The Māori language petition is presented to parliament (Image: Ministry of Culture and Heritage, URL:
The Māori language petition is presented to parliament (Image: Ministry of Culture and Heritage, URL:

ĀteaSeptember 15, 2023

Making te reo Māori official

The Māori language petition is presented to parliament (Image: Ministry of Culture and Heritage, URL:
The Māori language petition is presented to parliament (Image: Ministry of Culture and Heritage, URL:

This wiki o te reo Māori, Airana Ngarewa looks back on how the revitalisation efforts began.

Te reo Māori was not made an official language of Aotearoa New Zealand until 1987. This was 15 years after the Māori language petition was presented at the steps of parliament by Hana Te Hemara, an act that marked the beginning of Te Wiki o te Reo Māori – at the time celebrated as Māori Language Day. 

The journey to make te reo an official language of this country began in 1985 with the Wai 11 Māori Language Claim submitted to the Waitangi Tribunal by Huirangi Waikerepuru and Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo. A hearing was held later in the same year at Waiwhetū Marae in Lower Hutt where a laundry list of Aotearoa icons spoke in support of the claim including Sir James Hēnare, Sir Tipene O’Regan, Māori Marsden and Sonny Waru. Māori and non-Māori alike came from all four corners of the country to tautoko. At the time it was the longest hearing the tribunal had heard. 

Expert witness after expert witness spoke about the value of te reo Māori to this country. In a report on the hearing by the Waitangi Tribunal released in 1986, te reo was presented as the mauri o te mana Māori, highlighting its importance to the survival and dreams of revitalisation of the Māori culture. One expert witness unnamed in the report was quoted as saying if the language is lost, man will be lost too, as dead as the moa. “Ka ngaro te reo, ka ngaro tāua, pērā i te ngaro o te moa.”

2022 marks 50 years since the Māori Language Petition was presented to Parliament (Image: Ministry of Culture and Heritage, URL:

One theme was common among almost every expert witness: the tireless effort it had taken to keep the language alive in the face of sometimes apathetic and other times antagonistic government policy. Education was the key focus, with many witnesses recalling their time in school during the first quarter of the 20th Century where they were physically punished for speaking te reo inside the classroom and on the playground. When Sir James Hēnare was challenged with the notion that there was no official policy to this effect, he retorted: “The facts are incontrovertible. If there was no such policy there was an extremely effective gentlemen’s agreement!” 

The anger and despair documented by Māori students extended also to Māori teachers. June Te Rina Mead, a teacher with more than 35 years of experience, challenged the examination board for the New Zealand School Certificate of artificially controlling the number of students who were allowed to pass Māori Language exams. In 1983, two years before the hearing was held, only 38 out of every 100 children who sat te reo Māori were allowed to pass. Meanwhile, 80 were allowed to pass French and German.  

The almost total absence of te reo Māori in broadcasting was another major point of contention as well as a law that prevented Māori using their own language in the Courts if they were able to speak English regardless of their relative proficiency or comfort in either language. One of the lesser-known prejudices highlighted in the hearing was the official policy of pepper potting whānau Māori throughout the suburbs so that they would be scattered, thereby further encouraging the assimilation of Māori and further loss of the language. 

The report released from the Waitangi Tribunal considered not only what was presented in the hearing but common objections from the public which included the notion that te reo was destined to die out and any effort to reinvigorate it would become a point of division between Māori and non-Māori. The former was countered with many examples of minority languages that have survived in countries like Canada, Wales and Finland. Examples of other countries were used again to challenge the latter, the tribunal noting it has been well-documented internationally that imposing one language on another is more conducive to divisive hostility than allowing two languages to exist side by side.

Finally, noting the sharp decline of te reo Māori over the 20th Century, with as few as 5% of Māori schoolchildren fluent in te reo in 1975, the tribunal reported that the crown had failed to live up to its responsibility to protect te reo as a taonga, translated by Sir Hirini Moko Mead as a valued custom or possession, under article two of te Tiriti o Waitangi. The tribunal concluded its report by making five recommendations to the crown:

  1. Legislation be introduced enabling any person who wishes to do so to use te reo Māori in all Courts of law and in any dealings with government departments, local authorities and other public bodies.
  2. A supervising body be established by statute to supervise and foster the use of the Māori language.
  3. An enquiry be made into the education of Māori children.
  4. Broadcasting policy be made to recognise and protect te reo Māori.
  5. Employees of the public service be bilingual, if necessary to their job.

As a direct result of the Wai 11 Māori Language Claim in 1985 and the report released by the tribunal in 1986, the Māori Language Act 1987 was passed into law confirming te reo Māori as an official language of Aotearoa New Zealand and establishing Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, then known as the Māori language Commission, to promote and raise awareness of the Māori language and Māori language issues. The success of this claim and the continued effort of Māori language activists like Huirangi Waikerepuru, who advocated for the language until he passed in 2020, has allowed te reo to flourish, with 30% of Māori reporting in 2022 that they are proficient speakers of the language. Kia kaha te reo Māori. 

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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