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Thomas Wynne: Responding to my call home

Saturday 13 April 2024 | Written by Thomas Tarurongo Wynne | Published in Editorials, Opinion

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Thomas Wynne: Responding to my call home
Niu FM radio personality and proud Cook Islander, Chelsea Cuthers-Munro pictured with the promotional poster for her documentary 'The Vaka That Waited' Photo: Chelsea Cuthers-Munro/24041221

Shaming others who can’t speak the language, who are trying to learn, by maligning them in person or online with cruel and crippling words like ‘plastic’ is wrong, writes Thomas Tarurongo Wynne.

I remember when teaching Year 9 classes at Tereora College, asking the class, one after the other, how many of the students could confidently hold a conversation in Māori. Nearly two thirds of every class raised their hands to affirm that they could not hold a conversation in Māori with confidence. And for the one third that could hold a conversation in Māori, numbers of them were students not born in Rarotonga and instead from the many fluent and strong reo speaking states of the Pa Enua.

When I taught at Araura College in Aitutaki, nearly all the students in my classes spoke Māori with confidence, in fact speaking Māori was the norm. As it was in Mangaia when I visited there and Enuamanu. Language retention in the daily lives of our people is a challenge in Rarotonga and needs to be understood as a Rarotonga issue not a wider Cook Islands issue.

Take this conversation offshore and the statistics become even more challenging with only four in every hundreds of the nearly 100,000 Cook Islanders being able to hold a conversation in Māori with the largest group of those being in the 50 to 60 plus age group.

But this is not a story of our language dying or that it is at risk, because the hunger to speak Māori and connect with one of the critical aspects of our identity, filled a theatre with over 250 people watching the short documentary “The Vaka That Waited: Responding to my call home” by Cook Islander Chelsea Munro Cuthers, daughter of Dawn and Orlando Munro and granddaughter of Mama Moeroa and Papa Puai Cuthers of Arorangi.

It was a story of her journey from shame and public ridicule for trying to speak Maori, to understanding who she actually was and that deep sense of connection and call to home. A story about our language and the journey of our language – of identity, and our profound feeling of belonging as Maori, no matter where in the world we may be, and to courageously set sail on this Vaka, ka mua ki muri, looking backward to home, to voyage forwards.

Through this story and moemoea, and Chelsea’s courage and vulnerability, this documentary inspires us to rise to empathy, compassion, and not mistrust and ridicule. To rise to understanding and empathy not misunderstanding and needing us all to work together to reclaim our culture and embracing it – because we are all in this Vaka together – E Vaka eke Noa.

And it is that sense of a deeper understanding of us working together to resolve the issues of language trauma and revitalisation, that birthed not only this documentary that is looking at coming to Rarotonga, but also projects like Te Vananga Are Tapere o Takitumu which opened in August 2021 weaving its ancestral and genealogical links with Te Wānanga Whare Tapere O Takitimu in Hastings.

Māori of Aotearoa are well aware of the battle ahead for them and the machinery that tried to erase their language also. The same system that punished my Grandparents to speak Maori and encouraged my parents to not teach us Maori alongside English did the same to theirs. Working together also means working alongside those that have built Vaka and Vananga to hold our knowledge, teach it and celebrate it.

We must never allow the colonisers’ system of self-loathing and shame directed at us for being Māori or speaking te reo to be weaponised against each other. Shaming others who can’t speak the language, who are trying to learn, by maligning them in person or online with cruel and crippling words like “plastic” is wrong. As Māori, we are so much better than that.

Home is critical for us all to turn back to and to tie our umbilical cord to so it anchors who we are as we sail across uncertain Moana to lands somewhere we thought had milk and honey. The milk has been sour and the honey hard, nonetheless home remains an anchor and compass point for us all. Taka ‘i koe ki te papa ‘enua. “akamou i te pito enua, a’u i to’ou rangi (Puati Mataiapo 1990).