By Hayley Gastmeier
Before she knew how to speak the language of her own land, Marama Fox was taught French and Latin.
The Wairarapa list MP and Maori Party co-leader did not learn te reo Maori until she was an adult, even though she is of Ngati Kahungunu ki Wairarapa decent.
“I remember going home [to Wairarapa] as a teenager for my grandfather’s funeral,” Ms Fox said.
“And sitting in on the after function, the hakari, all the old people started telling stories. They were there for hours,They spoke in Maori the whole time.
“They were all significantly older,all in their 70s and 80s these fellas and they were all telling the most amazing stories.
“They were laughing, they were interjecting, they were crying and they were singing and you could tell it was just a beautiful moment – but I just couldn’t understand any of it.
“I was so frustrated because I knew they were telling stories about my grandfather that I would never hear, or know, or capture. I just felt so disconnected as a person from my own people.”
Ms Fox was schooled in Christchurch, where her mother worked, and learnt French and Latin which were compulsory subjects at her high school.
It wasn’t until she was a teenager that, through her lack of understanding of the Maori language, Ms Fox realised she was missing out.
Not long after her grandfather’s tangi, Ms Fox started her own “reo journey” by going to kohanga reo with her son.
Even though kohanga reo was for children, Ms Fox said through it her own knowledge of the Maori language grew.
These days Ms Fox advocates for te reo Maori to be compulsory in all New Zealand schools, saying the “Maori Language is the window to the Maori world”.
“With Maori language comes customary knowledge, comes history, comes the stories that connect us to our land and identity.”
She said the writings and knowledge of Maori ancestors “has been locked away from us through a lack of language”.
“Many notable Maori academics have said for years and years now that success for Maori tertiary students is fluency in te reo Maori. For that reason alone every Maori child, at least, should be learning te reo Maori.”
Ms Fox said because te reo was the vehicle to understanding the Maori world, young non-Maori kiwis should be learning the language as well “because it is intrinsically who we are as a nation”.
“We share from each other’s culture, whether we like it or not,” she said.
“And if we are to correct some of the imbalance that we have in our society then Maori language, as a vehicle in understanding the Maori world and the history of this country and culture, will help grow our nation in greater unity.”
Ms Fox said bilingual children had a greater capacity for learning and understanding, as well as finding other language easier to pick in adulthood.
“[Te reo] should be a core subject in our country and I believe our nation would be greater for it.”
She said it would help to eliminate institutionalised racism.