By Adrian Stevanon (8 minute read)

Aotearoa as a nation is becoming browner. In twenty years’ time, one in every three people will be of Māori or Pacific descent. As the shade of our country continues to darken, many who live outside these communities find it challenging to understand their different cultures and languages, and navigate their way around them.

A lack of cultural competency, or ignorance around how to communicate with Māori and Pacific communities, often leads to fear of engaging. But like anything unknown, once you start peeling back the layers of culture and language, there is a beautiful and life altering experience to be found. We talk to three people who crossed that divide by learning Māori and Pacific languages.

A good way for anyone to begin improving their engagement with an indigenous community is to learn their language. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but it does need to be meaningful.

Speak from the heart

Critically acclaimed New Zealand actress, Jennifer Ward-Lealand is Pākehā and has reached a good level of fluency in te reo Māori. She is frequently asked by other Pākehā for advice when embarking on a process of Māori engagement.

“People are terrified of getting their reo Māori wrong, so I encourage them to prepare something small, and really try to understand what they’re saying,” says Jennifer.

“Understand how to pronounce it correctly and ensure the reo they’re speaking is from their heart. That’s much more important than length or an impressive vocabulary.”

“Often in greetings, I hear Pākehā flipping off an overly quick ‘Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa’ mostly because they are nervous about getting it wrong,” says Jennifer. “I say the opposite – linger on it – pay attention to
the macrons, which lengthen the vowel sounds – because within the lingering is the acknowledgement. If you’re saying to someone “Tēnā koe”, you’re saying, “There you are, I see you.”

Jennifer grew up in the inner-city suburb, Te Aro in Wellington in the late 60’s and early 70’s where Māori and Pacific peoples were part of her everyday life. Māori language and culture also played a big part in her primary schooling where she learned many waiata from her Māori teachers. Her experiences shaped her passion for learning te reo.

“The embers were just very, very quietly smoldering inside me,” says Jennifer. “I always knew it was never going to be if I learnt te reo Māori, rather it was always going to be when I would learn te reo Māori.”

Nine years ago, Jennifer finally embarked on her journey to becoming a fluent speaker. When reflecting on how it has changed her world view Jennifer says,
“People are terrified of getting their reo Māori wrong, so I encourage them to prepare something small,”

“I feel so much more comfortable in my own skin from having learned te reo Māori. The language is so connected to the natural world that when you start diving into it you are connecting to things on many, many levels and I feel that very keenly.”

“People in Aotearoa have an instinctive connection to this land. I would encourage anyone who wants to deepen that connection to learn te reo Māori. It can only make you a better, more rounded person.”

Be open to new ways of thinking

There’s a saying that goes “You don’t know what you don’t know – until you know it.” This sentiment rings true for Jan Taouma.

Born and raised in Invercargill, Jan would never have imagined that she, as Palagi, would grow up to launch the country’s first Samoan language preschool more than 30 years ago.

“I grew up in Invercargill and had no awareness of Samoa back in the early 1950’s,” recalls Jan, “I don’t even think I’d even heard of Samoa.”

In the early 1970s it was the love of her late husband, Papali’i Pita Taouma, that would lead her to Samoa and her first brush with village life.

“When I first went over there I was living in the village of Faleasiu and there were no Palagi,” says Jan. “The children used to come and sit outside my house to look at me and so I was immersed in the Samoan language. I realised if I was going to join their conversation and understand what was happening, I had to learn as much as I could.”

Jan says she’s not a fluent Samoan speaker but she has a very good understanding of the language. After living in Samoa for a decade, she moved back to New Zealand with her husband, and a world view that had completely changed.

“I didn’t think I fitted in anymore,” says Jan. “People I knew and had grown up with had taken a totally different path then mine. I found it quite hard to associate with them because my life had become so different.”

“When we came back to live in Auckland, especially when we started the Aoga Fa’a Samoa (Samoan language pre-school), I could relate really well to the Samoan teachers and families because I had that long association with the Samoan culture.”

Learning the Samoan language can help when engaging with the Samoan community, but Jan adds that learning the subtle Samoan cultural nuances can also be helpful.

“One of the things I had to get used to were the silences, that was very hard to understand. When people were sitting there quietly, I always wanted to jump in but my husband would eye ball me to just be quiet. To understand how important silences are.”

“Also realising that you need to be at the same level (height) as the person you are talking to. All of those nuances are really important and if you know those things, then immediately you can relate in a much better way.”

Cultural intelligence can open doors

Cultural immersion can create a better understanding of Māori and Pacific communities, so too can cultural intelligence. It can speed up communication processes, open doors and lead to clear and effective communications.

Gisborne Mayor, Meng Foon says understanding the power of meeting face to face or kanohi ki te kanohi in a cultural context shouldn’t be underestimated.

“In the Tai Rāwhiti (Gisborne region) when we have any ideas in terms of policies, projects or programmes that affect Māori, iwi get the first call,” says Meng.

“We go see the chairperson and talk chief to chief. I say, ‘This is happening in your district how should we go about it?’ – rather than getting a consultant to do all the work before telling iwi how it’s going to be. That’s inviting raruraru (problems) from the beginning.”

The son of Chinese immigrants, Meng was born and raised in Gisborne. He says his Chinese upbringing gave him an almost seamless transition into the Māori world.

“My world view never changed because we were bought up Chinese,” says Meng. “My mother was from Hong Kong and she spoke Cantonese, and my Dad was from Taishan so he spoke Sze Yup. Our cultures are very similar to Māori so I didn’t notice too much difference.”

Meng is the only mayor in the country who can speak fluent Māori. He says while speaking te reo Māori hasn’t changed his world view, it’s improved his level of engagement with Māori communities.

“We go see the chairperson and talk chief to chief. Rather than telling iwi how it’s going to be.”

“The main thing is that I can participate and understand from a Māori world perspective – on the marae, at hui, at tangihanga (funerals) – right throughout the nation really,” says Meng. “I’ve participated at Māori events from the tip of the north to the south, even Rekohu (the Chatham Islands).  It’s a great honour, and if I didn’t have the reo I wouldn’t be able to participate.”

Relationship building and creating empathy.
Ultimately, if you’re looking to successfully engage with Māori and Pacific communities, you must be open to learning, and not be afraid of making mistakes.

Jan Taouma says making a genuine effort to learn a few things about the community you wish to engage with can make a difference.

“I think everybody appreciates people who try, especially Samoans. They just love it when somebody is able to say ‘Talofa’ or ‘Fa’afetai’. Those little things make a difference.”

Jennifer Ward-Lealand agrees but has further advice for non-Māori wanting to engage with Māori.

“Learning a bit about the history of this country is a good thing because you see things from a different angle, there’s much more empathy to be had,” says Jennifer. “I think generally we are still quite a judgmental society and in my
opinion it comes from a lack of understanding.”

“Making a genuine effort to learn a few things about the community you wish to engage with can make a difference.”