Higgins wins award for work revitalising Māori language

7:03 pm on 5 November 2020

Professor Rawinia Higgins has won the Pou Aronui Award at the Research Honours Aotearoa Awards for her work in revitalising te reo Māori.

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Professor Rawinia Higgins has won the Pou Aronui Award. Photo: Supplied

Her uncle, the late James Te Wharehuia Milroy, was the first recipient of the award 16 years ago.

Higgins is deputy vice-chancellor Māori at Victoria University of Wellington, and chair of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori.

She helped lead a project examining state and community responsiveness to efforts to revitalise Māori language. This identified three key areas that could allow Māori language initiatives to be more targeted and effective.

She also jointly led a review of the Māori Language Act and released the report,Te Whare o te reo Mauriora.

Higgins said it was an honour to be recognised for her work and follow in the footsteps of her whanaunga.

"One of the things that strikes me the most about this particular recognition is that the first person who ever was awarded this award was my uncle, the late Wharehuia Milroy, so to be on that continuum is a real privilege," she said.

She said Milroy was involved in the report for Te Whare o te reo Mauriora, where he wrote:

"Keeping the language alive is knowing how to engage with modern life, and not think that te reo Māori is only limited to the past.

"Like the seasons, it needs to change and adapt with the changes in society. Whānau, hapū and iwi play a critical role in ensuring that young ones are exposed and engaged regularly with the language so that it is relevant and a living language.

"But this cannot be done in isolation. We also need to have some material and moral support from the Crown in order for some of these things to take place."

Higgins said a lot had been gained since the report's release in 2015, and many more New Zealanders were showing they valued the language.

"One of the things that I really take heart in this year was when Te Taura Whiri tried to get a million people signed up to do a Māori Language Moment during Māori Language Week. The cynic in me was a little bit skeptical that we would reach that target, but we actually exceeded it," she said.

"The challenge for us of course is, how do we take that passion and turn it into actual speakers? And by 2040 the aim for the government is to create a million speakers."

She said the country was on track to reaching that goal.

Research Honours winners also include Dr Cherryl Waerea-i-te-rangi Smith, who was awarded the Te Tohu Rapuora Award for outstanding leadership, excellence and contribution to Māori health.

The Royal Society Te Apārangi Te Puāwaitanga award for an eminent and distinctive contribution to te ao Māori and Indigenous knowledge was awarded to Associate Professor Maria Bargh from Victoria University of Wellington for an outstanding contribution to political science in collaboration with Māori communities.

The Tahunui-a-Rangi award for invention and creation was received by Professor David Tipene-Leach from the Eastern Institute of Technology for his work and advocacy on wahakura. These flax sleeping devices are designed to decrease sudden infant death while supporting bed-sharing.

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