The drive to be Māori

The first graduates from Māori language immersion kura are now deciding where to send their own children to be educated. While some families are mourning the loss of the great Māori boarding schools of the past, others are creating a new future. But it takes dedication and determination. 

Stacey and Scotty Morrison wrote the book on teaching youngsters conversational Māori at home. They literally wrote the book, Māori at Home. Māori is the first language of their three children so they plotted their schooling pathways with more than the usual research. Like many Auckland families seeking a special type of direction, that has involved travel.

“It was really critical for us,” says Stacey, in talking about nurturing te reo. “We made the call that we would bring the kids up with Māori as their first language, and it has been from the womb.” She has seen since then that such a call can either be enhancing or strenuous on a relationship, but she and Scotty have always agreed on this. Early childhood education was at Te Puna Reo in Te Atatū, followed by Westmere Primary’s immersion unit.

The unit has a strong emphasis on keeping a foot in both the English and Māori worlds. Children must come from a supportive home environment where Māori is spoken; and they are taught curriculum English right from the start. Families – and whānautanga - are the key to its success.

The Morrisons know they’re held up as a beacon of Māori immersion but Stacey says they are particularly fortunate to both be te reo speakers. “We realise that we expect a lot from our schools,” she says. That’s why they’re in, boots and all.

Being a kura and kōhanga parent means working bees, fund raising, whānau coming to cook for the kids during kapa haka rehearsals, driving to competitions if they’re good enough to make the nationals, making costumes and coaching. It's not too far removed from the whānau support given to boarders. And kōhanga kids often move as a cohort, so the Morrisons’ children have been with the same friends every step of the way. They are building the same communities that traditional boarding schools have had.

Stacey says she can see from knowing former Queen Victoria girls (the now closed Parnell school) that boarders gain a closeness from living together. But she couldn’t handle sending her children away, so next year when her oldest boy is ready for college there is another big decision to make.

"We will drive our children from one end of the country to the other in search of language opportunities and pretend it's normal." 

As well as the usual considerations of zoning, quality of education, and where their friends are going, the Morrisons are looking at schools that meet aspirations for Māori children. They have looked at private education but say there are also good mainstream options at Western Springs College and Mt Albert Grammar.

“People get really sensitive: everyone is so invested because it’s our culture and language and we all want to believe we made the right choice ... it’s quite angst-inducing. It’s hard not to feel defensive about whether you’re doing the right thing. Hanging onto the language is precarious enough … we have to make legacy calls and we’re under a lot of pressure. We have a lot of aroha for people in this situation.”

However she doesn’t share concerns that it’s not clear where the next generation of great Māori leaders are coming from, saying there is a new – bi-lingual – generation coming through that is “really adept”. She is able to reel a list of young, creative movers and shakers off the top of her head, including Thor film maker Taika Waititi and Kono Wines CEO Rachel Taulelei.

We are in a time now when those of leadership age – in their 50s and 60s – are the generation that was prevented from speaking the language. Those coming up behind them in their 30s and 40s are reluctant to take the place on the marae of those older than them, even though they are fluent speakers. “Some people may be called to step up earlier than they might have.”

As for her own three children, she appreciates they’ve been born with a Māori language silver spoon in their mouths, but doesn’t want to give them the responsibility of having to do great things with that gift. “I want to give it to them with aroha; we want it to be the source of strength for them.”

“It’s too hard to be Māori”

For broadcaster Mihingarangi Forbes, fostering Māori in her two eldest children beyond primary school has been a battle … or as she wryly describes it, “an interesting road”.

After years spent driving around Auckland to various kura, she plumped for a small Catholic girls’ college in her neighbourhood. Forbes and a friend aimed to be instrumental in introducing a strong Māori flavour to the school, and were received positively. But then her friend left Auckland leaving that task in her hands, and it became Herculean. The oldest has now graduated having done her Māori studies by correspondence; a Māori teacher may be in place for her second daughter’s final years.

“It’s been a really trying, at times, journey over the years. She got such a good start in te reo Māori then had to do NCEA level one and two through correspondence.

“Despite the promises from the school, it just didn’t happen.” 

She says it was a chicken and egg situation … the school saying there was no demand for the subject … but as there was no Māori teacher for NCEA, demand couldn’t be measured. Not even getting a place on the Board of Trustees made her any headway. “In the end I just resigned – it wasn’t a fair use of my time – nothing happened. Perhaps my expectations were so much greater than the next person’s ... I had seen the beauty of kura kaupapa and witnessed the passion and love for the language. I’d witnessed the wider school flourish from having a Māori immersion unit within it.” Forbes says there was more Māori taught at the Feilding Agricultural College she attended 30 years ago.

There was an attempt at boarding school but her daughter couldn’t settle in Napier, so far from home, and it didn’t last long.

There will be a different plan for her two younger sons, who speak both Māori and Samoan. To start, it's likely they will go to the same Westmere immersion unit as the Morrison’s children. Her aspirations for the boys are “like everyone, I just want well-rounded kids. They don’t have to be doctors or lawyers or surgeons, but in this world they need to feel proud of who they are and where they’re from.”

Forbes says trying to keep her children in the world of te reo and tikanga has been tough – “it’s too hard to be Māori”.

"It's the language of comfort and love."

If driving your children across Auckland seems bad, try the length of the South Island. Christchurch based Dr Hana O'Regan says she gets jealous of her friends in the north over the range of options they have that Ngāi Tahu families do not. Her son and daughter had early childhood bi-lingual education and she speaks only Māori to them at home. Now they are in mainstream high schools, doing NCEA Māori years early. O'Regan, an international expert in Māori language revitalisation, chose not to send them to smaller immersion schools not because of any lack of rigorous academic standards, but because their size meant the breadth of subject matter was not available. 

Heartbreaking for her is the lack of good, trained Māori language teachers. Underpaid, they burn out after about three of four years and step back to more lucrative jobs. "You get more doing translation work for broadcasting than being a teacher."

"We find other ways," she says, admitting it's difficult to hear her children increasingly speaking to each other in English. When they're sick though, or upset - they revert to their heart language - "for them, it's the language of comfort and love. In those moments I think it's been worth it." She is nervous to see if they can maintain it, and pass it to their own children. "But I don't hold my breath. I know how vulnerable it is, and how quickly things can change. All it will take is for them to hook up with someone who doesn't support it. There's never any time to relax and let your guard down. You always have to be ready for the fight to drive it." 

Recently there's been reason to be confident though - seeing her daughter speak te reo to babies in the family. It's that normalisation that is a struggle to keep up, but has been fostered by travel - to the supermarket on the other side of town where one checkout operator speaks the language, to the doctor who can pronounce their names properly, to camping holidays with the tribe. 

Even though she went to Queen Victoria ("I didn't have a great time") she says not every Māori in leadership roles is a product of those famous boarding schools. "We didn't have the options of wharekura back then."  

O'Regan says there are a lot of benefits to leadership now that Māori is becoming more normalised in other places. But she warns that for anyone committing to the language - be prepared to put in the miles - literally. "We will drive our children from one end of the country to the other in search of language opportunities and pretend it's normal." 

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