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Living the language

WITH all her knowledge of te reo Maori, Ruth Smith believes there is more to the language than just the spoken word.

In speaking with Ruth, it’s obvious from her first words that she is passionate about language and its many forms.

“For me te reo Maori is more far-reaching than just speaking the language.

“Language is sensory. It’s hearing, seeing and feeling — not just speaking.

“There are different ways of conveying the language. Some people speak, whereas others use their body language to convey that real Maori essence.”

Ruth sees examples of that essence being expressed every day, especially within her own whanau.

She is a descendant of Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki, Ngati Kohuru, Te Whanau a Ruataupare, Ngati Konohi and Ngati Rakaipaaka.

She is also a member of her marae committee at Parihimanihi Marae in Waihirere.

“I see my cousin at the marae, who doesn’t speak te reo Maori, but she makes sure that all of the kids at the pa (marae) are fed, even if she doesn’t know who some of them are.

“That to me is Maori — it is just one way of expressing being Maori and expressing the language.”

It is also an example of manaakitanga (showing care for others), which links in with tikanga.

Tikanga by definition means protocols, customs and values and Ruth says that te reo Maori and tikanga go hand-in-hand.

“Those two things inherently go together. In learning, or in doing any initiatives, tikanga naturally goes with it.”

In all that she does, Ruth aspires to “live the language” and while she is only young, she has already lived a very colourful “reo journey”.

“Te reo Maori is my first language — it is what my grandparents spoke to me.

“My parents couldn’t korero Maori, only my brother.

“I went to kohanga reo at Waihirere and Whanau Aroha here in Gisborne and then I went to kura at Waikirikiri School.

Teachers instilled passion“The teachers at Waikirikiri really instilled a passion for the reo within me. They were very ‘kia u ki te kaupapa’ — they were very resolute to the cause.

“Then we moved to Wellington and it was really different there. I had grown up in Gisborne, being around the pa, at kohanga reo and kura. It was a very different environment even though I went to a kura kaupapa there as well.

“At intermediate and high school I was not speaking as much Maori because my brother moved out of home. He was the one who I would mostly converse with. Then English became my main medium.

“I started to learn Spanish in fifth form at high school and in seventh form I lived a year abroad in Spain.

“I went away and when I came back, I couldn’t speak Maori anymore.

“That was because I was immersed in another language and not using mine anymore — I lost it.”

When Ruth returned to New Zealand, she attended university and studied te reo Maori papers.

From here she became exposed to te reo Maori national movements such as Kura Reo and Te Panekiretanga o Te Reo Maori: The Institute of Excellence in the Maori Language.

Inaugural Maori language commissioner and Te Kohanga Reo National Trust chairman Sir Timoti Karetu was involved in the establishment of Kura Reo, which are week- long immersion wananga held quarterly throughout Aotearoa, for intermediate to advanced levels of te reo Maori.

From these wananga, Sir Timoti saw the need for another group to be established, to cater to those who had advanced to a higher level and were leading in tikanga and oratory for their respective places of influence.

Te Panekiretanga came forth and has been operating for the past 13 years.

It has been criticised for being an elitist group, but as a past graduate, Ruth says it creates a good platform for networking with other te reo exponents, who all share a passion for developing te reo within their iwi.

“The most valuable thing from these initiatives is being able to have a nationwide view on the state of our reo,” she says.

“You create networks with other iwi and see the strategies that they implement within their people, to help te reo grow and you see that these strategies work.

“So on a local level Mahaki is now pushing through with our reo strategy as are other iwi and hapu.”

Another way of maintaining te reo is by going back to the pa, to the marae, says Ruth.

As a member of kapa haka group Waihirere, Ruth says she first joined up as a teenager while living in Wellington, as a way of being able to stay connected to her home.

“I like to surround myself with things that I like to do. Kapa haka is one thing that brings me back to the pa.

“There’s no better place than seeing the reo in action, than at the pa.

“From the men out the back of the pa who are cutting up the meat for a kai, to our kids running around and playing with their cousins for the first time.

“It encompasses all of these types of things.”

Ruth’s passion for language extends to her work as a lecturer in Toi Reo at EIT’s Toihoukura, School of Maori Visual Art and Design.

The literal translation of Toi Reo is “art language”.

Ruth says Toi Reo is a collaborative approach to the spoken, written and visual formats of the Maori language.

“I really love my mahi (work). It goes along well with my passion for language.

“Through art we explore visual language and Maori art is a language that records our history and whakapapa.

“I think of a proverb, which talks about the books of our forefathers being the carved figures in our meeting houses, the whariki (mats) on our floors, and the tukutuku panels on our walls.

“I believe art is a repository and it is really invigorating that we are able to study and practise the things we love to do and we can share that with the community.

“It is just another way of expressing te reo.”

Young leader: Ruth Smith sits outside her wharekai (dining hall) Te Kura o Mahaki at Parihimanihi Marae in Waihirere. Picture by Shaan Te Kani