13 Sep He mana, he whakapapa tō te ingoa o te tangata
It has been really encouraging to see so many people and organisations embracing Te Wiki o te Reo Māori this year. It feels like the tides might be turning, and a more general acknowledgment taking place across Aotearoa of the importance of understanding Māori culture. Making the teaching of New Zealand history compulsory in our schools only adds to this feeling of our society moving in the right direction.
Te reo Māori is a crucial part of te ao Māori (the Māori worldview). We know that embracing the language can feel daunting to many, but just small changes in attitude – namely, being open to giving it a go – can mean positive changes for our nation.
It also has a big impact on individuals. Our Cultural Advisor, Eruera Keepa, shares his personal account of the importance, and impact, of correctly pronouncing Māori names.
I’m 32 and people still can’t say my name right.
2001, “John – yes, Allen – yes, Steve – yes, Matthew – yes, Jeremy – yes. (Long pause) Ummmm… errr…”
I know that awkward silence too well. A close stare at the student register and a long pause after going down the list effortlessly beforehand. To avoid the embarrassment and to beat my teacher to the punch, I politely say yes and put my hand up. And so, this was the start of every period for me at school.
I was a shy Māori boy who already felt out of place, so anticipating when my name was about to be called out was important so I could initiate my response and hopefully minimise any focus on me. After a while, I found some pretty useful methods to make it less of an embarrassing ordeal.
A fake smile was a good one, it always broke the awkwardness and made the teacher feel better. That was always my goal, ensure the teacher’s mana was intact whilst deep inside, I became smaller and smaller.
There was an art to it, a tone of voice, acting a little apologetically and remaining good natured meant the ordeal didn’t last too long. Perhaps I contributed to normalising this practice. I even thought about changing my name to Eddy, to make it easier for my schooling life.
There were times when it became a quick te reo Māori lesson on pronouncing my name. This became another painful exercise by stopping the class and reciting each syllable alongside my teacher.
By this stage, with the giggling and extra attention on me, I just said, “Whatever’s easiest”. And so, “Air-ruuu ee-raah”, it was.
I’m not here to relive my past or throw my school or teachers under the bus. But when I reflect on that experience, was it fair that I had to endure that? It was almost 20 years ago now, but it makes me wonder, have things changed? A person’s name is a very important part of their mana and identity. Is this basic expectation still failing people with Māori names in 2019?
If you’re not familiar with the Māori language, or have had limited learning, of course I wouldn’t expect you to pronounce my name correctly on the first attempt. The vernacular of my name troubles most people and would be an unfair expectation.
What I would however expect in 2019 is a concerted and genuine effort to pronounce Māori names correctly. Recognising that each Māori name has a story and whakapapa, which impacts the mana of that person or place. So, how can we move forward? How can we best acknowledge and recognise te reo Māori in 2019 and beyond?
This might seem like a hang up of my school experience, but it also goes back a few months to when my partner Ria and I spoke about potential names for the impending arrival of our baby. We thought about what happens when he goes to school, we needed a name that will be easy to pronounce.
We seriously factored this into our consideration of names. We were still undecided by the time our boy arrived but when he did, whatever concerns we had around pronunciation difficulties were thrown away. It strictly became about his mana and his whakapapa and so, we bestowed on our boy the name, Te Rongotoa.
It will be 2024 by the time Te Rongotoa goes to school, and I’m hopeful that pronouncing his name won’t be so much of an issue 23 years after his father’s experience. But it’s going to take all of us in Aotearoa to get on board and continue to play our part in making the change for our tamariki.
Kia kaha te reo Māori!