By Rosemary Rangitauira 05/07/2021

Dr Poia Rewi credits his kaumātua (elders) for much of his journey as a kaihāpai o te reo Māori (Māori language supporter) and also acknowledges the pivotal role non-Māori mentors have played in his life.

“Being raised in Murupara (Bay of Plenty) I was mentored by my koroua (grandfathers), kuia (grandmothers), and pākeke (adults) who guided my affinity for Māori language and culture,” says Poia, who hails from Ngāti Manawa, Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Whare, Te Arawa, and Ngāti Tūwharetoa.

The first of July marks a year since Poia was appointed as the chief executive of Te Mātāwai, an independent statutory agency charged with revitalising te reo Māori. The former specialist researcher in Māori language revitalisation, culture, oral history and performing arts was recently awarded the status of Emeritus Professor to recognise his distinguished services to the University of Otago.

While earlier this year he was elected as a fellow of the Academy of the Royal Society Te Apārangi, an honour that recognises distinction in research, scholarship or advancement of knowledge.

Humbled and appreciative of his election, Poia is eager to continue seeking ways for the Māori language, culture and knowledge to be more visible and experienced in esteemed institutions like Te Apārangi.

“I’ll be honest. I had already been out of the academy for a year and it’s rare for academics who leave the academy to be afforded that privilege as a fellow, which is normally based on your activities and research.”

“I look back at the research and it’s probably what landed me in the Māori Language Commission some years ago as the acting chief executive and now, here at Te Mātāwai. It’s a privilege to be able to take the work I’ve done – and love doing – to Te Mātāwai, and try to help people with their reo Māori journeys, dreams, aspirations and goals.”

Te Mātāwai is made up of three units:

  • Investment (language initiatives): Supports whānau, hapū, iwi and communities to get te reo Māori into homes
  • Research: Feedback and experiences from whānau, hapū, iwi, community and Te Mātāwai staff are analysed to develop better reo revitalisation models and approaches; and
  • Strategy: Looks beyond whānau, hapū, community and iwi to see how the public sector and greater Aotearoa can support te reo revitalisation.

Te Mātāwai was established in 2016 by Te Ture o te reo Māori (Māori Language Act) and works in partnership with the Crown under the public policy framework, Te Whare o te reo Mauriora. Te Mātāwai upholds the framework’s Maihi Māori component.

When we spoke to Poia, he and his team were finalising Te Mātāwai’s Statement of Intent, developed by the Board, and sets out its direction and goals for the next four years.

The publication will focus on five areas; Oranga o te whānau – Whānau well-being, Rumaki – Immersion domains, Kōkiritanga reo – Language movements, Reo tuku iho – Intergenerational transmission and Tuakiri – Identity. The Statement of Intent has now been published here.

“Language is a critical part of the well-being of Māori. Feeling confident in their language and cultural activities is about holistic well-being. While immersion domains encourage more people – like hunters, for example – to create reo Māori domains. One day we may even see hunting competitions hosted in te reo Māori.”

“Te Mātāwai also wants to know how it can support language movements such as the Kīngitanga and Ringatū because they’re well-established gatherings that are founded by the use of te reo Māori. Identity is also critical, as we want to support people who want to learn more about their tribal dialect and empower them to feel confident in who they are,” says Poia.

And what is Poia’s ultimate goal for te reo?

Casting his mind back, he shares with us words from one of his Pāpā (Uncle) who he looked up to, a well-known reo Māori champion, the Late Te Wharehuia Milroy.

“When will my job be done? Anei ngā kupu a Te Wharehuia, ‘kia whakahokia te reo Māori mai  i te mata o te pene ki te mata o te arero.’

“I hope to achieve part of this goal and the words of Te Wharehuia, to one day see the language not only as a written language but a reo that is firmly taken back and sitting on the tips of people’s tongues.”

Poia radiates humility and deep respect for his elders. In his company, it’s easy to feel the love he has for the fond memories that have shaped his life as well as his devotion to te reo Māori and culture.

“Apparently as a young kid, I asked a hundred questions and later I become the argumentative teen. My father thought I was going to be a lawyer but instead, I took up research. I look back on my university studies and at that time a lot of my kaumātua were dying. So I decided to record their kōrero at marae. I wanted to capture their stories and give those to their families so they could retain and treasure that knowledge. As well as a record of our identity as Ngāti Koro, Ngāti Manawa, Tūhoe, Te Arawa.”

Poia says he was about 20 years old then when he started recording his elders kōrero (stories), which without knowing it at the time laid the foundation for his Masters and his PhD – a thesis on Te Ao o te Whaikōrero, as well as the book, Whaikōrero: The World of Māori Oratory.

“Those recordings were about people’s lives. I gave those recordings and transcripts back to the whānau so that their moko can listen back to their grandfather’s voice at some time and it’s also an example of fluent native speakers.”

“Although most of those kaumātua have died, sometimes I keep in touch with their families and sometimes they’re curious as to why I turn up out of the blue. I think as Māori, we look at our association with elders, which doesn’t stop when they have passed on. I’ll always feel that I have to pay those families back for what their parent or grandfather has left me with. I’ll probably never be able to repay all of them for what I have gained, but I’ll try my best.”

*Photo supplied by Te Mātāwai.