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New Zealand reflects on te reo language journey

Te reo Maori has been celebrated in Wellington, marking the 50th anniversary of a turning point for New Zealand’s indigenous language.

September 14, 2022
By Ben McKay
14 September 2022

Thousands of New Zealanders have gathered in Wellington to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a petition that saved the Maori language.

On Wednesday, Kiwis flocked to parliament to celebrate the indigenous language – te reo Maori – being brought back from the brink.

Te reo is increasingly commonplace in Aotearoa, and is widely used in songs, news and weather forecasts, advertising and branding, going far beyond the well-known greeting of kia ora.

In 1972 the influential group, Ngā Tamatoa, collected this petition of over 30,000 signatures calling for the government to offer Māori language in schools. (Material from Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga)

Te reo was in widespread use among Maori even through the tumult of the 19th century, but by the end of World War II, government policy had swung decidedly in favour of English.

In mid-20th century New Zealand, using te reo at school led to beatings, bringing shame to a generation of speakers.

Many are still loath to discuss their experiences.

In her maiden speech to parliament, Justice Minister Kiritapu Allan described her grandmother’s schooling, saying she was strapped and “her name was changed to Kitty” on day one.

The Waitangi Day national holiday celebrates the signing of the treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840 by Maori chiefs and the British Crown, that granted the Maori people the rights of British Citizens and ownership of their lands and other properties. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

“Whatever the intention, it was nevertheless the effect that my Nana’s cultural identity was whipped out of her at that school, and so too, some might say, was her voice,” Allan said.

Ngahuia Te Awekotuku told Radio NZ the culture around language in the 1960s and 1970s was poisonous.

“It was like, ‘learn English and you will do well, learn Maori and you will be caught in another time’,” she said.

“Maori was … considered a dead or dying language, and yet in 1972 there was a huge number of native speakers.”

The waka arrive outside Te Tiriti o Waitangi marae in Waitangi, New Zealand. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Dr Te Awekotuku, now emeritus professor at the University of Waikato, was one of the activists who began the Maori language petition credited with turning the tide towards te reo.

More than 30,000 signatures, from Maori and non-Maori (known as pakeha), implored parliament to take up the language’s use.

Addressing the crowds at parliament, acting Prime Minister Grant Robertson said the 1972 activists were “strong, determined and revolutionary”.

“They knew if things didn’t change, te reo Maori could be lost,” he said.

The government of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has a goal of a million fluent Maori language speakers, (James Gourley/Getty Images)

Jacinda Ardern’s government is making strides towards its goal of a million proficient te reo speakers.

As of last year, 30 per cent of Kiwis could speak more than a few words of te reo – including 41 per cent of those under-35 – up from 21 per cent in 2016.

Still, many believe the government must do more.

The Greens are the only party who have a policy to add te reo as a core curriculum subject in New Zealand schools.

“Now is the time to ensure all of our tamariki (children) have the opportunity to learn our indigenous language,” Greens education spokesman Teanau Tuiono said.

“Reclaiming te reo isn’t just about learning words stolen from us, it is part of the journey we are on to reclaim the story of Aotearoa as a colonised land.”

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