30 Jul 2015

Activists recall bad old days for Te Reo

6:55 pm on 30 July 2015

Activists fighting for support and recognition of the Māori language say while progress has been made over the last 40 years, much more is needed.

Ngahuia Te Awekotuku

Dr Ngahuia Te Awekotuku was once arrested for painting a slogan in Te Reo on a wall. Photo: Government House

The movement to get Te Reo recognised took off during the 1970s, led by a group of young, enthusiastic tāngata whenua, but their struggle for more acceptance of Te Reo was full of challenges - including arrests.

Te Kupu o te Wiki (The Word of the Week) started in 1975 and it has been an annual feature on the calendar ever since.

View all of Radio New Zealand's content for Te Wiki o te Reo Māori 2015

Ngahuia Te Awekotuku said many elders thought them a bunch of silly young troublemakers, spoiled by city life and that they should return to their marae to learn their tikanga and how to behave properly. "I think there was a grudging affection for us."

She was arrested for painting a slogan on a wall.

Dr Te Awekotuku said the common-held belief was that learning and speaking Māori was a waste of time.

"It was like 'learn English and you will do well, learn Māori and you will be caught in another time, which will not carry you into the future'."

She said, in the early 1970s, school students were encouraged to learn foreign languages instead of Māori.

"Māori was, I honestly believe at that time, by the dominant culture considered a dead or dying language, and yet in 1972 there was a huge number of native speakers."

Dr Te Awekotuku said, while there is still a long way to go, great strides have been made.

"Kohanga Reo, I think of Wharekura, Kura Kaupapa, Wananga. The way that Māori language, Māori knowledge, Māori culture and the Māori world view are all recognised as part of the tertiary curriculum."

An ambulance with signage in Te Reo Māori.

Recognition and everyday use of Te Reo has come a long way since the 1970s - for example, as used in this new ambulance signage in Gisborne. Photo: Maori Language Commission / Facebook

Cathy Dewes was head prefect at her Wellington school and was studying five languages - but was refused permission to study Māori by correspondence. That proved the catalyst for her fight to retain and revitalise Te Reo, but she said it had been a constant struggle.

"We have had to fight every step of the way to change Pākehā attitudes - institutionalised arrogance that doesn't easily allow the acceptance of the rightness of our plea to have Māori and our customs embedded or available."

She said every piece of legislation with regard to Te Reo Māori has been hard-fought by Māori and was still happening.

Ms Dewes said while many Pākehā have now accepted that Te Reo does have a place, the majority still don't and can't see the value in it.

She said a week dedicated to Te Reo wasn't enough but it was better than nothing.

"I love the way I am hearing lots of Māori being spoken this week. People having a go. It is very inspiring."

Momentum may be waning, professor says

Pou Temara was another of the young university students working actively in the 1970s to support the country's indigenous tongue.

He is now Professor of Te Reo and Tikanga at Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato, Waikato University.

Professor Temara believed the momentum behind encouraging Te Reo had waned over the years.

"There has been a sharp downturn in the quality of the language, so we don't have the quality of 40 years ago inherent in today's Māori language."

Professor Temara said he has no ready answer as to how to breathe life back into rebuilding the momentum behind promoting Te Reo.

"We can regurgitate what we have always said in the past, that the language ought to be spoken everywhere, by everyone and at all times, but that's almost become rhetoric."

He said having Māori Language Week is certainly better than what it used to - just Māori Language Day.

Professor Temara said the Māori language must been retained not only for Māori, but for everyone.

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