Jamie Te Huia Cowell
interview with Philip McKibbin
Jamie Te Huia Cowell (Ngāti Porou, Waikato, Ngāti Te Ata) is a Lecturer in te reo Māori at Te Ara Poutama and the Publishing Associate - Te Reo Māori for Auckland University Press and Kotahi Rau Pukapuka.
You are passionate about te reo Māori. How has the Māori language shaped your identity?
Āe. The Māori language is a key factor in my identity. I didn’t grow up with the language. I wasn’t exposed to much of it as a child growing up. Dad didn’t necessarily speak it - he does speak some Māori, but Nan’s generation was the generation that suffered corporal punishment for speaking reo at school, and Dad’s generation was told it had no value and would get him nowhere, basically. And so it wasn’t passed down to me through intergenerational transmission. I always felt something was missing. I was always proud of being Māori growing up, but didn’t really know what that meant, except that I knew that I was Māori.
I started learning te reo Māori at college. There were a lot of teachers changing in and out of my school at the time, and with those inconsistencies, I guess that desire to learn things Māori that I didn’t have through my upbringing always remained there. The desire for it grew and grew and grew, and now I’m a Māori language lecturer. Māori language drives my work, my research. In the community, as well. Yeah, it’s something I’m very passionate about. ‘Tōku reo, tōku ohooho’ - my language, my awakening. I feel like it has given me access to who I am, being able to identify more comfortably with who I am. Yeah! I sometimes refer to te reo Māori as my ‘hoa haere’. It goes with me everywhere I go.
I ahau e tīmata ana ki runga i tēnei huarahi reo Māori, i reira koe hei kaiako. Nā tō manaakitanga mai, i pupū ake ai te tino hiahia ki te whai i te reo rangatira, ā, nāwai, nāwai, ka whitia taku ao. Nā reira, e kore aku mihi ki a koe e mimiti, Jamie. What values guide you in sharing te reo Māori with your ākonga?
Tēnā koe, e hoa.
Kaitiakitanga. Ki a au nei, he kaiako, āe, engari he kaitiaki hoki mātou, tātou katoa o ēnei taonga, so in my view, we are custodians of these taonga, and it’s our responsibility to pass them on, to share them with others as others have shared with me, or have instilled those values and that aroha within me to learn the language, et cetera. Yeah, I believe we’re custodians of it, and kaitiakitanga’s a huge one for me. I think aroha is a huge one, with anything you do. So having aroha for the language, and also having aroha for your students. Ngākau māhaki, humility and being open-hearted and demonstrating manaakitanga as best you can within all the environments where you are sharing the language, because you want to foster that fire within the person to help them grow in the language, but also to help them break down any barriers that there may be that are hindering them from learning the language. Viewing it as a kaitiaki, demonstrating aroha through manaakitanga - not just for the language and the resources, but for your students and for anyone who’s keen to learn.
You recently graduated from Te Panekiretanga o te Reo. Kei runga noa atu koe! In what ways did that experience strengthen your relationship to, and your understanding of, te ao Māori?
I think whakawhanaungatanga is a huge part of language learning. It’s a key practice that needs to be incorporated into language learning journeys. So the more kaupapa you can get to, the more spaces you find yourself in where your network of hoa haere, or your ope tauā o te reo Māori - grows and expands. Your group of soldiers grows, so to speak - those who are passionate about the reo, those who work in the reo, who spend time and energy on revitalisation projects. Te Panekiretanga is yet another kaupapa connecting people from all around the different iwi, et cetera, so it helped to expand and strengthen the network.
One of the key messages and whāinga, or things we’re encouraged to do, in Te Panekiretanga is to take everything that we’ve learnt back to our people - to go back, kia hoki atu ki te kāinga, toutou ai i te ahi, te ahi kā o te kāinga, go back home, stoke the fires, the home fires, keep them burning, contribute to the well-being of your people however you can. One way is to help towards keeping the paepae warm, so to speak, in terms of moving towards succession planning, or assisting the paepae, or perhaps taking on those responsibilities of kaikaranga, kaiwhaikōrero, you know, our callers and orators, always with respect to our elders, so that’s a key thing as well that always was encouraged of us. So that’s been a huge part of my journey, too, and I’ve spent a lot of time this year making that a priority - going home, reconnecting, being a kanohi kitea, ngākau whakaiti, be humble, and feel humbled, taking those skills back and finding ways to share. I’m looking towards funding and things like that to create different wānanga reo and kaupapa that promote our language and it’s use. It’s reminded me how important it is to go home and take those skills home and that te ao Māori has many different pockets, all interconnected, all intertwined.
Poukai is something that we do in Waikato-Tainui. Annually, each marae will host anyone and everyone who comes around, including the Māori King and the Kāhui Ariki. So that’s a huge part of te ao Māori that I’m not fully accustomed to. I was fortunate this year to go back and assist with the preparations and celebrations at one of our marae. You know, we weren’t brought up on the marae, or with tikanga Māori. So it’s a huge learning journey for us and is about reconnecting too. And we find a lot of our whānau back home might not have the reo, but they are grounded in tikanga and Māoritanga and are ahi kā, active tribal members looking after our marae and hapū and most are keen to learn the language.
So you go back - and the first thing you? Go back to the kitchen. You go to the back and you get a tea towel, and you figure out how everything works. So that was a huge part of my learning for me this year, going back connecting and reconnecting and participating as an active tribal member of my hapū and whānau.
Over the last few years, you've been challenging yourself to speak only te reo Māori for extended periods of time. In September, you participated in Mahuru Māori, giving up te reo Pākehā for the entire month. What were the benefits of doing this?
My mum texted me this morning, and it said, ‘Ata mārie. Kei te pēhea koe?’ In contrast to a year ago, perhaps, that’s a huge step forward for my small family unit. Yeah, funny. I was thinking about that. That happened this morning. So I guess you’re raising awareness around the language when you’re speaking only Māori. You’re raising awareness in lots of different ways. It’s an expression of how passionate you are about something, so those close to you will identify that and perhaps become curious. It turns some away, in some ways, but others become curious - they think, ‘Oh!’ They want to start to learn.
One of the assessments for Te Panekiretanga, one of the huge components of it, is that you create a Māori language revitalisation strategy for either your workplace, your family, your marae - one of those - and I designed one for and with my immediate family, the descendants of my grandparents. Through opening that conversation, there has been many hua, benefits, that have since. Mum’s started learning; she’s got things up around the house. My uncle started learning. He’s really excited. He texted me. He’s been doing his first assessment, and he passed, and he’s delivered his pepeha. So I think just raising that awareness is important.
I had many, many conversations with people. I was asked more than once, ‘Where are you from?’ Cos they don’t recognise the language, which reminds me it’s not normalised. So I, as someone passionate about getting it out - whiua ki te ao, whiua ki te rangi, whiua ki ngā iwi katoa (nā Ngoi Pēwhairangi – ‘Whakarongo’) – I realised that there’s not enough exposure of it to start with. I had people speak to me like I didn’t understand English. Despite that most, if not all, Māori language speakers can speak English, in our generation, in our age group and that in fact many speakers in our age group have learnt it as a second language. Just getting more exposure around it, normalising it.
Research tells us that teaching your students in a full-immersion environment is the best way to move forward. Last year for Mahuru Māori, I didn’t do that; I was 50/50 – bilingual instruction, which is how we normally run the class at the beginners level. This year, I stayed 100% reo Māori, and once the students became used to it, they were fine. It was getting past the initial shock of moving into a full-immersion environment - but yeah, once they got used to the rhythm of it, most of them were fine. I asked for feedback on Post It notes at the end of the Mahuru Māori about their own experiences - how they felt, anything they wanted to write down that they might not have wanted to say. Some of them were quite critical and didn’t enjoy the experience, that it made it difficult to understand or grasp certain language aspects, that it made them not want to learn as it was too hard, it put them off; and then on the other hand, we had the majority say, ‘It was hard. But keep doing rumaki, keep the full immersion.’ So most of those students became used to that environment, and I feel that experience was mostly positive and helped strip away any extra inhibitions around learning or interacting in te reo Māori, or, maybe, full-immersion environments.
For myself as a speaker, I learnt what I don’t know. I learnt that I didn’t know the word for marshmallow, or maybe there isn’t one yet and sometimes you just need to make it up on the spot, which is kei te pai, following up later with a dictionary check. Sentences or ways of expressing certain things. You stop and you think, ‘Oh, I’ve never had to say that, or talk about that before.’ I fractured my toe on the first day of Mahuru Māori last year and didn’t know the word for fracture - te reo Māori only was fun and challenging at A&E! - so you start to develop this everyday dictionary of words you didn’t realise you didn’t know cos you weren’t speaking in Māori.
Were there any particular experiences during Mahuru Māori that were especially challenging, and that enabled you to take your reo to an even higher level?
I found myself being very lazy this year. Here’s an example. I stopped eating out, basically. And drive-throughs, no go. Unless there’s a Māori language speaker; you can’t drive through and order food. And, if you have ritenga kai, or restrictions around your kai or whatever, it’s even another step back, right? So I found myself not even bothering going in to talk to anyone. There were only a few times when I did go and get takeaways during Mahuru Māori and I went straight to the machine where you put your order in. (laughs) Gas stations, didn’t go inside. I found myself being… I don’t know if it’s lazy. Perhaps the words I’m looking for are ‘cautious with how I spent my energy’, because the first year, I found myself, at times, being so exhausted - one, because it is my second language, I feel my brain is always working in overtime, my hinengaro is always working in overtime, to not only produce the language I want, to whakamāori, yes, the reo, but even kia whakamāoritia aku whakaaro, that my thoughts and expressions are also Māori. So I found myself being very tired and exhausted but that my mind and arero were getting valuable training.
I find that you get a lot of negative energy coming your way when you’re doing it, whether it be because of ignorance, whether it be because of racism, whether it be because sometimes you are literally digging up past grievances that people are holding onto that’s intergenerational language trauma that’s been passed down, or language anxiety. As soon as you speak only Māori to someone - particularly some Māori, it can bring all those things to the surface very quickly. So you’re dealing with these energies, and, perhaps, wairua as well, that can drain you very quickly. So it wasn’t so much being lazy, but trying to be more careful around how I spent my energy so that I was looking after myself, and sustaining enough energy to be operating from a place of aroha. Everything’s gotta be done with aroha, I feel.
That’s been very interesting for me, cos I have been looking at whakamā - ‘Fifty Shades of Whakamā’, I call it - language anxiety and language trauma, and I’m interested in further investigating and looking at better ways of dealing with that, and how can we help our people move past those things. So if I refer back to the language strategy that I put together based on my family’s responses - at the time, there was a lot of that energy. I was very tired, very heavy. I think one of the main things was having those conversations while I was writing it up and designing it for our family, was that it let them find space to let some of that go, let a lot of those traumas go, and speak about them, and air them, and work through them, and perhaps also break down some of the barriers.
Even on an individual basis, when I meet some people during Mahuru Māori – they will say ‘I don’t speak’. Straight away. I’ll be like, ‘Kia ora.’ ‘Oh, I don’t speak Māori.’ A barrier goes up immediately. ‘Ā, kei te pai,’ and then I’ll carry on, and they’re like, ‘Oh, she’s only speaking Māori,’ you know? And then the wall gets even higher! (laughs) I give my card - my little card that says, ‘I’m doing the challenge to revitalise Aotearoa’s indigenous language. So, I’m only speaking te reo Māori for the month of September. Thank you for your support and patience.’ And then the barrier comes down a little bit, and then they start asking me questions. ‘Oh, my mum didn’t teach it to us because she got hit at school and she didn’t want us to get hurt at school’ - you know? The barriers start coming down a little bit, and then you have that conversation, and they realise that we can communicate still. You know what, too? Most of the time, they understand what you’re saying, they just can’t respond yet or don’t believe they can. And they start realising, ‘Oh, I can understand you.’ So I think, possibly, that’s a huge benefit or turning point for that individual, for some it sparks their interest to learn, or to relearn and reconnect with the language and that is a hugely positive outcome, and encourages others to take their reo to another level.
Recently, you've also been making some changes around kai. What changes have you made, and why?
Yes. When we talk about ‘recently’, it was 2017 I really started making the changes. I was always really curious about changing my lifestyle, eating less meat, vegetarian perhaps. And then, becoming very conscious, as well, about decisions we make and how they affect our natural environment, or any environment, I suppose, that we’re in. My friends, as a family, they went - well, first of all, they only speak Māori in their house, they decided that when their daughter was born , they would have a Māori-only-speaking house, and then in 2017 they decided also to go vegan as a household. I said, ‘Why?’ and they said, ‘Just watch this documentary - Food Choices.’ I was already curious about it, and they said I could possibly go vegan instantly. And I was like, ‘Mm.’ So, I was very open to it to start with - one. Two, they are people who I admire and respect, and everything that they do, and if they’re passionate about something, it’s something I’m usually inspired by and interested in being involved with as well. I watched the documentary, and I woke up, and I went vegan - 100%, cold turkey, so to speak. (laughs) Well, alive turkey.
So, there were three main things that I took away from that that really helped me, that pushed me straight into a vegan diet, I would say - because I didn’t go vegan in terms of the clothing and the household products. One was that milk, cows’ milk, is designed by nature for a baby calf to put on - if I remember correctly – tonnes of weight over a short period of time. It’s a growth hormone, for calves. That put me right off dairy, straight away. Two, the statistics around health, based on the normal diet and meat intake of someone in a country where there’s not much meat in contrast to say America or New Zealand was quite different. The results were shocking. Some countries, for example, eat lots of veggies with little bits of meat in it, like a stir-fry. They had the highest unrefined plant foods intake and were right at the lower end in terms of the statistics for deaths related to heart disease and cancer, whereas New Zealanders tend to have half a plate of meat and two veg, as a standard meal. That was the second one. And the third one was that one of the biggest - if not the biggest - contributors to the planet, or to Papatūānuku and Ranginui in terms of their well-being, is the dairy/red meat industry, in terms of things like methane gas, global warming, fertilisers and things, pesticides, et cetera, that run off into our awa, our waterways, our systems, our tīpuna. You know? These are our tīpuna, and it’s corporate money at the end of the day. Even if we take, for example, a meat eater, someone who eats meat compared to someone who’s on a vegan diet, there’s an extreme difference in how much water is used to produce that one plate of food for a meat eater rather than for someone who’s on a vegan diet. I saw a poster the other day that said, ‘If you’re not vegan, don’t bother going to the climate change march’ down here, that day, the message being that, protesting about it’s not gonna make anywhere as much of an impact. The single most urgent thing you can do to make a big shift is to go vegan. It all connects for me, about looking after our taiao. It connects back to me for things like plastics. Yeah. Reusing, or reducing, or recycling - even working towards zero waste. So at the moment, I’m pescatarian - or flexitarian as my friends call me. (laughs) I still eat seafood. I still eat dairy sometimes - not really, though. I am also very cautious of my refined sugar intake and limit this as best I can.
So now I’m an aspiring vegan! (laughs) I overheard Hēmi talking about manaakitanga not only as a host, but as a guest, and I guess in some ways I set myself up to fail, because I said to myself, ‘I’m gonna go vegan until this date, and then I’m gonna review.’ Right? And this particular date was travelling to Holland for three to four weeks. For the first two weeks, we were hosted by families - by locals. I thought, ‘No, no, no, just stick to your diet. You’ll be fine.’ And it was all written down - ‘Jamie’s coming to your house. She doesn’t eat meat. She doesn’t eat anything that comes from an animal,’ basically. And I got there on the first night, with the miscommunication, in terms of language barrier, and just whatever happened - trying to organise hundreds of people from all around the world - it didn’t happen, and the first dinner that we had was fish. I found myself in a space of, one, I’d already decided, ‘I’ll see what happens. I’ll be open to whatever.’ So fish was the main part of the meal. I discussed with her, our host Māmā - I don’t know if she understood fully - but as a respectful guest, I ate a little bit of it. By the time I got back to New Zealand, I was eating everything.
So that was three or four weeks travelling around Europe. I just sort of went, ‘Uh!’ I came back July 2017, and I was eating everything. I don’t even know when I stopped eating meat again, but I know I was eating meat in May 2018, cos I’m tagged at that time in a picture with a meat meal. That’s the last time I can recall eating meat, except, I’ve eaten tītī by choice - and ham yesterday, by accident. (laughs) And bacon one day, by accident; it was in the quiche, I didn’t know. I thought it was vegetarian, cos my mum gave it to me for my housemates, but that’s why she gave it to me for my housemates, cos it had meat in it. They are now also meat free! All a big learning journey! Especially with the vegan - huge learning journey. I don’t know that it’s difficult, but it’s all about being educated, one, for yourself, and two, being open to educate others without pushing your kaupapa onto them.
When we last saw each other, at Te Puna o te Kī, I suggested to you that giving up meat is similar to giving up te reo Pākehā. Ko tāku, he ōrite te aukati mīti ki te aukati reo Pākehā, nā te mea i ētahi horopaki Māori, he uaua te whakamārama atu i te kaupapa ki tāngata kē - ahakoa tō reo Māori, ahakoa tō reo Pākehā. Waihoki, i kōrero tāua mō te manaaki tāngata me ōna uauatanga ina ka kai mīti te tangata, ina ehara ia i te kōrero Māori rānei. What are your thoughts on this?
Hm. I don’t know if I feel that I’m giving up te reo Pākehā when I’m speaking only Māori. And I also don’t feel that I’ve given up meat, perhaps more than I choose not to eat it. People say to me, ‘You can’t eat that. You can’t eat that.’ And I’m like, ‘I can eat anything I want that’s available, I choose not to.’ And even that small one-liner is like, ‘What? Oh. Oh, yeah.’ People change their perspective on, ‘Oh, you can’t eat it.’ ‘No, I can choose to eat whatever I want that’s in front of me right now. I choose not to, though.’ So I think it’s about choosing which reo you’re gonna speak, choosing what you do and don’t eat, and what’s your intention of choosing that.
If I go back to the things about education, as well - it’s new. It’s not new, but it’s not māori - with a small letter m - in terms of, it’s not normal, it hasn’t been normalised, the reo. It’s a sign for me that it’s not normalised when someone doesn’t know what language I’m speaking, or when I say, ‘I don’t eat meat,’ and they say, ‘But you’re Māori.’ There are all these stereotypes around the way people eat and choose to eat. It’s not normalised. So I think even being vegetarian is, in some places and spaces, a very new concept - and some people are not even open to the conversation at all. And some marae. When we were at a big event, there were whole pigs coming out. We were feeding over 500 people on this particular day, and there’s whole pigs, with their heads on completely, and everything - come out, and I just thought - in some ways, I was like, ‘Oh, wow!’ - I think, ‘That pig’s gonna feed a lot of people.’ I start thinking like this: that’s one life, for example, and then tomorrow, I’m still gonna eat a plate of prawns - that’s 10 lives. You know? My mind starts shifting around that sort of thing. Why am I like, ‘I don’t want to eat meat,’ but I’ll eat prawns? Then something triggers in me, ‘Is it because our ancestors would have eaten similar kai, seafood?’ Is that why I feel it’s different? Tītī - I ate tītī, that’s meat.
I just think the more exposure we can get to these things that we’re passionate about - I mean, I see the link in changing our ways around food for both the well-being of us and the environment is huge. The link there is massive! Ko au - ko Papatūānuku, ko Papatūānuku - ko au. I am her, and she is me. And if she’s unwell, through things like continuing to eat red meat, which pollutes our awa, et cetera, or continuing to use plastics which pollute Ranginui and Tangaroa and their children, and if we continue to make poor choices, our environment, our ancestors will suffer and therefore so will we… It’s all back to choice, I think. Maybe people don’t know they have a choice to start with - that because they don’t even know about it, it’s not something they understand or have even realised. For our own hauora, I know definitely when I was on the vegan diet…. except for when I went through this really bad week of just eating hot chips and packet chips… I felt really good. Not just tinana, but ā-whakaaro, ā-hinengaro, ā-ngākau nei. I felt good. Just imagine all the toxins and other things as well going into our tinana, and it’s just going full cycle, you know? Whatever it is we’re eating, whether it’s hormones, or pesticides… Someone took a photo yesterday that said ‘grass-fed beef steak’ or something - it was at a restaurant - someone who eats meat, and they put a big question mark on it, like, ‘What does that even mean? Don’t all cows eat grass?’ I feel like we’re so uneducated around food, so blinded by consumerism and whatever it is - the money, the marketing around food. It gets me, too, you know? Driving, I’ll see a sign - I’ll think about it all day. ‘I wanna eat that!’. They’re clever like that. (laughs). But, every opportunity is a learning one, and I think as a teacher, as a kaiako, I tend to go that way, start educating and sharing. I get excited, ‘Ooh, might be another reo speaker.’ Or a potential vegetarian! (laughs)
You told me you’ve taken on the role of 'pirihimana whēkana' at Ngā Wai o Horotiu Marae, here at Te Ara Poutama! I’d love to hear more about that.
(chuckles) Not just pirihimana whēkana, but, when I have the privilege of being down there and working on the marae, if I do have some influence over what’s happening in terms of food and waste and education around sustainability and things like that, I will proactively respond to whatever’s happening. (laughs) I guess that’s how I would put it! So again, maybe just around the education thing. It could just be a simple gesture of not putting butter on the potatoes, for example. You’ve just eliminated a whole tray of food that’s possible for someone who’s vegan. I mean, manaakitanga. It’s interesting on a marae, right, when we consider dietary requirements? Because we operate a little bit differently here, we usually know who the group is that’s coming. We will cater as best we can to their dietary needs, requirements, allergies, things like that, as most of the time we are hosting students from other faculties, et cetera for a marae experience. And we tell them, ‘If you go out to another marae, you get what’s given, you eat what’s in front of you, just like when you go to somebody else’s house. You get given whatever food that you get given. We use the space as an opportunity to educate.
A big thing for me is, if we’re going to use throw-away cups and that, can they be biodegradable? Still waste, yes - I would prefer zero-waste, and let’s use the cutlery and the things that we have. But yeah, expanding minds, I guess. How can we, as Māori, who are so connected to our taiao, to our natural environment, at the reality of everyday living, make better choices for our world, and cater to those who have made the choice to go vegan or vegetarian, or whatever it is? It just opens conversations, I think, as well.
I’m mostly referring to how I was myself when I was on a vegan diet. I was like, ‘Yes! No! Yes! No!’ or ‘Can we do this? Can we have this?’ It’s about opening minds about how easy it is. This is a funny one. One morning a mate was cooking breakfast, she goes, ‘What am I gonna cook for you?’ Just like, ‘Oh. What can you eat?’ And her husband called out from the other room, ‘Cook her a fuckin’ onion!’ (laughs) I’ll never forget that. The whole house was lying around, we were cracking up laughing. (laughs) I’ll never forget it, because I felt that was them actually having a conversation about, ‘I don’t know what to cook her.’ And he’s thinking, ‘What’s in the house that she can actually eat? An onion!’ When in fact there were plenty of options, and onions. (chuckles) I find a lot of people will fuss, or will be like, ‘Can you eat this? Again, I’ll respond, ‘I can. I choose not to.’ It’s a lifestyle change.
I ate a lot of things on a vegan diet that I didn’t realise had animal products in them - like, Watties’ spaghetti has cheese in it. Lots of potato chips have milk solids. I didn’t know prawn crackers were made from prawns. (laughs) I just thought they were flavoured prawn! (laughs) So even my own self, just being open to the learning, I think, and maybe stick to the wholefoods and fresh produce! (laughs) Yeah, it’s an opportunity to educate, rather than being like, ‘Don’t do this. Don’t do that.’ Or not restricting people, but opening their minds to what that looks like.
Interviewed: November, 2019
Published: July, 2020
Published: July, 2020