was sporadic in seminal texts. One uneasy consequence of the radical Māori renaissance of the 1970s reification into legislature is the homogenisation of our regional dialects. Although one could argue this happened the moment iwi and hapū became maori, and then Maori with a capital and now Māori with a tohūto or polite colonial hat. Aotearoa was a continent of interconnected iwi states that were coerced into becoming a nation with the Treaty. Now on the online Māori dictionary you won’t find the consonants ‘l’, ‘b’, or ‘v’ but there are some Southern Māori with whakapapa older than the Ngāi Tahu invaders who insist they retained the oceanic softness of Polynesia to their speech.
Māori literacy rates in the mid nineteenth century were high; after the conflict of the musket wars we took to the bible in contrition as much as it took to us. Many of the chiefs signed the Treaty with a signature or improvised mark but those that signed with their moko were also telling a story, richer in whakapapa than a signature. Currently most Māori are unable to hold a fluent conversation in reo yet our whakatauki appear in government reports lamenting our statistics rather than the bric-a-brac of everyday speech. It is telling that these proverbs will be unfamiliar to many of the children identified in policy reviews as vulnerable. Some of our Māori children are so vulnerable in fact, all we’ve done for them lately is give their imagined poverty of existence a new name, Oranga Tamariki. To me this rebranding is as useful as putting lipstick over a bleeding gash.
The most famous of whakataukī, “he tāngata he tāngata he tāngata,” that divines people as being the most important thing in the world begins by asking where will the bell bird sing if the heart of the harakeke or flax bush is ripped out: Kei whea te kōmako e kō? Because it is the manawa or heart of the flax bush where the the moko are held protected, and why weavers take the grandparents or outers shoots for their mahi.
The kōhanga reo movement was designed perfectly to put the words back into the mouths of our tamariki, the fledgling bellbirds with plent of kai. But the thing missing from this perfect metaphor for language, heart and community in contemporary Māori societies is those outer shoots, the kaitiaki or caregivers. The assimilating processes of colonisation have stripped away the outer leaves leaving the children as exposed as Moses floating down the river in a government donated sleeping pod. One of the first places an adolescent might hear of the harakeke model is when some wised up whānau worker describes how fucked up their family is to them using a genogram. The other place Māori youth might experience the tuku iho of their ancestors is in prison through government funded kaupapa and the tragedy of this is paradoxical because these rangatahi already carry the mana of their ancestors, it’s the conduit for expressing it that’s blocked.
During my social services degree Māori history, tikanga and kaupapa formed a large part of our learning. Every paper we took demanded we slant the national and historical context of the Treaty over largely eurocentric pedagogical paradigms. In social services this is also for the more pragmatic reason that so many of our client would identify as Māori and have an embedded right to be understood on their own terms. But what are these terms if most Māori don’t speak Māori and how useful is it for a Pākehā to manufacture their own pepeha to relate to clients who may be more worried about the power being turned off, bare cupboards or that their uncle is abusing them.
Language stands in place of matter and feeling to become its own colossus, its own matter in fact. Isn’t that how most constructivist, post-structuralist thought conceives the world? Much of the agenda of any rights movement that has sought to empower the disenfranchised has utilised language as one of its primary modes of resistance and reclamation. And the kōhanga reo movement is a putiputi in that crown. But, if language is the be all and end all in the transmission of culture then why have Māori survived as a distinct yet necessarily morphing identity despite the weaning from both the whenua and its milk? What is remarkable to me about Māori is that we have endured partcipating in and resisting having our own native tongue ripped from our throats and further, have still found a ways to be so recognisably us. I can hear this resistance even in the way we have shortened cousin to cuz.
Over the Summer I read Witi Ihimaera’s memoir Maori Boy and in one passage he describes his father’s siblings by comparing them to Zeus’ whanau. The brother Witi likens to Dionysus, Uncle Puku has a large brood and Witi lists them, “Bison, Pop, Elizabeth, Mini, Kiki, Rangi, Tom, Kathleen, Charlie and Yo”. There is a whole Māori universe in that list of names , but only one that stands out as reo. Witi is extraordinary not only because he is the first Māori to publish a novel in English but also because he grew up as the kind of pepi we imagine snug in the harakeke bush of poor but idyllic Māori communities still rich in their own tikanga and stories. In Witi’s childhood, the outer shoots around him were strong, and connected him to the deeper magic of his glorious whakapapa, like the grandmother on the cover of the book who holds his hand and of course her moko Witi is well looked after and wearing a knitted hat.
Witi also describes being part of the larger Smiler shearing gang clan. This was a way of life that managed to sustain his whānau but because it was seasonal work it also demanded structure and financial discipline to make the fruits of the mahi last the year. Partly because of all the recent dairy conversions shearing is drying up as a way of life for rural Māori. And along with the freezing, factory and mill closures associated with the neoliberal reforms of the eighties; the dismantling of unions and the tenuous nature of seasonal work as a result comes the collapse of the structures that enabled these families to support their own. This social crisis is also aided and abetted by the increasing and insidious presence of meth.
The conditions and sense of structure that allowed Witi to thrive no longer exist in many Māori communities and this isn’t just a rural issue and includes our urban suburban ‘pa’ which have come to be viewed as fortresses of crumbling dysfunction. And the media in New Zealand does have a collective tendency to dote on the optics of our worst stories or stories designed to elicit clicks and idiotic responses.
When experts like Nigel Latta-who appears to know everything about hinengaro and nothing about wairua-get to poke around in our recycling bins tutting over the cans of Woodstock and Billy Maverick for info-tainment. When the roll call of our dead, abused children is the chief spectacle in a carnival of horror. One of the main reasons Māori need to seize and exercise ownership over our problematic narratives when it comes to child abuse is because outsiders with their fixing tendencies have shown that they can’t be trusted with our children either.
Recently I watched a Native Affairs segment where Albie Epere and April Mokomoko talked about the injustices they suffered when they were uplifted from their families and subjected to the care of the state. They are notorious figures in Dunedin because they’re a Mangu Kaha whānau who have been in the local news but everytime I’ve noticed April in public I’m always rude and stare because she is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen, like Nefertiti in a leather vest. In their interview she was totally fierce when she described what happened to her wairua in ‘care’, she seemed to be saying that the easiest way to break a person’s spirit is to abuse it when no one is looking. I cannot convey the perfection of the way she thundered the word wairua here with just text but any inquiry into what happened to children as wards of the state needs to address the systemic causes of her fury.
Why do we expect these adults to recover from and transcend their non-care with grace and without the putea that might begin to allow it, when they have been skulls trodden on in the dark and their innocence stolen by those meant to preserve it. April also describes being parted from a Nanny who wanted to look after her, it wasn’t neglect that forced her into care it was the state herding her future from behind.
It is easy for civil servant sitting in an office to get their macron right in the official literature that diagnoses the vulnerability of past, present and future tamariki; the real struggle is in applying the same easy salves to the fissures in their existence. I applaud any Pākehā that wants to perform their allyship with Māori on social media, but it’s a slow clap because it seems to drip with the same kind of fatal sincerity and incomprehension that infects our policies.
To uplift a child from the centre of the flax bush means that the outer shoots lose their mauri and will perish along with the bellbird. The driving kaupapa behind Tariana Turia’s flagship whānau ora policy was the premise that we don’t just work with children as isolated individuals, we should work holistically with all parts of the harakeke. Yet if we are unwilling to admit there are tensions between the whānau first policy and the historical precedent that predicts some of these children will die or be further maimed physically, spiritually and emotionally if they stay unsupported within their own whānau then the state is failing their duty of care to protect them.
But the best way to ensure plant health (and maybe it’s the same for people) is to feed the roots. Rather than remove children permanently it is more constructive to work alongside whānau to restore their dignity and safety so they are left to look after their own on their own. These homes, caravans, garages and cars where children are already learning to absorb the language of their whānau like a book are not just an ideological battlefield, they are porous organic entities full of precious beings. We should foster their potential, their agency and their climb into our lap for care, not doom them as prophetic data gleaned from a searchlight looking for deficits.
I have had editors get sweaty about my macrons being out of place and have been simultaneously lectured about how to install the macron function on my computer while they tinkered with my Māori story to the point that I no longer heard my identity but their projection of it. Funnily enough, writing this I finally figured out how to install the Māori keyboard on my laptop and it’s already changed my life not having to copy and paste them into my documents. Perhaps this laborious process dictated some of my resistance to the macron. And I concur that being tika in written communication is important. But the first place we receive our tongue is through the ear and what will ensure the survival of reo alongside our distinct but multiplicitious identity as Māori is feeding the kupu into our babies like banana on a spoon.
When I was at my low decile urban primary school Mr. Te Whaiti, our teacher made us sit on the mat while he read us Pounamu Pounamu. He did all the voices of the nannies playing a game of cards. I remember being entranced while I fingered all the different coloured threads in the institutional carpet.