Statistics showing proportionately more young people may be using te reo Māori in some way than older generations mark a turning point for the language’s survival and development

Comment:  Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Māori language petition being delivered to the steps of Parliament.

The Te Reo Māori Society—supported by “Koro” Te Kapunga Dewes (Ngāti Porou)—Ngā Tamatoa, and Huinga Rangatahi was instrumental in collecting signatures from more than 30,000 people. As Professor Rawinia Higgins notes, this marks it as “one of the country’s most supported petitions”. 

Watching extended footage of the occasion, I was interested in a brief but beautiful interaction between kaumātua Te Oūenuku (Joe) Rene (Ngāti Toa) and Hana Te Hemara, who laid the petition before parliamentarians.

In the footage, the Ngāti Toa rangatira Te Oūenuku is performing a karakia, or incantation, to make way for the petition to be put forward in a way that would allow for this task to be completed safely. Hana carries the petition up the steps with Te Oūenuku slightly behind her and he instructs her to lay the petition halfway.

Given that the laying of petitions is not a common occurrence for most of us, this form of guidance was crucial for anyone in Hana’s position. By laying the petition midway, it was perhaps symbolic of the laying of a koha, where the receiving party would need to come halfway to acknowledge the whakaaro they were receiving.

This interaction tells us a few things, including that the rangatahi who were presenting this petition were doing so under the esteemed guidance of their leading kaumātua, providing us with an example of intergenerational connectedness.

We are now at a point where the proportion of rangatahi (aged 15 to 34) who are able to use te reo Māori (albeit in limited capacity) is higher than that of older generations, according to Statistics NZ survey findings. If accurate, these findings mark a turning point that we need to acknowledge.

Until recently, we have had more older speakers of te reo Māori than younger speakers. For these kaumātua and kuia, te reo Māori was used in their lives as a normal language of communication and they would have likely acquired the language through more informal means (including through intergenerational transmission—i.e., parent to child).

What we are seeing now is that we have young people able to converse in te reo, who are potentially products of their parents’, grandparents’, or great grandparents’ efforts to establish Māori-medium education.

On the other hand, we have elderly who may feel the expectations to perform culturally specific roles—some of which require knowledge and abilities in te reo Māori—but who were forcibly raised in conditions of assimilation that aimed to restrict cultural expression and the acquisition and use of te reo. 

In interviews with kaumātua and rangatahi for a 2019 study commissioned by Te Mātāwai, and which I led alongside Tai Ahu, Dr Maureen Muller, and Ririwai Fox, both age groups spoke about the challenges that exist in this newly created dynamic, where we have more young people able to use te reo Māori, and older people who have traditional knowledge and lived experiences, but who do not kōrero Māori.

These conversations evoke strong emotions for many of us who feel intense aroha for our old people and the pressures that they have lived through. Older people who have lived through times where speaking te reo could have resulted in physical and emotional punishment are now experiencing a new set of pressures.

Rangatahi also spoke about these challenges and the discomfort that using te reo in the presence of older generations sometimes caused, as they anticipated the pain residing within older non-speakers of te reo.

Furthermore, rangatahi Māori in workplaces spoke to the fact that they were often called in to speak on behalf of their organisations without having the appropriate knowledge to perform such tasks with meaning. These findings are included in He reo tuku iho: Tangata whenua and te reo, a book I authored that is being released next week.  

What we know is that our old people have lived experiences that we don’t. They have seen things, and experienced times that we have not and never will, which gives them diverse perspectives from our own.

For those of us who still see ourselves as rangatahi, we need to hold our pakeke with aroha in reo Māori spaces in the same way that we have been held by our own pakeke who ensured that we have te reo Māori for ourselves and our uri whakaheke, our descendants.

I will not speak Māori, a powerful creative performance put forward by matua Tame Iti, who was a member of Ngā Tamatoa, has recently gone viral on social media. Fifty years on from the presentation of the Māori language petition, he is still advocating for te reo, and disrupting normative ways of thinking, which are appreciated by rangatahi.

Our next years will require us as tangata whenua to come up with new solutions to problems that have been simmering away. We are all responsible for creating the future for te reo Māori that we want to see.

Dr Awanui Te Huia is the head of Te Kawa a Māui — School of Māori Studies at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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