Revitalising Te Reo Māori – a language activist reflects on how far we have come

27 July 2010

Left: Senior Lecturer John McCaffery today; Right: Supporters of Māori Language take the 1972 petition to parliament, led by kaumatua Te Ouenuku Rene.

John McCaffery, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Arts, Languages and Literacies in the Faculty of Education was a member of the Te Reo Māori Society that supported a 1972 petition calling on the government to support the teaching of Māori language in schools. He reflects on that time and the four decades since.


On Māori Language Day in 1972, Lee Smith of the Te Reo Māori Society and the late Hana Te Hemara of Auckland activist group Ngā Tamatoa ascended the steps of Parliament to formally submit their then radical petition calling for Māori language to be offered in schools.

‘We, the undersigned, do humbly pray that courses in Māori language and aspects of Māori culture be offered in ALL those schools with large Māori rolls and that these same courses be offered, as a gift to the Pākehā from the Māori, in all other New Zealand schools as a positive effort to promote a more meaningful concept of Integration’. Petition of the Te Reo Māori Society and Nga Tamatoa to Parliament, 1972.

The situation was dire, with only 70,000 mainly elderly Māori fluent enough in the language of their ancestors to pass it on to the next generation. Researchers at the time described the Māori language as an “endangered language in a perilous state” (NZCER Survey 1973-78) but this bold act and the 30,000 signatures on the petition ignited the spark of progress and helped overturn decades of language decline. Finally, people started listening and the modern Māori language renaissance had begun.

In the crowd that day was young Victoria University and Wellington Teachers College student John McCaffery. Of Irish descent, John had begun learning the Māori language at university and was also studying teaching and anthropology. He was one of a growing group of Pākehā students in the Te Reo Māori Society who believed it was vital to preserve and promote the language. John would eventually spend five years at Victoria recording and translating Māori oral traditions including mōteatea, waiata and korero tīpuna under the guidance of Koro Dewes, Api Mahuika and Tīpene O’Regan. These were developed into Māori language resources for teaching and language revival with many of these resources now lodged in the National Archives in Wellington.

“We took the petition with us up the steps in suitcases to add to the pile we had stacked there earlier in the day,” recalls John. “At the tops of the steps we met Māori MPs, and our kaumatua Te Ouenuku Rene (Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa, Waikato, Te Āti Awa, Ngā Puhi,) recited a tuku taonga karakia with his patu from Te Wera Hauraki over the petition so we knew it would go well. Whaikōrero were exchanged, mōteatea sung and then we went inside and shared a cup of tea.”

John had been personally involved with the petition by knocking on doors, visiting schools and shopping centres and building community support with the Te Reo Māori kapahaka group – particularly in the Porirua area that had a large Māori population at the time. Others involved in this work included current University of Auckland staff Joe Te Rito and Donna Gardiner. In doing this they took a softer approach than petition partners Ngā Tamatoa, but with similar goals. While Ngā Tamatoa was working in Auckland for the inclusion of Māori language at secondary school level, the Te Reo Māori Society was pushing in Wellington for the use of the language in bilingual /immersion contexts and in broadcasting and television media.

“It had been a long, hard year in the lead up to presenting the petition,” recalls John. “Going door-to-door and out into the community to collect signatures, while struggling to keep passing our courses at university. It was largely a symbolic act at the time because we wanted bilingual education, but it did have an immediate effect.”

Within the year the Minister of Education Phil Amos gazetted that schools should use correct Māori pronunciation for the names of their students, iwi, local place names and in teaching about Māori society, New Zealand geography and history. Māori language classes in secondary schools followed. In John’s view these developments opened doors to the development of a Māori syllabus and curriculum and the opening of the first pilot bilingual schools six years later.

The 1970s were a “rough time” for language revitalisation remembers John, with widespread apathy among society and even among some Māori. As media officer for the Te Reo Māori Society he organised constant pressure on radio and newspapers to use the Māori language, despite being required to pay the NZ Broadcasting Corporation to use the Māori Language.

“We had to pay $1 every time the words ‘Kia ora’ we used, or take out a paid advertisement,” he says. “Eventually we got around this by finding organisations who were willing to use Māori in their paid radio advertisements.”

“We also had to endure many derogatory comments every time we attended a public occasion to the effect that we were wasting our time. We had a running battle with the Ministry of Education to try and get acceptance of and then expand the use of Māori language in schools.”

Things have changed a lot since that landmark day in 1972. In 1977 the first bilingual school opened, and in 1982 the Kohanga Reo movement began immersing pre-school children in Māori. In the years that followed this was extended to include Kura Kaupapa Māori at primary school level. In 1987 Māori became an official language and in 1994 the Privy Council ruled that the New Zealand government was responsible under the Treaty of Waitangi for the preservation of the Māori language. By 1997 over 32,000 New Zealand students were receiving Māori medium education and another 55,399 learning the Māori language (Source: Māori Language Commission).


Now families and whānau can choose from Māori Medium bilingual classrooms and Māori immersion options for their children’s education, and in an international context the modern renaissance of the Māori language is one of the great success stories for indigenous languages. The 2006 Census recorded 131,613 Māori as being able to hold a conversation in the language (Source: Statistics NZ), a significant improvement on the 1972 figures.

John is still involved in the teaching and revitalisation of the Māori language in Pākehā society. As a natural follow-on to his work with the Māori language he is now involved in the revitalisation of Pacific languages.

“Many of our hopes and dreams for the survival of the Māori language have come to fruition, just as we visualised that it could happen,” says John. “Having Māori Television freely available is one of the greatest achievements, and along with many other groups the Te Reo Māori Society never stopped working towards this goal.”

John pays tribute to the many groups and individuals who have worked so long and so determinedly for the future of Te Reo. So many of them have passed on now but it falls to us he says, to see their deeds are not forgotten.

In John’s opinion, the revitalisation of Te reo Māori is a “huge uncompleted task”. Although he says numbers of young Māori who can speak the language has risen, older speakers who have passed on are not being replaced quickly enough. Recent statistics show that 94% of Māori learners are still in English mainstream local schools where they generally receive minimal exposure to Māori language. John says it is here that the Pākehā responsibility to the partnership with Māori is most in need of committed supporters. The issue for Māori also remains of how and when to introduce English literacy into Māori Medium education, as many Māori parents wish their children to be able to use both languages and literacies for learning.

“It is a huge success story overall, and we now have a pool of young skilled speakers of Māori especially in education and broadcasting. I’d like to see these young people expand those talents to reach more young people in the Māori community and take up the cause to ensure Māori remains a viable spoken and literate language for Māori and a real option for all New Zealanders.”


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