We are near Rotorua (two lakes), four hrs south of Auckland. It is geyser, hot springs country with pockets of steam shooting up through a garden fence, between houses, behind a gas station, and pockets of air smelling of sulphur. The landscape has changed from rolling hills, tall trees with abundant evergreen foliage interspersed with fields. It is high summer but the fields are green. Now there are more hills more trees and more tree ferns which give it sometimes an exotic feel and sometimes a weird feeling as if two different worlds collided.
This Marae is on a lake. Far across the lake are some lights but we are twenty minutes northeast of Rotorua in the boonies. No internet, not even in cell range.
The front of the wharenui
The main building in the Marae is the elaborately carved wharenui. It is said to represent a body. Looking at the front at the top is a tekoteko (carved figure) representing a head and two arms are outstretched downwards, one to each side welcoming visitors. Five fingers are carved on each end. Inside, the centre beam is the backbone with the rafters being the ribs, so you sit inside a spiritual being protected from danger. The spiritual being is usually an ancestor of the tribe, often the ancestor who brought their canoe to the shores of New Zealand hundreds of years ago. Along the walls are more carvings representing other ancestors and between then woven panels representing stories and myths proving a genealogy of the tribe. The back wall often holds pictures of ancestors.
n front of the meeting house is an open space (Marae âtea) where visitors are greeted in Põwhiri fashion to remove their tapu (sacredness) and become one with the people of the Marae. The eating hall is next door and is known as the wharehai (house of food).
We start the day with Ange and Nezrah who are from this Marae. They teach us how to make a traditional Poi Toa, Poi meaning ball on a string and Toa meaning strong or strength. It is used to strengthen your arms and wrists so you can handle Maori weapons.
Maori language is strong here although admittedly we are with the Maori so you would expect some Maori kangi. They use Maori words interchanged with English all the time without even realizing it. ‘Waka’ means canoe and you never hear the word canoe, only ‘Waka’ when talking about canoeing so you pick up some words without even trying.
The poi song and a poi.
We learn a Poi song and swing our poi’s around, up, down, forward and backward. The song is in Maori and we sing ‘I swing my poi up, down’ etc, in Maori so our actions reinforce learning those words.
We head out onto the lake in a Waka Rua (two hull canoe). Martin races in outrigger canoe singles and in a 12 man Waka. Two young women are helping. Both are world champions in their class. They teach us paddle strokes. The youth love it. We start planning on how to paddle more when we get home.
We discuss indigenous language between ourselves and with the Maori. They have a common language which helps. 40 years ago they started reviving the language with ‘nests’–childcare centres where grandmothers took care of the babies and only spoke Maori. Parents could help and by so doing learned the language. As the babies aged, schools and immersion classes started up. Then college and university classes started teaching in Maori. The university class started with one father who spoke Maori and his three sons as students. All those babies are now 40 and their language world has changed.
How do you do that in Canada, especially in BC where there are just under 200 First Nation languages. Maori is easy to pronounce if you know the vowels A as in Army, E as in Egg, I as in Igloo, O as in Ornament, and U as in mOO. Hul’qumi’num is much harder, it isn’t just about vowels but new sounds formed in your throat, between your teeth, on the top of your mouth and the combinations of many of those new sounds like ‘hwunitum’ (white man) or hul’qumi’num.
How can a culture survive without its language? The last fluent Snuneymuxw speaker has passed away. Others speak it but lack fluency. Some families like Gary Manson’s are trying to bring it back by not only teaching the language but using it while doing everyday chores ‘thixqum xwouwcsum tu tl’elhem’ (please pass the salt).
But how can an urban school, say Tsawalk school (Nuu-chah-nuth word for a worldview that brings the physical and spiritual world’s together into one) which is situated on Snuneymuxw Coast Salish territory but who have more west coast students keep a language going? Whose language? Maybe we learn to use many words, many languages like waka (Maori), snuwulth (hul’qumi’num), c’apac (nuu’chah’nulth) and xwakwana (Kwai waka wak)–all mean canoe).