Te Wiki o Te Reo Maori/Maori Language Week and Te Reo Maori (Maori Language) Claim

For Te Wiki o Te Reo Maori, guest blogger Bruce Stirling backgrounds the history of the Te Reo claim and the long struggle for recognition of the Maori language:

The annual focus on speaking Maori, Te Wiki o te Reo Maori (Maori Language Week), has rolled around again, from 23–29 July 2012. 

Arohatia Te Reo, Te Wiki o Te Reo Maori 2012

It’s been an annual event since 1975, building on the inaugural Maori Language Day instituted by Maori in 1972, but it took a 1986 Waitangi Tribunal report to help secure official recognition of te reo Maori and the resources needed to preserve and nurture the language. Action on the Tribunal’s recommendations included the establishment, 25 years ago, of Te Taura Whiri i Te Reo Maori (the Maori Language Commission) to promote te reo Maori.

By the 1970s, te reo Maori was widely seen as in danger of dying out after more than a century of being suppressed in schools, in the interests of assimilating Maori. The official opposition to the language was aggravated by rapid Maori urbanisation after World War Two and the gradual loss of ageing fluent speakers. At a Young Maori Leaders Conference held in Auckland in August 1970, a Maori mother pleaded:

For God’s sake, let my young son learn his native tongue. It is not a foreign language. It belongs to this country. But he cannot learn Maori because it is not taught to him. I hear you speaking in Maori and I don’t know what you’re saying.

In the same month, a Cabinet paper on the teaching of Maori language warned against the assimilationist agenda promoted with such vigour through the 1960s:

The dismissal of their language as useless is the most deep-seated cause of resentment amongst the Maori population today. There is a widespread feeling amongst Maori that the authorities discount everything Maori and wish them to become brown Europeans. The Maori idea of integration is that both peoples have something to contribute to the future New Zealander. …There is a sort of hopeless resignation to the fact that Maori children will always be at the bottom of the class. Nothing could restore Maori morale more swiftly than the introduction of Maori language teaching on a wide scale.

New urban-based Maori groups such as Nga Tamatoa advocated activism not assimilation, and promoted te reo Maori. A Nga Tamatoa petition calling for the promotion of the Maori language and signed by 30,000 people was presented to Parliament by Matiu Rata on 14 September 1972. That was the first Maori Language Day, an annual event later promoted by Te Reo Maori Society.

1972 Maori Language March, NZhistory.net

Other initiatives to bolster te reo Maori included New Zealand’s first officially bilingual school at Ruatoki (in Te Urewera) in 1978, the introduction of Koha, a half-hour Maori television programme, in 1980, followed by the 1982 opening of the country’s first kohanga reo (‘language nest’, or Maori language pre-school), at Waiwhetu (Lower Hutt, Wellington) in which te reo was taught in a Maori context, rather than the Pakeha education system. Worthwhile efforts all, but they fell way short of the “language rescue operation” called for by the Maori Education Advisory Committee.

Maori Language Week March, Wellington, 1 August 1980, EP/1977/2470/20A, ATL

In the first place, te reo Maori still had no official standing, as shown by the ‘kia ora dispute’ of 1984. The national controversy erupted after Helensville national telephone tolls operator Naida Glavish (Ngati Whatua) moved to the Auckland exchange, bringing her standard greeting to callers: “Kia ora.” Her new supervisor insisted that she use only formal English greetings and when Naida declined, she was demoted. When the issue went public she received widespread support: airline pilots greeted passengers with a friendly “kia ora,” a song called ‘Kia Ora’ was released, and people called the tolls exchange asking to speak to ‘the kia ora lady’. Prime Minister Muldoon quelled the furore in his autocratic, no-nonsense way: “Well, I don’t care if she wants to say ‘kee-uh-ora’. Just as long as she doesn’t say ‘Gidday Blue’.” Naida was returned to her post and was even promoted to the international tolls exchange, where she continued to say “Kia ora.” Ironically, a few years earlier, Muldoon’s Maori Affairs Minister, Duncan MacIntyre had urged public servants to answer the phone with “kia ora” during Maori Language Week, but the ‘kia ora dispute’ showed how little this meant for the other 51 weeks of the year.

In 1985, Nga Kaiwhakapumau I Te Reo (the Wellington Board of Maori Language) lodged a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal for te reo Maori to receive official recognition. It argued the language because was a taonga which, under Article II of the Treaty of Waitangi, the Crown had a duty to protect. During its month-long inquiry into the claim in 1986, the Tribunal was informed that only one in eight Maori were fluent in te reo but that most of the fluent speakers were elderly and that amongst school-age children, just 1 in 20 were fluent. 

Members of the Waitangi Tribunal visit the Kohanga Reo at Waiwhetu Marae, 26 June 1985, EP/1985/2942/15-F, ATL

Tokenism abounded, with Maoritanga drawn on for symbolic value (Air New Zealand’s koru) and pulled out for the big occasions (Te Rauparaha’s haka before the All Blacks played, or powhiri for visiting dignitaries, but a culture could scarcely survive, let alone flourish, without its language. This point was eloquently made to the Tribunal by distinguished Maori Battalion veteran and Ngapuhi leader Sir James Henare:

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

The Tribunal heard evidence from elderly Maori of the punishment meted out to them whenever they spoke te reo Maori at school, even in the ‘Native Schools’ first established for Maori education under the Native Schools Act 1867. The Education Department insisted that there had never been a policy against te reo Maori but, as Sir James told the Tribunal: “The facts are incontrovertible. If there was no such policy there was an extremely effective gentlemen’s agreement!” He recalled being sent into the bush to cut a piece of pirita (supplejack vine) with which he was strapped for speaking te reo Maori within the school grounds. Others recounted: “Na te korero i tetahi kupu Maori i tonoa matou ki te tiki kohatu, ka wepua ranei” (For speaking one word in Maori, we were sent to go and get stones or whipped).

After World War Two, many Maori speakers ceased to pass on the language to their children, seeking to avoid the punishment and disadvantage they had suffered at school, and to help their children flourish during a time of mass Maori migration to the country’s growing cities. An increasingly urbanised and young Maori population heard very little te reo Maori, growing up in a monolingual environment with a monolingual media. The Tribunal reported that te reo Maori could no more survive in such an environment than could an oyster bed when its environment became polluted.

To illustrate the extent to which te reo Maori was still disadvantaged, the Tribunal set out why Maori could not speak their own language in Court. This was the result of a 1979 case involving the Maori activist Te Ringa (Dun) Mihaka who, after the District Court refused to let him address the Court in te reo Maori, appealed to the High Court and, in 1980, to the Court of Appeal. Acting for himself, he relied on the Treaty of Waitangi for his case but while the Court of Appeal agreed that, “the use of the Maori language in New Zealand is a matter of public importance,” the Treaty had no legal bearing on the matter. The Court based its decision on the English common law that had been transferred to New Zealand after 1840.

The Tribunal pointed out that the statute governing the use of English in the courts dated back to 1362. It had then been intended to protect the rights of native English speakers against the incursions of a Norman government that preferred to speak courtly French. The Tribunal observed it was, “ironical that over six centuries later the same statute should be invoked to protect the language of government (English) against the indigenous language of New Zealand (Maori).”

Secretary of Justice Callaghan acknowledged to the Tribunal that denying Maori the right to use te reo Maori in the courts, “may give rise to such a deep-seated sense of injustice as to prejudice the standing of the courts in some Maori eyes.” The legal situation was, he concluded, “at odds with our bicultural foundation at Waitangi in 1840.” The Tribunal agreed, finding:

The Treaty was directed to ensuring a place for two peoples in this country. We question whether the principles and broad objectives of the Treaty can ever be achieved if there is not a recognised place for the language of one of the partners to the Treaty. In the Maori perspective, the place of the language in the life of the nation is indicative of the place of the people.

The Tribunal examined some of the common arguments used against official recognition of te reo Maori. These included statements such as: Maori people can speak English anyway; official recognition is an empty gesture; the Maori language cannot adapt to the modern world; it is not an international language;  minority languages die out naturally and should not be imposed on the majority, and; te reo Maori will be divisive.

The Tribunal responded that recognition of te reo Maori did not mean that it would be imposed on others, only that Maori would officially be allowed to use it. Te reo Maori was described as an adaptable language, and just as capable as English of incorporating new words. Wales, Belgium, Finland, Sweden, and Canada were referred to as examples of countries in which minority languages had survived and flourished through official recognition. Finally, the Tribunal believed that it was more divisive to continue to impose one language or culture on another, rather than showing respect for the differences between two languages and cultures by giving both official recognition.

The Tribunal made five key recommendations to the Government:

1.      To legislate to allow te reo Maori to be used in courts and dealings with local and central government.
2.      To establish a statutory body to “supervise and foster the use of the Maori language.”
3.      To inquire into the teaching of te reo Maori and “to ensure that all children who wish to learn Maori should be able to do so.”
4.      For broadcasting policy to take account of the Treaty obligation to “recognise and protect the Maori language.”
5.      To provide for and promote bilingualism in the Public Service.

The government addressed some of these recommendations in the Maori Language Act 1987, which declared te reo Maori to be an official language of New Zealand and established Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Maori (the Maori Language Commission), “to promote the Maori language as a living language and an ordinary means of communication.” 

Archi Rangi at the Wainuiomata Kohanga Reo, 14 April 1992, EP/1992/2254/21A-F, ATL

Further changes followed, including the formal recognition and promotion of kura kaupapa and wananga under the Education Amendment Act 1989. The sale of some state-owned broadcasting assets from 1990 onwards led to Maori legal action and further Treaty claims (WAI 26, WAI 150, and WAI 776) relating to the need for a larger and more secure place in the electronic media for te reo Maori. The result was further changes to Maori broadcasting policy, including the reserving of radio frequencies for Maori, the establishment of the Maori funding agency Te Mangai Paho in 1993, and the emergence of a Maori television channel.

This all emerged from Te Wiki o Te Reo Maori and a 1985 claim to the Waitangi Tribunal. As Koro Wetere told Parliament during debate on the 1987 Act, the government recognised that it had a duty under the Treaty, “to protect our taonga, our cultural treasure… Recognition places the language in its rightful place in New Zealand’s constitutional fabric, in the development of a true bicultural heritage.” The importance of te reo Maori was put more emphatically by distinguished linguist, Richard Benton, in 1998:

The Maori language is the mauri of Aotearoa. It is our only unbroken link with the country’s human history. Without it, we’re just bleached driftwood abandoned on the shore.

Sir Kingi Ihaka made the same point in 1957, in te reo Maori:

Ki te toitu te kupu, ara te reo Maori, 
Ki te toitu te  mana o te iwi Maori 
Ki te toitu te whenua, ka mau te Maoritanga. 
Otira me penei; 
Ki te ngaro te reo Maori
Ki te ngaro nga whenua Maori 
Ka ngaro te mana Maori.   
Ma enei mea e toru, e pupuri te Maoritanga. Ki te mate ana, ka mate
te katoa.

(Without the language, without prestige and without land, Maoritanga will cease to exist. These three – language, prestige and land – are the main means of preserving Maoritanga. Without these, Maori culture will be a thing of the past.)


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