All Black halfback TJ Perenara vows to gift his children te reo Māori

By Kereama Wright

All Black halfback TJ Perenara has opened up about his shame of not being able to speak te reo Māori. 

“I grew up as a young Māori without the gift of being able to speak our native tongue. I was almost embarrassed or ashamed about that for a long time.”

Perenara of Ngāti Rangitihi descent was born and raised in the Wellington suburb of Porirua, where he says he had an awesome childhood, but one without te reo Māori. 

“I held that whakamā or that mamae on my shoulders and I thought that that was my fault.”

In a candid hour-long podcast interview with fellow All Blacks and Hurricanes teammate Ardie Savea, Perenara spoke explicitly about his journey and the effects of colonisation on the mana of te reo Māori within his whānau. 

“Like my grandfather and his father used to get in trouble for speaking te reo Māori, so they didn’t teach their kids, therefore, my dad didn’t get taught, therefore, I didn’t get taught.”

“But when you’re a young kid and you don’t speak your native language, and you’re Māori and you’re proud to be Māori and then you go to a marae and you can’t understand what anyone’s saying, I don’t know how to explain it, but it is shame I reckon.”

“But coming to the realisation that things happened in the past that got to the point where te reo Māori wasn’t taught in my family, that’s not on me. But I have the opportunity now and the responsibility to be able to make the decision.”

The 59 test cap All Black made that decision and has been learning te reo Māori for over a year now.

“That’s the journey that I’m on now.”

“I want to go and learn my language because when Greer and I have kids, I want to gift them the language of te reo Māori.” 

He was pushed outside of his comfort zone during the All Blacks' visit to Hikurangi mountain and the greater Ngāti Porou district prior to departing for the rugby world cup in Japan, when he was asked to conduct the whaikōrero. But he says he was inspired by the young fluent speakers who welcomed them. 

“Being around Hikurangi and seeing the young kids being able to converse in te reo Māori was special and I had a conversation with a few of them about how privileged they are to be able to speak the language. 

“I know they don’t quite understand it because they’re fully immersed in it, but for a young Māori who didn’t speak the language, and there’s a few in our team who don’t speak te reo Māori who wish they could, to see that and to see it so naturally and so beautifully in its rawest form, it was special to see.

“What I said to these kids - it’s your job to give the gift that you have and to bring the people along with you because I’ve been that young kid who has been embarrassed and ashamed and then hid away from it.”

“Instead of facing the facts that I couldn’t speak and it wasn’t my fault, I just hid away from it for 25 years and just didn’t step into it at all.

“I had whānau who spoke te reo Māori and when I went around them I’d be ashamed or gutted, and often I would get mocked for being a plastic Māori.”

Perenara, who is currently in Japan preparing for the All Blacks world cup opener against South Africa in just six days, is determined to bring his children up with their mother tongue. 

“I want te reo Māori to get stronger and I want people to come to this country and te reo Māori is spoken on the street.”

“That’s what I want for my kids."