The number of non-Māori learning te reo Māori has grown significantly.

Non-Māori are delivering speeches in te reo Māori, non-Māori are teaching te reo Māori, and we even have non-Māori interviewing on television in te reo Māori. 

Re: News spoke to director of Māori advancement at AUT’s Business School, Professor Ella Henry (Ngātikahu ki Whangaroa, Te Rarawa, Ngāti Kuri) about what it means to revitalise te reo Māori and how non-Māori contribute to that.

Ella Henry. Photo/supplied.

Te Ahipourewa: What does it mean to you to "revitalise te reo Māori"? 

Ella: Revitalisation of te reo is about te reo and tikanga. I am heartened to have spent the last 40 years watching the evolution of the Māori Renaissance and the revitalisation of te reo and the tikanga. 

I look at our rangatahi, who are the second and third generation of that reo revitalisation, and I am so heartened by it. 

It's positive, it's wonderful, and it means rangatahi are growing up in a different world to the one I grew up in 70 years ago.

Te Ahipourewa: What’s needed for it to happen?

Ella: It’s happening right now with access to free te reo courses, not just through Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, but through all the universities, polytechs, and high schools. And, these are all government-funded. 

It’s not just nannies and koro opening up their garages like they used to. 

Now, we have adequate funding and recognition of the people who are learning and teaching. And that to me, is a huge social change that has occurred in our lifetimes.

Te Ahipourewa: Do you think the current Māori population can revitalise te reo Māori by themselves or do we need non-Māori to help? 

Ella: I oppose the idea that only Māori should be part of the revitalisation. 

The reality is the vast majority of our tamariki mokopuna are mixed. 

I call my kōtiro, caramellos because they are that delicious mix of dark chocolate and white sugar. They are 100% Māori, 100% Delhi, 100% Irish, and that's what they are, this isn't a race.

I don't think that we should be saying it's just a taonga for Māori. It's a taonga of Aotearoa, New Zealand.

I'm very optimistic moving forward that my moko will grow up in a world which validates their identity and their tikanga and embraces it. A world that learns it and loves it as much as we do.

Ella Henry with her mokopuna Te Aukiwa. Photo: Supplied.

Te Ahipourewa: What do you have to say to people who are critical of non-Māori learning the language?

Ella: Get the fuck over it.

If we start being exclusive, we are asking to become irrelevant in the future.

Te Ahipourewa: Do you think there's a sense of whakama (shame) for Māori who are learning te reo Māori for the first time as adults?

Ella: I was born 70 years ago, into an environment where my parents thought that they were saving me and my siblings by giving us the whitest names they could. 

I have sisters called Ada, Thelma, and Marjorie because they were trying to protect us, because they went through the worst of being Māori, of being ashamed of who we are and trying not to speak the reo at home.

35 years ago, I enrolled at university and I didn't have my reo. 

I was getting C’s while the Pākehā Sheila next to me was getting A’s because she's better at studying.

In 35 years, that might not change but you know what, the journey is as important as the destination.

And that Pākehā Sheila I sat next to 35 years ago, is still my mate.

It takes many generations to bring back that sense of empowerment and joy in our language and culture when too many of our nannies' generations were cruelly and viciously abused just for being Māori.

All of these rangatahi out there today are living testimony to how that has changed positively. 

Te Ahipourewa: How do non-Māori learning te reo Māori help to revitalise the language? 

Ella: It's all about normalising the language.

It's not just about Tangata Tiriti of European descent with pale hair and blue eyes.

It's about the Indian and the Chinese. 

We saw that at Waitangi this year when Tangata Tiriti stood up, you had “Japanese for the Treaty,” you had “Asians for the Treaty”.

This is where we see in very real tangible ways that Māoritanga, whakapapa, reo, and tikanga have percolated into the consciousness of Tangata Tiriti and have made them understand that te Tiriti is as important to them as it is to us. 

And that partnership is a real tangible way of creating a positive country. 

Te Ahipourewa: What would you say to non-Māori who are learning or thinking about learning te reo Māori? 

Ella: My message is not only to non-Māori but to tangata whenua as well, because we have to remember that a great many of us still don’t have our reo or feel comfortable enough in our reo. 

My whakaaro to everyone is, kia kaha. 

It’s not a life-or-death situation to embrace a new language. Multilingualism increases your brain capacity. 

Nurture your brain, and learn the language that is unique to this place. 

And along the way, you might just discover that it brings you closer to who you are, and who we are. And what this whenua means to you.

Te Ahipourewa: Is it hard to get a spot in te reo Māori classes? 

Ella: It has never been more accessible than it is now. And it's free.

I say that as somebody who was the Head of Te Pūkenga at Unitec 22 years ago when we offered our classes for free. 

We were the first in Auckland to do that apart from Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.

In the first year of free reo Māori classes, we had 1000 people coming in, 400 of those people were Māori, and the other 600, were not. 

This is a pattern that's been going on for a long time, and I embrace it. 

I think it shows maturity for us as a nation, that we can embrace the indigenous language and culture and identity in the way that we have as a country.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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