Michael Neilson: Time for Pakeha to take politics out of te reo Māori


OPINION: By Michael Neilson of The Gisborne Herald

“Why would you want to learn it if you are not even Māori?” “You know it’s a dying language?” “Why don’t you learn another more ‘useful’ language?” “Do you think you are going to change the world or something?”

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for Pakeha learning te reo Māori are the reactions of other Pakeha. Above are just a few of the comments a Pakeha friend of mine, living in Otepoti (Dunedin), has received from other Pakeha over the four years that he has been learning te reo Māori.

“Learning Māori comes with a whole lot of political baggage, and it should not be like that,” he told me.

I can relate to his experiences. I too am Pakeha, and I too am on a journey to learn te reo Māori. To some Pakeha I will be either showing off or making a political statement. I might even find myself at times saying Māori words the “Pakeha” way, so as not to draw attention or critical comments.

While I have felt that “baggage” as a Pakeha growing up in Otautahi (Christchurch), moving to Tairawhiti (Gisborne) has been a revelation. The prevalence and acceptance of te reo is something unique to the region, and when people ask me how I am finding it here it is the first thing I say.

Here people speak te reo simply because that is what you do. It is a part of casual conversation, with words like kaupapa, tikanga, mahi, korero, slipped in like it is no big deal. I can pronounce Māori words properly without awkwardness from those around me.

As a journalist I call a lot of people, and often they will answer in te reo. I awkwardly stumble a “kia ora”, before reverting to English, scrambling to maoridictionary.co.nz for a translation (I am not that good, yet).

Te reo normal
It feels so normal to speak te reo here, but sadly, in other more Pakeha-dominated areas of New Zealand, the concept of Pakeha learning te reo still has a political stigma to it.

I never encountered this stigma when learning Spanish while travelling through South America. I learned Spanish so I could connect with the people around me — plain and simple.

Some of my fondest memories include conversing with taxi drivers about politics, or sitting beside locals on buses high up in the Peruvian Andes, chatting about everyday life and this country “Nueva Zelanda”, which they had never heard of.

The conversations we had in their language were real, plus I always enjoyed their reactions when they found a white, blonde “gringo” could speak their language.

There are many indigenous languages I am sure they would have loved me to learn (I could never get my head around Quechua), but that simple step of cultural recognition always received a positive reaction.

There are obvious political implications of Pakeha learning te reo, and cultural sensitivities to be aware of. Te reo is taonga, and that needs to be respected.

But the simple reality is that for the language to survive, Pakeha need to get on board.

Beautiful language
Simpler than that, it is a beautiful language and a gateway for Pakeha to further understand Māori culture — the kaupapa, tikanga, the Māori ways of doing things.

I never really understood the importance of learning te reo until moving to Tairawhiti, but now I really feel the necessity. Like learning Spanish to speak to those around me in South America, and to understand their kaupapa, learning te reo is the gateway to understanding Māori culture.

And it is so easy to get started. Many educational institutions around the country offer free classes, including at Eastern Institute of Technology and Te Wananga here in Tairawhiti.

After speaking to my friend we both agreed on the need to normalise the language. It would be great if we were a bilingual nation (then we could talk about Aussies in front of them), but even just a Māori word here and there is a good way to start — doing it for no other reason than because we can.

All of this political baggage should not exist. It is time for Pakeha to put aside those awkward feelings and embrace it. If anything exemplifies this, surely it is the fact the country has become fixated with an Irish woman who is doing her PhD in te reo Māori.

If it is cool for her to do it, why not the rest of us Pakeha? Pakeha need to get over the politics and the awkwardness and realise, it is cool to korero in te reo Māori.

Michael Neilson is an Auckland University of Technology journalism graduate now a journalist with The Gisborne Herald. This article was first published by the Herald and is republished here with permission.

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SOURCEGisborne Herald
Michael Neilson is a New Zealand journalist who graduated with a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies (Journalism) from Auckland University of Technology. He worked with the AUT Pacific Media Centre in 2015 and was on an Asia New Zealand Foundation-funded internship with The Sydney Morning Herald in Jakarta, Indonesia, early in 2016. He is currently Māori affairs reporter of The New Zealand Herald.


  1. Good article, Michael. Good on you for learning te reo Maori. Speaking the language adds to the understanding of the culture.

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