The importance of
language and aroha

Dewy Sacayan is a solicitor and an environmental activist based in Auckland. A member of the Foundation’s Leadership Network, she attended the network’s Te Ao Māori Hui in Waitangi in June 2019. She shares how the hui made her reflect on her migrant background and her work on climate change.

Leadership Network members share their experiences on the Foundation's Te Ao Māori Hui

In 2007 my parents made the big leap to move the family from the Philippines to New Zealand, drawn by a more stable lifestyle and opportunities for their children. As a 12-year-old Filipina, I realised quickly I needed to adapt to a new culture, learn someone else’s history and learn a new way of doing things.

Unfortunately it wasn’t until 2012 – five years after arriving in New Zealand – that I learnt about the Treaty of Waitangi. To get into law school, I had to learn the key principles and the three articles of the Treaty. In hindsight, I only learnt about the Treaty of Waitangi so that I could get into law school. The system perpetuated the idea that learning about the Treaty was nothing but a checkbox that students had to tick.

The reality that understanding the Treaty of Waitangi was an important part of calling myself a Kiwi hit me when I went overseas to represent New Zealand at the UN COP climate negotiations in 2014. How could I properly represent the core values of Kiwis in the international stage when I didn’t fully understand the concepts of kaitiakitanga, rangatiratanga and manaakitanga?

Hungry for a deeper understanding, I jumped at the chance to join the Te Ao Māori Hui. On a personal level, I was curious to find out how the core values of Te Ao Māori could elevate my Asian values. More importantly, I also wanted to find out whether migrants like myself have a place in a Māori worldview.

For three days, more than 60 members of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network made our way to Waitangi to hear and interact with tangata whenua. There were two main learnings I took away from it.

The importance of language

We live in a postcolonial world in which indigenous people have to fight to protect their language and traditions. Stacey Morrison’s kōrero highlighted how reclaiming her language helped her reclaim her identity. For Morrison, learning te reo Māori is part of healing, because words contain healing. Words convey a message that can last generations.

In a similar way, for Asian migrants, having your own language shows a point of difference in a globalised world.

However, for many Māori and for many Asian migrants, it can be a struggle to ensure you don’t forget your language. Our ancestors or those who migrated before us fought to keep traditions and language alive. For many Asian migrants to New Zealand, they have had to choose an English name in order to belong and not be the odd one out. Others have had to settle for a mispronounced name.

A way in which we can combat this is to first realise that it is up to us to individually find the value and importance of our names.

Hui speaker and former MP Te Ururoa Flavell challenged us to never mispronounce Māori words.

In a similar way, the Foundation's Māori adviser Tania Te Whenua challenged us to challenge biases that enable a discriminatory society. We owe it to our rangatahi to do this.

Kōrero at the Te Ao Māori hui inspired meaningful reflections for Leadership Network members.


The second key takeaway from the hui was power of aroha. Te Tii Marae’s Ngāti Kawa Taituha said that understanding Te Ao Māori and the Treaty of Waitangi can simply be equated to loving the Māori people. When you do so, you become an ally – a haumi.

Growing up as a first-generation immigrant, and in my work as a climate activist, finding haumi is vital. They are role models and are there for moral support. Being a haumi to Māori means doing the mahi and making sure that you bring others with you along the journey.

Speakers Nikora Ngaporo and Kaye-Maree Dunn’s focussed on how they create opportunities in the creative industries and blockchain technology for rangatahi. By influencing young Māori, they are empowering them with the tools that they need to pave their own success and to voice their own messages. For Ngaporo and Dunn, their work is rooted by their love for fellow Māori.

Like Māori, many Asians cultures place value on the collective good. For Māori and Asian peoples alike, one’s success translates to everyone’s success.

In today’s cut-throat society where competition is prevalent and where businesses fight for market share, revenue is often prioritised over love. Te Ao Māori calls us to return to the placing the value on collective good.

On a personal level, the power of aroha and its centrality in Te Ao Māori made me realise where I can elevate my climate activism as a kaitiaki and as an immigrant. I used to think that since I am not Māori, I could not represent Māori values in my grassroots activism. The impostor syndrome that haunts immigrants who try to integrate while staying true to our ethnic roots can be overwhelming.

However, all the Maori leaders’ korero point to one call to action – we have a shared responsibility to make things right. For instance, it’s not just up to Māori to correct others when they mispronounce Māori terms.

As an activist, I know that climate action is polarising, as it has potential to disrupt the status quo. However, if I frame the mahi that I do based on my love for people today and in the future, then I have done my community a service.

Moving forward, I know that I need to love Māori in order to understand Te Ao Māori. I have to love te reo Māori and sincerely try to understand its meaning for me to be a reliable haumi.

And I have to love the whenua in the best way I can to be a good kaitiaki and ensure that there is intergenerational equity for all.

Leadership Network member Dewy Sacayan came away from the hui understanding she needed to love the people and the land.