23 Sep 2018

Dr Rangi Nicholson and Rob Ruha: lifting the Māori language to lofty heights

From Te Ahi Kaa, 6:00 pm on 23 September 2018

This week, Justine Murray meets two people who've played an important role in Māori language revitalisation - Reverend Dr Rangi Nicholson and Rob Ruha.

Reverend Dr Rangi Nicholson / Rob Ruha

Reverend Dr Rangi Nicholson / Rob Ruha Photo: Via Anglican Taonga / RNZ

In 1971, Dr Nicholson was an 18-year-old Victoria University student when he became the media publicist for the Māori Language Petition, which over 30,000 people signed in support of te reo Māori being taught in schools.

In 1972, the petition was presented to parliament and from the mid-'70s a number of initiatives were launched. 

“I had to contact local newspapers and yes, RNZ or what was known then as the NZBC… I was there to make sure the media were present to capture all that… I was usually behind the photographers making sure the photo was taken.”

In 1982, the first Kohanga Reo (te reo Māori early childhood centre) was established in Wainuiomata.

Later in 1984, Nga Kaiwhakapumau i te reo (the Wellington Māori Language Board) pushed for te reo to become an official language of New Zealand.

The Māori Language Act of 1987 led to the creation of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, the Māori Language Commission.

The Māori language petition being delivered to Parliament on 14 September 1972.

The Māori language petition being delivered to Parliament on 14 September 1972. Photo: Ministry of Culture and Heritage (URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/maori-language-petition-1972)

Dr Rangi Nicholson at Rangiatea Church, Otaki.

Dr Rangi Nicholson at Rangiatea Church, Otaki. Photo: RNZ/Justine Murray

Work done within society played an important role in Māori language revitalisation at that time, Dr Nicholson says.

“I’d like to think that our generation, those of us of the te reo Māori society…will be remembered as those who tried to do something about the state of the language to put in place programmes which have been helpful.”

Dr Nicholson was born in Levin with links to Ngāti Toa Rangatira, and Ngāti Raukawa ki te au o te Tonga and Ngai Tahu.

His family moved to Christchurch in 1959.

Christchurch in the 1960s felt to him like being ‘anchored off the coast of England’. There was no te reo Māori in the home, but hospitality was fostered.

When he became a student at Canterbury University, Dr Nicholson had already met members of Te Reo Māori Society at Rehua Marae. 

Later, he decided to move to Wellington and take up studies at Victoria.

“I arrived at Victoria University [only knowing] the words ‘kia ora’ and ‘tahi rua toru wha.”

Dr Rangi Nicholson was part of the Te Reo Maori Society in 1971.

Dr Rangi Nicholson was part of the Te Reo Maori Society in 1971. Photo: RNZ/Justine Murray

Dr Nicholson graduated from Victoria with a degree in linguistics and a major in te reo Māori. He went on to study at Auckland Secondary Teachers College.

Over the years, he has taught te reo Māori and English at Wainuiomata College and also at various polytechnics and universities. He now resides in Paraparaumu.

Dr Nicholson says there was no ‘set plan’ for him to enter the clergy, but it just happened to be his pathway.

“My father’s side were Mihingare (Anglican) and were exposed to the teachings of the early missionaries [such as] the Revered Octavius Hadfield who was based at Waikanae and Otaki… My father was brought up with his grandparents where there was karakia (prayers) spoken daily, and the minister at Rangiatea would take services at the family homestead on the farm, my father was exposed to that.”

Dr Nicholson explored the relationship between the Māori language and the Anglican clergy, the state of te reo and intergenerational planning to ensure its survival in his master's and doctoral thesis "Ko te mea nui, ko te aroha." Theological Perspectives on Māori Language and Cultural Regenesis Policy and Practise of the Anglican Church.

“My master’s thesis looks at what the church has done over the years to support the language. For instance, the church was involved in the orthography for the language… If you don’t get a writing system in place very soon then it makes the regenesis [of the language] very difficult.”

New Zealand singer/songwriter Rob Ruha.

New Zealand singer/songwriter Rob Ruha. Photo: Supplied

Musician and composer Rob Ruha was born and raised on the East Coast.

He considers himself fortunate that te reo Māori was his first language and thrived in his community.

Now his adult life revolves around it.

He fosters Māori language in his home and even dreams in te reo.

“It’s really by just speaking te reo all the time… keep it a constant, constantly challenging yourself… and surrounding yourself in a world that’s just full of language.”

As a composer, he has written songs for several kapahaka groups and as a full-time musician, he has travelled the globe working on various projects.

Ruha took out four awards at this years Waiata Māori Music Awards and is a finalist at the upcoming APRA Silver Scrolls Awards, along with fellow Māori artists Ria Hall and Seth Haapu.

This October, he will perform with Ria Hall in the Behind The Lines tour.

“In terms of my creative process, it can happen a thousand different ways when I get the inspiration to write I follow it. It can be four in the morning, I will follow that idea. When I’m ready I will start work shopping that song and get it in a space to be released to the world."

Behind the scenes of a rehearsal with Rob Ruha at recording studio The Lab.

Rob Ruha Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Ruha says he has a number of compositions that are works in progress, with themes including the loss of loved ones and depression.

The most important part of the process for him is putting pen to paper, which he sees as a form of medicine.

When it comes to his use of te reo Māori, Ruha draws on the vernacular of his hometown of Te Tairawhiti, where, according to Ruha, his people have often modified or adapted the language.

Ruha's song 'Kalega' is based on the phrase 'Ka Reka' (Sweet as).

“We have a huge tradition of spinning words…it’s not a new thing. Tuini Ngawai used to write it in her songs and before that, there were composers that used to do it in their songs.”

Some Māori words that Rob uses are derived from kapahaka, traditional chants and karakia.

“Kapahaka plays a huge part in my compositions. [It] plays a huge part on terms of creating a critical mass of words.”