Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori

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Te Wiki o Te Reu Māori is coming to a close.  The past week’s events highlight the resurgence of and dependance on Te Ao Māori.  Nowadays most of us, at least in the circles that I move in, have a deep and growing respect for Te Ao Māori and realise that it is the best expression of living in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Previously Pakeha response to Māori culture and especially language had a depressing history.

Under the Treaty of Waitangi the Crown promised to preserve to Māori their taonga, or precious things.

Once ensconced the promises contained in the Treaty were quickly forgotten.  Māori lost control of huge tracts of land, and what was not taken was compromised or polluted.  And not only was Te Reo Māori not taught, but it’s use was actively discouraged with reports of Māori students being disciplined if they used Te Reo at school.

With increasing urbanisation post second world war the language was in peril.  But concerted efforts especially in the 1970s arrested the decline. 

The first Māori Language Week occurred in 1975.  From that time on there were a number of principled attacks on the status quo, Dun Mihaka insisting on addressing the Courts in Te Reo being one and westie Naida Glavish insisting on greeting Telecom callers with “Kia Ora” being two notable examples.

The Waitangi Tribunal decision released in 1986 on the Te Reo claim presented an important impetus to Te Reo’s rejuvenation.  The importance of the issue was captured in this submission made to the Tribunal by Ngāpuhi leader Sir James Hēnare:

The language is the core of our Māori culture and mana. Ko te reo te mauri o te mana Māori. (The language is the life force of the mana Māori.) If the language dies, as some predict, what do we have left to us? Then, I ask our own people, who are we?”

This statement was reinforced in the judgment of the Tribunal where it said:

Some New Zealanders may say that the loss of Maori language is unimportant. The claimants in reply have reminded us that the Maori culture is a part of the heritage of New Zealand and that the Maori language is at the heart of that culture. If the language dies the culture will die, and something quite unique will have been lost to the world.

The conclusion of the Tribunal is captured in this passage:

The evidence and argument has made it clear to us that by the Treaty the Crown did promise to recognise and protect the language and that that promise has not been kept. The ‘guarantee’ in the Treaty requires affirma­tive action to protect and sustain the language, not a passive obligation to tolerate its existence and certainly not a right to deny its use in any place. it is, after all, the first language of the country, the language of the original inhabitants and the language in which the first signed copy of the Treaty was written. But educational policy over many years and the effect of the media in using almost nothing but english has swamped the Māori language and done it great harm.

We have recorded much of what we were told of the effect upon Māori children of our educational policy and it makes dismal reading. it seems that many Māori children leave school uneducated by normal standards, and that disability bedevils their progress for the rest of their lives.

We have recommended that te reo Māori should be restored to its proper place by making it an official language of new Zealand with the right to use it on any public occasion, in the Courts, in dealing with government departments, with local authorities and with all public bodies. We say that it should be widely taught from an early stage in the educational process. We think instruction in Māori should be available as of right to the children of parents who seek it. We do not recote mmend that it should be a compulsory subject in the schools, nor do we support the publication of all official documents in both english and Māori, at least at this stage in our development, for we think it more profitable to promote the language than to impose it.

Since then I think even the most cautious of commentators would agree that the health of te reo Māori has improved.

Each year it seems to me that te reo becomes more mainstream.  Just listen or watch any media nowadays if you need proof, especially during the past week.  What would once have attracted howls of derision and claims of Wokism is now lauded and supported.  On Radio New Zealand Guyon Espiner was an earlier proponent whose efforts have influenced Suzy Ferguson and even Corin Dann is now attempting to weave it into his discourse.

And when TVNZ Weatherman Dan Corbett uses te reo to present the weather forecast you know things are changing.

Te reo is becoming a more and more important feature of the local music scene.  This recent release from Moana and the Tribe released especially for te Wiki o Te Reo Māori is absolutely stunning.

Dave Dobbyn has also been releasing Te Reo versions of his songs for a while and has realised the importance of using te reo and its power in creating a true sense of place.

And Lorde has recently released te reo versions of her songs.

Her decision to do so attracted some criticism.  For instance Rangimarie Sophie Jolly at the Spinoff commented:

So when someone like Lorde, with her good intentions and her allyship, requests an opportunity for collaboration in the reo Māori music space, of course it can be very triggering. It’s hard to accept that her intentions are good when we know that she’ll profit from the white-saviourism (even if the proceeds are being donated, all press is good press).

It’s also hard to see the lateral violence on behalf of her, when Māori begin to undermine or attack other Māori for the sake of protecting her. Pākehā have no place at the centre of the reo revitalisation movement, those with whakapapa Māori do. And until every single one of us, every kid with Māori ancestors, every whānau dispossessed, every rangatahi chanting Land Back and dreaming of their whenua, every aunty in the kitchen who thinks it’s too late – until every one of us has got our reo where it needs to be, the mamae is gonna carry on. It’s very real and it hurts in a way that is difficult to describe when we operate in a largely westernised framework. That doesn’t make the pain any less valid though.

Others, like Morgan Godfrey in the Guardian are more supportive:

Where I depart from many of those same Māori without the language is that I think it’s vital that Pākehā speak it alongside us. For that reason alone Lorde’s five track, Māori language accompaniment to her new album, Solar Power, is a pop culture landmark we should welcome. And yet on social media the reaction, at least from many Māori, is caustic. On Twitter and Instagram users wrote about the album triggering the language loss trauma they carry. The strangely psychoanalytic tone of that charge aside, it’s certainly happening. Hearing the language, especially in the mouth of a Pākāha person, is a reminder of its absence in your own. This kind of cognitive burden is punishing.

The more persuasive critics take a slightly different view (one that doesn’t centre individual feelings) arguing, as one well-respected tōhunga (expert) on Māori dance did, that the album amounts to “tokenism”. One can appreciate that argument, and the discussions of trauma as well, but the implications are worrying for the future of the Māori language. If we must wait for perfect circumstances to speak or sing te reo rangatira – nobody’s trauma is triggered, no tokenism is detected – we may as well sign the language’s death certificate. In fighting for Māori radio, Māori television, Māori language schooling, and more the Māori language activists of the 70s and 80s knew that for the language to survive it must act as a functional language, deployed across institutions, mediums, and communities both Māori and non-Māori.

This is not an easy discussion for Pakeha to parse.  Our intentions are predominately good but I accept that our understanding of the nuances of the debate are not optimal.  For me I prefer Morgan Godfrey’s preference to keep alive and nurture the language to Rangimarie Jolly’s insistence that historical wrongs be righted because as Morgan rightfully notes otherwise the language may die.  But I accept that this is an issue that required more intensive thought and discussion.

Many of us are doing what we can to support the resurgence of Te Reo.  For my part I have learned sufficient to be able to stand on a marae and speak in a formal setting without hopefully making an idiot of my self.  My attempts appear to be well received although possibly for the entertainment they provide.  But as an elected representative with a commitment to observance of the Treaty of Waitangi I think it is the least I can do.

Ko te reo te mauri o te mana Māori.  May it be replenished and nurtured.



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