For more than 40 years Sir Pou Temara has worked to nurture te reo Māori and, even though his quest attracted harsh criticism, he has no apologies for striving for excellence.
The criticism came when he and fellow te reo Māori stalwarts Sir Timoti Karetu and Wharehuia Milroy established an exclusive Māori language academy, Te Panekiretanga o Te Reo Māori in 2004.
“We weren’t at all happy seeing where the Māori language was going and we needed to all get together a group of Māori students, young people, who could be the people who would recall the language as it ought to be spoken,” Temara says.
“We were called the Nazis of the Māori language. We make no apologies for that. Language has got to be perfect.”
Te Panekiretanga o Te Reo Māori trained some of the nation’s best Māori orators. It was created to improve the standard of te reo Māori, with the hope that proficient speakers would take the language back to their marae.
“Criticism came in from others who didn’t like to use the word elite. They felt it was elitism. But the three of us, we didn’t care, he says.
"Elite in our terms was a good principle. It was a good term. It means excellent. It means we’re not going to take rubbish. It means that we are not going to be satisfied with anything less than excellence and all our students inspired to excellence.
“If you got 50 per cent you failed, you were thrown out of Te Panekiretanga. If you got 95 per cent you failed. You had to strive for 100 per cent. That’s just how it is. We expected nothing less.”
After more than 15 years of running the course, Temara and Karetu decided to finish it, following the death of Milroy in 2019.
“We knew that the time was fast approaching that we had to give the programme up because, with one link missing, we felt we couldn’t fulfil that commitment we had committed ourselves to. It was time for a new group of Māori people to take a similar programme and to make it different.”
Temara was knighted in 2020 for his services to Māori and education. It was an honour he initially wanted to turn down.
“I think there were better people than myself to be given a knighthood. I recall the uncle and god of Tūhoe people, John Rangihau, who should have been knighted; others who had made a huge contribution should have been knights and dames," he says.
“For someone who does things routinely, I’m not too sure if I deserve a knighthood but I do like awards for the reo. For me that’s meaningful over the years. They have pride place on my walls.”
The professor of te reo and tikanga at Waikato University accepted the knighthood after discovering that King Tuheitia was one of the people who supported his nomination.
“I felt that I should be going to the king and asking his permission and as part of his council of advisors that I should seek his permission to have a discussion about the nomination. My own feeling, and my own instinct, is that it should be turned down.”
Temara then made contact with an adviser of the king.
“He told me that the king had been a supporter of the nomination. Then I thought 'Goodness gracious, if I were to turn this down that would be a direct challenge to the wishes of the kng, so I thought I think I better accept this'.”
Temara hopes that he, Milroy and Karetu left a legacy as the founders of Te Panekiretanga.
“Our legacy to the Māori language and to tikanga Māori would be we contributed to a legacy that has left a generation of people and leaders like the great John Rangihau," he says.
“I hope that the legacy is that we leave speaking the Māori language at the best level it can be. It’s not an everyday language,” he says.
Sir Pou Temara appeared on Te Ngākau Tapatahi, a show profiling Māori dames and knights. The new series from the Māori Television newsroom is running this week on Māori Television at 12pm. Find the first five episodes on Māori+ now and the full series from Sunday, January 23.