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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 25. 3rd October 1973

Pakehas learning Maori

Pakehas learning Maori

In the past few issues we have run a number of articles on te reo Maori and its place in New Zealand society. As a natural follow-up we thought we could examine just what it entailed for a Pakeha to learn the Maori language, so Roger Steele interviewed John Me Caffery, a student at this University. If it reads a little bit like an advertisement, well, that wasn't intentional. Its just the way the interview turned out, and it's quite a satisfactory result at that.

Firstly, how long have you been learning the Maori language?

Since 1970. But I began initially with a unit of Maori studies. So I had an introduction to things Maori before I actually started on the language.

Did you have any acquaintance with te reo Maori before you came to university?

No, none at all. Before I came to university I hardly knew that Maoris existed. I was completely fooled by this 'we are one people' mentality. And especially, I had no idea that Maoris actually spoke Maori.

And what made you decide to study the language?

In 1969 we went on a Maori Studies field trip up round the East Coast. This was my first extended period of time among Maoris who spoke Maori. Their discussion ranged over a whole field of things, but the most important thing that came out of it was the question of Pakehas and Maoris learning Maori. At that time I decided I understood so little of what was going on that I was going to make sure that in future I did.

Why had you initially done a course in Maori Studies?

Well, I went overseas to Tonga in 1968. It was only by going out of New Zealand that I got some acquaintance with Polynesian people. I got to feel that here I was, a minority of one, in Tonga and that perhaps there were people in New Zealand who felt like this. Perhaps there was a culture which existed that I knew nothing about. I came back trying to find out as much about it as I could.

What have you actually achieved in your studies — what is your standard of Maori now? Do you find it fairly easy to have a conversation in Maori? And do you find difficulty in following speeches?

Conversation isn't too difficult at all, but my comprehension exceeds my ability to speak. I have no trouble at a hui (meeting) following what people are saying except for the more classic illusions, which I enjoy figuring out anyway.

How long would a person have to study Maori before he at least understood what was going on?

Learning a language is not a passive thing. It depends very much on your motivation. If you really want to learn a language and pick it up, I think in a year you could be following and understanding what is going on and participating to a fairly large extent.

What have you gained from your study of the Maori language?

I took it up because I wanted to understand what friends and people around me were saying, and to be able to participate in the social activities of people who I knew, and so much of it is a purely personal thing. I have enough competence in the language and knowledge and background in Maori society to be able to call myself a bicultural, bilingual New Zealander, in that I am able to participate in both Maori and Pakeha social and other activities in both languages.

Photo of MAori girls singing wearing pari and tipare

I am gaining an understanding of New Zealand's dual cultural heritage. Many Pakehas seem to feel that history only began with the arrival of the Pakeha — they say "New Zealand is a young country Knowing some Maori gives you access to the oral traditions, to the songs and poetry, all of which take the history of New Zealand right back to the very arrival of the Polynesians here. That whole aspect of New Zealand heritage contained in Maori oral literature is unavailable to someone who can't speak the language. I can now look around the Wellington area and say well I know what the history is of that hill, what that stream signifies, where a pa once stood over there, and so on.

What has been the reaction from Maori people to you, as a Pakeha, learning their language?

Well that's been one of the most interesting features because initially there was a great deal of suspicion. Whatever Maori things Pakehas had laid their hands on before, it had always been a rip off. The Missionaries talked the Maoris into accepting Christianity and while they were looking up to heaven they took the land from underneath their feet. Many Pakeha academics have used aspects of Maori society for their own betterment and not given anything in return. There was a general feeling when I started learning of how would this Pakeha find a way to turn this thing into a money-making venture?' There was suspicion and opposition, but I think the climate has changed a lot since 1969 when I first started.

Having got over the initial suspicion of you being a Pakeha learning Maori, what further reactions have you had from Maori people?

The thing that's new is that young Pakehas are learning Maori. It's always been acceptable for older Pakehas who are involved in some work form or other to learn it. But the reaction's been very good really and I've received a great deal of encouragement from everybody, both young and old. The reaction from young people is sometimes a bit more suspicious that it is from old people. I feel that by Pakehas learning Maori, being able to speak it and to participate in Maori events, this gives a great deal of heart to the older Maori people. Some of the younger ones have the same attitude as Nga Tamatoa, who won't let Pakehas become members, but I think this shows a rather restricted concept of bilingualism and biculturalism on their part. I think the climate among Maoris at the moment is very conducive to Pakehas learning Maori.

What particular-difficulties have you had, as a monolingual New Zealander learning the Maori language?

Well my biggest regret of course is that it wasn't available to me at school. That's why I'm so deeply involved in Te Reo Maori Society and the movement to creat a bilingual school system. I was totally deceived at school into believing that we were one people, that Maoris were just brown skinned Pakehas. I believed that the Maori language was no longer spoken and of course at that stage it wasn't an issue, it was before the rising of Tamatoa and Te Reo Maori. That was the major difficulty I had, to bring about a psychological shift. It's not hard to learn Maori, in fact it's easy because it's a living language and can be used in and around the home and around university, it can be used every day.

Does all the learning at Victoria take place in the classroom?

Oh no, not at all. There is a danger of the learning of Maori just becoming an academic study like Latin. With Te Reo Maori society there is a great deal of opportunity to get out and round the community and in tact I can recommend Pakehas to get involved with Te Reo Maori for this reason. It will provide them with a way of getting to know the Maori community in a fashion that's acceptable to Maoris. That's the point, it's not so much the learning of the language itself and gaining competence in it but this is a way Pakehas can get to know Maoris on equal terms, it's Pakehas making the adjustment rather than the other way round.

We've got to get rid of the idea that Maori is just for Maoris. Firstly it's for Maoris, access must be given to Maori children, and Maori people wherever they are, to the language. But then it's absolutely vital and important that Pakehas should be given the opportunity to learn it because I think it's the only real way in which Maori and Pakeha can get together as a nation and as a people.

Would you go so far as to say that the study of the Maori language is one of the most useful things a student can do at the university?

Yes, I would, not in quite general terms like that, but it's the most important thing he can do for himself and for his children and for their children to come. It's more than just putting 6 credits into your degree, it's a commitment to an ideal of a truly bilingual, bicultural society.

What impact will it have on Maori society when more Pakehas than Maoris can speak the Maori language, if this ever comes about?

This is inevitable in terms of pure numbers if we have a truly bilingual, bicultural society. It would be a hard thing for Maoris to accept that numerically, but not in terms of the percentage of the population, there will be more Pakehas speaking Maori than Maoris. But I think this is tied up with the acceptance of a wider horizon of a truly bilingual, bicultural nation than Maoris have given the language in the past. I've had a few verbal clashes with members of Te Reo Maori over this, it's an issue at the moment. But I can't see any other way for Maoris to get what they want. If they want Maori children taught Maori, they've got to have it taught to Pakehas, because they're in the same classroom.

In order to save the language and to get it taught to their own children they've got to accept the fact that Pakehas are going to learn it in increasing numbers. I think the thing to do is for Maoris to keep an eye on the situation, and not let Pakehas organise and run the schemes behind the teaching of Maori, so that people are not just getting the language but are getting insights from Maoris into Maori life as well. When you learn the language, the person teaching it to you can give you insights into Maori thought patterns and the whole cultural thing which remains closer to you than in any other way.

What sort of courses are available at this university and elsewhere?

There's a variety of sources where you can learn Maori, you don't have to learn it at university. You can learn it at Polytech, evening classes, the WEA often arrange a series of twelve week courses and that sort of thing. This is the only university in the country that puts such a strong emphasis on the oral language, and for this reason students here who wish to learn Maori are in a very good position From this year on, providing more staff is available, the Stage I courses will have an increasingly bigger percentage of oral work.

So anybody who is interested in learning Maori next year should, in the first instance, see McLean in the Anthro Department, or someone from Te Reo Maori, Maori or Pakeha, who can help them out with more information. I wouldn't say it s an easy option. Learning a language requires a sense of commitment slightly deeper than and slightly more reasoned and thought out than sitting in a Sociology lecture, for instance, and soaking up what someone's got to say. It's got to be an active involvement.