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The Tino Rangatiratanga flag flies on the maunga at Ihumātao. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
The Tino Rangatiratanga flag flies on the maunga at Ihumātao. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

OPINIONĀteaDecember 21, 2023

The government banned te reo in the past. It won’t succeed again

The Tino Rangatiratanga flag flies on the maunga at Ihumātao. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
The Tino Rangatiratanga flag flies on the maunga at Ihumātao. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Te reo is impervious to the adolescent meddling of disconnected politicians, but we shouldn’t leave it for the minority to carry the responsibility for the majority to indulge in when it suits, argues Te Kuru o te Marama Dewes.

I’ve been told of a number of concerning incidents of hostility towards the Māori language in recent weeks. In one case shared with me, a school teacher told their Māori students that they weren’t to speak Māori at school. To the horror of the grandmother of one of these students, the same teacher told them Māori wasn’t an official language of this country. 

This case has not been made public, because the local iwi met with the school to address the issue. It’s not uncommon for Māori to address issues this way, taking the high road and employing tikanga Māori to resolve conflict, rather than embarrassing the teacher and allowing them to be the target of national ridicule, undoubtedly damaging their reputation for life. 

While this case didn’t surprise me, it reaffirmed my prediction that the race-baiting political campaign by the three parties of the coalition of chaos now in government would embolden the underlying racism that lives below the surface of New Zealand society. 

Winston Peters, Christopher Luxon and David Seymour at Friday’s coalition announcement (Photo: Marty Melville/AFP via Getty Images)

The policies they’re bringing in, whether pushing for English to be recognised as an official language (an exercise in pitiful political publicity, a waste of taxpayer money and a real show of fragile-ego energy) or enforcing government departments to use their English names first, may not seem like biggies, but they will have an impact on attitudes towards te reo.

Christopher Luxon previously boasted about being a champion of te reo when he introduced it, or encouraged it to be used more, while running Air New Zealand. At the time he said learning te reo was important to getting a better understanding of te ao Māori. 

It’s a pity he hasn’t continued that same business practice and message now that he’s running the country. It seems the former CEO has had a change of heart and no longer views te reo as a worthwhile investment, looking at cutting bonuses for public servants to learn te reo when it’s not in their job descriptions.

It’s recently been reported that Luxon, while leader of the opposition, took lessons in te reo paid for by the taxpayer, so it seems he’s happy to receive, but isn’t big on giving. That doesn’t sound like a healthy relationship. 

“It’s just politics” is the easiest response to all of this, but it’s much more than that. 

Māori names are important, especially those connected to place, as they’re often connected to a deeper meaning of that place. A mate of mine says that when it comes to environmental restoration, we need to understand what an ecosystem used to look like to inform what needs to be done to restore it. A lot of the names of places give good clues as to what the ecosystem used to be like. One place in Te Arawa, near Lake Rotoiti, is traditionally called Paekākā. We know that the bird, kākā, only exists where there are good podocarps. Podocarps make up the canopy and inform the rest of the ecosystem, and a healthy canopy will have native trees like tōtara, rimu, miro and matai. Paekākā doesn’t have any of these right now, so in a way the Māori name is telling us what it needs to be healthy. 

So an attitude that positions the English language as superior for the sake of upholding white supremacy has real-world impacts on our ecosystem and everything in it.

It’s the same as the erasure of Māori language, which the government tried to do with the 1867 Native Schools Act, where te reo was banned and children were beaten for speaking it. Many Māori of older generations grew up without te reo, so the cultural ecosystem was destroyed.

But the last 50 years have seen a major revitalisation of Māori language and culture. From the 50th anniversaries of Te Matatini and Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori, to the first national holiday that recognises Māori people and Māori culture with Matariki, the triumphs have been hard-fought across multiple generations. 

What this current government proposes is taking us backwards, rather than forwards. A future without te reo is bleak. Imagine that. Now imagine a future where everyone is bilingual in te reo and English. Let’s get excited about that, because it’s where the future of race relations will truly be realised. 

Te Matatini champions Te Kapa Haka o Te Whānau-ā-Apanui on the Great Wall of China during former prime minister Chris Hipkin’s visit in June. Photo / Pool

There is an opportunity now for non-Māori to grow into their identity as tangata Tiriti. Māori have crossed the bridge and adapted to a contemporary western lifestyle while maintaining our language, culture and traditions. Every Māori who speaks te reo is bilingual and bicultural. It’s non-Māori who are yet to fully embrace the full beauty of this place, including the Māori language, culture and people of this land. Rather than see it as a weakness of settler privilege, ignorance and complacency, we need to see it as an opportunity for growth. 

That’s what I want to see in the next three years – more “Kiwis” exploring the language from where the word Kiwi originated. I agree with Luxon about one thing. Learning te reo is the best way to get an understanding of te ao Māori. Te reo is something unique to this land. Like the tōtara, rimu and matai, te reo is of this place. It’s part of the ecosystem. Just like the kiwi, Aotearoa is its home. It’s there to be explored like the many mountains, rivers, valleys, beaches and plains that we identify as being uniquely New Zealand. 

For tangata Tiriti waiting for a sign or incentive to start their journey of learning te reo and exploring more about te ao Māori, this is it. For Māori who are reconnecting and rebinding the cultural ties that have been severed through colonisation, te reo is still there for us all. 

The bar is not high. Any expression of support for te reo is appreciated, whether from individuals, communities or organisations. Simply hearing the words “kia ora” goes a long way. The main thing is to start. The second most important thing is to keep going. 

For Māori, our tino rangatiratanga is embedded in our tongues, in our hands, in our hearts, in our belief of our connection to our lands and waters, in our belief that we come from Ranginui and Papatūānuku. It’s in the way that we continue to nurture and pass on the principles and values of our culture to our children and grandchildren. It’s in the action of sending our children to kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa Māori and supporting te reo to flourish within the home. It’s in the way that we deliver the intergenerational stories, the way that we impart knowledge systems and ensure that genealogy continues to live on within our families. 

In the words of Sir Tīmoti Kāretu, the best way to respond is by flooding the land with te reo.

Keep going!