10 ways the world got (a little) better for Māori this decade

At the end of the decade, Ātea editor Leonie Hayden tries to eke some positivity out of a garbage year. 

The 2010s weren’t as volatile for Māori as say the 70s and 80s, but neither were Māori unprovoked during this decade. There’s been so much to be hurt by – Treaty breaches surround us and the Crown is still finding new and inventive ways to alienate Māori land. Like Voldemort biding his time, white supremacy has found more host bodies and 2019 specifically has not been kind to Māori, Pasifika or migrants of colour in New Zealand. But as the end of the decade nears, I find myself searching for positives; some indication that the struggle of so many hasn’t been in vain.

They’re there. Often obscured by the glaring need that still exists, and certainly fewer than we deserve, but small victories like saplings promising a forest someday soon. So in the interests of ending on a high note (for which the bar is excruciatingly low) here are some things I’m thankful at the close of the decade. Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu.

Māori place names are becoming the norm

Our place names are rarely what they seem – they are invariably a small part of a long, fascinating tale about an ancestor and their adventures in that place. When they’re replaced with the name of a long dead British general whose claim to fame was seizing power and land he had no right to, not only is the history is lost, it’s replaced with the painful reminder of why.

Things are starting to change slowly. Sadly, it was the media around a national tragedy that made me realise the extent to which we’re accepting Māori place names as par for the course. After the eruption that took 16 lives, it was Whakaari that was trending on Twitter, not White Island, despite very few people knowing the traditional name before the eruption.

People everywhere are opening their hearts to our stories and names (whatever Niki and Mary from Southland might think). From next year the maunga Taranaki will only be known as Taranaki, no longer named Mt. Egmont after a distant earl who never even stepped foot on our shores, and the New Zealand Geographic Board has announced 16 places in Fiordland officially having dual English and te reo Māori place names.

It feels like something.

People look to us to lead in times of crisis

Did you notice how many of the images circulating after the March 15th Christchurch attack were of Muslim and Māori women embracing? Yes, it seems unfair for New Zealanders to put the onus on Māori women to carry the weight (however unconsciously) after such a tragedy, when the harm is the fault of white supremacist men – but Māori will always show up when it counts most. From Ngāi Tahu throwing open their doors and welcoming in Christchurch survivors and their families, to Whakatāne iwi looking after the families of the Whakaari victims, singing to their dead and shielding vulnerable mourners from the media’s questions and cameras, the nation looks to iwi for leadership (whether they realise it or not) and iwi Māori deliver time and again with compassion and generosity.

As Catherine Delahunty wrote for The Spinoff, “every time there is a tragic event we are the beneficiaries of their cultural strength, their practices that ground people in love and sorrow in ways that are healthy and powerful.”

Illustration by Ruby Jones (left) / a South Auckland school’s mural based on a sketch by artist Isaac Westerlund

Free te reo Māori courses are more popular than ever

I’m told with satisfying regularity that people have signed up to te reo classes. Friends and loved ones, even strangers have been moved to drop me a line and let me know they’ve finally taken the plunge (often thanks to our comprehensive list of free te reo classes here). There are literally hundreds of classes around the country and they are full to the brim. It may not be a compulsory subject in schools yet but New Zealanders are making it clear they want to learn.

Content run by mainstream media during Māori language week grows more sophisticated with each passing year. You’d be forgiven for thinking we don’t have a horrible dearth of Māori journalists. Kia kaha i te reo Māori. It feels like something.

There are more Māori MPs than ever before

At my count we currently have 30 MPs in parliament who acknowledge whakapapa Māori, the highest number ever. They occupy every possible part of the political spectrum, and some aren’t working particularly hard to benefit Māori communities to be fair, but a quarter of all of our sitting MPs feel like something nonetheless.

I’m allergic to dairy but thankful for mīraka. Image: Countdown

Bilingual signs in supermarkets

‘Milk is mīraka! Meat is mītī! The deli is kai kinaki! The butchery is piha!’

This is what my brain sounds like every time I go shopping since Countdown made 31 of its stores bilingual.

New Zealand is getting better at honouring our dead

This year my colleague, illustrator Toby Morris, was commissioned to paint one of the lifts at Auckland hospital. It wasn’t a cheery mural to lift the spirits of patients; rather it was to let people know that one particular lift was not to have any food taken into or consumed in it. The lift was used to transfer tūpāpaku, those who had passed away and as per tikanga Māori, they are tapu and should not be in the same space as food. This small act will bring so much peace to people, knowing that their loved ones are safe.

Advocates like Dame Rangimarie Naida Glavish have campaigned a long time for recognition of these rights and values in our health system. I’m told more DHBs are following suit. It feels like something.

We’re learning more of our history

In September it was announced that by 2022 New Zealand history will be taught in all New Zealand schools and kura. Currently it is up to schools whether or not to teach this important subject, and many generations have passed through the school system knowing nothing of the wars that decimated Taranaki and Waikato iwi, or the schools that robbed children of their language, or the mechanisms that made land theft legal, or the awful havoc wreaked on our maunga and awa by industrialisation.

Naming our demons helps to vanquish them. As Vincent O’Malley writes in The Great War for New Zealand, a book that inspired a group of students to campaign for the teaching of compulsory New Zealand history: “None of this requires feelings of guilt or shame, but simply a willingness to hear, read and embrace the difficult aspects of our past.”

Oriini Kaipara and Whatitiri Te Wake on the bloody midday news! Image: TVNZ

Oriini Kaipara and her moko kauae

This month journalist Oriini Kaipara made history as the new face of the 1News midday bulletin and the first newsreader on a mainstream news broadcast to wear moko kauae.

She expressed her joy in a Facebook post, saying “This is for US. ALL OF US.”

And it really felt like it was. To add to the joy, the very next week she did a live cross to Te Karere reporter Whatitiri Te Wake, who also wears mataora. The racists watching at home must have been spewing.

The launch of Waiata/Anthems

In August, to mark the 20th anniversary of Hinewehi Mohi first singing the national anthem in te reo Māori, Universal Music released an album with Mohi of some of New Zealand’s favourite pop stars re-recording their hits in te reo Māori. Only one artist on the compilation was a fluent te reo speaker, meaning everyone else had to plunge into the unknown. According to Mohi they did so with fearlessness.

Having once worked in the music industry, I’m familiar with how mainstream radio and the industry have traditionally perceived music in te reo – as second tier. Something to condescend to during Māori language week, with no interest or follow through the other 51 weeks of the year. Meanwhile, our Māori artists are hugely popular. Maisey Rika’s ‘Tangaroa Whakamautai’ has been streamed over 1,759,000 times. Most New Zealand artists on mainstream radio could never.

The night of the release party I felt a shift. It was an elegant affair, with cocktails, and the usual music industry faces. But then there were kapa haka performers rubbing shoulders with music executives, big names like Stan Walker, Six60 and Bic Runga singing together. When it wasn’t filled with music, the room was filled with the kind of chat you hear at fancy parties when everyone’s had a bit too much wine – except in te reo Māori. It felt like something.

A rahui to save us

This year the kauri trees in the Waitakere ranges were put in terrible danger when it was revealed that humans were spreading kauri dieback – a deadly disease with no cure caused by a microscopic water mould. It didn’t matter how many shoe sterilising stations were set up or how many tracks were closed, people were still spreading the disease and the outlook was bleak.

The only solution was to close all the tracks. West Auckland iwi Te Kawarau a Maki announced a rāhui, a restriction on access to Waitākere forest to give it time to regenerate and heal. At first the Council and central government wouldn’t enforce the rāhui, but they (perhaps begrudgingly) had to accept that mātauranga Māori was the only solution. After all, The council enforced it and people listened.

It felt like something.

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