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Cory Ratahi E hikoi ana i te korero
Walking the Talk – Te Reo Māori
On September 18 the community will celebrate the second Spirit of the Wakatipu Awards, first held in 2019. Almost 160 nominations were received for this year’s awards, run by the Queenstown Lakes District Council and Wakatipu Community Foundation. Event organiser and foundation trustee Simon Green says more than 50 individuals and organisations are up for awards this month. In 2019 Cory Ratahi won the Spirit of Education Award for his work with Te Reo Māori. This year Queenstown’s Covid crisis heroes will also be honoured in a special acknowledgement from District Mayor Jim Boult.
Mau Rākau group performance.
Queenstown’s Cory Ratahi grew up among strong tangata whenua heritage north of Gisborne on the East Coast, spending a lot of time on a traditional marae, but up until his mid-30s Cory was lost for words…Te Reo – the language of his people.
In the era in which he grew up he was encouraged to focus on English as that was how he would get ahead in his education. However, Cory says a strong urge to learn Te Reo Māori welled up inside him when he began to hear Pākehā and other nationalities speaking Te Reo Māori.
An IT technician for the Queenstown Lakes District Council, Cory immersed himself in some basic Te Reo language courses with SIT locally about five years ago. His appetite was far from full when these courses ended so Cory volunteered as a teacher’s aid in the classes, “to help my own personal journey”, he says.
He wasn’t the only one keen to learn and somehow the classes blossomed into Cory now teaching two, by early August this year three, Te Reo classes a week locally, all for free. Not only this, but Waiatatia, a local waiata singing group, was born out of the classes and Cory rehearses weekly with these performers. The group is already in demand around the community for the likes of conference entertainment, Māori welcomes and special occasions like Matariki and Waitangi celebrations.
It doesn’t stop there.A Mau Rākau group, performing this Māori weaponry art form, incorporating taiaha, (long-handled Māori weapon), is another passion of Cory’s. He’s one of the graded members, practising with the group several hours a week and travelling around the country to grading competitions. “All of this came out of my wanting to speak Te Reo,” he says. Thankfully his Pākehā wife, Caroline Richardson, is part of Waiatatia and the group regularly supports the local kaumatua (Maori elder), Darren Rewi.
This year they held the prestigious honour of opening the Wakatipu Music Festival with their performance live-streamed on Radio New Zealand.
While the lessons are all for free, the performance group has been instructed that it must ask for a small koha for events such as this, in accordance with Māori tradition. This has never a problem to grateful recipients who are in awe of the experience. “Queenstown is unique and I’ve had so much support from non-Māori wanting to learn Te Reo and be involved with what we’re doing,” says Cory. It’s not only Pākehā who are keen to learn, but Cory’s taught a number of Canadians, Australians, Americans, Asians and plenty of Brits.
“The majority of them have followed the lessons right through from when I started and they’re getting close to fluency,” he says. “I’m finding it’s predominantly non-Māori who are becoming very confident in speaking Te Reo in our community,” says Cory, who’s keen to nurture them on their journey. For local Māori there is also a rumaki (immersion) Māori session every two weeks at the Frankton Library for those wanting to practice speaking in a Te Reo-only environment.
There’s absolutely no judgement if people give Te Reo a go and don’t quite get the pronunciation right, he says. All he wants to see is everybody giving it a go. “It’s just a respectful thing to do to try and use Te Reo if you can and that’s all I ask,” he says, “just for people’s best effort. I don’t get hung up on mistakes. It doesn’t bother me as I had to start there too,” he says. The encouraging part for him and other Māori is to see everybody trying to learn, or practising. “We afford that privilege to French and other languages so why not Te Reo?” he says.
New Zealand is seeing a big transition among its younger population towards learning and using Te Reo. “I think it’s a change that needs to happen.” However, Cory says for multi-generational Pākehā New Zealanders who’ve grown up hearing the wrong pronunciation it’s been quite a challenge. Many feel embarrassed to even try. Cory, who fully admits that he would intentionally mispronounce Te Reo “just to fit in”, assures people not to be shy or concerned about being judged. They won’t.
Te Reo is something to be proud of in our Kiwi heritage, he says.
Cory Ratahi winning the Spirit of Education Award for his work with Te Reo Māori.