Kā Manukura o Te Reo Postcards from Amerika

Jul 18, 2014

nā Charisma Rangipunga


Eleanor Roosevelt said to do something every day that scares you. In my case it is do something every two years which freaks me out so much I break out in cold sweats, develop a stutter, lose sleep, and am left questioning my mental stability.

My something is the biennial journey of Te Panekiretanga o Te Reo Māori. For those who have not heard of Te Panekiretanga, it is the Institute for Excellence in Te Reo Māori, set up under the auspices of Professors Timoti Karetū, Wharehuia Milroy and Pou Temara via Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, and now in its 10th year. Te Panekiretanga aims to take advanced speakers of te reo Māori and whittle those language skills to a fine sharp point.

Every two years, alumni of Te Panekiretanga and current cohort members are invited to join in an overseas excursion led by Timoti Karetū, to work alongside other indigenous peoples and share ideas and experiences around language and cultural development. This year we travelled to the USA to meet with the Indian Nations in New Mexico and Oklahoma.

Now for most, this probably sounds really good. Amazing, in fact; a chance not to be missed, an opportunity like no other. Well, part of me would agree, but another part of me would yell and scream at the top of her lungs, “Don’t do it!”

This is where the cold sweats, stuttering, sleepless nights, and fitting of the straitjacket come in.

Cold sweats knowing that for a full three weeks I am going to be immersed in te reo Māori and surrounded by exponents of the language from the wider Māori nation, who effortlessly drip our beautiful language (yes, there are such people) like a leaky tap.

The stutter comes when in conversation with these speakers, I stumble over whether my grammar is right, whether I am using the right adjective, or whether anything I am saying makes sense at all. I get into such a state that by the time I finally open my mouth, all that comes out is a lot of gobbledygook.

The loss of sleep is in knowing that this is going to happen. The cold sweats and stuttering come once I commit and convince myself that it’s going to be good for me. Like winter, the pain is coming. I can only liken this suffering to going on the latest fad diet where you only get to eat things that are green, or things that end in the word “berry”. You go along with it thinking, “It’s good for me, it’s good for me,” despite salivating over every bit of food placed in front of you and your puku rumbling like Rūaumoko.

What the hell am I thinking? Three weeks of total immersion with the guns of te reo Māori. My 20-year investment in my language resulting in getting the basics all up the whoop, my self-confidence shot, and those hot shots of te reo no doubt going back over the records to find out how I managed to pass Te Panekiretanga in the first place. Mental stability gone out the door, straitjacket fitted snugly.

So what gets you through a situation like this? How does one survive? Why even put yourself through it in the first place? Well if I have managed to keep your attention this long, perhaps you will bear with me as I take you through some of the sights and experiences, as together we find the answers for ourselves.

Airport… plane… airport… plane………..……………….. airport………… plane………. Karanga mai Las Vegas. Stopover one.
Treated myself to a tour of the Grand Canyon. That’s one for the bucket list. What a pleasant and unexpected surprise to find out that all the helicopters (I counted at least 15 from our company alone) land in the part of the Canyon which is on the Hualapai Indian Reservation. They have an agreement with the Hualapai to do this. Where the helicopters refuel during the trip is also on the reservation, and from my count our company was one of about four companies using the Reservation and its refuelling station. The Indian economy in action – $$ cha’ching $$.

Airport… plane… airport… plane… airport. Ngā mihi Albuquerque.
Our air hostess has been to New Zealand and is the BIGGEST fan of mar…nooo…car honey. She imports it to keep up her supplies. The drawl of southern American slang is really quite alluring, and my peers have decided to immerse themselves in it, throwing it around like locals. We are welcomed at the airport by the students and teachers of NACA – the Native American Community Academy, who are our hosts in New Mexico. Our formal first welcome to the United States however takes place at a cultural centre in Albuquerque. There is nothing quite like the bass of an Indian drum to stir the soul and awaken the spirit.

Motel… van… NACA graduation.
We are honored to be part of a graduation of senior students from NACA. It is a moving ceremony where parents, whānau, and the community come together to celebrate the achievements of their kids. The applause is loud and unrestrained, the hoots and shouts of pride reverberate around the room, the words from teachers and school staff are moving and genuine. The graduates stand tall and proud, their regalia decorated with emblems and colours of their tribes, of their identity. In comparison, and maybe as a result of being drummed with messages of “kāore te kūmara e kōrero mō tōna māngaro” and not blowing one’s own trumpet, New Zealand celebrations of our kids’ achievements seem tame (or do I mean lame)
in comparison. A lesson perhaps for Māoridom – how to celebrate our kids and their achievements.

Motel… van………. Mihi mai Santa Ana — the Tamaya Nation.
Motel… van………… kua tae atu ki te Jemez — the Walatowa Nation.
There are 19 pueblo (papa kāinga) in New Mexico, and five unique languages, some of which are shared between pueblo. We spent time with two while in Albuquerque – the Tamaya in Santa Ana, and the Walatowa in Jemez. Both of these experiences were surprisingly moving for me (my family would attest to me being a tangiweto) and I could talk at length as to why and how, but the space on my postcard is limited so here is a snapshot of one.

The Walatowa Nation in the Jemez is unique in that they are the only pueblo of the 19 to speak their language, Towa. Their community of nearly 3000 is isolated and some distance from a major centre. Seventy-five percent of their population are native speakers of Towa, and they are fortunate enough that many of their families still speak their language within the home. We were invited into their homes, we ate at their tables (a hākari in all but name), we listened to their stories, we helped celebrate their graduates, we sang, and we danced. Listening to their language leaders, it was hard to believe that there is an active movement to NOT write down the language, and for the language to NOT be taught in schools away from Walatowa, and certainly NOT to anyone who is not Walatowa. (My jaw certainly hit the ground). Those of us involved in language revitalisation are indoctrinated early into the school of thought that schools and literature and building a mass of speakers are key mechanisms to protect a language, to teach a language, to help normalise a language, and to ensure a language’s survival. And here are the Jemez throwing the book out the door, literally. But respect has to be given to the Jemez for their decisions about their language. They have a strategy to protect their language, which for some goes against the grain. Who knows if it will succeed or not, but it is tino rangatiratanga in action, and has to be respected as such.

Hei konei rā NACA, a school dedicated to empowering and enabling young Native American children to be strong, proud, confident Native American citizens. We were hosted by the students and staff and were given guided tours around their reclaimed boarding school. If you know anything of Native American history and the legacy of such schools, you would know that these are not places that most Indians have fond memories of, or want to be associated with. NACA is creating new memories though, and today the school oozes positivity and pride. The school teaches a number of different Indian languages, not just those from the Albuquerque area, alongside mainstream subjects, intermingled with traditional teachings.. What amazed me is that you can also take archery as a subject. Archery! I think I want to go back to school. It was an absolute privilege and very hard at the end of the day to leave the school and the staff who looked after us so well.

Airport… plane… airport… plane… airport. Kia ora Oklahoma City.
Motel… bus… E owha mai Sac and Fox Nation.
Motel… bus… Ngā mihi Chickasaw Nation.
Oklahoma City is famous of course for the one Kiwi that it boasts, Steven Adams, who plays basketball for the Oklahoma City Thunder. OKC gears on the shopping list — check. It was here that we spent time with a number of Indian Nations at the University of Oklahoma, sharing ideas around the survival of our languages today. We also met with the Sac and Fox Nation and the Chickasaw Nation.

For the 21-strong group travelling from Aotearoa, all but two perhaps are not native speakers. We are second language learners who have committed to learning the language to a high level of fluency. It’s an investment of a lot of time, and for some, thousands and thousands of dollars. Most of us are also involved within our hapū and iwi driving language revitalisation efforts. We pull on each other for support, for advice, for the sympathetic ear when things are not going so well, and for the templates of the newest and latest ideas to help motivate our people to take up their language.

For many of our Indian brothers and sisters the fact that we were primarily a group of second language learners who could actually speak and hold conversations (when we weren’t stuttering) was one which shocked, and which perhaps is yet to be seen amongst Native Americans (outside of Hawai’i and Alaska). Many of these Indian Nations are equivalent in size to some of our larger iwi, some have a resource base which dwarfs anything available to Māori, but most are really struggling to revitalise their language, to get people to commit, to get traction, and to stop the slow decay of their voice.

It is sometimes hard for Māori to fathom is how difficult it must be for these Indian Nations to revitalise their languages when there is limited support from other tribes, because the language of one tribe is usually unique. There is no shared schooling system, and they don’t have access to Indian radio and TV. It is a lesson for us as Māori to be grateful for our shared base language. Despite our many dialects, this does not prevent or impede us at all from working together collaboratively to drive our language forward.

Airport… Plane… airport… plane…… airport — Tuohu mai New York.
Airport…Plane…………………………………………….……………………..airport — Aloha Honolulu.
Airport … Plane……………………….. airport — Kua tau ki te kāinga.
Homeward bound, and I have survived the cold sweats, the stuttering, the sleepless nights, and the mental angst. I still breathe, I still live. Whether it be a kura reo, Panekiretanga, or a KMK wānanga, after all these years of learning te reo, the freak-out still happens. I know this is true of other learners of te reo, and for some this stops them from learning. I had to take some time to debunk it and figure out why I still freak out, and the short end of it is – it happens because I care. I care that my language is the best that it can be; I care for those who have invested their time in my language to build it, to shape it, to sharpen it; I care for my language and want it to be around for my boys and beyond. I freak out because I care, and you know what? It’s not such bad thing to freak out about. I look forward to the next Tira Haere and the expected freak-out that accompanies it, straitjacket
and all.

Charisma Rangipunga (Ngāi Tahu, Taranaki, Ngāti Kahungunu) is the general manager of Te Taumatua (iwi engagement and identity) at Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. She is also a Māori language advocate and children’s book writer.