To mark the beginning of Māori Language Week, veteran journalist Janet Wilson began a Listener magazine story: “It’s the language that refuses to die, despite efforts across generations to kill it.”
There was no explanation in the succeeding six pages of what the writer meant by her opening statement — no doubt because, in the long-running and simplistic morality play staged everywhere in our media, the protagonists and antagonists need no introduction. It is, according to received wisdom, the malign machinations of Pakeha that suppressed te reo Maori “across generations”.
On Newsroom this week, a senior lecturer in the University of Auckland’s School of Psychology, Dr Makarena Dudley, referred to some kaumātua having had their first language — te reo Māori — “suppressed in early childhood as a result of colonial practices”.
In the Guardian, Charlotte Graham-McLay wrote that “some in the older generations of Māori were beaten at school for speaking the language”.
The accusation that “Māori had their language beaten out of them at school” has become common shorthand for the widespread belief that it was Pakeha who were almost entirely to blame for the dwindling fortunes of te reo over the past 180 or more years.
For that reason, many people are shocked or disbelieving when they are told that prominent Māori were among those pushing most energetically for English to be the only medium of instruction in Native Schools. These were set up in 1867 as a nationwide system of secular primary schools for Māori children, for which hapū provided the land while the government provided the buildings and teachers.
It is an equally inconvenient fact that it was Pakeha missionaries who, from the early 19th century, were determined to teach Māori children in te reo — often against the wishes of Māori themselves, who saw proficiency in English as the key to success in trade and politics and as a gateway to the outside world.
In 1871, the newly elected MP for Eastern Māori, Karaitiana Takamoana, pointed out in Parliament that missionaries had been teaching children “for many years, and the children are not educated. They have only taught them in the Māori language. The whole of the Māoris in this island request that the government should give instructions that the Māoris should be taught in English only.”
Takamoana was not a lone voice. A petition by Wi Te Hakiro and 336 others presented to the House of Representatives in 1876 recommended: ”There should not be a word of Māori allowed to be spoken in the school, and the master, his wife and children should be persons altogether ignorant of the Māori language [so they would not default to Māori in the school].“
He requested that neither Māori nor Pakeha children should be allowed to speak te reo in the school playground.
There were more petitions — including one in 1877 by Renata Kawepo and 790 others, and Riripi Ropata and 200 others, requesting: “The government should use every endeavour to have schools established throughout the colony, so that the Māori children may learn the English language, for by this they will be on the same footing as the Europeans, and will become acquainted with the means by which the Europeans have become great.”
Sir Apirana Ngata — who served as Minister of Native Affairs, was ranked third in Cabinet and whose image graces our $50 note — mounted a campaign in the 1920s and 1930s to have English given priority in Māori primary schools. He argued that proficiency in the English language was “the key with which to open the door to the sciences, the mechanised world, and many other callings”.
Furthermore, it was an approach enthusiastically endorsed by Māori parents. In 1930, Ngata stated that the primary purpose of the Native Schools was to teach English. “Māori parents do not like their children being taught in Māori even in the Māori schools, as they argue that the children are sent there to learn English and the ways of the English.”
This approach only makes sense, of course, when it is understood that te reo was widely spoken in homes and marae, where Ngata and other leaders believed it would continue to prosper. In short: Māori at home; English at school.
By the late 1930s, Ngata was becoming worried about language loss. He began to advocate for Māori pupils to be taught both English and Māori, on the grounds that “nothing was worse than for one to be with Māori features but without his own language”.
The nation’s education bureaucracy, of course, had already catered for Māori being taught to older pupils — which is yet another inconvenient fact for those who believe colonial New Zealanders were determined to strangle te reo to within an inch of its life.
Te reo was introduced as a subject for Matriculation in 1918 and University Entrance in 1929, which were examinations students sat in their third or fourth year of high school.
Māori language was first introduced as a BA subject in 1929.
In 1944, the influential Thomas Report recommended a core curriculum be established for all secondary schools. It advised that the study of Māori should be encouraged in as many schools as possible.
Furthermore, “If [Māori] is taught, full advantage should be taken of the opportunities that here exist to reveal it as the ‘living language of a living people’ and to use it as a vehicle for the understanding of the culture it expresses”.
The Education (Post-Primary) Regulations were published in 1945, giving effect to the recommendations of the Thomas Report — including the introduction in 1946 of School Certificate, in which Māori language was included as an examinable subject.
None of this is to deny that Māori children may have been caned or strapped for speaking te reo at school, but corporal punishment needs to be put into its historical context. It is probably difficult for most people aged under 45 to understand just how common canings were for trivial offences — from having dirty shoes or untidy lockers to speaking out of turn in class.
Being caned or strapped may sound horrific today, but it was simply a fact of life for the majority of schoolchildren for much of New Zealand’s modern history — even well into the 1980s. It was unremarkable. Which is not to say, of course, it wasn’t resented, by Māori and Pakeha alike, often for decades later.
Television journalist Mike McRoberts rehearsed this narrative in the NZ Herald last weekend, saying his father was “from a generation when learning te reo was discouraged and his grandparents were punished and beaten at school for speaking their own language”.
His statement would have been more accurate if he had added: “Discouraging the use of te reo was a policy that was supported by many of my Māori forebears and promoted by Māori leaders.”
Why languages dwindle and die out — as many do each year — is a complicated matter that can’t be reduced to a simple mantra of school policy and corporal punishment.
What was undoubtedly more influential was the shift of young Māori to the cities in search of work after the Second World War, which divorced them from their rural marae and kāinga where te reo was spoken.
Another more recent factor has been the increasing dominance of English in a globalised world, its spread turbo-charged by the internet.
Languages function as a repository of culture, but they are primarily a tool for communication, and minority languages always struggle in the face of dominant languages — especially when they have as few speakers as Māori does.
One of the most telling facts recorded in Janet Wilson’s Listener article was the tiny proportion of Māori who speak te reo regularly.
Te Manahau Morrison, an associate professor of te reo at Massey University — better known as Scotty Morrison, the presenter of TVNZ’s Te Karere — assessed that figure as between 2.6 and 2.7 per cent.
He emphasised that the key to a successful language revitalisation programme is getting it to be spoken in the home — and particularly in Māori homes.
As he told the Listener: “That’s the key to language revitalisation: families speaking the reo on an everyday basis in their homes.”
Ironically, well-meaning Pakeha may be getting in the way of this goal as they flood language courses, and commandeer the attention of the nation’s small pool of te reo teachers, who would be better deployed teaching Māori.
The results of a study published last year in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface said modelling showed that “if proficient teachers, who are predominantly Māori, are spread across the whole population, this is detrimental to the language trajectory in the population as a whole, because the limited pool of teachers is spread too thinly...
“Our results suggest that resources should be focused on... supporting whānau and iwi to realise te reo as an everyday language.”
In other words, teaching non-Māori who aren’t going to use the language every day and pass it on to their children may actually hamper the te reo revitalisation programme, at least in its early stages.
Teddy Horowitz, analysing the Royal Society study for The International Affairs Review from Washington, D.C., described this impediment as “unintentional interference from the country’s white majority”.
He recommended prioritising teaching te reo in “early childhood education for the minority [Māori] group” in order to “avoid overpowering the voices of the group they intended to assist”.
The question must be asked: Have Pakeha — despite their good intentions — suddenly become the bad guys in the push to revitalise te reo right now?
It’s difficult to interpret the Royal Society’s study in any other way.
Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore. This piece was first published at The Platform.