“All across our reo Māori stories, we have stories that connect us and remind us that we are from the Pacific.” — Ngahiwi Apanui, chief executive of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission), at the Koloa Pacific languages fono in Manukau last week. (Photo supplied)

Pacific peoples, including Māori, are bound not just by ocean but by their languages, says Ngahiwi Apanui, the chief executive of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo. This is an edited version of Ngahiwi’s speech to the Koloa Pacific languages fono in Manukau this week which focused on revitalising and protecting Pacific languages.


Growing up as a child on the East Coast, I was taught that Tokelau was the north of Te Moana-nui-ā-Kiwa — the Pacific.

Tonga was the south. (And by the way, the word for south in Māori is “tonga”.)

We also have another word, “raro”, which means below.

So Rarotonga was called Rarotonga because it’s below or south of Tonga.

Hāmoa or Sāmoa is to the west of Te Moana-nui-ā-Kiwa.

Whiti or Fiji is to the east.

Tahiti is called Tahiti because it’s Tawhiti — the Māori word for far away.

And Hawai’i or Hawaiki is our homeland.

These are things my old people told me.

So I grew up as a proud child of the Pacific.

I can remember that every time there was a Polynesian festival during the ‘70s, the Cook Islands group would come to visit my iwi, Ngāti Porou. Why? Because we had Hikurangi, we had Maungaroa, we had Waima. And we had a whare called Te Hono ki Rarotonga.


Our battle for te reo Māori began hundreds of years ago.

That’s when the first European arrived off the coast of Te Waipounamu (the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand), and the first thing he did was rename our country.

And guess what? He was lost. He didn’t know where he was. He thought he was in South America. Quite a difference from our ancestors who travelled in their va’a tele and in their va’a ariki, and who knew exactly where they were just by looking at the sky.

So when he returned to Europe, another random name was chosen for our homeland. And, 400 years later, that random name — New Zealand — is still on my passport.

Yet many of us now choose to call this place, our home, the Moana-nui-ā-Kiwa name: Aotearoa.

The connection that Māori people have with the peoples of the Pacific is timeless because we are bound by our culture, by our DNA, and by our language.

And, by the way, language is not just language. Language is everything we are. We lose our languages, we lose who we are.

We are related. Ko tātou tātou. Māori are not separate from the people of the Pacific. We are part of the Pacific. You are us and we are you.

The second European to arrive in Aotearoa was an Englishman, James Cook. He had a Tahitian guide on board called Tupaia. To my people, he was the man. Why? Because Tupaia was our whanaunga, he was our relation. He could speak a language we understood.

When they landed on the East Coast, Tupaia could understand my ancestors, because our languages, like ourselves, are related.

Our Pacific Blue Continent is not just bound by ocean. It’s also bound by our languages.

On my father’s side, I come from the north, Te Tai Tokerau.

Tokerau in Aotearoa, Tahiti, and Rarotonga.

Tokelau in Tokelau, Niue and Tonga

To’elau in Sāmoa.

And, 7000 kilometres to the north, in Hawai‘i: Tokolau.

From Hawai‘i in the north, the Solomon Islands in the west, Tahiti in the east and Aotearoa in the south. We are the Indigenous peoples of this part of the world — and our DNA, our culture and our precious languages are all the evidence we need.

There is one language of Te Moana-nui-ā-Kiwa and we all speak a dialect of it. My dialect, te reo Māori, is the youngest version of our Pacific language: te reo o te Moana.

Just imagine if Aotearoa wasn’t colonised and the only qualification you needed to live here was your whakapapa. No immigration, no bureaucracy, and no Dawn Raids — just your relationship to us, your cousins, the Indigenous people of this land.

I’m proud to be a child of Te Moana-nui-ā-Kiwa — your cuzzy, Ngahiwi.


I congratulate the Ministry for Pacific Peoples on their outstanding Pacific languages strategy.

On the morning they launched the strategy, we were honoured to host and welcome their former minister, Aupito Sio, to our offices. We put on a mihi whakatau and a hangi for him.

In a small way, we wanted to let the ministry know that we’re here to work with them to revitalise and protect Pacific languages. We are here for the benefit of all the dialects of te Moana, not just our own.

All across our reo Māori stories, we have stories that connect us and remind us that we are from the Pacific.

How about this one? Matariki, a New Zealand celebration.

Matariki in Aotearoa and the Cook Islands.

Makali‘i in Hawai‘i.

Matali‘i in Sāmoa.

Matari‘i in Tahiti.

Mataliki in Tonga, Niue, Tokelau, Tuvalu, Wallis and Futuna.

Mata ariki in the Tuamotu islands.

Mataiki/Matai‘i in the Marquesas.

Matariki isn’t just about Aotearoa. Matariki is about Te Moana-nui-ā-Kiwa.

It’s another thing that unites us as Indigenous peoples of the Pacific.


Many of you already know that, here in Aotearoa, te reo Māori was banned in schools, our children were beaten for speaking Māori and told it was of no value. Our language was forcibly replaced with English.

Fifty years ago, less than 5 per cent of Māori children could speak Māori.

The reason te reo is on the rise again is because of everyday people who took action.

The Māori Language Petition in 1972 was signed by 35,000 people who called on the government to help save te reo.

Our educators created language nests for our babies, kura kaupapa primary schools for our children, and whare kura for our teenagers.

Adult learners were taught using the Ataarangi method.

Our artists began recording songs in te reo.

Our broadcasters and journalists set up Māori radio and television shows.

Then, after a Treaty of Waitangi claim was lodged, the government acknowledged finally, in 1987, that te reo Māori was a taonga in its own country.

Thirty-five years ago, on the same day, our Māori language became an official language in its own homeland. Think about that. Think about Sāmoan being declared an official language in Sāmoa 35 years ago.

Also, on that same day, my organisation, Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, was created.

And the reason we got to that day is because of not one or two leaders. We had thousands of leaders working in our smallest towns to our largest cities. From young people who wanted te reo back, to older people who were advocating for te reo Māori.

That’s because te reo Māori is not just the language. As I keep telling people, te reo Māori is who we are.

We know from the past 20 years that, when our children are educated in their language and in their culture, they do better. Māori children in English medium schools achieve NCEA Level 1 at around 40 percent — which means 40 percent of them pass and then it drops away.

When Māori children are educated in kura kaupapa and whare kura, they achieve at 80 and 90 percent.

In my generation, one out of nine of us was in prison, and Justice Joe Williams spoke about this last week. He has a new saying: Māori children who go to kura, don’t go to jail. Why? Because they know who they are.

And this is why it’s so important for all of us to retain our languages. But we’re up against a big, strong brand. It’s brand English. And it’s everywhere.

I was asked to talk to you about leadership and what I’d like to say is that when it comes to language, leadership begins at home.

It begins at church.

At the marae.

In our families.

But it also belongs on our radios.

On our television screens.

On Facebook.

In our parliament.

We’re all language leaders.

The battle for our language was led by everyday people in our homes, on our streets, in our classrooms, courts and our parliament.

We mobilised our people because we couldn’t rely on our language being saved by a court or by the government.

Te Petihana Reo Māori Māori Language Petition, 50 years ago, is just one example. The more than 30,000 New Zealanders who signed the petition were asking for te reo Māori and Māori culture to be taught in all schools.

The petition was organised by Hana Te Hemara and led out by rangatahi from Ngā Tamatoa, Te Reo Māori Society and Te Huinga Rangatahi, along with others, who collected signatures from around the country.

They were a generation who felt the significant loss of language, of being denied access to their language as part of their education. Their motivation catalysed a number of kaupapa we take for granted today.

There’s a second key aspect to ensuring the status of te reo Māori in Aotearoa today. It’s legislation.

Our Māori Language Commissioner Professor Rawinia Higgins is on the global taskforce for a UN Decade for Indigenous Languages.

When she addressed the UN General Assembly in New York last year, she had one key message to governments. Protect your Indigenous language by law.

We urged our friends in Australia, Canada, France, Indonesia, Chile and the United States to protect the Indigenous languages of their lands.

We know here in Aotearoa that, after 35 years, having our language protected and promoted by law has made a huge and positive difference.

And so we called on other governments to protect the languages of native Canadians, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Papua New Guinea, Hawai‘i, New Caledonia and Rapanui.

As a result of the efforts of our language champions in 2021, Stats NZ reported that 30 percent of Māori said that they could speak te reo fairly well, an increase from 20 percent in 2013. And 7.9 percent of New Zealanders could speak te reo fairly well, an increase from 2.75 percent since 2013.

Our approach is based on three key kaupapa or values.

Manaakitanga: caring for learners.

Whakawhanaungatanga: inclusion.

And taunaki: evidence or data.

We promote manaakitanga: care and kindness to learners and potential learners. We look to understand who people in our country are and the things we have in common to understand the role te reo Māori could play in their lives: whakawhanaungatanga. We use data and test ideas before rolling them out to maximise impact: taunaki. The Māori Language Moment is an example.

Our ultimate aim is to have a reo Māori speaking country that can also speak the other dialects of te reo Moana.

Why? Because we are you and you are us. Tātou, tātou.


Ngahiwi Apanui (Ngāti Porou, Te Whānau-a-Apanui, Ngāti Hine) is the chief executive of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission). Ngahiwi has played a leading role in the promotion, preservation and revitalisation of te reo Māori, and more recently has led work engaging with Pacific languages of Moana-nui-ā-Kiwa.

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