Morrison passing on the importance of being Maori

Morrison's first solo book will be published later this year. Photo: Doug Sherring
Morrison's first solo book will be published later this year. Photo: Doug Sherring
Stacey Morrison tells Greg Bruce that, when she was young, being Maori was something to overcome. 

Following the terror attacks in Stacey Morrison's home town of Christchurch on March 15, the phrase "this is not us" took off and became omnipresent. Morrison has some thoughts about that.

She says: "I really do think that New Zealand would be split into people who recognise that comment and people who don't."

She says: "We tend to think, `Whatever I know to be New Zealand is New Zealand', yet there's actually lots of different versions of our experiences of New Zealand.

"And I guess when the mosque attacks happened, the people who really responded to, `This is not us' really believe that in their world racism doesn't exist.

"But the people who didn't respond to that statement are the people who go, `Yeah, I see intolerance. I see bias'."

She sees it and has seen it throughout her life.

While speaking Maori with her children in a supermarket a few years ago, she was told by a fellow shopper to stop speaking "that jungle language". Recently someone else approached her in public, while she was talking to her children and told her "Maori doesn't normally sound like that". Recently, someone else texted while she was on air at The Hits and said, "You know who over-pronounces Maori words? Stacey Morrison."

She grew up as part of a generation who weren't given Maori names because their parents didn't want those names to be mangled. She was given a Maori middle name though - Pirihira - and it was mangled. "Pitter Patter" the kids at school called her. "Why is your name Pitter Patter?" they would ask.

More insidious than the outright insults are the underlying attitudes of people who wouldn't claim necessarily to be against the language.

"There's been such a history of determination to remove the mana of te reo Maori that it creeps through in tiny ways," she says.

Heather du Plessis Allan, who is spending three hours a week learning te reo, interviewed Morrison earlier this year and argued that correct pronunciation of Maori words is not going to save the Maori language. She said: "This is just virtue-signalling by a lot of people."

Using the example of "Miriama", which she pronounced correctly and then incorrectly, du Plessis-Allan said, "The difference is so slight, I'm not sure why we worry about it all that much."

"I think we're oversensitive, don't you think?" du Plessis-Allan said.

"No, I don't think," Morrison said.

When people hear about the focus she and Scotty are putting on Maori at home, they sometimes ask: "What about the kids' English?"

Scotty, who was in the top stream at his high school, was offered the opportunity to learn French or German at school but not Maori - that was only offered to pupils in the bottom stream.

Stacey Morrison is helping change the way the country sees Maori. And she's not done yet. Photos:...
Stacey Morrison is helping change the way the country sees Maori. And she's not done yet. Photos: NZ Herald
Morrison says now, "What was funny to me about Taika Waititi calling New Zealand out as racist was that there was more horror that he said it than there was horror that there might be racism. Like, `Don't you dare air our dirty laundry bro!' And now our dirty laundry is way out there for the whole world to see."

Maori language champion, broadcaster, Maori language publishing phenomenon, teacher, celebrity, mother of three Maori-speaking children - is "cultural icon" too strong for somebody who started her career hosting a cooking segment on a children's television variety show? Probably not.

Nevertheless, she was not proud of being Maori. She grew up thinking it was something she had to overcome, an attitude that was, at least in part, inherited. Her father's generation, she says, had the worldview: "`I'm either going to be Maori or I'm going to be successful', and these are two paths that don't meet."

Growing up in Christchurch, she felt a responsibility to her culture to be good at school, which she was - "A Maori Hermione" she says - but she nevertheless built a self-image that didn't require much of her Maori side.

"My English side I can express quite easily because my English is OK and, especially growing up in Christchurch, that was something I could build my sense of self around, and because I was good at English, but I didn't feel comfortable in my Maori skin, I didn't feel proud of that.

"People would say things like, `You're actually quite bright', and I was trying to figure out why there needed to be an `actually' in there."

Not until she was in her late teens, on student exchange in Japan, did she start to feel the pull of the Maori language and culture, and its importance.

As the fluency of her Japanese increased, so did her sense of irony that she was learning a second language which wasn't the language of her ancestors.

She sent a letter to her Maori-speaking grandmother, promising she would learn te reo. She wrote: "I understand now how valuable it is." She says now, "I could see the pathway language gives to culture."

After she and husband Scotty were married in 2006, they sat down and worked out a plan for bringing up their children with the Maori language. With respect to the language and culture and the immersion of their family in both, they became, and remain, she says, "Harry Hardouts". It has helped shape many of their decisions.

More than 25 years after writing that letter to her grandmother, Morrison is not only part of a family of five fluent Maori speakers, but is part of a marriage that has sold well over 100,000 books - in a country where selling more than 5000 copies of anything makes you a success.

This is her life now, and it's a long way from where she thought she'd be as a child.

She says, "I say to people, `Once you have a yearning for the language, the good news is that it won't go away and the bad news is that it won't go away."'

She started on television on children's show What Now, as a 15-year-old presenting the cooking segment, "Let's Cook".

Later, she moved into roles on television shows Marae and Mai Time and then the breakfast show on Mai FM with Robbie Rakete. As her public profile grew, so did her portfolio of roles.

Now, apart from being a mother, she's an MC, an ambassador for the breast cancer foundation, a corporate consultant and a teacher.

Her day job though, her main job, is still broadcasting, as co-host of the drive show on The Hits.

As a Maori broadcaster in a mainstream media role, Morrison is a rarity. Newsrooms across the country are short of Maori. In the very highest profile media jobs, the marquee roles, Maori are non-existent.

She says: "I think that there's a thing where you can be seen as being too Maori for some roles, I think. Maybe I'm just not good enough. I don't know."

There have been times she's felt the need to moderate her Maori side: "If I'm honest, yeah, probably. It's also about how to deliver a message in a way that people listen too. Is there any point in just turning people right off?"

Recently, she was in an office kitchen space and she watched someone sit up on the kitchen bench. She thought about saying something, but she didn't.

She was conflicted about that. Afterwards, reciting the story to people, they said, "You should have said something."

Morrison, one of the most prominent voices of the reo renaissance, has gone from cultural cringe...
Morrison, one of the most prominent voices of the reo renaissance, has gone from cultural cringe to cultural icon.
She replied, "'yes, but there's this thing where it's the emotional labour that's involved' and just directly before that, I had been quite staunch in a meeting, and I was like, `In the spectrum of today, I've chosen this battle'."

Eventually someone else, someone Pakeha, walked past the bench-sitter and said, "that's tapu".

The person got off.

She was heartened by that, as she is heartened by Pakeha champions of Maori language, like Guyon Espiner and Jack Tame, as she is by increasingly supportive attitudes from non-Maori as a whole. She loves seeing Pakeha children taking part in kapa haka.

The "jungle talk" people, she says, are the exception.

"Most times people come up and you can tell they've gathered a bit of courage and they say, `I just want to say I think it's really neat that you're speaking Maori to your kids.'

"I remember in a furniture shop just last year Scotty was speaking Maori to our kids and he saw this man and his son looking at them ... and the guy said to his son, 'You hear that? That's Maori, that's our national language, and all of us should speak it."'

She says she'd love to say everything is awesome, and she believes we really do need to "bank the wins", but there are still challenges.

"I honestly believe some New Zealanders don't think that you have a different experience or have a different worldview growing up Maori in New Zealand."

In September this year, she will release her first solo Maori language learning book, My First Words in Maori, the latest in the line of best-selling language-learning books written by either her or Scotty or both, the collective power of which has played an important part in the Maori language renaissance of recent years.

"I consider myself - we say pononga mo te reo - so we are a servant, we are foot soldiers for te reo really, and I just see it that there are generations that have gone before us that ensured we had something to protect and now the baton passes."

The passing of that baton does not necessarily only go in one direction, intergenerationally speaking.

Morrison took her father along to a recent Maori immersion live-in on an Otago Marae, partly so he could help look after the children while she and Scotty were teaching, but also because she wanted him to have the experience.

While there, he admitted he was on the runanga for Ngai Tahu when they were first proposing setting up the immersion course and that he was then against the idea.

"He said, `Really? Do we really need this? Do we really need a thousand Maori-speaking homes?"'

He now accepts he was on the wrong side of history, she says.

His experience growing up without his language is not rare, she says, particularly among his generation: "I know that a lot of people still feel embarrassed to go to the marae if they can't speak Maori, or they don't know what to do.

"The most difficult thing about it is that the time they often have to go back is for a tangi, so they are already in this heightened emotional state and in grief, and if they have experiences that make them feel uncomfortable, then that's just building trauma layer upon trauma layer. It brings tears to my eyes even thinking about it.

"I've heard men of my dad's age coming to bring their dead or go to a tangi and ... they just cry and they can't say anything and they know they can't say anything. They haven't got the words."

It's a terrible experience for the people suffering, she says, but from such situations has come the determination to fix it.

If "This is not us" then who are we? What kind of society are we now and what kind of society do we want to be?

Morrison thinks we talk about being diverse and multicultural better than we talk about being bicultural, that some people think that "multicultural" should override "bicultural".

"Yes, of course we're multicultural," she says, "but we're built on a bicultural foundation.

"Our terms of engagement are bicultural - the foundation of this country."

She says: "When people go on an OE to London, all of a sudden they bust out a haka and Tutira Mai Nga Iwi.

"Did they ever do that in downtown Wellington? Perhaps not, but how do I express where I'm from? How do I tell people my very distinct place in the world? And they go, `Well, Maori."'

"We always say if you connect to this land and you get goosebumps when you watch the haka, then the language te reo Maori is part of you as well.

"And it's the best way to express our unique New Zealand experience. Because it's only here." - The New Zealand Herald



The 'jungle language' critics definitely are from Away.

Put ASBOs on them. They'll understand that.

{Anti Social Behaviour Order, from England, their England}


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