from Mother Tongue
I do not remember the exact moment I recognised the extent of the whiteness of the world I had been inhabiting. But when I saw it, the glare was so bright it burnt my eyes. Burnt them like the time my love interest took me skiing for the first time, and the bright sun, reflecting off Ruapehu’s bright snow, turned the whites of my naked goggle-less eyes a foul, flaming red. Sore eyes. Like Sith eyes. Like Darth Maul, or Darth Hall as people called me – that being my last name at the time. Good joke. Very funny. Ho ho.
Not a single person I knew spoke te reo Māori. Not a single person I knew knew tikanga Māori. Not a single person I knew referenced the Māori world, or Māori sovereignty, at least not in any way that reflected positively. In our local primary school, I remember a few words and waiata taught; I remember one Māori teacher. During the course of my secondary education: nothing. My parents were determined to send me to a good school, my mother especially. She wanted opportunities for me that she never had.
My parents worked double time and then some to afford to send me to a private girls’ school in town that aimed for the holistic development of young women and their personal excellence. I look back now and think it was a bleaching. I learned French, Japanese, Latin and Classics. By our Social Studies teacher, an ex-pat from Cornwall, we were taught that colonisation was overwhelmingly a positive for our nation, the point at which progress began: an enlightened innovative people arriving to bring technology and modernity and civility to a race living in, as Jerningham Wakefield said, wild and uncivilised anarchy. I remember degrading terms being used, in books definitely; from mouths, possibly. Primitive. Savage. No written language, just an oral culture.
I remember in Classics we learned ancient tales that long-existed in the great Greek tradition, used to explain the creation of our world. I remember we learned of Prometheus, trickster god, Lightbringer, the one to whom the Greeks attribute the discovery or bestowal of fire for humans. I remember thinking this sounds like Maui. He too was a trickster, a bringer of light. The stories were similar, the method of their telling too – received then transmitted from one generation to another, not punctuated by full stops and commas on a page, but learned by heart and passed on with its beat. By cadence and by breath of air from mouth to ear. I remember wondering why Greek oral tradition was heralded as great and noble, and Māori oral tradition as a mark of a primitive people.
Sometimes it was not what was said, but the way it was said. I remember in the first month of the first year, a teacher asked, Is anyone here a Māori? It sounded like a polite yet peremptory request for confession. No one raised their hand. I remember people’s heads turning left and right. I remember the teacher looking at me, I remember her resemblance to Nell Mangel, I remember her curled hair, its silver wisps and curls, standing high above her head, like a child’s drawing of a puff of smoke out a chimney top. No one in the class was Māori. Except me. And I did not raise my hand. My face, my whole body rushes to red when I think of this and I think of it often. I am red and flaming at my silence, my weakness, my whiteness, my whakamā.
Gradually, so gradually, things begin to shift, and then all at once, I am overcome with an urgent need. Like wading out into a warm sea, it engulfs me. I am homesick for a place I’ve never been. I’m missing people I’ve never met. I am longing for a language I’ve never spoken. There is a yearning for things I’ve never seen or done or heard; I am struck with a profound grief for things I never felt I had to begin with.
Other things I felt too, which I cannot succinctly word: things I am ashamed to admit for they are the uglier members of the emotional family: resentment, frustration, even a kind of anger – cold, teeth-bared, occasionally snarling – at privilege. At hypocrisy. At people who are not Māori learning the reo by night, who then desecrate the land and lives of Māori by day. Have I become bitter? I wondered to myself. Is that what this is? Perhaps. Our ancestors evolved to taste bitterness in order to recognise that which harms us.
Despite my sense of otherness, the curdle of it, I became increasingly aware of the privilege afforded me, the tone of my skin being more my father’s than my mother’s. I remember, aged 10 or 11, being in a shop in Kaiti in Gisborne with my cousin. Her skin is much darker than mine, much more like our Nana’s. I remember the woman in the shop – the owner or a staff member I do not know – coming out from behind the counter to follow closely behind my cousin, watching her every move with eyes like beads, like currants. The woman did not say anything, but the coldness of her eyes and the closeness of her body, her sense of looming like a storm cloud, communicated everything.
I felt a keen awareness of how being kiritea means I have a responsibility to make spaces safer for our darker-skinned whānau. And that for me to do that, in the right way, with respect and humility, I must do the work to learn the words and the ways; the times to talk, and the times to listen.
The desire to learn, the need for it, became urgent, so I signed up for anything that was available and that would have me.
Pōwhiri at 4pm. But I am late and I am flustered, because I overslept. And because the kids, upset at my leaving, are screaming like three dial-up modems. And because I cannot find my sleeping bag or my coat or my shoes or the keys. And because just as I am closing the door to the house, I spill hot coffee down my white T-shirt. Back in to change, rushing about like a single-cell thunderstorm, and then, for the second time today, I say to my children, my husband, my dog: Bye-bye, I love you, I’ll see you in a few days. Then I close the door and they are at the window and we wave, and blow kisses, and make hearts with our hands.
By the time I am in the car, ready to go, it is after 10 a.m. Estimated journey time: 7 hours 14 minutes, Google says. I wonder to myself if there’s any way I can make it in time for the pōwhiri. I did not want a fast drive; I wanted to ease into it, make it leisurely, scenic. It is a road I am unfamiliar with, a journey all new to me.
On the drive up the motu, I meet all the seasons. Winds and rains, both gentle and pelting; sun and warmth. Microclimates of calm and moments of chaos; traffic jams, then, quiet – total isolation. I drive and drive and I am quite peckish, but I decide not to stop because despite all signs to the contrary, despite it being against the laws of physics, I continue to hold onto the hope that I will get there in time. But, looking at the time, I know I have missed so much already.
When I’m finally on Whakatōhea land, it is almost half-six, and the sky is a deep bruised purple. I have not breathed in the sea. Have not touched grass. Did not give the trees and the hills and the sky and the land all around its proper regard as I had hoped to do.
When I get to the marae, which sits off a stretch of highway between Ōpōtiki and Gisborne, the lawn to the side and all along the front is filled with cars. Down further, far along from its gates, I find a spot on a sloped verge. I get out, the ground underneath me is muddy from earlier rains. I move on unsteady legs. I turn on the torch of my phone to light my path, and I walk back to the marae, trying to be careful where I place my feet, lest I stumble. A realisation wraps me like cling film: I know no one here. And I do not know what to do: my tikanga is out of a book, not passed down from those who came before me. My reo is shallow and limited to the point where it would be hard to say I know any reo at all. And, when nervous, I have a habit of losing what reo I do have, like the other day at the supermarket, standing there, patting down my pockets where I keep what I need, to find they are empty, and I am holding up the line, and people are staring, and I am embarrassed, and I do not know what to do.
The pōwhiri is over, everyone has been welcomed, they know what’s what. Welcoming manuhiri on to the marae became a tikanga story of border crossings between the distance of visitors, the bringing together of hoped-for relationships. It is relationships I am hoping for here. But I’ve missed this now. Having been to many Kura Reo before, and to years of other fixtures and events on the marae, everyone will know everything anyway, just as they will all know each other. There will have been much joy in reuniting with whānau and friends from all over: hugs and hongi and high fives. This is all assumption of course, because I cannot find anyone. I try to look for someone who might be able to give me a steer as to what to do and where to go. It is a cold night and I wander around with my arms across my chest, both for warmth and to keep myself together. A white marquee sits empty, a piece of vinyl that acts as a door flaps in the wind. The sound is an echo of both silence and the pounding of my heart in my ears. I see no one. I wait a while longer and walk around further, but still no one is there, so I end up walking back to my little car and I get inside and sit there – I don’t know how long for – in silence, but for the occasional large ute or even larger truck whizzing past me, blurring my eyes with its size and speed. I look out the window up at the sky and think, what the hell am I doing here? I am a 43-year-old woman hiding in my car, too nervous to go for the first ever time onto a marae of my tīpuna that I have spent 8 hours today driving to.
I think, maybe the time is not right. I think I was wrong to come.
Fuck it, I say out loud, to no one but me. I get out of the car into the pitch of the night, turn the torch on, and head back toward the marae. I give myself both a scolding and a pep talk as I go: I have travelled too far for this wonky bullshit, pull yourself together woman. You’re from stronger stuff than this. As I walk through the gates, I see signs of movement and hear noises from the marquee. I walk over, pop my head in. A man standing behind a trestle table, holding a clipboard, turns and smiles, beckons with his hand. He is tall, unsettlingly handsome, which does nothing to help the state of my nerves. I say things, in English, but I am not sure what they are or for how long I have been speaking and when I finally take a breath, he seizes that gap to say: Kei te pai. He hands me a glossy book, a programme, and he begins to tell me things, and what he tells me is in te reo and like a child poorly positioned in a lolly scramble, I’m catching very little of it, and I smile and nod my head pretending I understand, because I’m too embarrassed to say I don’t. And then I say, Kia ora. And at that moment, a lady, older than this man who has helped me, enters the marquee and smiles and says something to him in a tone that says, Come! He nods to me again to mark the end of our exchange and off he goes. I am alone again, and I think of what the man said, so much of it unknowable to me right now. I imagine what it will be like to speak te reo in a fluent tongue, but more than that, I imagine what it will be like to listen, and to understand.
There must be at least 150 people in the wharenui. I can hear laughing, clapping, responding in unison. I can see through the ranch-slider door people talking – standing up, sitting down – introductions. Pepeha. I am not ready for that. Not in front of that many people. Not with my reo. I will mess up in front of everyone. And my face will go a searing red, my whole body will. And then I’ll burst into flames. And the worst part about that is not the agonising demise, but the fire damage I will cause to the marae, and the shame I will bring on my family: reports of my immolation and fiery desecration of a sacred meeting house will go global. I’ll never live it down, even in death.
I return to the car. Mentally administer a few lashes. What did I think I was doing here? There’s no answer to that question. I continue to burn bright in shame at the thought of there being so many Pākehā who would be able to kōrero Māori better than I can in this moment. Better than I can in any moment.
I sleep in my car. I wait for the day to begin and I return to the wharenui and I sit and I spend the day silent, listening, learning. We sit on our mattresses and hear whaikōrero, and waiata, and I am trying to pick up something, anything, to unlock what is being said and sung. When we gather in the wharekai, people are kind and say things to me in greeting, but my tongue is like a fatberg and I am unable to speak. Instead I listen to the chatter, people all in tune with each other, a way of talking like music itself.
I continue to think I’m imposing. This is a space for Māori and right now, I do not feel Māori. I feel whiter than ever, luminescent, like a glow worm. It is an honour to be here, and I don’t feel like I’ve done the work to earn it. My mother has always said that things feel so much more satisfying when you work hard for them, rather than just have them handed to you on a silver platter. I don’t know if my mother has ever had anything handed to her on a silver platter, but I understand the point that she makes.
I try to breathe, to acknowledge this first step. Over and again, I say, unworded, to myself: Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu, though it is small it is precious – and it is. In this moment, which is not small to me at all, I feel small, and that is precious because the space I have entered is so much larger than me. It inspires awe. And I say, again unworded, to myself: this fear I am feeling is because this means something. I am scared because it is sacred.
I wondered then and I wonder still when the disconnect began, at what point within our whānau we lost our language? I wonder, who held the reo alive on their tongue? And who had it ripped from them? Who was made to curl and flatten and contort their mouth in strange ways? Who was made to suppress the sounds their body knew? And I wonder why we say loss of language; why we use these words: lose, loss, lost. Not lost like my brothers and sisters were lost from my mother; not lost like the ones I carried within me. Not lost like a pen or a parking ticket or a small child’s toy. To lose implies some act of errant thinking, some distraction or carelessness. Or something outside of what can be controlled, an act of God, an angry one. Our reo was not lost. It was taken so the well of our language would run dry.
Did the reo linger there, on my ancestors’ tongues? Did they say it in their sleep? Did they dream in it? Did they whisper it to themselves? The voice of their wairua, was that in our mother tongue?
Yes. Surely, yes. Our wairua exists beyond death. And our reo never fully died, despite sanctioned strategies to rip up the land and scorch the seeds of language and connection. All cruelty comes from weakness. But we are a strong people. And because of resistance, persistence, and courage, our language is being cultivated again, sown even stronger, nourishing more and more every day.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Natasha Lampard (Whakatōhea, Ngāpuhi, Pākehā) is the co-founder and director of Webstock, co-founder of Lil Regie and creator of Extraordinary Tales of Strength & Daring. She recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at Te Pūtahu Tuhi Auaha o te Ao, IIML.
Listen to Natasha Lampard read from Mother Tongue