New Zealand reflects on te reo journey

·3-min read

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.

Such linguistic flexibility was not always the case.

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 loathe 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.

"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," Ms 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."

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.

"We the undersigned, do humbly pray that courses in Maori language and aspects of Maori culture be offered in all those schools with large Maori rolls," it read.

"And that these same courses be offered as a gift to the Pakeha from the Maori in all other New Zealand schools as a positive effort to promote a more meaningful concept of integration."

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.

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.

Another 1972 activist, Whaimutu Dewes, boycotted parliament on Wednesday, telling news outlet Stuff the fundamental request from the petition was not being honoured.

"Most of us who are alive won't be there, because 50 years on we find that the same challenges and struggles posed by the bureaucratic and political obduracy are still present," he said.

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."