Andrew Robb learned te reo Māori at university in 1974. He has worked as a bilingual journalist in Māori media and has been involved with the Māori language revitalisation movement in one way or another for more than 40 years. Here he reflects on its achievements and failures — and on the proper role of Pākehā.
I spent the last couple of lockdowns in bubbles with two of my children and their partners who are trying to raise their two-year-old daughters as Māori speakers. And that took me back 40 years to the time their mum, Alison, and I were doing the same for them.
I’m a Pākehā who grew up having absolutely no clue about Māori anything. When I enrolled to learn Māori at Victoria University in 1974, I had no idea that Māori was a spoken language — and I still don’t quite know why I took Māori. I guess I thought it’d be like learning Spanish or Italian. Alison is Māori, and, like many of her generation, grew up without te reo Māori.
But we were members of Te Reo Māori Society, and committed to promoting recognition and use of te reo Māori, through political actions, submissions to Parliament, ministers, heads of government departments and public broadcasters, petitions on various topics, and running a Māori language resource centre in town.
There was never any question that we’d do our darnedest to raise our three babies — Te Kawa, Mahuru and Moana — as Māori speakers, despite the limitation of our own fluency and the almost total lack of support outside the home, except for a handful of friends and their whānau.
Our eldest, Te Kawa, was born in 1981, so he mostly missed out on kōhanga reo, apart from the play groups that we ran with other whānau and a stint at a kōhanga shortly before he started school.
It was also before Māori radio, the internet, and official language status for te reo Māori. There were a number of overstretched teachers of Māori in secondary schools, and a valiant team publishing Māori stories in journals for schools — and that was about it.
It’s hard to convey how little public presence or support te reo Māori had back then. Half an hour a week at a hopeless time on National Radio, nothing at all on TV or in government services, and nothing in the newspapers except what we paid for during Te Wā/Wiki o te Reo Māori each year.
On the street and in public spaces, even native speakers mostly didn’t speak Māori because of the likely reaction: abuse and threats from Pākehā within earshot. Remember Naida Glavish almost got the sack from the Post Office for answering the phone with “Kia ora”.
So, at home, we did it hard. No online music or videos, no online dictionaries, no online support groups, almost no language resource materials, no radio station — nothing to support our own hard work. Our household was a tiny oasis where we boxed along as best we could, and we tried to normalise te reo Māori for our son by exchange visits with whānau who were trying to do the same thing.
I’ll never forget the day we could turn on the radio and Te Reo Irirangi o Te Upoko o te Ika brought a stream of native-spoken Māori into the house. It was a wonderful repayment for the effort that we members of Te Reo Māori Society and Ngā Kaiwhakapumau had put in to the Te Reo Māori claim, and the establishment of Māori broadcasting, which brought Māori-speaking communities together in many ways. (That work is ongoing, over 40 years on, through claims to radio spectrum rights, and language rights under UNDRIP.)
Anyway, I was amazed to see, during the lockdowns, all the books and resources that have been produced in recent years, for parents and children, as well as the things we tend to take for granted like Māori radio and TV. And I was thrilled that, as they start to string sentences together, our mokopuna speak more Māori than English.
Another dramatic change has been in the attitudes of the (mainly Pākehā) public towards the use and learning of te reo Māori. Schools, radio and TV, government agencies, newspapers and private companies have been enthusiastically promoting the use of te reo Māori by an overwhelmingly appreciative public.
But, in other ways, things haven’t changed much. As the first lockdown merged into Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, I reflected on the achievements of the Māori language revitalisation movement, and its failures, over the time since I first got involved.
A critical factor in the survival of te reo Māori is a belief in an unbroken connection to te reo tīpuna, and its natural transmission down through generations, which assures the quality and authenticity (te rangatiratanga) of te reo today. I mean, who could be bothered making the necessary effort to become fluent in a mongrel, bastardised language?
So, whānau with kids in kōhanga and kaupapa Māori education have a really important role to play in language revitalisation. It is they who produce and raise the next generation of native speakers of te reo, who will gradually become the repositories and guardians of te tino rangatiratanga o te reo Māori. And it is they who should get priority access to funding and resources.
The options for our mokopuna Taiawatea (Te Kawa’s daughter) to have a Māori-immersion education in Wellington seem pretty limited. She started at a puna reo, which was a good launching pad. But the plan was always for her to progress through a reo-immersion education from kōhanga reo to kura kaupapa Māori, wharekura, and on to whare wānanga.
The three kōhanga in the city are full and generally have waiting lists. Priority usually goes to whānau with children already enrolled, so it’s hard to get a toe in the door.
Taiawatea has been lucky. When the nearest kōhanga had an opening, she moved there, and she loves it. But those kōhanga were operating when Te Kawa started school, and I don’t know of any others. And for my daughter Mahuru, who lives in Raglan and works in Hamilton, and her daughter Matatū, there are no ideal choices.
Families need a range of options to suit their stressed circumstances, such as the demands of work, the costs of housing and food, and the logistics of getting mokopuna to and from kōhanga. On the face of it, kaupapa Māori and reo-immersion education isn’t getting the support it needs to flourish, and to match a growing demand.
Another aspect of te tino rangatiratanga o te reo is Māori “ownership” and control of te reo Māori and its development into the future. We’re warming to Pākehā broadcasters pronouncing te reo Māori better and using Māori greetings and phrases. But this year saw a more challenging debate during Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, over Pākehā musicians, and Lorde in particular, singing their own songs translated into Māori.
On one hand, many people, including Te Taura Whiri i te Reo and the experts in te reo who collaborated on the various music projects, welcomed the widespread hunger of Pākehā people to learn and use te reo Māori as part of their expression of their own identity. The more widely te reo Māori is heard and used, they said, the greater its value as a symbol of identity and a means of communication. They also support the teaching of te reo in schools.
On the other hand, some brave Māori people acknowledged publicly the grief and pain surrounding their own struggles, not always successful, to overcome the loss of te reo Māori in their whānau, caused by deliberate Crown policies in the past.
They described many deep issues they have to confront and resolve, before they can get into the right frame of mind even to begin to learn te reo Māori. For them to see Pākehā people, who don’t carry the burden of colonial trauma, making free with the ultimate taonga that rightly belongs to Māori, was more than they could bear. (They were clear that they were not criticising the individual artists, but the structures that made it easier for Pākehā than for themselves to learn.)
So, what is Lorde, or any Pākehā, to do? As a Pākehā, I know they’re genuine in their desire to support the kaupapa and put right our history. But how?
I’ve been swimming in these issues for nearly 50 years, and I’d say there are no easy answers.
In terms of policy, it’s right that Pākehā should speak Māori — and Pākehā engagement is important to the revitalisation of te reo Māori. But the trauma of Māori and the loss of their reo must be addressed first, and priority be given to meeting their huge need to regain access. This is not to say that Pākehā shouldn’t learn and use te reo. But, as a people, we must wait our turn.
Beyond that, kaupapa Māori initiatives to raise the next generations of native speakers must also take priority over wider programmes to teach Pākehā basic language skills. Not because of special privileges for Māori, but because, if te reo is not genuinely Māori, if te tino rangatiratanga o te reo is lost, it will have little value to Pākehā either.
Our role as Pākehā, through the transition to a fully vibrant and healthy reo Māori, is to support. I think there are potential risks in kawanatanga schools taking the lead in teaching te reo to all students. The sheer number of Pākehā, with the best of intentions and only a little knowledge, might overwhelm the small community of native speakers of Māori, who hold the cultural responsibility of maintaining te rangatiratanga o te reo.
We must not, in our enthusiasm to support te reo Māori, undermine its rangatiratanga.
Forty years ago, I had no such qualms. I spoke Māori to our children all the time, to the best of my ability. At that time, when te reo Māori seemed to be in great danger, I thought that whatever they learned was better than nothing.
Te Kawa stopped speaking Māori when he started at mainstream primary school. But, when he started re-immersing himself many years later, he told me that lots of phrases and vocabulary came back to him, and I felt that helped him to feel comfortable and confident on his reo reclamation journey.
Conversely, during lockdown, when I spoke Māori to our mokopuna, I started to wonder if I was doing the right thing, especially when I heard them using words from the kōhanga or their Nan-nan, or online, that I don’t use myself. How would my mokopuna defend their use of “te reo Māori” that they acquired as ”native speakers” from their Pākehā grandfather?
But then I thought of all the people in my life who’ve shared the priceless gift of their reo with me. I have been incredibly lucky, and privileged, to have been mentored and supported throughout my adult life, and te reo Māori has been a part of every job I’ve had, including as a reporter for Māna News for iwi radio and Te Kaea on Māori TV. I still feel an obligation to use their gift the best way I can, as the Bible story says, and not simply “bury my talents”.
Although the status of te reo Māori has changed enormously during my children’s lifetimes, in other ways, it’s not much stronger than it was 40 years ago.
Its future still depends on everyone doing their utmost and working together to help the language flourish — and not helping ourselves to as much as we can get, as it loses its rangatiratanga and eventually becomes extinct.
Kia tae atu tatou ki te aroaro o te Atua, tera pea a te Atua ki a tatou: ‘Ka peheatia e koutou te reo rangatira i hoatungia e ahau ki a koutou?’ (Na Te Ouenuku Rene, o Ngāti Toa, ki te Ropu o Te Reo Māori, 1970.)
When we arrive in the presence of God, He may well ask us: ‘What did you people do with that noble language that I gifted to you?’
Andrew Robb is a former reporter with Mana News and Te Kāea in Wellington. He’s been involved with Te Reo Māori Society, Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo and Te Upoko o te Ika radio station, and worked in parliament as an advisor to the Māori Party.
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