14 Sep 2023
In the ever-evolving realm of te reo Māori and the arts, one name stands out as a true reo champion: Tainui Stephens. His warmth, wit and commanding eloquence in te reo Māori and English has earned him deep respect among journalists, directors, and writers in Aotearoa and internationally.
A reporter, producer and director, Tainui Stephens’ career showcases an extensive dedication to nurturing te reo Māori through storytelling, while persistently advocating for a bicultural future in the arts sector.
Asked how Aotearoa New Zealand can fully embrace its bicultural identity in a monocultural world? He urges, “Accept that we’re a bloody well-off nation compared to too many countries. Ensure that we remain humble and not arrogant as we become more secure in our identity. Pākehā also have to up their game and not keep on relying on their Māori treaty partner to be proactive about societal change for the better.”
His reo journey began with a personal transformation. Raised in a predominantly Pākehā world, he was "bitten by the identity bug" in his teens, igniting his commitment to learning the Māori language. This commitment became the cornerstone of his life's work.
"I soaked up the wairua and character of the people by going to hui and participating, “He immersed himself in Māori culture, learning from trusted elders, whānau, and mentors. Over the years, he discovered the sheer power of indigenous humanity, “I’ve tried to produce stories that reflect the mana of the language and of the people whose ancestry, breath and yearnings created it.”
Tainui Stephens' approach to storytelling embodies his dedication to nurturing te reo Māori. He acknowledges that he primarily creates his stories for two audiences, "Those who know their reo and tikanga, and those who don’t. Pākeha may enjoy the stories, and that’s a bonus.” Tainui focuses on empowering Māori, fostering their cultural identity, and promoting a harmonious bicultural understanding through storytelling.
An expert both on and off the camera, Tainuimoves between English and te reo domains with ease, this natural skill allowed him to thrive in television just as Māori programming made inroads on New Zealand screens.
He joined the team behind "Koha" in April 1984, a pioneering series dedicated to kaupapa Māori. This marked a time of change and progress within the broadcasting industry, and a growing belief in the importance of Māori representation.
In 2000, Tainui founded Pito One Productions, allowing him to create content for Māori and Pākehā audiences. He also took on the role of an advisor, bridging the gap between Māori content creators and TV executives, thereby ensuring the infusion of Māori perspectives into mainstream programming.
The launch of Māori Television in 2004 further inspired his dedication to Māori storytelling. He directed documentaries celebrating the Māori language and culture, actively participated in live coverage of Anzac Day commemorations, and produced various entertainment programmes, consistently emphasising the vitality of te reo Māori and indigenous viewpoints.
Throughout his career Tainui has remained staunch in his commitment to promoting te reo Māori. He reminds us (Aotearoa) that when it comes to Māori filmmaking, we’re not just telling stories; we are weaving the fabric of our culture and language into the very essence of our narratives. “It’s about preserving and promoting te reo Māori, our unique taonga, and sharing it with the world. Our stories carry the mana of our language, and through them, we assert our presence on the global stage while upholding the rich tapestry of our heritage."