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Vini Olsen-Reeder is about to receive the first PhD at Vic in te reo Māori (Video)

Connecting with te reo Māori brought Vini Olsen-Reeder closer to his culture and the language has become the foundation of his future.

Vini Olsen-Reeder shared his "out-of-body experience" with reporter Brad Flahive as part of the One in Five Million project. 

As he read aloud the words of his whakapapa it unlocked such strong emotions it conjured an "out-of-body experience" reassuring him he was home.  

Vini Olsen-Reeder was terrified the day he stepped onto his family marae for the first time, but the experience stirred feelings which gave him a serene clarity of what the occasion meant to him.

"It was really scary going to this place that wasn't yet my home, but I really wanted it to be," said Olsen-Reeder.

"My uncle took my sister and I in there, he recited our whakapapa, our genealogy, and that was the first time I felt a strong link to that place. I knew then, and it was a massive turning point for me."

As Olsen-Reeder, 27, recalls that day at Rōmai Marae in Tauranga seven years ago, the emotions return to his eyes as if he going through it all again.

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"It was half terrifying, and half like an outer body moment when you finally feel that sense of belonging to your people.

"[Recently] our iwi opened a papakāinga which is a small settlement of six houses on the marae for our kaumātua, for our older generation. I love giving back like that. My Nana is living in one of them so when I go there I feel yep, that's home."

Olsen-Reeder's awakening started a journey which has led him to discover his culture, and unlock a passion for language which has become his career - lecturing te reo Māori at Wellington's Victoria University.

Vini Olsen-Reeder is the first student to complete a PhD in te reo Māori at Victoria University.

"It became apparent pretty quick you can't learn the language without learning the culture," he said sitting beneath the tukutuku paneling of Te Herenga Waka Marae at Wellington's Victoria University.

The marae, nestled into the university's campus, is named 'the hitching post of canoes' and is his home away from home.

It's the place Olsen-Reeder turned from student to teacher, and where he now guides others to reach that magic moment when te reo Māori rolls off the tongue without a thought.

"The really big buzz for me is when they go from knowing a lot, but not necessarily able to get it out off the cuff, to when they're rattling off anything they want to say," he said.

Before realising his roots in Tauranga, Olsen-Reeder grew up in Whanganui with his mother's side of the family.

"In a little community called Gonville, I went to Gonville Primary," he said.

"I remember running water down the driveway to make puddles for my bike, grazing my legs when I fell off it. My childhood in Whanganui was quite cool."

He considers himself fortunate to have grown up outside not concerned with electronic devices, but he has no memory of te reo in his early life.

"I don't remember us doing any waita or karakia, or anything.

"My dad is now trying to learn more and more, so he can eventually pass on the language he has to my future kids - he was awesome at teaching us pronunciation."

 

Olsen-Reeder is now settled in the capital city, looking to buy a house while he stays with friends to save on rent.

Like a lot of Kiwis he wasn't always so sure what he wanted to do with his life. "I just knew I wanted to go to university," he said.

"I started studying music but just found it wasn't for me, but I picked up te reo and just absolutely fell in love with it. I'm so lucky to be employed for te reo, and by te reo."

Not that it was easy, he started with trepidation and worried about making mistakes.

"I thought I was the only Māori who couldn't speak te reo, but sitting with them and learning here [at the university marae] - I quickly learnt there are heaps of people just like me, and that's OK."

As he prepared for Māori Language Week, he was excited at the direction te reo is heading - away from being a treasure left on the museum shelf, as his mentor Professor Rawinia Higgins might say.

"Taonga can be things we use all of the time that are functional, that are pragmatic, that we mess and play around with.

"The real value of te reo and the way we can show it's a taonga, is by using it and by treating as something we want to have around us all the time."

"We see it's value in the way that we use it and how much we use it, and not worry that we never get a word wrong or a sentence wrong and make a mistake. That's the sentiment that's around at the moment, some people feel if you can't get it right then don't do it all.

"We have had so much government policy and mainstream policy that has disaffected our language, that actually if you can speak Māori now it's a real privilege to carry. It's not something that comes easily, you really have to work hard for it."

At the end of the year he will be the first Victoria student to graduate with a PhD in te reo Māori, for his research into bilingualism as a theoretical approach to revitalisation, and the ways in which a bilingualism approach could remove some of the anxieties surrounding Māori language use among Māori speakers.

His excitement and drive for te reo Māori is as strong as his willingness to impart his wisdom onto others.

"Moving into teaching means most of my job is about giving people back their identity they didn't have as a kid.

"I feel lucky I get to pay my bills by doing something that is so important and rewarding."

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