Reclaiming her identity

12 Jan 2023

Keely Smith's journey with Te Tohu Paetahi is made more significant because her daughter Hannah has also enrolled in the one year diploma.

Keely Smith, University of Waikato Senior Legal Counsel, is on a journey to reclaim a missing piece of her identity embarking on a one-year diploma with Te Tohu Paetahi through the University’s staff scholarship programme.

Keely Smith is one of five staff who will undertake the University’s total immersion Māori language and teaching programme in 2023, the journey made more significant as her daughter, Hannah, has also enrolled.

The scholarships aim to increase the number of University staff who are functionally fluent in te reo Māori, as articulated in the University Strategy 2022-2024 and are an initiative to come out of the Taskforce, which Keely was also involved with as the University’s solicitor.

Keely, Ngāti Ranginui and Ngāti Raukawa, says her family had a proud history of orators in both English and te reo Māori stretching back to her Scottish tupuna Simpson Smith and his wife Raukawa Mātia of Ngāti Hangarau. Their son Te Mete Raukawa, was a renowned orator and leading spokesman for the Tauranga people of Ngāti Ranginui and Ngāi Te Rangi. Unfortunately, the skill was lost in future generations from her grandfather, Te Mene Te Mete, onwards.

“My Papa attended Bethlehem Native School where speaking te reo was suppressed and as a result my father and his 11 siblings were encouraged to assimilate with the English language in pursuit of a better life.”

Before joining the University, Keely lived in the United States where her daughter Hannah was born. “As a Māori woman living in the mid-west of the United States, I was immersed in another culture and a very different way of life. It was a privilege to have that experience, but it did make me realise the importance of raising my daughter in my own culture.”

Unfortunately, Keely’s sense of not belonging continued after returning home. However, that changed when she was employed as a Personal Assistant in the School of Māori and Pacific Development, Te Pua Wānanga ki te Ao.

“My time in Te Pua Wānanga ki te Ao was a spiritual awakening. It was the first time I felt Māori. I felt a sense of belonging, I finally felt like I was home. For 12 years, I embraced all things Māori – mātauranga Māori in its truest form,” says Keely.

Keely moved into the Office of the Vice-Chancellor and went on to complete her law degree whilst working full time and later becoming the University’s solicitor. She worked on the University’s independent review into public claims of racism in 2020, alongside Tā Harawira Gardiner and the Honourable Hekia Parata, and later assisted on the Taskforce.

During her time in Te Pua Wānanga ki te Ao, she witnessed the transformation of many Te Tohu Paetahi students and has always aspired to be that student but as a single parent, she could not afford to leave her job.

“Te reo Māori has been that missing link. It is a part of me, but not a part of me. Language is linked to identity and that is my goal, to come out of Te Tohu Paetahi with my language and a stronger sense of my true identity,” says Keely.

“Whilst this is my reo journey, it is also about my role as a senior Māori woman at this University. I would like to fulfil my role as the University’s solicitor more effectively and with all stakeholders,” says Keely.

This is the start of a transformation for her family with daughter Hannah (23) also enrolling to complete the diploma. Mother Ngaire and sister Michelle are looking to commence their own te reo journey with Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.

“Whilst I have completed mainstream te reo papers, total immersion is the next step for me. I look forward to the day when our entire whanau are conversing with each other in our native tongue just as my tupuna did many years ago,” says Keely.

“Everything and everyone on my journey up until now, have set me on this path. I feel truly humbled and privileged both personally and professionally,” says Keely.

This research aligns with the following United Nations Sustainable Development Goals:

Quality Education Decent Work and Economic Growth Reduced Inequalities

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