Ashlea Gillon: Using te reo Māori and whakataukī should only be the start

Opinion: A Māori PhD student says when whakataukī (Māori proverbs) are used, they need to not only promote te reo Māori, but also ensure recognition of Māori values.

Ashlea Gillon

He waka eke noa; he aha te mea nui o te ao; ka mua, ka muri

I was talking to Dr Hinemoa Elder about her thoughts on the recent and vigorous uptake in the usage of whakataukī (proverbs) particularly at various institutional levels.

Hinemoa, who is a psychiatrist and Māori strategic leader for Brain Research New Zealand based in the Anatomy Department at the University, has written a book called Aroha, which is a collection of 52 whakataukī that hold special relevance for modern life.

Hinemoa (Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Kurī, Te Rarawa and Ngāpuhi) was able to eloquently put into words the thoughts I’d been trying to articulate around this: “On one hand I think how wonderful that simple-ish, short-ish whakataukī, sometimes four words only, are making it into common conversation,” she said.

“And then on the other hand, isn’t it sad for some of us that we feel a little bit jaded and are left wondering, ‘hmm does that feel token?’

“Because here is a beautiful, succinct and deep kōrero but it could be bandied about with the risk of the weight of it, of the significance, not being fully manifested in the institution using it.”

As Māori, we want to ensure whakataukī are used in ways that reinforce the essence of them, in ways that not only promote te reo Māori, but also ensure that accountability, responsibility, and responsiveness to Māori are being recognised. In Aroha: Māori Wisdom for a Contented Life Lived in Harmony with Our Planet, Hinemoa is trying to allow people to: “sit in a safe place around those issues … We have many whakataukī that illustrate different ways of thinking about life, and these can be very healing.”

Hinemoa says she “wanted to write a book that our kaumātua would read and see and think ‘aw yes, this is authentic, this is valid’, and that people from outside Māori communities could read and see is useful in some way in their personal lives”.

The value, history and culture within whakataukī allow a glimpse into tikanga Māori, mātauranga Māori, and te ao Māori to reiterate the importance of our ways of being and knowing.  

Whakataukī offer insight that have stood the test of time and that continue to be a source of strength, knowledge, wisdom and reflection.

Ashlea Gillon, Ngāti Awa Student, University of Auckland

In being critically self-reflective, learners of te reo, of whakataukī, open up safe spaces for learning and holding ourselves accountable. There is an inherent bravery about this. The openness we bring to learning, in being teachable and being accountable allows us to explore the realm of Māori culture.

Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori had more than 1 million people (Māori, tauiwi, pākehā) sign up to kōrero Māori this year. Mahuru Māori saw September filled with people speaking, singing, reading, writing and loving te reo, and sharing whakataukī.

However, when racism rears its ugly, systemic head, the value of te reo Māori, and of whakataukī, can be questioned. It’s important that we create space for honouring Te Tiriti, and te reo o te tāngata whenua o Aotearoa, particularly as we’ve recently seen institutional racism being highlighted in tertiary education throughout the country. The utilisation of te reo without responsiveness to Māori is just a form of recolonisation.

Nā reira, ānei ngā pātai mōu. So here are some questions for you: when do you utilise te reo Māori and whakataukī? Is it in mana-enhancing ways that have tangible, equitable outcomes? Does your incorporation of te reo Māori into your emails, your workspace, reflect the incorporation of Māori staff and Māori values, and reflect your advocacy for genuine Māori partnership?

Is the institution you work for paying a te reo Māori consultant to ensure you are acting in ways that are tika and pono, or are you making your Māori staff engage in unpaid cultural labour to do this work? Are you ready, as Hinemoa says, “to dive into and explore this realm of our culture?”

Whakataukī offer insight that have stood the test of time and that continue to be a source of strength, knowledge, wisdom and reflection. In embracing them there’s the opportunity for critical self-reflection on the partnership responsibilities of utilising whakataukī, especially during these tumultuous times.

Nā reira, ānei he whakaaro o ēnei whakataukī mō koutou.

So, I leave you with some thoughts around the following whakataukī:

Hōhonu kakī, pāpaku uaua.

Literally meaning deep throat, measly muscles. Colloquially meaning ‘all talk, no action’.

E kitea ai ngā taonga o te moana, me mākū koe.

If you see treasures of the ocean, you’d better get wet. If you’re prepared to try out te reo, make sure you’re fully immersing yourself in all that comes with it. Don’t be all talk. Te reo is a living, breathing, thriving taonga, and responsiveness to Māori requires not just looking at, admiring and using the taonga of te reo, it requires getting wet.

Ashlea Gillon (Ngāti Awa) is a Doctoral Candidate in the Faculty of Arts and the School of Psychology, Faculty of Science at the University of Auckland

This item reflects personal opinion that may not necessarily be that of the University of Auckland. 

Dr Hinemoa Elder with her new book of whakataukī called Aroha
Dr Hinemoa Elder with her new book of whakataukī called 'Aroha'. Photo: Elise Manahan


Dr Hinemoa Elder’s new book Aroha: Māori Wisdom for a Contented Life in Harmony with Our Planet, (Penguin Random House New Zealand) was released on 29 September. It’s a collection of the timeless wisdom of 52  whakataukī – traditional Māori sayings she has compiled and explains.

Hinemoa, a psychiatrist, is Māori strategic leader for Brain Research New Zealand, based in the Anatomy Department at the University.