Last Saturday I had an unexpected reunion with some of my old colleagues from the Dictionary of New Zealand biography project, but the occasion was a sad one – the farewell for Tairongo Amoamo, who passed away on 8 July. From 1990 to 2000, Tairongo was Māori editor for the Dictionary, with responsibility for translating the entries on Māori subjects into te reo. He was a native speaker of the language, and his reo was, as Ranginui Walker said in his eulogy, ‘impeccable’. Tairongo was passionate about his work on the Māori volumes, known as Ngā tāngata taumata rau – the people of many peaks. But he was much more than a translator – he was a generous teacher and friend to those of us who worked with him. Through him we were introduced to the important principles of tikanga and manners – imparted in a kindly, patient but very firm way! Listening to him talk in te reo to Māori visitors in the office revealed to us that it was a living language of everyday life, as well as being a vehicle for poetry and history. And he loved to recount the stories of the people whose lives we were recording – people like Tuakana Āporotanga, Te Pairi Tūterangi, and of course Mokomoko. When he told these stories with such relish, they became incredibly vivid, and their ongoing deep significance for him and many others was evident. It was a lesson that in this country, history is not just about the past.
Tairongo knew that at the Dictionary, we were making history in more than one way. His lasting achievement is his contribution to Ngā tāngata taumata rau, which when complete was the largest Māori-language work to be published since the translation of the Bible in the 19th century. It was the model for subsequent translation of Māori entries in Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Haere rā Tairongo – your work will live on. Haere ki te kāinga i whakaritea e tō tātou Kaihanga mō tātou katoa.