For Pairama Wright studying wasn’t just about gaining knowledge and qualifications, it was also about reinventing himself and finding a purpose.
Of Ngāi Tahu, Ngā Ruahine, Swiss and Irish decent, Pairama grew up as an army child and moved all over New Zealand. Māori culture and language played a prominent role in his family’s life, his great-grandmother was a fluent te reo speaker and Pairama went to Māori immersion schools.
At age 13, when his parents separated, he moved with his mother to Napier and became steadily more alienated from his Māori roots. “It was as if I was scared and ashamed of this part of me, and I had no desire to speak te reo or engage with the Māori part of my family.”
It was only when his dad moved back from Australia with Pairama’s half-sister, who was brought up very traditionally, that he rekindled his interest in reconnecting with Māoridom.
“I was studying music at EIT when my dad, who was enrolled at Te Ūranga Waka, encouraged me to do a certificate in te reo Māori and learn the language. My tutor, Tash, was fantastic and I transformed from a rebellious human being to a better person. I achieved a sense of belonging. It totally turned my life around.”
From this first level 2 certificate Pairama staircased to his Bachelor in Arts (Māori), followed by this year’s Honours. In 2021 Pairama is doing the Master in Professional Practice, delving into research of Māori language revitalisation.
From next year, Pairama is teaching on EIT’s NZ Certificate in te reo me ngā Tikanga (level 4) and will put his heart and soul into it. “I guess teaching is my way of supporting and promoting the revitalisation of our language.” He strongly advocates for teaching Māori language, culture and history in school. “In school, history was my favourite subject and we learned about the black power movement in the US but unfortunately nothing about the NZ land wars or the Treaty of Waitangi. I’m really happy that times have changed and children grow up seeing the whole picture.”
Last year, Pairama accepted the role of cultural advisor (kaiārahi tikanga) for the Musical Theatre New Zealand. He is eager to promote a shift towards Ao Māori and a change of cultural perception. He also introduced a new Musical Theatre award that recognises culture, diversity and inclusion.
His long-term goal is to create Māori language resources for all learner levels, the sort of resources that he would have liked to have. “When you learn te reo Māori as a second language you are questioning and analysing everything you say so you automatically become kind of a linguist. Realistically, it will be another 30 to 50 years before I can consider myself a Māori language champion,” he quips, “but I’m getting there.”