How Jeremy Tātere MacLeod went from a second-language learner to te reo Māori champion

At a time when many young Māori were heading to Australia, Brisbane-born and raised Jeremy Tātere MacLeod bucked the trend by moving to Hastings to immerse himself in Māori culture. Sixteen years later, at 33, he is recognized as a tribal champion for te reo Māori.

Words: Amokura Panoho  Photos: Florence Charvin


Ko Te Whanganui-a-Tara me Tapuae-o-Uenuku
ngā maunga,
Ko Waingōngoro me Wairau ngā awa,
Ko Tākitimu me Kurahaupō ngā waka,
Ko Ngāti Kahungunu me Rangitāne ngā iwi,
Ko Ngāti Kurukuru me Ngāti Huataki ngā hapū,
Ko Waimārama me Tuamātene ngā marae.

Te Whanganui-a-Tara and Tapuae-o-Uenuku are my mountains,
Waingōngoro and Wairau my rivers,
Takitimu and Kurahaupō my canoes,
Ngāti Kahungunu and Rangitāne my tribes,
Ngāti Kurukuru and Ngāti Huataki my sub-tribes,
Waimārama and Tuamātene are my marae.


I am the director of te reo, tikanga (customs) and mātauranga (knowledge) for Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi Incorporated. I was offered the role only six years into my language journey, so the chief executive at that time, Meka Whaitiri, and the chair Ngahiwi Tomoana took a massive leap of faith in appointing me.

I went from being a Māori language student at the Eastern Institute of Technology in Napier during the day and working in an apple-pack house at night, to being in the driver’s seat of an iwi (tribe) that has the third-largest Māori population and second-largest domain.

It was a huge investment to make in a 24-year-old; unheard of in tribal circles at the time. When the euphoria wore off, I realized that sometimes less is better; it’s better not to try to do everything. For our iwi, it meant investing in larger initiatives rather than lots of programmes.

In 2012, we launched our 15-year Kahungungu, Kia Eke! Māori language strategy, focusing on our people, resources and knowledge. Three years later, we became the first iwi to host the Language Revitalization Symposium with te reo Māori champions sharing their trials and tribulations and innovative methods for language retention.

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Last year, we hosted an array of well-known personalities from across Māoridom who have had successful careers as native speakers or second-language speakers. More than 1000 people attended the two-day event. The measure of our success to date was being presented with the Iwi Award by Te Taura Whiri i Te Reo (the Māori Language Commission) at Ngā Tohu Reo Māori 2019.


My parents Ken (Te Arawa) and Ruma (Ngāti Kahungunu and Rangitāne) met in the Gold Coast in the 1970s, after following their older siblings over to Australia. They were disconnected from our culture and brought my two sisters and me up in Brisbane, oblivious of anything Māori.

In 1994, when my mother’s brother died and we attended his tangi (funeral), I remember looking at photos placed at the feet of the casket wondering who those people were. This curiosity was further fueled by my father’s relatives, Tuiti and Josie Walker, who were steeped in their tribal knowledge.

For the first time, during their visit, I heard our language. So after leaving high school, I took a leap of faith, moving to Hastings to live with my maternal grandmother Ruma McDonald. The date – 16 February 2004 – is etched on my memory as the day I embarked on my language journey by enrolling in a te reo foundation course at the Eastern Institute of Technology in Napier.

I was incredibly fortunate and blessed that Parekura Rohe, my first teacher, saw potential and introduced me to my mentor, the late Materoa Haenga from Ngāti Porou. She and other tutors guided me so that five years later I was invited to go into Te Panekiretanga o te Reo Māori, the Institute of Excellence in Māori Language.

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This is the preeminent advanced Māori language academic course for adult students across the country. There I came under the tutelage of three esteemed kaumātua, Dr Sir Tīmoti Kāretu, Dr Pou Temara and the late professor Te Wharehuia Milroy.

My wife Te Rina (Ngāti Kahungunu) is also my collaborator. With our two sons in tow, Te Uaki (11) and Te Maurutanga (6), we have opened two kōhanga reo (a kindergarten teaching preschoolers in Māori) as we wanted to build a movement that created jobs while being immersed in te reo.

Our son’s name, Maurutanga, is not a tīpuna (ancestor) name like his brother’s. Instead, we created it, as the word “mauru” means the appeasing of pain – given his birth brought a ray of light into a very dark time with the death of my father 10 months earlier.


Through generations, the fire (language) had been extinguished within the branches of my mother’s family. When I first landed in their community, I had to earn my stripes at Waimārama Marae in Hastings, where my namesake and paternal grandfather and now mother are buried. I feel very privileged that I learnt by doing.

Rather than ignoring me as this upstart “Mozzie” (Australian Māori) who repeatedly questioned, mimicked and made mistakes, my mother’s people nurtured me into leadership roles. There were times when I was growled at, but the ground had been set back in 1975 when Ngāti Kahungunu held a summit with rangatira (tribal leaders) from Māhia to Pōrangahau.

They decided the tuakana teina (elder/younger) tikanga (protocol) was not applicable anymore, so now our iwi philosophy is “who can, who will” not “who should”. Sometimes wisdom – as opposed to language expertise – is important as there are kaumātua who remain repositories of knowledge and we balance the pride of the tribe with a strong, powerful speaker while also upholding the mana (dignity) of our kaumātua.

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Although these roles can be daunting, I have learnt the importance of being resilient, kanohi kitea (being seen, being present) and the concept of whanaungatanga (kinship). All of these are important aspects of the doctoral research I am doing under the supervision of Dr Rangi Matāmua on tribal dialectal differences.


Contrary to popular belief, iwi do not have a lot of money, and I don’t believe treaty settlements should be applied to language revitalization when it was the Crown that took away the language in the first instance, putting it at risk.

Instead, iwi need to lead and invest in language champions – to ensure they remain inspired. They are the kind of foot soldiers prepared to take three days’ leave to sit on the paepae (orator’s bench) when a family without any cultural capability returns to the marae.

The ultimate survival of our language hinges on our ability to create critical mass – where we are surrounded by people speaking and hearing te reo. That’s why I think our culture – our tikanga – has to evolve in terms of the role of younger men and women speakers on our paepae and why I applaud non-Māori learning and speaking te reo.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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