The year that . . .
Mihingarangi Forbes, 45, recalls an enlightening year of finding her roots
Ilearnt te reo Maori in 1993. It was a major shift in my life in terms of self-identity and being able to start unravelling lots of questions about who I was, where I was from, what my place was in Aotearoa. I had been too old to go to kohanga reo and be part of the first te reo renaissance. I grew up in Feilding, which was a town of two halves — a quite wealthy farming community, and another community that would survive on labouring work, jobs at the freezing works or Wattie’s. My school community was half and half. I was always conscious of Maori kids’ lives — sometimes there was lots of money because Wattie’s or the works were doing well, then major times when people were not well off.
I hung out with lots of Maori kids who lived around me and I saw the two halves of that town all my life. At Feilding Agricultural High School, which was an old traditional high school, it was a struggle to be Maori. The kids who were suspended and expelled were predominantly Maori.
I had a dad who was my Maori connection but had gone to Australia and wasn’t around. And I had a mum who was Pakeha but who would drive us when she could back to Waikato, where I have a large Maori family, so we could have that connection.
My dad was brown and my siblings are darker than me. But in Feilding, when I was about 8, a girl called Natasha, who probably whakapapas back to Tuhoe but was an urban Maori who’d lost her connection, called me a honky.
I was like: “I’m not a honky, I’m Maori.” She was: “Whatever, you’re a honky.”
I went home and said, “Mum, Natasha called me a honky.” And Mum said, “Well ... ” And I looked at Mum and realised probably for the first time how white I was, because she had done such a good job of connecting us to our identity.
I thought I might have to overcompensate: learn my reo, be part of kapa haka. That was quite difficult at Feilding Ag. But I came across two amazing Maori teachers who inspired me to learn my reo. One of them, who was fair-skinned herself, impressed on me that I needed to do total immersion to learn te reo, because there was no way of being Maori without your language. I worked for a year at Freightways Express and then realised I needed to sort it, so I packed up my bags and my courage and turned up at Waikato Poly for the powhiri at the beginning of the year. It was one of the most frightening but enlightening periods of my life.
A group of about 100 of us went through the year, speaking Maori, making mistakes, having fun, getting drunk because we were students, going to tangi and on trips with amazing teachers.
So, learning te reo, the curtain opened a wee bit and since then it’s been a journey of finding out about me, my iwi and my whanau. I’ve got an understanding of the reason why my grandmother, who was a native speaker, refused to speak it to her kids, and why my dad can’t speak it.
The following year I got asked if I wanted an internship for Te Karere and I went in there. Without te reo, God knows if I’d ever have been in journalism. It has opened so many doors for me and given me an understanding of the people whose stories I was doing.
Learning te reo, the curtain opened a wee bit and since then it’s been a journey of finding out about me, my iwi and my whanau. I’ve got an understanding of why my grandmother refused to speak it to her kids.