A conversation with Hēmi Kelly - Growing a Platform, Teaching and Language Revitalisation

By Jaydan Salzke
Hēmi Kelly

Only four years ago, Hēmi Kelly (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Tahu, Ngāti Whāoa) stood upon the TEDxAuckland carpet and delivered his talk ‘Te Reo Māori: A new era for the language.’ Yet much has changed in those four years. He’s published a third book (A Māori Phrase A Day) as well as translated another (Te Ruanuku -  Paul Coeho’s The Alchemist). Hēmi’s also now bringing te reo to our eyes and ears through his social media and podcast platform, Everyday Māori.

Recently, TEDxAuckland caught up with Hēmi to learn more about his mahi since our 2018 Off-Piste event. In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Māori Language Petition and Te Wiki o te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week), here’s that conversation.

Congratulations on receiving the Waipunarangi award at the Whakaata Māori 2022 Matariki Awards. How does it feel to be recognised for your work?

I’m humbled because I’m one of many people who do what I do. There are so many others who aren’t seen and aren’t heard like I am because they don’t have the same platform. In that respect, I’m really humbled, though it’s nice to be acknowledged.

The motivation comes from a very deep-rooted place because it’s connected to who I am as a person. My work is connected to my identity and my language. I know that. But next to that, there’s still this day-to-day grind, so after years of working, it is nice to be recognised.

You’ve grown this platform on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok as well as by starting a podcast: all since your talk in 2018. Now  you’re reaching hundreds of thousands of people internationally. What has that looked like?

2018? Wow. So much has happened in the last four years. Like a global pandemic that’s taken two and a half years of our lives.

I see my TEDxAuckland talk as a crucial moment in my career. Quite often I’ll meet people for the first time and they’ll say they’ve seen my talk - somehow it always comes back to that.

It was the pandemic when I took it online though. We were all confined to the four walls of our houses and it made me want to connect more with my students and people who were wanting to learn. So I took it to social media, just sharing more of what I was already doing - teaching - but in a different way. In a short two-minute video. Then it caught on and became Everyday Māori. Its growth just shows that people are hungry to learn about and speak our language - both Māori and non-Māori. It’s really rewarding to hear or meet people that find the resources I put out there useful.

Did it grow organically?

Very, and along the way people have jumped on board to support. For example, the Māori Language Commission came to me after about six months wanting to offer their support. It can feel like a lot of pressure when you’ve created a following - you don’t want to slow down. Yet it’s hard sometimes to come up with new content and to keep it relevant. Their sponsorship came along at a time when I was feeling a bit tired.

Then again with the podcast. After about eight episodes, I felt it was a bit too much. Until one day when I had the idea to ask one of my students - Āpera Woodfine, a really keen learner - to join me. We run teacher-student-like scenarios, talking for 10-15 minutes about language structures. He’s been able to bring his audio skills and help with the production and distribution side too. We’ve managed to secure funding for that as well now.

Really, it’s all just evolved in the right way in the right time with the right people.

Often you’ll hear the pandemic causing people to slow down. It sounds like you’ve sped up?

I slowed down in many other ways. But I also saw it as an opportunity. We’d been confined - restricted in our movement and in who we could see - but I knew there was an opportunity to provide another avenue for people to access te reo Māori when they might not have had that in their immediate bubble. For some, their classes had been cancelled or they weren’t able to be around their whānau who speak te reo, so it was an opportunity to create access.

Education, too, is very much community-based. Is that how you see it?

Definitely. It’s a place where people can share resources, where people can ask questions. A place where people can come and seek knowledge from others. That’s a community. People tell me they appreciate the content because it helps with their own teaching or learning, or maybe even to come back to the language after having been away from it for a while. Sometimes I hear from people who live overseas who don’t have direct access to te reo like we do.

Here in Aotearoa, there has been a significant increase in the use of te reo since 2018. Where do you see this normalisation coming from?

I don’t think it can be attributed to any one organisation or person. It’s been a movement since 1972 and the petition for te reo to be included in school curriculum. From there, there’s been more lobbying and more petitions and eventually the claim that went through which gave te reo its status as an official language of Aotearoa through The Māori Language Act 1987. We’re just now reaching that point of being more mainstream. It’s because an official language requires education and media to make sure people can speak it. And those are the two sectors that are creating that change, alongside policy of course.

When I was in primary school, it was maybe a couple of songs or numbers, whereas now children are exposed to te reo because of young teachers who are better trained and more willing to bring it in. Media, too, is a significant source of normalisation. From simple acts of saying Kia Ora to hearing te reo on RNZ or seeing it spoken on The Breakfast Show - that’s all important to recognise.

And we’ve seen there be complaints, especially on mainstream news, sometimes every night. But over time we’ve moved further into this space, as a collective, to where it’s normal. To where the Broadcasting Standards Authority no longer accept complaints in relation to the language use. That’s how important it is now. We’re moving towards this critical mass of people who value the language, who are speaking the language, learning the language, caring about the language, maybe even just using Kia Ora. It’s normal. And that shows it’s just going to grow.

Amongst this mass adoption, is there a concern to ‘do it right’ too?

Language is a living organism: you can’t control it. I get upset sometimes when we attack our own. The more internal fights where we separate university Māori from new Māori, trying to define a proper Māori. I think there should be a focus on giving it a go. We need to be open to learning and being corrected, but there has to be a balance.

For example, you have to not be too harsh in the beginning about whether someone’s pronunciation is right or wrong - that refinement needs to happen further down the track. Just like when you’re a baby, you have to make mistakes to learn. It’s the same with language.

Though those can be productive conversations. I once had someone complain to me that today’s generation is speaking new Māori and inventing new words. My response was, ‘Of course there are new words! Our grandparents didn’t have iPhones and wifi and apps.’

Sometimes those conversations help people realise our language is alive. It’s changing. Back in the nineties, the Māori Language Commission policed the language and created new words. Now it’s with the community.

One instance of this has been how we’ve needed a word for online meeting or video conference in the past couple of years. There’s been three words to come out of that:

  1. Zui - which is a combination of hui (meeting) and Zoom.
  2. Huitopa - which adds topa which means to zoom as in soar or fly away.
  3. Hui ā-ataata - which uses the word for video.

And it’s been hui ā-ataata that has won out because it makes the most sense. It’s the most clear and that’s how it usually goes. While there can be more work done into curating and quality control, our language really is alive.

One of the other obstacles you referenced in your talk was low confidence in terms of pronunciation and learning. Do you think that has changed since?

That’s an interesting problem, from the perspective of a teacher.

In classes now, you have both Māori students - people who are of Māori descent, but might not have had the opportunity to learn te reo - and non-Māori students. They’re sitting in the same classroom and while they might look like me and you, they have Māori heritage or Māori whakapapa and so have a different connection to the language. It’s a part of their identity; a part of who they are. Maybe their grandmother spoke it but never passed it down because she was strapped when she was a child at school. That’s a deep-rooted, complex connection and often there’s whakamā (embarrassment) in not knowing the language.

Then you have non-Māori students who don’t have that same connection. They might have a connection to this place, and te reo belongs to this place, but that’s very different. I don’t think they feel that same embarrassment because there’s this distance. It’s brand new; like any language. Sometimes, because of this, you see non-Māori progressing more because they’re ready to give it their all and don’t care if they get it wrong.

This is a dynamic that’s evolving and that we need to talk about. Educators need to be aware of this because it’s not something we’ve seen before. It used to be a Māori majority in classrooms, but now we’re starting to see a non-Māori majority.

What effect is that having on the language within the Māori community? That’s something we need to discuss. But we do know that non-Māori need to learn alongside Māori. That way they’ll learn how we behave, how we laugh and how we interact with each other. That can’t be taught. They learn that by sitting with us and being with us.

What’s next for you?

Recently, I was driving back from Rotorua with one of my mentors who’s in her fifties. We were talking about someone in her eighties who was our mentor and who’s still working tirelessly. And here I am in my thirties so I asked, ‘Is this me for the rest of my life?’ and she turned back to me and said, ‘Yes. Yes it is.’

Essentially she made it clear to me that there’s a bigger picture that I’m a part of. There are people who have gone before us and paved the way and we owe it to the next generation to carry on. So I’m just going to keep on going while I’m here and while I can. I know I’m always going to have that yearning inside to carry on.

You started this conversation with the fact that yourmahi is tied to your identity. That must be a powerful connector.

Yeah. It’s my calling.


Watch Hemi’s talk here.