The year that . . .

Mi­hin­garangi Forbes, 45, re­calls an en­light­en­ing year of find­ing her roots

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - LAST WORD - As told to Paul Lit­tle.

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.

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