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The Politic Blog

Reviving the Maori Language

Glenis Hiria Philip-Barbara recalls the time that she, a young Maori girl in “jet black plaits and milk chocolate complexion,” arrived at a new school and was immediately sent to the principal’s office.

Her teachers claimed that “a mistake of some kind had been made”: they couldn’t believe that a Maori girl could have such a Pakeha (white New Zealander) name, nor that she was in such high-level classes.

Later in her life, Philip-Barbara was misidentified as the janitor by a member of security when she was working late in her office; she was in fact a university lecturer at the time.

On paper, the Maori people’s rights have been recognized since New Zealand’s colonization. But discrimination against the Maori people has remained widespread over the years—from the daily, thoughtless comments that Philip-Barbara faced to government policies that slowly stripped the Maori of their land and culture.

At the root of that culture is its language: te reo, “the language.” And today, that language, once in danger of extinction, is beginning to experience a renaissance.

Looking Back

The Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 marks the establishment of official relationship between the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous people, and the British colonizers of New Zealand. Though the treaty recognized Maori ownership over most of New Zealand’s land, it was largely ineffectual.

Following the mid-19th century Maori-British New Zealand Wars, numerous illegitimate land sales, seizures, and legislative acts led the Maori to lose the majority of their land. As a result of the government’s failure to follow the Treaty, Maori people have received more than 900 million New Zealand dollars (approximately 587 million U.S. dollars) from settlements since the creation of the Waitangi Tribunal. The Tribunal, which was formed in 1975, is designated to make recommendations for appropriate reparations for the Maori people.

Yet, other effects of Maori oppression cannot be compensated with monetary reparations alone. The widespread creation of native schools occurred as a result of an 1867 law mandating that the government provide a secular education for all Maori children. The act required that all language instruction at native schools be conducted in English.

“One of the key grievances for us in New Zealand has been the loss of our language [which…] we have been able to prove was undermined by legislative practice and policies which were initiated to assimilate the Maori people into European culture,” said Ella Henry, a Maori studies lecturer at Auckland University of Technology, in an interview with The Politic.

Following World War II, thousands of Maori people moved away from their rural tribal homelands into New Zealand’s cities. In 1920, eighty percent of Maori lived on their tribal homelands. Henry explained that number reversed within a few decades, with eighty percent of all Maori people living in cities by 1950. “That’s where the loss of language really started to be noticed,” she said.

Wayne Johnston, who is Maori, is an executive at Goodyear and the chairman of the Te Awa Board, a Maori business network. In an interview with The Politic, he spoke about the obstacles facing Maori people, who comprise 14 percent of New Zealand’s population. “We have got our issues. In rural towns in New Zealand, Maori struggle with drugs, they struggle with work,” Johnston said in an interview with The Politic. “Forty-five percent of the people in our prisons are Maori. It’s not all roses.”

Maori are statistically more likely to suffer from health problems, such as obesity and alcoholism. According to a survey conducted in 2013 and 2014, Maori respondents were twice as likely as non-Maori to have consumed a large amount of alcohol weekly.

On testing performed in 2012 to compare the achievement of high school students across 65 countries, disaggregated data reveals that Pakeha New Zealanders place second in the world while Maori New Zealanders place 34th.  

Henry points to these statistics as examples of the ill-effects of assimilation. “Assimilation has ended up being very bad for us [the Maori people] because we know that 200 years ago we did not suffer the kinds of ill health or domestic violence or criminality or a range of other social issues which Maori are over-represented in.”

Revitalizing the Language

In the 1980s, a new generation of Maori activists–raised in the cities with access to better education than their parents and grandparents had–led a fight for Maori rights.

“Two generations [of Maori] have been born in an urban environment, which has not been necessarily a good thing, however, it has provided opportunities for better education. So more educated, articulate activist communities started to emerge in the 1970s… and our agitation in New Zealand resulted in legislative change to have our voices heard through the Waitangi Tribunal,” explained Henry.

The Maori language has increased in popularity since then, as marked by the significant increase in kura kaupapa, Maori language immersion schools, between 1982 and 2008,

However, only a few years ago, the future of the Maori language seemed dismal. In 2013, a mere 3.7 percent of New Zealanders spoke Maori fluently, and, according to the The New York Times, “many predicted that it [Maori] would soon die out.” Since then, interest in the language has been revived to such an extent that the government hopes for 20 percent of the population to speak basic Maori by 2040.

Jack Tame, a Pakeha television journalist who co-hosts the morning talk show Breakfast, told The Politic that he began learning Maori through evening classes at his local marae, a Maori meeting house. He has since tried to incorporate small amounts of Maori language into his work on Breakfast.

Of the recent renaissance, Tame said, “I think it is generational in that people of my generation—I am 31—perhaps put a greater value in personal identity, individual identity and collective identity. A large part of that is reflected in Maoridom.”

Tame hypothesizes that there was no singular event that led to the revival, rather, it had been building up for years before. “For the most part, it’s almost as though it has reached a point of critical mass. In the past, people were forced to be ashamed of the language [leading] to the language being further suppressed, but we’re finally at the point where enough people care about [and…] celebrate the language, that more and more people want to [learn Maori].”  

Similarly, New Zealand actress Jennifer Ward-Lealand, who spoke to The Politic, began learning Maori nearly ten years ago and has since reached fluency. During the production of her husband’s film Jubilee in 2000, Ward-Lealand was deeply embarrassed when she was unable to respond to even basic Maori phrases from the Maori actors on set. Eight years later, this experience inspired her to learn Maori, and she hasn’t stopped since.

“People are becoming very, very open and vocal about using the language,” Ward-Lealand said. “You really can’t go to any gathering or meeting now or anything with politicians now—any formal situation—without there being a greeting in Maori and probably something more than a greeting.”

Johnston echoed Ward-Lealand’s remark, emphasizing, “The Maori language is common knowledge. You speak to most Kiwis in New Zealand and everybody knows kia ora or tēnā koutou [both ‘Hello’ in Maori] and everybody’s familiar with it.” Most Americans would not be able make greetings in an indigenous language, he explained. “That’s an advantage for New Zealand. But that has taken a lot of hard work.”

Maori has also received attention internationally. Google has launched a Maori version of its search engine. The Academy Award-nominated animated Disney film Moana was also recorded in a Maori-language version, which enjoyed widespread popular success in New Zealand.

Jacinda Ardern, the current Prime Minister of New Zealand, made international headlines when she announced that her newborn daughter’s middle name would be the te reo word “Te Aroha” (which means “love”) and again when she later announced that her daughter would learn Maori.  

Preparing for a Continued Revival

Henry is sure that a new future is dawning for the Maori people.

If you live in a society where different groups…have their particular culture diminished by the majority culture, then that community is going to face discrimination and a range of social problems,” she explained. For the Maori, cultural capital is crucial for maintaining the community. “We now know 30 years later from the research that has been done that those Maori who are comfortable in our language and our culture are far more likely to succeed in education and are far less likely to end up in jail.”

The New Zealand government has embraced this mindset through its goal of having 20 percent of the population speak Maori by 2040. Additionally, the government plans to have Maori language lessons in all schools by 2025.

Technology may also serve as an essential part of ensuring Maori’s survival for future generations. “We’re continuously developing new resources, new curriculum to cater to different learners, to cater to the millennial learner…  There’s this huge growth in what’s being created and it’s really exciting what’s going to be available in the near future,” Hemi Kelly, a lecturer in te reo Maori at Auckland University of Technology, said in an interview with The Politic.

However, despite the language’s increased popularity and government support, there might not be enough resources or educational programmes available to ensure that Maori enjoys a full scale revitalization within New Zealand.

“I think there is probably a woeful lack of teachers and that’s huge,” Ward-Lealand said. “And the fact that the demand is huge is showing very clearly that there needs to be more resources given to teaching training, because you can’t teach the language without teachers, but you need to have really, really good quality teachers.”

New Zealand’s Ministry of Education provides a combined 125 teacher training scholarships a year for primary and secondary level Maori language education. However, the Ministry seems to be having a difficult time attracting enough candidates. The New Zealand Herald notes that the Ministry spent only around 72 percent of its 1.4 billion New Zealand dollar teaching scholarship budget in 2017.

Although deeply rooted in the history of New Zealand’s indigenous people, Maori could become the language of all New Zealanders, Maori and Pakeha alike. “[Maori] is no longer confined to one people nor to one space,” Kelly emphasized.

But it will take more than one Maori dubbing of Moana or a kia ora between politicians to ensure that Maori’s revival lasts beyond this generation.