A yearning for the reo
Jeremy MacLeod 1080x767
Jeremy Tātere MacLeod was born in Australia but came to Aotearoa, aged 17, to connect with his roots and learn te reo. Pictured at the 2019 Ngā Tohu Reo awards accepting the iwi award on behalf of Ngāti Kahungunu. (Photo supplied)

Siena Yates | Sep 20, 2020

Siena Yates, who’s at the starting line of her reo journey, has been getting some inspiration from some of the winners of last year’s Ngā Tohu Reo awards run by Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission). 

Here she is talking to Jeremy MacLeod, who’s leading the revival of the reo for Ngāti Kahungunu, which won the iwi award.


When I see someone has won a reo Māori award, I assume they’ve spoken the language all their lives and grown up in a home full of fluent speakers.

Therefore it’s easy to feel wildly inadequate when I, a grown Māori woman with the bare basics, have to call them and talk to them about the one thing I feel most insecure about.

But what I’ve learned from doing these interviews is that’s often not the case, and the only person who makes me feel like an egg is me. 

I’ve also learned not to make assumptions about anyone’s reo story.

Take Jeremy MacLeod, who’s the director of the reo revitalisation strategy for Ngāti Kahungunu, which won a reo Māori award last year for that effort. It’s his job to make sure that, by 2027, Kahungunu reo will be “the preferred means of communication” for the majority of the iwi.

On top of that, he also chairs two kōhanga reo — one of which is run out of his home — and works as a language consultant. And he’s close to completing his PhD, which is on “determining a dialect for Ngāti Kahungunu: its history, development and future.”

So, of course, I expected to be talking to someone who’d been born into a Māori-speaking whānau and come up through kōhanga and kura. 

But, nope. 

Jeremy was born in Brisbane, and grew up detached from his Māori roots. His parents, Kenneth and Ruma MacLeod, moved to Australia in the late 1970s, and, although both had Māori whakapapa, they’d pretty much lost track of it. 

“My father was very disconnected from his Māori roots. His mother died when he was seven, and his father was Pākehā. They weren’t raised at their marae in Rotorua. My mother was probably the same — disconnected from her Māori heritage. She was just part of those three generations of loss. They had very, very little knowledge of the language and customs.”

So there wasn’t a lot of exposure to Māori culture for Jeremy and his sisters, apart from videotapes of kapa haka concerts and competitions — and “occasionally we might get a Māori shirt or tablecloth,” he laughs.

But that lack of cultural nurturing didn’t stop Jeremy from yearning for “some sort of cultural identity”. 

“I was always interested in whakapapa and genealogy and I started researching that at a very young age, and writing to family members here in New Zealand. But my desire just continued to grow, and I wanted to learn the language. I figured that if I learned the language, then I could fully and proudly identify as being Māori.”

And that’s exactly what he did. When he was 17, he moved to New Zealand to live with his now late grandmother, Ruma McDonald, in Hastings.

He still remembers the exact dates because “they were turning points in my life”. He arrived on January 28, 2004, and began his language journey on February 16 through the Eastern Institute of Technology in Hawke’s Bay. 

I imagine that setting out on a reo-Māori journey when your starting point is so far removed from the culture would be bloody terrifying. I’m 30, and living at home with plenty of support, yet I’m struggling to take the first steps. 

For Jeremy, it came down to two things. Sheer determination and the guidance of his tūpuna. He’s always been “intrigued” (meaning “mildly obsessed” — his words, not mine) by his ancestors. He collected so many photos of them that his house looked like a museum.

“Anyone who knows me knows that I have photos of dead people everywhere because I believe that they live as long as they’re still hanging on a wall and people are talking about them. You know, there’s that famous saying that your second death is when people stop talking about you. I believe that was a driver.”

So he came to Aotearoa, and he researched and he learned. If it was me, I’d have stayed home and done some googling, but that was never going to satisfy Jeremy’s thirst for connection. 

Once here, he admits that his personality meant that he was driven to fit in as soon as he could. “They call it the trait of a chameleon — I’m someone who will try and fit in as soon as possible. Learn the idiosyncrasies of the people that I’m around, learn the accent, try and ditch the Australian accent as fast as I can, and just learn the language. Learn that language as fast as I can. 

“I think I was just young, driven. I was able to study full-time for four years straight, I had great teachers, and I wanted to master that language.”

And here he is. Surrounded by the reo and the culture he’d yearned for. 

Jeremy MacLeod and whanau

Jeremy with Te Rina and their sons Te Uaki Wainohu-Waho (11) and Te Maurutanga Wainohu (6). (Photo supplied)

Setting up a kōhanga reo at home was his wife Te Rina’s idea. At the time, Jeremy didn’t have a lot of patience with children — that came later, after they had their boys, Te Uaki and Te Maurutanga. But now he loves the fact that their home is a language nest.

If Jeremy ever wins Lotto, his dream is to buy up a bunch of properties in a cul-de-sac and make it an entirely Māori-speaking community.

“I think we need papakāinga. We need to re-establish communities where the language is used in homes and there’s a support network. We want the language to be caught, not taught. We want a living language, not a textbook language, so my whole dream is to reinstate intergenerational transmission where parents use the language to raise their children.”

I asked Jeremy what he thought life would’ve been like if he hadn’t come to New Zealand to learn the reo. His first answer was the only one that mattered: “I don’t think I would have been happy. I’m so content now. 

“I think had I stayed in Australia, I wouldn’t have been happy and my heart would’ve yearned to be here, in a place where I could stand on the land and know that I had a right to be there and that my ancestors walked that land.”

Jeremy MacLeod is the director of the revitalisation strategy for Ngāti Kahungunu, which won the Iwi award, sponsored by Te Mātāwai, at the 2019 Ngā Tohu Reo Awards. 

This series was made possible with funding from Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori.

Source: E-Tangata