The coalition government’s moves to diminish te reo Māori in government services are small-minded and ultimately futile, says Mark Derby. (Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone)

The Māori language gives non-Māori the opportunity to “live more authentically in a country coming to terms with a war-torn colonial past,” writes historian and writer Mark Derby.


The last time I stopped in Ruatõria, on the East Coast, my car was refuelled by the smiling and turbaned Sikh who owned the local petrol station. In confident te reo, he told me that he loved living in a community whose population was predominantly Māori, and that his knowledge of the Māori language was growing every day.

When my Pākehā brother-in-law died suddenly, his funeral was widely attended. As his coffin was carried outside for its final journey, several Māori women broke spontaneously into the piercing lamentation of the karanga for the dead. It was a poignant tribute to a man whose local community regarded him with a respect that transcended his race.

I cherish experiences like these because they tell me that I live in a country which is, in certain situations, addressing the pain of its colonial past with generosity, maturity and hope.

The slow and patchy restoration of the Māori language towards widespread daily use is central to this process, since it demonstrates equality in action, and enables anyone in the country to participate in a national life that extends beyond the boundaries imposed by a monolingual culture.

Over the past 50 years, I’ve seen modest but hard-won progress towards re-establishing Māori as a living language, used daily throughout the country on everyday as well as ceremonial occasions.

It’s distressing to see that, since the last election, this advance is being reversed and, instead, the use of Māori is actively discouraged and sneered at as “woke” and “divisive”. The prime minister, for all his faults, has begun making efforts to learn the language which distinguishes his country from all others, and for this he is derided, by members of his own party, as “te reo Luxon”.

Māori people will not easily give up the language linking them to a thousand-year history on these islands, but they should not be expected to fulfil this responsibility alone, any more than the responsibility to protect endangered native species.

Non-Māori are crucial to the survival and growth of the Māori language, and doing so gives us the opportunity to live more authentically in a country coming to terms with a war-torn colonial past. It means we can also enjoy the embrace of our country’s Indigenous culture, or simply gain a deeper understanding of where we live by learning what the placenames mean.

I can’t see any positive reason for suppressing and belittling the use of Māori language, even on the driest of economic grounds. It appears to be part of a small-minded and ultimately futile effort at returning our country to the state of race relations in the blandly monocultural 1950s.

I see no chance of that effort suceeding, but I believe the effort itself should be called out as backward-looking and fundamentally unjust.

This country is a group of islands within the South Pacific, and the very least that we recent arrivals owe to the original inhabitants is to live among them with respect and insight, not ignorance and contempt.


Mark Derby is a Wellington historian, writer and lifelong learner of te reo Māori. His books have been published in several countries and languages, including te reo Māori. He has also written historical reports for the Waitangi Tribunal and Te Arawhiti, a unit in the Ministry of Justice.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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