Wed, Sep 21, 2022 3:03 PM

Ko te reo te mauri o te mana Māori


Tessa Jaine

The language is the heart and soul of the mana of Māoridom

There is much to celebrate this year, but we don’t have to look very far to realise that the fight to preserve te reo Māori is far from over. Judene Edgar takes a closer look at te reo before Māori Language Week, 13-19 September.

With an increasing number of settlers arriving in New Zealand, once Pākehā were the majority, English became the dominant language. Unfortunately, most Pākehā did not understand the strong correlation between language and culture/identity.

Increasing urbanisation of Māori led to further decline of te reo and by the 1980s less than 20% of Māori were native speakers. The impact of the alienation of Māori from their language and culture and the very real risk of losing the language altogether led to considerable push-back. In 1972 a 30,000-strong petition supporting the teaching of Māori language and culture in schools was submitted to parliament. What started as Māori language day in 1972, three years later became Te Wiki o te Reo Māori: Māori Language Week, an integral part of the wider efforts to revitalise the Māori language. Held the third full week of September (Mahuru), this year Te Wiki o te Reo Māori is 13 to 18 September.

The 1987 Māori Language Act gave official language status to the Māori language in response to a Waitangi Tribunal finding that te reo was a taonga (treasure) that needed legal protection. Despite this protection, Māori language commissioner Rawinia Higgins says “we need 1 million speakers of te reo by 2040 to safeguard our language for future generations”.

“The battle for te reo Māori has been fought in communities across Aotearoa, from small towns to our biggest cities. In 1987 some warned that making te reo an official language would divide New Zealanders but 35-years later, te reo is something that unites us.”

Te Rūnanga a Rangitāne o Wairau Trust’s Kaiwhakahaere Matua (general manager) Corey Hebberd acknowledges that his te reo journey only started recently, but it’s one that he says is very important to him. “Culture is nothing without the language; if our language dies out, cultural practices such as karakia, waiata and pepeha could die out too.”

Having lived in Wairau his entire life, he says that understanding the rich cultural fabric of the community is an important part of understanding who you are and where you come from. “Wairau is the birthplace of our nation; very few people realise that.” The Wairau Bar is the most significant site in the archaeology of Marlborough, and the Pacific, and one of the most significant archaeological sites in the world. It is one of two sites in New Zealand where researchers discovered evidence of remains and artefacts that could be traced back to around 1280. The kaitiaki of the site are Rangitāne, a responsibility not taken lightly.

Regretfully, Corey didn’t learn te reo at school, and it wasn’t spoken at home either, however he has strong memories of attending Rangitāne’s Deed of Settlement signing at Omaka Marae in 2010, which started his journey of discovery and learning. “As a 16-year-old, I didn’t really understand the significance of the event and what it meant, but my great grandfather was one who helped to set up the rūnanga in the 1980s, so I knew I had a responsibility to be a part of our journey.” Twelve years later, he’s playing a leading role in supporting Rangitāne’s language and cultural revitalisation and is the first to admit a lot of it is still new for him.

“We’re all on a journey, but we need to create opportunities to use te reo. It’s so easy to overlook or just defer to others, but you need to put yourself in that space to grow your confidence.” With “iwi still rebuilding and cultural practitioners thin on the ground”, growing his cultural skillset is a priority. Corey says that Wairau has a rich Māori heritage, but that a lot of it isn’t recognised due to mispronunciation, misspelling or misappropriation, and a simple mistake can have a very different meaning. Most people think they know what the word weta means, but it actually means faeces; whereas the large insect is a wētā. Or indeed that the original spelling of Opawa (River) is actually Ōpaoa which translates to smokey river, due to the smoke-like mist that rises over the river.

“We often know more words than we realise, so just give it a try; kia kaha Te Reo Māori.”

He aha te kai a te Rangatira? He kōrero, he kōrero, he kōrero.

What is the food of the leader? It is knowledge. It is communication.

For Emma-Jaye King, music is a key part of preserving and sharing te reo Māori.

Emma-Jaye King, the Pouārahi (general manager) of Maataa Waka Ki Te Tau Ihu Trust, brings a musical perspective to revitalising te reo. “Before pen and the paper, we listened to, thought about, and felt the words. It’s not just about the words, but their meaning.” Until the late 1700s, Māori history, knowledge and culture were shared orally. For Emma-Jaye, music is a key part of preserving and sharing history, and of continuing that oral tradition.

Growing up, Emma-Jaye learned limited spoken te reo, but music was strongly used, so she loved singing waiata, being in the kapa haka group, and going to competitions. “It gave me such a sense of belonging and identity; I felt at home.”

“Music is medicine for the soul that creates whanaungatanga [connection], and through the kōrero spoken it brings perspective and understanding.” She says that waiata in general is a language-learning resource that is sometimes overlooked, but people can remember song lyrics so much easier than the spoken word. Despite a somewhat controversial start, it has become the norm for the New Zealand national anthem to be sung in both English and te reo. Children happily sing waiata at school, Stan Walker’s first song completely in te reo, Aotearoa, reached number two in the charts, and the Patea Māori Club’s Poi E was the biggest seller in New Zealand in 1984, outselling all international artists. Dubbed “the anthem of a new generation”, it demonstrated the healing and uniting power of music.

Lyrics lodge in your head, so you often remember them even when you’re not trying, so it’s a great way to strengthen your understanding and pronunciation. “Within the melody it helps you to begin to understand what the words mean and allows you to not have to rely on books.”

Emma-Jaye is not alone on her te reo journey. Her two youngest children attend Te Pā Wānanga, Renwick’s bilingual satellite class at Ōmaka Marae. She has also started a te reo course through Te Ataarangi as she wants to be able to compose and create waiata in te reo, rather than translating from English.

“Waiata speaks to the soul and acknowledges healing and restoration with an opportunity to grow together through wairuatanga [holistic wellbeing], which is an essential requirement for the identity and wellbeing of te reo Māori.”

Tūngia te ururua, kia tupu whakaritorito te tupu o te harakeke.

Clear the undergrowth so that the new shoots of the flax will grow.

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