13 Sep 2021

Te Wiki o te Reo Māori: From surviving to thriving

9:10 am on 13 September 2021

Toro Waaka remembers 14 September 1972 well. The weather was bad, but the energy was electric.

A group of Māori - young and old - had arrived at the steps of Parliament. There was chanting, there was haka, there was waiata.

'Māori language petition, 1972', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/maori-language-petition-1972, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage)

'Māori language petition, 1972', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/maori-language-petition-1972, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage) Photo: Ministry of Culture and Heritage (URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/maori-language-petition-1972)

And there was a petition with 30,000 signatures, demanding the active recognition of te reo Māori, this country's native language.

Waaka was a young university student then, and had helped gather the signatures.

"I was part of Ngā Tamatoa in those days," he recalled in a phone interview, in which he allowed five minutes between his list of outside chores.

"We would go out around different places - hotels, clubs, places where Māori congregated - marae, etcetera - to try and get them to sign the petition."

There was resistance, he said. Many Pākehā saw no need, and quite a few Māori saw his group as troublemakers and rabble rousers. But they persisted.

Forty-nine years later, and those behind te reo's revitalisation say the language is at a point it hasn't been in generations.

Today, there's a proliferation of the reo in the media, in popular music, and on signage.

Bilingual entranceway signage just south of Rotorua.

Bilingual entranceway signage just south of Rotorua. Photo: LDR / Rotorua Daily Post

Māori Language Commissioner, Victoria University of Wellington professor Rawinia Higgins, said it was important to look back to appreciate just how much the language had been revitalised.

"You know that was at a time when we spent a lot of time protesting for recognition of the language, and the petition marks a significant moment particularly in the conscientisation of the value of te reo Māori in the country," she said.

"We've used that moment in time as the kind of anniversary point, to always remember the journey that we've been on but also to appreciate where we've got to today."

In the last decade, the number of people - of all ethnicities - who can hold a conversation in te reo Māori has gone up by tens of thousands, although the language is still classified as endangered.

The demand to learn has also grown phenomenally, with a waitlist of about 2000 people for classes and not enough teachers.

"It's almost like a good problem to have, right," Higgins said.

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Photo: Supplied

"We've got such demand and now we have to try and work out ways to be able to support the system to be strong enough to take on board more learners of the language and support them with their acquisition of te reo Māori."

Last year, the pinnacle event of the week for Te Taura Whiri, the Māori Language Commission, was what it dubbed a Māori Language Moment. A million people took part, said the commission's chief executive Ngahiwi Apanui.

Another moment is planned for Tuesday, but Apanui said the Covid outbreak was making things difficult, and a number of events across the country had been cancelled.

But he said that hadn't dampened the trajectory.

"Our polling after each Māori Language Week over the last three or four years shows a growth, and its quite an exponential growth," Apanui said.

"I think when we first started off it was 60-something percent, it's up to 84 percent of New Zealanders now who believe te reo Māori is a really, really important part of our national identity."

04072016 Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King. Maori language week kicks off with a parade from Wellington Train Station to Te Papa. 4000+ people paraded through wellington to promote Te Reo. Ngahiwi Apanui, Chief Executive, Maori Language Commission.

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

There still is a way to go, though.

Te reo Māori is still classified as an endangered language and attention now is turning to how to maintain the growth, particularly with the pressure on learning resources.

Toro Waaka said there is also still hostility out there, which rears its head in the national discourse with some frequency.

It can be seen in the recent debate on the use of Aotearoa, which reached Parliament, or the tone of any nearby comments sections.

But Waaka said it paled in comparison to this day 49 years ago.

"There's just this big shift and I think we're in a time of change and it's up to our young people - there's a lot of them now who are conscious of the way things have been, and the aspirations for the future - so I've got a lot of confidence that things will get better."

The talk is no longer about whether te reo will survive, but how to make it thrive, he said.

Napier Prison Tours owner and Hawke's Bay Māori Tourism chair Toro Waaka

Toro Waaka Photo: RNZ / Tom Kitchin