Te Reo: The Language of My Ancestors

When I came across this pigeon the other day, I thought it an unusual colour for a pigeon. Usually they are grey.

Yet, this particular black pigeon is somehow apt. Symbolic. Residing, as it does, so close to a monument to Parihaka, Taranaki. The monument is a large rock – called Rongo – and is there in memory of protesting ploughmen taken prisoner in the 1879 and sent far away from their families to the West Coast and Dunedin. Some of the prisoners died while away. It is also a reminder of the day colonial forces brutally disrupted the peaceful resistance at Parihaka two years later.

On 5 November, about 1600 volunteers and Constabulary Field Force troops marched on Parihaka. Several thousand Māori sat quietly on the marae as singing children greeted the force led by Native Minister John Bryce. The Whanganui farmer had fought in the campaign against Tītokowaru (see 9 June) and viewed Parihaka as a ‘headquarters of fanaticism and disaffection’. Bryce ordered the arrest of Parihaka’s leaders, the destruction of much of the village and the dispersal of most of its inhabitants. The Sim Commission which investigated these events in the 1920s was told that women were raped by troops, with some bearing children as a result. From Wikipedia.

There is a slow but gradual move in Aotearoa New Zealand, to remember Parihaka events on the 5th of November, rather than a British man called Guy Fawkes, as has been the tradition since immigrants moved here from the United Kingdom in the 19th century, I trust that not too far in the future, we will be calling the 5th of November, Parihaka Day, not Guy Fawkes Day.

This link refers to this memorial.

This is from a 2015 post on my blog (now discontinued) called Time and Place: In small hollows and clefts in these cliffs near to where Rongo memorial stone stands, doves and pigeons have made their homes. This is particularly poignant because white (albatross) feathers were an important symbol for the followers of Te Whiti, Taranaki prophet, priest and peace-maker. I have seen visitors to the stone wearing white feathers in their hair.

Part of the inscriptions on the stone, mention birds of peace.

Flowers, plants and feathers left this year, 2022, on November the 5th.

I have ancestors on both sides – the colonised as well as the colonisers – and as a consequence, any debate and anger about past injustices and colonialism, produces a certain amount of personal discomfort and anxiety. The other day I heard the song, ‘Land of Hope and Glory‘ and thought, ‘Why then did my ancestors leave that country, in poverty, if it was such a country of hope? And where is the glory in dispossessing others of their own land?’

I was born (privileged, blonde and fair-skinned) from a generation in the throes of forging ahead into a bright, blind future believed to have been won fair and square. I am of the generation that arrived straight after two world wars.

Most of my great-grandparents were forced to leave their home country (England, Ireland and Scotland) because of poverty and/or shrinking prospects. But as this generation strived to build a new home and future for their descendants, they failed to notice the injustices that went along with what they took as their rights in a new land.

Despite how white I look and act, I am Māori, with ancestors (tīpuna) whose quiet voices I carry inside me. Their stories are ones of displacement and unfair land deals. Their stories also tell of their own failure to fully nurture, for their descendants, their own tikanga and Te Reo – their ways, their culture and their language.

As is the case for countless others, in my own family this culture, along with its language, was not handed down to my mother’s father – to my Granddad – from his own grandmother and mother. I guess because they felt, or were persuded to feel, ashamed of that culture and language, it being a perceived as inferior by the Pākēhā (Europeans) they had married into.

This created a vacuum; a hollow, a bereft space; for the descendants that followed. Some of these descendants, members of my own family, for example, remain unaffected and have no desire to reconnect. Speaking for myself, however, it has left me feeling abandoned and cut off from that part of my heritage and I do want to reconnect. Consequently, even if it feels like making minor moves, I have done so and will continue to pursue this connection.

I carry no resentment that my Granddad had no interest in his ‘Māori side’. How could I? As a kid, I had no idea of anything political or otherwise. On second thoughts, I say that I had no idea, but I do recall asking him once (much to the huge amusement of my parents and aunites) “Are you half-pie Māori?” To ask him that, surely means that I had heard that term being bandied about. From what I can remember, his response was just to laugh his loud, raspy laugh.

My Granddad was a short, round, good and loving man with beautiful freckley, brown skin. When he was younger, he maybe had reddish hair, but I only knew him as grey and bald and whenever he was outside, always wearing a trilby hat over his shiny, brown head. We all loved him – his wife; our gentle-natured, fully-Pākehā Nana; and his children and grandchildren. He was a vital force in our extended family. We adored him. He was essential. We depended greatly on his energy, humour, sense of fun; his zest for and enjoyment of life; his singing and the generous and open-hearted affection we received from him. We all benefitted from his protection and devotion. He died of a heart attack shortly after retiring from his many years of work as a roadworker on Southland roads. He died way too young.

Te Reo is an ancient language, elemental in its construction, full of the sounds of nature and weather.

Along with many others (including my own children and grandchildren) I am slowly learning the language of Māori. It feels like new pathways are opening up in my brain.

As the language my ancestors spoke, for me Te Reo appears to have the capacity to knit together historical threads that were either abandoned or torn away.

Sometimes it feels like I’m being grafted back on to the vine – a very gradual process and one that will take more time than I have left at my age. Yet when it is going right, I catch glimmers of something precious – as if I’m tapping into some secret, sacred energy.


Writer from Dunedin, New Zealand.

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