When New Zealand’s biggest chocolate maker recently released one of its popular products with Māori-language packaging, the reaction showed how far New Zealand has come in embracing its indigenous tongue – but also how far it still has to go.
While most took Whittakers’ decision to temporarily rename its milk chocolate blocks as Miraka Kirimi in their stride, there was a small but noisy backlash – and an equally fierce defense of the decision.
It was not long ago that New Zealanders marveled at te reo Māori gaining prominence in public life. Now, many have great aspirations: a revival of Māori knowledge and values, power-sharing arrangements between the government and iwi (tribes) and even adopting the country’s te reo name, Aotearoa, as its formal title.
But the path has not been simple, and New Zealand’s celebration of its annual te Wiki o te reo Māori (Māori Language Week) this week will prompt renewed debate about how New Zealand fulfills the promise in its founding document when it was colonized: an agreement between the British crown and Māori tribes of true partnership.
“It’s like trying to spin a big-arse truck into a tiny little one-lane corner,” says Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, the co-leader of Te Pāti Māori (the Māori party), referring to New Zealand’s journey to reclaim te reo Maori. “It’s a clumsy transformation, but the first steps to walking always are.”
In statistical terms, the revival of te reo, driven by language and political activists over the past five decades, is gathering pace: 4% of New Zealanders were fluent speakers of the tongue at the 2018 census, up from 3.7% in 2013, with the number of people – 16.5% – who identified as Māori remaining the same.
The number of New Zealanders who can speak more than a few Māori words and phrases is growing, too: from 24% in 2018 to 30% in 2021, according to Stats NZ Tatauranga Aotearoa.
The numbers are significant in a country where some in the older generations of Māori were beaten at school for speaking the language, and most adult New Zealanders – Māori or not – have never had the opportunity to learn it.
“The attitudes are still changing in terms of people realizing the importance of te reo but more and more people are very hungry to learn,” says Scotty Morrison, a broadcaster and writer of Māori language guides.
Availability of classes and teachers continues to be a problem, and demand is now coming from places once thought unlikely.
“We are so inundated with requests to have one-on-one lessons with CEOs and people who run businesses that we can’t keep up with demand,” Morrison says. “If you go to a conference, it’s really unusual now not to hear a presenter or MC or speaker start their talk in te reo Māori.”
The role of the Indigenous tongue in public life now prompts complicated conversations, in a debate no longer limited to whether te reo Māori can or should be preserved. It also covers questions of how it should be used and whether the pillars of Māori culture entwined with the language – customs, knowledge, and worldview – can ever truly be honored by a state that long suppressed them.
‘Māori isn’t just about language’
“I encourage te reo use but in no way will I tolerate tokenistic use of reo by govt agencies as an attempt to show govt depts are culturally competent,” tweeted the then minister for conservation, Kiritapu Allanin June during an episode that typified the way discussion of te reo has evolved.
Allan was responding to a claim by a Twitter user that the conservation agency would no longer include te reo Māori words in documents prepared for her, at her request, unless there was no English equivalent for the word or the entire document was in Māori.
The screenshot of an email from a manager to staff at the agency surprised many, as Allan is a speaker of, and advocate for, the language. Allan said the department had been “very wrong” to say she did not want Māori words to feature in her briefings from her. she later told Stuff that she had wanted I reo to be used “responsibly” and with “integrity”, instead of organizations claiming their deployment of a couple of words signaled “a deep and enduring relationship” with the Māori world.
But her comments about a “tokenistic” uptake of te reo reflect a charge increasingly leveled at organizations as their adoption of the language increases.
The use of Māori names by government agencies has faced intensive debate, with critics saying that the departments do not live up to the values and cultural understanding the names suggest.
“Māori isn’t just about language,” says Ngarewa-Packer. “They’re names that are about our environment, names that mean values.”
Christopher Luxon, the leader of the centre-right National party, was among those to face the expectation that the embrace of te reo Māori transcends simply learning the words.
Luxon, who is Pākehā (a New Zealander of European descent) said in May that he has received one-on-one lessons in the language. Weeks later, he faced criticism when he did not comment condemners who disliked him using te reo on his Facebook page as racist.
Meanwhile, Jacinda Ardern’s government has set a goal for 1 million New Zealanders to speak basic Māori by 2040, is introducing a new, less Eurocentric history curriculum in schools, and has implemented the first Māori public holiday, Matariki, which was celebrated for the first time this year.
But it has not been immune to criticism either, and Ngarewa-Packer says government is “probably the slowest” sector in its adoption of Māori language and principles and was not the best indicator of progress.
“With or without politicians or government, our predominantly young society, our private sector, our media, are happy to do it,” she said.
‘We’ll become the country our ancestors envisaged’
Embrace of the language has been marked by moments of joy, but also glimpses of New Zealand’s dark underbelly.
Along with backlash over the chocolate rebranding, a TV weather forecast given in te reo also complaints. And when a hockey team from a Māori language immersion school recently sensed displeasure on the sidelines at its use of the language during a game, supporters drowned out the detractors with waiata (songs) and haka (chants).
“We don’t need to worry about those people because they’re the ones against the tide,” said Morrison. “A big part of a really good reclamation and revitalization program is to engage with the wider community to ensure they start to understand the value of the language.”
For most New Zealanders, hearing te reo is so normal it is no longer noticeable. Last year, the country’s Broadcasting Standards Authority announced that it would no longer consider complaints from viewers or listeners who objected to hearing it.
Hamilton believes that in “two or three generations”, such arguments would be considered settled.
“Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will see a bilingual society,” he said. “We’ll become the country that our ancestors envisaged when they signed the Treaty of Waitangi.”
Dr Hinurewa Poutu is one of those whose lives give a model of what that might look like. The director of te reo Māori for Whakaata Māori (Māori Television) attended Māori-language schooling from kindergarten to high school, and speaks te reo at home and at work. As a child, she had known the name of everybody in her home town who spoke the language; that’s no longer true.
“The real sign of a living language is one that is used daily,” she says. “I do speak te reo Māori on a daily basis.”
The biggest challenge speakers of the language are facing, she says, is that they are in “hot demand” across all sectors of public life as Māori language and principles are embraced and there are not enough of them to meet the need. If that obstacle could be overcome, I reo has a bright future, she says.
“Within my whānau, if our grandchildren speak Māori, that’s success,” she says, using the Māori word for family. “In terms of Aotearoa, it’s for people to feel comfortable to be able to use te reo Māori wherever they go.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism