There is a fairly strong indication that the Māori Language (Te Reo Māori) Bill could be on the wrong track when it’s being opposed by Māori leaders who have done so much for reviving and protecting the language.

Timoti Karetu, a professor at Waikato University, and an acknowledged expert on te reo Māori, has criticised the bill for its focus on structures and funding. And Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, a significant force in the development of kohanga reo, has told the Māori Affairs Select Committee that the bill is aggravating the “disarray” in Māori communities.

Timoti’s criticism is true enough, yet structures are the purpose of nearly every piece of legislation. Once the structures are in place, the implementation is left to policy. Iritana’s criticism is equally true because any bill intending to alter the way we protect our most precious taonga is going to contribute to controversy.

But there has been another criticism which is quite unjustified. It’s the argument that iwi are to blame for the loss of the language in the first place.

If blame is to be apportioned, then apportion it to colonialism. Processes like assimilation actively discouraged – and sometimes punished – the use of te reo Māori. Economic conditions meant those whose first language was reo Māori were often disadvantaged when it came to finding work. They simply missed out.

Iwi – or perhaps more accurately hapū – just happened to preside over the language while assimilation and rural depression were at their height. Iwi and hapū did not cause the loss of the language. They were victims of it.

That is not to say that returning control of the language to iwi is a good idea, but the Māori Language Bill does not do necessarily do that. The bill is designed to replace the Māori Language Act 1987 and Part 4A of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

The source of tension is Te Mātāwai, a new governing body which is meant to provide leadership on behalf of iwi and Māori. But what the bill does is further centralise control of the language. Te Mātāwai will replace several different bodies which have been guarding the language – and the iwi input is through the iwi representatives.

Yet the language remains under state control. Or at least the state still controls the resources for protecting and promoting the language. What is interesting is that Te Mātāwai actually goes against the trend in recent legislation of devolving power to iwi.

This seems to be the greatest problem. Māori are being subjected to more state control, not less.


© E-Tangata, 2015

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