Ka patai mai te Atua ki ahau

“I pehea to tieki i te taonga i ohaakingia ki a koe, ki a kotou?”

He aha te whakautu maku?

When I arrive at the presence of the Almighty I will be asked

“How have you treated my gift of the Maori language to you?”

What will my answer be?

It’s a deceptively gentle, hypothetical statement, made by a gentleman who personified firm, unswerving commitment to his people, their tikanga and their development. In Te Ouenuku Rene of Ngati Toa’s presentation of the petition to Parliament, he called for Maori language tuition to be available in all schools. This was in 1972.

At the 50-year mark from that date in just three years, what comprises a successful response?

A personal one for me is that the grandchildren of those present when the petition was presented can speak with their grandchildren in te reo Maori on any topic.

Why? Because the intergenerational transmission of the language is a critical factor in the survival and growth of a language. The challenges that a minority population’s language has to survive, let alone flourish, are legion and well documented.

One of the biggest is to increase the places and situations where te reo Maori is used, as well its availability through television, radio and online outlets. It is a challenge that requires relentless commitment and a long-term view.

If we take 1972 as our baseline, we can look at some of the indicators of whether progress is being made.

In 1972, an estimated 70 schools offered some reo Maori language tuition. Te reo Maori had zero presence on television, and there was widespread, strident opposition to the speaking of the Maori language. The Te Reo Maori Society promoted Te Ra o Te Reo Maori (Maori Language Day) in media outlets that would run it: $1 bought the phrase Kia ora – once.

Forty years on, in 2012, there were 16,792 students in Maori medium education and 140,943 in Maori language classes in mainstream schools. Surveys told us 257,500 (55 percent) Maori adults had some ability to speak te reo Maori.

What might the picture look like by 2022?

We have a long way to go to get to a point where the majority of Maori people are fluent Maori speakers. Currently 50,000 or around 11 percent are fluent.

Making Maori language education available to all who seek it is another goal and one that is far off. Figures suggest only about 11 percent of demand is currently being met.

I’d also like to see strong support from non-Maori households for the idea that Maori language should survive. In a 1992 survey, just over 58 percent agreed.

Clearly, our community’s capacity to make the progress is bounded only by our willingness to act. The signs are that progress is possible and is being made. It is all necessary but not sufficient.

Boundaries will still need to be pushed, as Hinewehi Mohi did when she sang God Defend New Zealand in te reo Maori only before New Zealand’s quarterfinal against England in the Rugby World Cup in 1999.

Each milestone reached has been the result of the same firm, unswerving commitment that our pakeke Te Ouenuku Rene showed in his lifetime.

We will all need to continue to do that and imbue that spirit in the generations that follow.

Heoi ano ra, ki a ratau kua haere, haere atu ra.

Ki a tatau te hunga ora tena tatau katoa.

Note on use of tohuto (macrons): Whaimutu Dewes doesn’t use macrons, which is why they are not included in this article. He says: “Even without the tohuto the meaning is available from the context or accompanying preposition or other prefatory words. Its use has morphed into a pronunciation guide and one that is actually unnecessary in this day and age; especially where there is no difference in meaning. As a second language learner myself, it is my practice to eschew the tohuto, and make myself work harder to keep the meaning relevant and clear.”

Business leader Whaimutu Dewes is one of Victoria University of Wellington' 2019 Distinguished Almumni Awards winners. He is a prominent advocate for the revitalisation of te reo Māori.

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