This story was collected at our Mount Lawley backyard and is told by Franchesca Walker. Franchesca shares her journey of learning to speak te reo Māori language and how this strengthened her Māori identity.
Backstories 2022 is a multi-sited storytelling festival located in suburbs of across Perth and regional Western Australia. In 2022, Backstories occurred in locations such as Geraldton, Kununurra, Bunbury, Margaret River and Lesmurdie.
Backstories 2022 Mount Lawley was made possible with funding from Lotterywest, Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries, City of Bayswater and Centre for Stories Founders Circle.
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Copyright © 2023 Franchesca Walker
Photo by Sophie Minissale
This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.
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Kūwaiʻia. When I was 24, this question was asked about me in te reo Māori, or the indigenous language of New Zealand. I was at a conference where the subject was tāte ao Māori, or writing the Māori world. And I toddled along to one of the panel discussions, and in the course of that discussion, raised my hand and asked a question.
And as I was asking this question, I could see one of the panellists, a kaumātua or elder, with a beautifully lined face, turn to the woman sitting next to her and asked [inaudible words]
And although I didn’t know really any Māori at that stage, I knew exactly what she was asking. Ko Wai’ia. Who is she? I also knew why she was asking it. It’s because that’s what we in Māoridom do when we meet someone new. It’s all about connection. We want to move someone as quickly as possible from being a stranger to whānaunga or family.
And so we want to know who a person is, who their people are, and where they come from. And although I knew all of this, I knew what the kaumatua, elder was asking, and I knew why she was asking it, I lacked the language, and more importantly the confidence to respond. So while she very graciously answered my question, I sat there mute, unable to answer hers.
Later that night, back in my room, I wrote what I wished I could have said in that moment. I am Māori, I wrote, and I am Pākehā [inaudible words], I’m English and Scottish. I’m a New Zealander, I wrote, and I cannot speak. Now, anyone who’d been paying the least bit of attention to my life up until that point wouldn’t have at all been surprised that I’d made it to 24 years of age without being able to speak te reo Māori.
In fact, for the majority of my life, I’ve been doing everything in my power to actively avoid it. To give you a bit of background, my beautiful parents who are here tonight, my mum is Pākehā or New Zealand European, and my dad, who’s a gorgeous dad who’s sitting right next to her, is Māori or a member of the indigenous race of Aotearoa, New Zealand.
When we were growing up, my parents wanted to instill a sense of pride in both our cultures in me and my siblings. Obviously, that was a lot easier to do when it came to the Pākehā culture, given that we lived in a majority white country of New Zealand. So when my primary school began offering Māori lessons, my parents enrolled me immediately.
The only problem was, I goddamn hated those classes. They were held in the middle of the day, which meant that I had to excuse myself from my mainstream class and toddle off to another part of the school, away from my friends, so that I could learn a language that, as far as I could tell, no one even spoke anymore.
The words also felt plastic in my mouth and every time the teacher asked me a question, I struggled to find the right answer at the right time, which left me feeling an overwhelming sense of shame. I mean, I was Māori, wasn’t I? Didn’t Māori people speak Māori? I knew why I hadn’t grown up speaking this language.
At least part of the reason was that my great grandfather had probably been beaten at school for speaking Māori, which, although it wasn’t an official policy at the time, was widely spread throughout New Zealand. They believed that Māori students would be better assimilated into the modern way of the world, or aka the white world, if they were prevented from speaking Māori.
And because my great grandfather had been beaten, that meant he had chosen not to teach my grandfather how to speak Māori. And my grandfather hadn’t been able to teach my father how to speak, so my father hadn’t been able to teach me. And although I knew all of this, it didn’t stop me from feeling like it was a deeply personal failure from not being able to speak that language of my ancestors.
It was almost like I wasn’t Māori enough if I didn’t immediately take to this language. And so every day that I had one of these lessons, I would go home and beg my mum and dad to take me out of the classes. This went on for months until finally they did. And when I think about it now. I don’t just think it was that I didn’t feel Māori enough, that wasn’t the only reason that I needed to get out of that class.
I think I was also subconsciously reacting to the world around me. The town in which I grew up in was overwhelmingly white. As late as 2018, when the local government held a referendum to ask ratepayers whether they should establish a specifically Māori seat on the council. An overwhelming 77 percent of people voted no.
And in all the TV shows and in the books and the newspapers, the only images that I could see of Māori was of criminals and dole bludgers, as, you know, drunks and men who left their children. And I think I absorbed all of these cues and subconsciously came to the decision that the only way of succeeding in the world was to distance myself as much as possible from all things Māori.
And this is where it gets really messed up because I think, I thought I could make people forget I was Māori if I achieved all the things that the Pākehā world considered to be markers of success. I’d so internalized the racist stereotypes of Māori as, you know, dull bludging no-hopers, that I thought if I became the opposite, maybe a straight A student and extracurricular overachiever, that I would be prevented from being put in the same barrel as everyone else.
But by the time I got to high school, I was seriously unbearable, as my sister can tell you. I was, you know, captain of the A netball team, opening batsperson in the cricket team, first speaker in the debate team, one of the leads in the social school play, and top of all my classes. And if I needed evidence of how successful I’d been in making people forget that I was Māori, that came in social studies class one day.
On this particular day, my teacher was handing back our essays and she was calling us to her desk one by one. And as she was doing that, she would write our marks on the roll. And I guess my teacher was one of those people, just to give you an image, that we would these days call, you know, woke. So she had peroxide blonde hair and bright red lipstick and, you know, wore combat boots with a skirt.
And so she got to my name and called me up. And as I was walking to the desk, I could see a look of confusion cross over her face. She looked from my paper and to the roll, back to my paper and back to the roll. And then she said out loud so the whole class could hear, Francesca, it says that you’re Māori here.
And now, I didn’t know it at the time, but when my parents had enrolled me in high school, they’d been asked for my ethnicity, and they had, very rightly, ticked the Māori box. And for some reason, known only to my school and probably the education department, this information had been put next to my name on the roll.
And so my teacher’s looking confused, and she says, it says that you’re Māori here, and I said yes, because although I was hoping everyone would forget that little fact about myself, I wasn’t going to outright deny it when I was asked. So she says, it says you’re Māori here, but you’ve got the top mark in the class.
It’s that but in that sentence that really gets to me. That but suggests that. Those two things, being Maori and having top marks in the class, shouldn’t be in the same sentence, let alone in the same person. And all things being equal, I should have felt a sense of pride in that moment because, you know, I’d achieved what I’d set out to.
This woman had been teaching me for about four months, and she hadn’t even realised I was Maori in that entire time. But instead of feeling a sense of pride as I grabbed my essay and walked back to my desk, I felt an overwhelming sense of shame. It felt remarkably similar, in fact, to the shame that I’d felt back at primary school all those years ago. A sense of not being good enough.
Cut to ten years later. And from the outside, it looks like I’m living the dream. I’ve got a job as one of the few paid historians in New Zealand. I’m earning enough money to buy nice clothes and live in a nice house with a bunch of housemates and go out socializing a few times a week. So from the outside, it looks like it’s going great, but inside I’m slowly falling apart.
You see, part of the problem is that the place I’m working for is a bicultural organization. So every day I’m confronted with my inability to understand te reo Māori. And so when I pick up a document that’s written in Māori, there’s this little voice that started going in my head saying, you should know this.
You should know this, you should know this, and every time I see one of my colleagues who’s more comfortable in moving in the two worlds, in the Māori world and the Pākehā world, this little voice is going, you should be like them, you should be like them, you should be like them. And it’s around this time that I attend the conference where the kaumātua or elder asks who I am, and I’m struck mute, unable to answer.
I have a sneaking suspicion that maybe the way out of this conundrum I seem to have found myself in is te reo Māori and actually learning it properly. But I’m so afraid that if I actually do some research and find an immersion course and spend some time learning it that I’ll be right back where I was in primary school.
If I face my fear and fail, if I fail to learn this language, then won’t it confirm once and for all that I’m not Māori enough? And that I’m not good enough, and that I’m not enough. And so rather than doing anything about learning Te Reo Māori, I start drinking, and my mind’s racing constantly, and I stop sleeping during the weekdays.
And on the weekends, I go to bed at lunchtime and sleep all the way through to the next day. And I’m anxious, and I’m lonely. And it feels like the walls are closing in on me, like this life that I’ve created, this beautiful life of perfection and excellence has suddenly become a cage that I’ve built with my own two hands.
And one day I ring my beautiful mum crying and saying how trapped I feel and how I can’t get out of this cage and how I kind of think that maybe learning Maori might have something to do with it, but like, oh, that’s stupid. It’s just too, too overwhelming to even contemplate. And my mum says something that I’ll never forget.
She takes a pause and she says, maybe you should speak to your ancestors. Now I just feel like I need a pause scheduled programming at the moment to explain, that for many people, or many of us in Māoridom, the veil between the dead and the living might be a little bit more, I guess, like, transparent, than the Western cultures might believe.
For many of us. We’re in an ongoing conversation with our ancestors seeking feedback and advice and help about what we should do in our lives. And I say many of us, but at the time that my mum and I were having this conversation, that number did not include me. I mean, I was the kid who’d spent her entire life trying to distance herself from all things Māori.
Did my mother honestly think that I was going to suddenly turn around and have a deeper meaningful with my dead family? Like, I completely dismissed it immediately. And yet later that night, as I was tossing and turning once again, I realized like, what do I actually have to lose? I was metaphorically on my knees.
I tried to think my way out of this and it obviously hadn’t worked. So maybe, just maybe I should try speaking to my ancestors. And so in the hour after midnight, I scrunched down in my bed so that the sheets were above my head and I curled up in the fetal position. And probably for the first time in my life, I completely surrendered.
I started crying, and I spoke to my ancestors and thanked them for everything they’d done to help me up until that point. For supporting me on this path that I’d thought was the right one for me. And then I admitted that maybe I’d got it wrong. And I told them that I didn’t really know where to go now.
And in that hour after midnight, as I was scrunched down in my bed, crying in the fetal position, I heard their answer. And I have to say, it kind of felt like a fan being smacked over my head, which I think is more to do with the fact that my ancestors may have a predilection for violence. So if you guys have a conversation, you should be safe.
But I think it’s just purely my family. But in that hour after midnight, I heard their answer. And I said, girl, you need to go and learn Māori. So the next day I got up and I did a bit of research and found an immersion course online and everything really fell into place easily after that. Within a few months, I’d packed up a hire van and moved all my stuff seven hours north, where I spent the next year and an immersion course only speaking Te Reo Māori for about seven to eight hours a day.
And I don’t want to say that the year I spent speaking Māori solved all of my identity issues, but. About eight months after I began the course, I found myself in a conversation, a 20 minute conversation with one of my classmates, only speaking Māori, both of us understanding each other perfectly. And in that moment, I felt so proud of myself and so content with who I was in both my identities.
But I also realized in a flash that it actually had nothing to do with being able to speak Māori. My Māori identity wasn’t based on my ability to speak Māori. I was Māori because my family was Māori, because my genealogy or whakapapa was Māori. I was Māori because I had been born Māori, but the language was just the pathway that helped me to reach that realisation.
It gave me the confidence. So that if now I’m faced with the question, ko wai ia, I have the confidence to be able to respond [inaudible words] on my father’s side. My tribes are [inaudible words] on my mother’s side. I am Pākehā. [inaudible words]. My parents are Trevor and Joe.
Ko Francesca tōku ingoa. My name is Francesca. [inaudible words]. In the past, I couldn’t speak Maori, but I learned. [inaudible words]. Now I have the confidence to stand in two worlds. [inaudible words]. That is in the Maori world and the Pakeha world. [inaudible words]. My language is my awakening. No reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa. Thank you for listening.