Auckland diocese assistant pastoral worker to the Deaf Eric Matthews was awarded Māori Champion by Deaf Aotearoa for his initiatives and inspiration for the Maori Deaf youth.
The 27-year old said he was surprised to hear he won the award, not knowing that two Deaf people nominated him.
“I said, why me? They said I showed good leadership amongst the Maori Deaf youth. It really made me feel very strong in myself when I reflected on it. The Maori Deaf community, they are all my whanau,” Mr Matthews said in an interview with NZ Catholic. The interview was facilitated by Felicity Crowe, an interpreter from iSign, which is a branch of Deaf Aotearoa.
Mr Matthews said he was born deaf, but his family only realised it when he was three years old. At age four, he went to Kelston Deaf Education Centre to study. That was where he learned New Zealand Sign Language.
“When I was 19 or so, I really felt I wanted to set up a Maori Deaf youth group. There’s nothing happening in the community at that time and I have a really strong feeling that I wanted this to happen,” he said. “And last year, it happened. We had a Maori Deaf hui.”
The hui was a huge success, as it answered a need in the Maori Deaf youth community.
“The problem is they really don’t have an understanding of Maori culture. There are so many gaps in their knowledge about their identity. And they don’t know where they’re from, don’t know Maori tikanga and the protocols that Maori people have. So, I really wanted to support them and grow their identity, so they know who they are,” he said.
Mr Matthews said he is lucky because there is a strong Maori tradition in his family.
“I was involved in Maori community, the hearing community. I learned a lot there. I was involved going to marae as well,” he said.
He said that support from the community was really important which was why he was keen on supporting other Maori Deaf young people.
He said that, with other Maori Deaf people his age and with the help of older Maori people, they formed Nga Rangatahi Turi Maori o Aotearoa (Deaf Maori Youth in Aotearoa).
“It’s really important to try and get young Deaf people to learn about their own Maori culture. That’s vital in their understanding of their identity, really. People need to get to know who they are,” he said.
Mr Matthews said another barrier in learning their culture is that while there are Maori concepts in the New Zealand Sign Language, there are very few people who are actually fluent trilingual interpreters.
“There are no interpreters in the marae, so you can’t access information,” he said.
Mr Matthews said that, as a Maori Deaf Catholic young person, he hopes to grow the faith of the young people as well.
“My dream for the future is I hope that the Maori Deaf youth community and Maori Deaf community can learn about my faith and learn about God in time and learn about the way that I followed,” he said.