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Te reo Māori

A living language

Today, te reo Māori (the Māori language) is a vital part of daily life in New Zealand. A claim brought to the Waitangi Tribunal contributed to this. But things were not always so hopeful for the language.

Enlarge image March in Wellington during Māori Language Week in 1980

This march in Wellington during Māori Language Week in 1980 sought equal status for te reo Māori in New Zealand, and for its use to be encouraged. Dominion Post Collection, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington (Ref: EP/1980/2470/20A)

Te reo Māori in trouble

For many decades, te reo Māori was suppressed at school so that Māori could 'assimilate' with the Pākehā community. The Māori migration to urban centres after World War II and the loss of fluent speakers hastened the language's decline. In 1986, only around 50,000 fluent Māori language speakers remained, most of them elderly.

Enlarge image Sir James Henare (191189)

Sir James Henare (191189), Northland leader, contributed his skills to a wide range of Māori and national organisations for over forty years. His most lasting contribution was perhaps his role, with Iritana Tawhiwhirangi and others, in helping found the kōhanga reo programme. Photograph by Stanley Polkinghorne Andrew, Earle Andrew Collection, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington (Ref: F-20163)

Language nests and building blocks

In 1982, Māori took a major step towards preserving their language. The first kōhanga reo (language nest) was set up at Waiwhetu, in Lower Hutt. Here, preschool children would be immersed in Māori language and tikanga (customs). Just three years later, there were 416 kōhanga reo around the country.

Enlarge image The first kōhanga reo is visited in 1985 by Chief Judge Eddie Durie

The first kōhanga reo set up at Waiwhetu, Lower Hutt, is visited in 1985 by Chief Judge Eddie Durie, then Waitangi Tribunal Chairperson, and Paul Temm QC. Photograph by John Nicholson, Dominion Post Collection, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington (Ref: EP/1985/2942/15)

'If an endangered bird is worth saving...'

In 1986, the Waitangi Tribunal heard the Te Reo Māori Claim. It was a 'generic claim', one that affected most Māori, rather than one particular hapū or iwi.

Claimants argued that the language was a taonga (treasure) which the Crown was obliged to protect under the Treaty's second article, and had failed to do so. They said that if endangered birds were worth saving, so was te reo Māori, the life force of mana Māori.

Although it had historical roots, the claim's focus was on the protection and promotion of te reo Māori, not only for Māori but for the whole nation.

Enlarge image Eugenie Laracy, Martin Dawson, and Sian Elias head to the Privy Council

Official recognition did not end the struggle to ensure that te reo Māori could be maintained. In this 1992 photo, Eugenie Laracy, Martin Dawson, and Sian Elias head to the Privy Council to fight for the protection of the Māori language through a share of the public broadcasting assets that TVNZ aimed to sell to a state-owned enterprise. Courtesy of the New Zealand Herald

An official language

As a result of the Te Reo Māori Claim, a new law in 1987 recognised Māori as an official language of this country. The language could now be used in courts and certain tribunals. The law also set up Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori – the Māori Language Commission – to promote Māori as a living language.

Enlarge image Wellington´s first Māori radio station, Te Upoko o te Ika

In 1987, Wellington's first Māori radio station, Te Upoko o te Ika, started broadcasting, with Tama Te Huki (left) and Piripi Walker in the studio. A network of over thirty radio stations now operates. Photograph by Merv Griffiths, Dominion Post Collection, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington (Ref: EP/1987/2071/8)

A growing voice

The Education Amendment Act 1989 recognised and promoted kura kaupapa (Māori language schools) and wānanga (tertiary institutions). Children who had attended kōhanga reo could now further their education in a way that included te reo Māori.

Enlarge image Huirangi Waikerepuru speaks at the opening of Māori Television

Huirangi Waikerepuru speaks here at the opening of Māori Television in 2004. Huirangi and Nga Kaiwhakapumau i te Reo (Inc) (Wellington Board of Māori Language) lodged the claim on te reo Māori in 1985. Photograph by Vincent Heperi, courtesy of Māori Television

On the airwaves

During the 1990s, the government made plans to sell state-owned broadcasting assets. Māori took legal action and lodged new claims, aiming for a greater role for te reo Māori in electronic media.

As a result of this, radio frequencies were reserved for Māori, and in 1993 the Māori funding agency Te Mangai Paho was established. In 2004, a Māori television channel was introduced with the aim of revitalising Māori language and culture.

Kaua tō mātou reo e tukua kia rite ki te ngaro o te moa.
Do not allow our language to suffer the same fate as the moa.