A story about a photograph, a love and a maori te reo trip of a lifetime


There is an old black and white photograph taken on the steps of Parliament of seven members of Ngā Tamatoa.

It was November 11, 1972. Two weeks before a general election.

Orewa Barrett-Ohia is seated in the front left. Behind her, second from the left, is John Ohia.

About two months earlier, Television news footage had shown another Ngā Tamatoa member, Hana Jackson (Te Hemara), on the same Wellington steps, presented a petition with over 30,000 signatures calling for te reo Maori to be taught in schools.

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Members of NgÄ ??  Tamatoa on the steps of Parliament, 1972. They are (from the back left) Toro Waaka, John Ohia, Paul Kotara, Tame Iti and (from the front left) Orewa Barrett-Ohia, Rawiri Paratene and Tiata Witehira .

Alexander Turnbull Library

Members of NgÄ ?? Tamatoa on the steps of Parliament, 1972. They are (from back left) Toro Waaka, John Ohia, Paul Kotara, Tame Iti and (from front left) Orewa Barrett-Ohia, Rawiri Paratene and Tiata Witehira .

A new generation demanded a change from the government.

Almost 50 years later, sitting in their dock in Tauranga Moana during Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, Orewa and John have taken a trip down memory lane.

They were both in their twenties when this photo was taken.

Orewa is now 70 years old. John is 77 years old.

Glued on the walls of their living room, pieces of paper with handwritten waiata that they are busy learning, studying.

It’s homework. Orewa and John are both enrolled in a free Te reo Maori course in Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.

The 1970s are like a long time ago.

This is the decade in which Ngā Tamatoa fought for Maori rights and against racial discrimination.

The group took part in protests and made a difference. They were considered by many to be radicals.

“The start of a new way of doing things, that’s what I saw like that,” John says.

The photograph on the steps of Parliament was taken by a Evening shift staff photographer at a three-week Ngā Tamatoa protest sit-in.

The protesters slept in tents given to them by residents. There was a large banner that read “Maori control over all things Maori”.

John says there was no planning ahead and they didn’t know how long they would be there.

“We had no equipment, nothing. The only thing we had was the clothes we were wearing. It was totally new, we didn’t know what was going to happen. But in the end, when we got there, the people of Wellington started bringing us stuff, including food.

Orewa said there were a lot of issues at the heart of this protest – loss of whenua, loss of reo.

She says they were part of a new generation of Maoris who had had enough.

“I was tired of hearing that we weren’t this and that, listening to the people on the marae pining for the past, pining for the land that had been taken, watching more land being taken, being told always that we had to be more educated… being told that all these old habits or even our reo, our language, you know, ‘put that aside, forget that’.

Orewa and John had only been together a few months when this photo was taken.

Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Maori

Aotearoa celebrates Te Wiki o te Reo Māori in September to remember the efforts of those who paved the way for language revitalization before us.

Orewa (Ngāti Maniapoto) grew up in the hills of Waitomo, behind the famous caves.

She spent much of her childhood with her grandmother, soaking up the kōrero of the kuia and its reo.

Orewa said she could still understand Te reo Maori and listened to people talking on the marae, but the little she spoke started to fade when she entered elementary school.

Later, her grandmother spoke to her in te reo and she answered in English.

A year spent in Tonga, straight out of high school. opened Orewa’s eyes to a world not dominated by Pākehā, and she returned to Aotearoa motivated.

She was studying to become a teacher in Hamilton when she wrote a letter to Syd and Hana Jackson from Ngā Tamatoa asking if she could open a branch in Waikato.

Orewa and John first met at John’s apartment on Symonds Street in Auckland, the seat of Ngā Tamatoa.

John was studying at the University of Auckland at the time.

Their second meeting, during a Ngā Tamatoa hui at Te Puea marae in Māngere, saw the beginning of their relationship.

Orewa moved to Auckland, where she and John worked as teachers.

They were married in May 1974 in Rātana Pā, less than two years after the Parliament demonstration. They have four children.

Their participation in historical events and marches for the land has not gone unnoticed by their whānau and the community at large.

This sometimes caused friction, for example, when John was seen on television by his family running through Hamilton Rugby Park during the 1981 Springbok Tour protests.

“Because they were home ready to watch the game,” John said with a big laugh.

Orewa and John both say those early struggles were worth it when they turn on the TV now and see Maori te reo spoken so regularly.

” It was not easy. We were lucky to be young. Just being together made us happy and we enjoyed each other’s company, ”Orewa says of Ngā Tamatoa.

They’ve kept in touch with many of those old friends, she says, and there’s a reunion coming up.

John and Orewa were married in May 1974 in Rātana Pā, less than two years after the Parliament demonstration.  They had four children.

Scott Yeoman / Stuff

John and Orewa were married in May 1974 in Rātana Pā, less than two years after the Parliament demonstration. They had four children.

Orewa and John are enjoying their Te Wānanga o Aotearoa class. It was hard work getting back to school.

“It was really great,” John says. “So much work to do, however.”

“I think it gives me a chance to get to know the language better, to know more about the language, and also to make it available to our grandchildren and our children.”

John (Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Pūkenga, Ngā Pōtiki, Ngāti Awa, Te Arawa) did not grow up speaking Te reo Maori in Tauranga Moana.

He says he didn’t start learning the language until he started his teaching career.

For him and Orewa, their te reo maori trip was a trip of a lifetime. The members of their whānau are now taking this journey with them.

Orewa says studying te reo this year has brought her back home, the stories resurface after all these years.

She learned more about her whakapapa, filled with gaps.

At one point in our kōrero, Orewa points to one of the pieces of paper hanging on the wall.

“Can you believe this waiata was written before the Treaty of Waitangi?” She said, her voice full of admiration.

It’s a love song, says Orewa. A beautiful love song.

“It just brings back that love for our reo.” We love our reo.