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Wiremu Tawhai, much loved and respected Te Whanau o Apanui elder, scholar, author, actor, and teacher of language and culture, speaks about his passion for the Maori language, the importance of traditional languages and knowledge, and of his efforts in language recovery in a tribal institution of higher learning in Aotearoa New Zealand and in his own community.
See below for transcript of this conversation:
Wiremu Tawhai: Whether we succeed or not, and you know, the treaty hui we had the other day, may link us up with tangata takitaki, originals, indigenous of the world [31:23]. My best hope is that that will happen and that we become excited because we’re part of a movement across the world; we’re part of a tidal wave, so to speak. And we become excited because we have a contribution…
WT: In this exhibition that I’m going to open at Te Papapa (national museum) tomorrow morning, that might the subject – tohra whales – but in that exhibition when Whanau-Apanui made its contribution to that, what are the deeper meanings?. So that the Delamere family came from Canada, whaling, married, finally taught me how to go out there and kill whales, which was unheard of in our history. But we did participate in the industry that the Delamere people from Canada came and taught us to do: to harpoon and to kill. But what came out of it for example, was we learned how to render the blubber down and send them to Auckland to the factories or wherever they went to and we got some money. And with that money we build our community facilities. So everywhere we killed meant there was another community facility. So it is a kind of twisted thinking going on.
MS-H It’s tricky.
WT It is. But I don’t comment on what my grandparents and great grandparents did because they were there at the time assessing what the Delamere family was bringing into their lives and there were the whales going past anyway; off the shore going to South Pole somewhere. Which they had seen all their lives and they personified them as gods going past. But then this thinking changed and so they extracted from this resource and built some community facilities. So even in a thing like that there is a deeper meaning. And that’s what I tried to say when I was part of making building that exhibition; those sorts of things. And now of course, our community buildings are fine so the whales go by. Nobody kills them any more. But I’m just referring to that because it’s happening tomorrow. But I’m hopeful, I’m hopeful, and the kumura [sweet potato] project. There’s a picture of the rua kumura [kumara garden] I built up there. Can you see it? And that project that I was talking to you about. I’m not sure whether I’ve got. I have no more books left. I can get some more printed. I had some. But even in that project, see that’s the master copy. Even in that project as I was saying to you in the car, there is an attempt to rebuild whanau [extended family], especially the urbanized whanau to come home and participate in an activity that’s almost lost. But I hope it’s not lost because I’ve built one. Me and my sons and my brothers and their cousins. And we followed traditional construction as far as we could. So there are no nails, no wires, no staples. And we extracted all the building material out of the bush.
Now there’s a project that is attempting to rebuild whanau based around their original place. They might be in Auckland. They might be in Rotorua. They might be in Wellington. But as I said to you, the thinking is to attract them back so they can recover the activity, be involved in digging the kumura out of the ground together. Learn the technology: the drying, the stacking, the placing, the fern, and the fern dust, and all those sorts of things.
WT:I don’t know. I think the world is going to change us and we’re going to adapt or be destroyed. Climate change. What’s happening? And as it changes what do we do about it. Fossil fuels. And what is it doing to our planet if the ozones are getting destroyed by CFC’s or whatever it is, then what are we going to do about it? Petrol and its ongoing supply. No doubt there is still heaps that scientists or oil men and women have not discovered yet.
But come the day when those dwindle, what are we going to do? And you read the story of Cuba and how they adapted to the Russians taking all sorts of things out of their country. And I believe from my readings what they did is that they slowed down their pace of life which allowed them to walk to do things, or which allowed a group of people to have one vehicle and then they planned and go and come back for the whole group. Where one tractor ploughed all the village lands, and then you went in and …. Well, that’s the lesson that Cuba seems to be saying when these resources disappear. It might be… so that the kumara projects of this day might become important in terms of survival when the world around us changes. The oil peak or the peak oil that you are talking about, when that destroys certain parts of our environment, how are you going to adapt and live within the influences of peak oil?