The Business Founder, Activist & Writer Pausing Her Award-Winning Career To Learn Te Reo Māori Full-Time

Qiane Matata-Sipu (Te Waiohua ki te Ahiwaru me te Ākitai, Waikato, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Pikiao, Cook Islands) isn’t someone who does things by halves. She’s well-aware that her decision to pause her award-winning Nuku kaupapa at an absolute high and enrol into full-time immersion at rūmaki reo is a fairly extreme 180 to take, but it’s entirely in keeping with her life so far. She laughs. “I guess I’m the kind of person who has to dive deep, all the way in, in order to stick. If you look at anything that I’ve been part of lately, I have to give it 110,000%… that’s just my personality.”

“Her parents told her, ‘Don’t learn Te Reo Māori; it will do nothing for you.’”

‘Anything I’ve been part of lately’ runs a very full gamut for Qiane; She’s a writer, community leader, photographer, activist, multimedia producer, strategist and founder and creator of Nuku, a platform that profiles 100 Indigenous wāhine through podcasts, video, live events and now, a best-selling book. But it was in part due to this very full work line-up that the call to reclaim her Reo was getting louder and louder. “I really noticed that my lack of Reo doesn’t support the mahi that I want to do, and there’s a definite need for fluent Māori speakers within my marae whānau, my hapū, my iwi, to take on some of the roles,” she says. “Because there are generations ahead of us that, as a consequence of Te Reo Māori being taken away from their parents, haven’t been able to learn it.”

It’s a consequence that was felt within Qiane’s whānau as well. Raised by her grandparents for a lot of her childhood, both her grandmother and grandfather wore the mantle of Te Reo in very different ways. Her grandfather was a fluent Te Reo speaker, a kaumātua in their marae, and Qiane grew up listening to his lyrical pōwhiri all the time. But her grandmother had a different story – she could understand Te Reo but her parents were the generation who were punished for speaking it. “Her parents told her, ‘Don’t learn Te Reo Māori; it will do nothing for you.’”

Because there is such a waiting list for the full-time immersion class at Te Wānanga Takiura o Ngā Kura Kaupapa Māori o Aotearoa, Qiane had to wait almost a full year between signing up and then the reality of actually attending. “For all of those months, I had never fully committed in my heart that I was going,” she laughs. “I kept saying it out loud to remind myself!”

“I want my kōtiro to have everything she is entitled to as an Indigenous wahine, and one of those things is Te Reo Māori. And I can’t give her that if I don’t have it myself.”

But on the very first day of rūmaki reo, when she and her fellow students stepped onto the grounds and heard the first pōwhiri, there was a profound realisation that she was exactly where she needed to be. “It unearthed some of the traumas that you keep hidden inside of you. I started thinking about my journey with Te Reo Māori and what it actually meant to have the privilege to sit in that room.” 

Starting this full-time journey was also because Qiane wanted her young daughter to grow up with a bilingual identity. “I want my kōtiro to have everything she is entitled to as an Indigenous wahine, and one of those things is Te Reo Māori. And I can’t give her that if I don’t have it myself.”

However, going from being a full-time business owner to being a full-time student is not a switch for the faint-hearted. “I haven’t had a routine in over 10 years; I haven’t been an employee for so long,” she says. “In my normal life, I’m the boss – I decide what happens and when it happens. And as a student, I need to take a step back and listen. It’s a whole different way of learning, because you’re not the expert in what you’re doing every day, like you’re used to.”

And the start of the year’s immersion came at a particularly spectacular time, as Nuku’s self-published book, Nuku: Stories of 100 Indigenous Women, had been released into the world and found immediate success, selling out and being short-listed in the Ockham NZ Book Awards. For Qiane, taking time out of her career and her self-made business suddenly felt like it was a very scary thing to do.

“I was really worried that if I said no to those opportunities, people would stop asking.”

“I really worried about losing momentum – it was my biggest worry as we came into that New Year period. I saw the book grow and grow and grow. I thought, ‘Is this the right time?’” Qiane says. “I knew that there would be lots of opportunities that would come out of the success of the book and I was really worried that if I said no to those opportunities, people would stop asking.”

But not only has enrolling in Takiura lead to its own new projects – Qiane is starting a new podcast profiling other wāhine who have started reclaiming their Reo – but it’s also created a deeper appreciation for the poetry and richness of the language itself.

When Te Reo is translated into English, the original word is just given whatever the closest English equivalent is, Qiane says, but learning Te Reo has shown her that so often, that translation is a hollow imitation of what the kupu actually means. “It tells me so much about how incredibly intelligent and aware our tūpuna were in Te Reo Māori,” she says. “’Kare ā-roto’, for example, if you translate it into English, it means ‘emotions’. But actually, what it means is ‘how the waters within your body are rippling, reacting and shifting to the environment around you.’”

She’s just over a month into the course and the class is already at the stage of speaking only Te Reo during the school day, which Qiane says is a pretty wild adjustment to make. But it’s enough to make her know that she’s on her way to the ultimate end goal: being able to speak to the family members that raised her when they are reunited in the afterlife. “When I die – a very, very long time from now! – I really want to be able to speak to my grandfather, my Pāpā, in Te Reo Māori and truly express to him the love that I have for him and my grandmother, because I know that I’ll be able to express myself in a much deeper way than I can in English. And my journey with Te Reo Māori, only four weeks in, has already affirmed that.”

Photo credit Teuila Va’aelua

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