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‘A little push on your next journey’

Back in Gisborne after graduating from Massey University with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Māori Studies, Te Kotuku Irwin-Stainton spoke with Jack Marshall about her experience as a Māori woman in higher education and the speech she gave at her graduation.

I ask you to embrace change confidently in the next journey of your life,” said Te Kotuku Irwin-Stainton last week in her valedictorian speech at Massey University in Palmerston North.

Speaking at her graduation ceremony to a hall packed with students, teachers, parents and university leaders, she touched on the usual facets of student life: two-minute noodles, various mini-mental-breakdowns and late-night study sessions.

Expanding on her speech for The Gisborne Herald, she has written an essay detailing her dual journey: Gaining a degree from a Western institution both on a personal level, and as a Māori woman as part of a greater collective.

In her speech, instead of simply acknowledging difficulties she and her peers had gone through to get to graduation, Te Kotuku told the audience, “I hope to give you a little push on your next journey in life.”

Entering university as a Māori student, she saw differences in the education students received because of their different backgrounds.

She then used her time on stage to share a simple but important message:

There are different levels of power and inequality in the education system — change is needed.

Massey University has started the journey towards equality by becoming a Tiriti-led institution in 2017, a step Te Kotuku said her fellow students could be proud of.

Te Kotuku attended Te Whakaruruhau kohanga reo, kura kaupapa and Lytton High School, and works as a biodiversity strategist for her hapū Ngāti Oneone, a sub-tribe of Ngāti Porou, on their restoration project of Tītīrangi maunga/Kaiti Hill.

Having graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in English and Māori studies, she looks forward to what the future has in store for her hapu of Ngāti Oneone.

In the near term, Te Kotuku aims to complete a graduate diploma in sociology, a component she believes will be important to undertaking a Master's in Education in the future. At the same time, she will carry on working with Ngāti Oneone in their mission to restore their maunga, moana and awa of Kopuawhakapata.

“Specifically at the moment we're focusing on Tītīrangi maunga — restoring the ecosystem, having 100 percent native trees regeneration, weed control and pest control.

“That's a big mission because as Māori, not only are we trying to save our people but we're also trying to save the environment.

“There's many projects, mentally, emotionally and physically that Māori undertake to serve their collective dreams. It's a lot of hard work but it's amazing too.”

No stranger to public speaking, Te Kotuku often has to give speeches in her role as a rangatahi and member of Ngāti Oneone.

“My role with Ngāti Oneone — professional or personal — requires a lot of public speaking in front of people who come to listen to our stories — stories about Ngāti Oneone and settler-colonialism, stories about our biodiversity strategy and our hopes and dreams for the future.”

For example, last year Te Kotuku gave a speech outlining the impact colonisation has had on her hapū to the British High Commissioner to New Zealand, Laura Clarke.

The commissioner was here to give a statement of regret regarding the fatal first meetings between Captain Cook's crew and tangata whenua of Tūranganui-a-Kiwa.

She was also introduced to the Prime Minister last month when she was visiting Te Poho o Rawiri Marae in Gisborne to take a look at the work Whaia Tītīrangi and Ngāti Oneone are doing on Titirangi.

A large part of her essay and speech revolves around her life in her community and the people around her like Ngāti Oneone chair Charlotte Gibson.

“Aunty Charlotte is an immaculate example of leadership. What I've learned from her is that it doesn't always have to be about education or success. It's simply about manaakitanga and kaitiakitanga for our people and our hapu. Making sure that we feel empowered and that our marae is looked after.”

'Decolonisation is a continuous journey'

Being Maori is as much an identity as a motivating factor for her. By doing well at university, she wanted to show that not only can Māori achieve at Western education, they can go further and excel.

Even though there are barriers being Māori, the identity can be an advantage.

“We're more equipped in certain fields of study because we have a wider and a raw cultural understanding of society,” she said.

Looking into the future, when the borders open up and life allows, she would like to go to America and do her Master's degree there, learning about and expanding her understanding on other indigenous peoples.

She envisions herself working in education around the environment and Te Tiriti for the next generation, making sure the Treaty is upheld in our society.

' To watch Te Kotuku's speech, readers can visit the Massey YouTube channel — ceremony two, humanities and social sciences.

Te Kotuku Irwin-Stainton's essay

When I received the call informing me the Massey University vice chancellor had selected me as valedictorian for the class of 2020 in the college of humanities and social sciences, I was taken aback with shock and surprise.

When I told the news to one of my close aunties, a well-known mental health practitioner in Te Tairawhiti, she was overwhelmed with joy and pride.

Both our reactions were valid, but two totally different reactions, nonetheless. Being selected as valedictorian for a large Western academic institution came as a huge surprise to me because for a long time, I had doubted myself and my ability to succeed under Western epistemologies and had almost resisted it.

Internally I battled with the idea of entering (and continuing) with Western-led education out of fear of losing who I am and who I want to be as a Māori individual. In other words, I didn't want to be even more colonised in a world where Western pedagogy is available everywhere you look and therefore privileged in its own way.

Anything “outside” of that understanding (i.e. Māori methodologies and practices) is limited and even lost as a result of colonisation and oppression — in a world where iwi and hapu such as my own (Ngāti Oneone) are fighting to be heard in a way that reflects a true kaupapa Māori-led organisation, without the delivery of tokenistic and performative motives by non-Māori AND Māori.

Because yes — Māori can also be tokenistic when attempting to deliver messages and resources to other Māori.

Becoming colonised and/or tokenistic in this way is something that I've feared and actively resisted in my own journey with education. No doubt I will probably have this fear for the rest of my life in other pursuits, particularly my personal and professional development.

It is a fear that I embrace and hope that others embrace too, because when you make a daily effort to examine how your actions and pursuits may harm and affect the anthropology of another culture, particularly your own, you become conscious of ways in which to be a better person for those around you. A better person who actually serves your community in a way that is radically helpful and not performative or futile.

I chose a major in English instead of one I might have enjoyed more, i.e. anthropology, psychology or Māori education — a field of study that perhaps would've made me 100 percent happier.

Essentially, I chose to major in English primarily out of an urge to resist a stigma that had followed me for most of my experiences in school — the idea that Māori, fluent or not, lack the ability to be efficient in their delivery of the English language. This is not only a stigma and prejudice that followed me, but follows many other Māori.

Although this stigma is untrue and is born out of colonial thinking that among many things, attempts to make Māori learners believe they are “not good enough” . . . despite the fact that we are born out of a rich literary history of visual and oral brilliance.

Culturally there are different styles of communication and storytelling. For example, Māori are non-linear in their approach to storytelling. We believe that notions of the past, present and future are intertwined, and operate collectively. Linear thinking, however, involves the dynamic where most processes of knowledge are more wired to think of things separately, rather than collectively and holistically. Under the effects of colonisation and the privileging of Western discourses in our education system, we are coerced to think in the latter, and if this is successful, we lose ourselves in the process. Which is essentially the intention, consciously or not, behind covert (now becoming more overt) assimilatory techniques.

It is ironic that I sought out a degree in English literature, when I was so clearly struggling to reconcile the oppressive nature of such a discipline, particularly when undertaking the challenge of decolonisation very seriously. Among many reasons, the reason I bring this up is that in the study of English literature, the reading material provided was obviously dominated by historically-famous white writers. The books and reading material supplied are those that are most famous in the literary world. This involved writers like Shakespeare, Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Austen and T.S Elliot. The university did offer a lot of papers that detailed feminism in the English literary space, which was all interesting and very important within higher education.

In an attempt to stay sane, I did a minor in Māori studies which allowed me to revisit what was validating and comfortable to me. This also allowed me to form life-long and close connections with Māori staff and students at Massey University which I value still today.

I would often choose to write about material produced from Māori writers when I could and took a particular liking to African American and other black or indigenous authors. Nigerian writer and feminist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, recently said in a keynote speech, “confidence is a continuous journey and not an absolute destination”.

To take inspiration from her, I like to believe that decolonisation is a continuous journey and not an absolute destination. It is not something to aspire to but rather to follow.

We need to normalise Māori success. We need to invest in Māori education, so that Māori success, like my own, is not an uncommon achievement. We need to value and appreciate Māori knowledge systems, and actively avoid being tokenistic in our support of them. We need to invest in our rangatahi in ways which allow them to see and BELIEVE in their full potential to succeed, in both the English and Māori worlds.

THE IMPACT OF COLONISATION: Te Kotuku delivering a speech to the British High Commissioner to New Zealand, Laura Clarke. Picture by Shaan Te Kani
SOUND ADVICE: Te Kotuku delivers her valedictorian speech. Pictures by Massey University
GRADUATION: Te Kotuku receives her cap at the graduation ceremony.
Te Kotuku Irwin