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A Thing Of Shame

Indigenous Peoples
Aotearoa/New Zealand

new internationalist
issue 186 - August 1988

A thing of shame
The first step in destroying native people the world over has been to outlaw
their language. Now there are moves to fight back. Queenie Rikihana Hyland
reports on the kohanga reo language movement in Aotearoa.

My mother's cousin could only speak Maori. At school she was forced to stand in the corner day after day because she couldn't speak English. She would stand silent and tearful. At home she was given a hiding and made to go back to school - 'to learn the pakeha (white European) ways'.

In my home of Aotearoa stories like this abound. Ever since the Europeans invaded New Zealand, the Maori language has been considered a thing of shame. The end result? My mother doesn't speak the language. And Maori was not spoken in our home by my six brothers and sisters even though my father could speak it fluently.

At the recent Waitangi Tribunal hearings (a government commission set up to hear Maori grievances relating to the original 1846 Treaty of Waitangi) Maori luminary James Henare recalled a school inspector saying: 'English is the bread and butter language and if you want to earn your bread and butter you must speak English'.

Today few Maori children retain any of their own language. The population has ballooned from 42,000 in 1896 to more than 400,000, yet less than five per cent of school children speak Maori. In the early 1970s a move began to reverse that trend: Maori activists realized that the revival of their culture was linked to the revival of their language.

Teacher Cathy Dewes agrees. 'I want my children's cultural identity preserved intact,' she stresses, 'for this they must have their language. Once that's in place self-esteem will follow naturally.'

Part of the push to reinvigorate Maori culture includes the kohanga reo (language nest) movement - an attempt to immerse children in the Maori language from the earliest age.

From one school in 1982 the movement has multiplied to 450 kohangas with nearly 8,500 children today. But what makes a kohanga reo different from other pakeha preschools?

First all shoes come off at the door. Then there is a karakia (prayer). And there are the usual games and other activities: the only thing is they are all in Maori. Lunch might be leftovers from the night before. But the kai (food) is always shared at one communal table.

The whole family is welcome and a guitar may just as easily be strummed by an unemployed uncle as a teacher when the children join in to sing - usually English nursery rhyme tunes with Maori words. Parents report that some kuia and koros (revered old men and women) break down and weep when their grandchildren talk to them for the first time in Maori.

Living in Aotearoa today one can almost sniff the change in the air. Hui's (conferences) are being held throughout the country and the call is going up for alternative, Maori language-schools to be a real option in mainstream education.

The ultimate goal is to turn out fluent Maori speakers with high esteem, academic skills and thorough grounding in their own culture. Eventually, if Victoria University professor Whatarangi Winiata has his way, students may be able to enter his tribal Te Wananga a Raukawa - the first Maori University.

Says Cathy Dewes: 'Without my language I couldn't possibly understand my culture and its values. I was denied what is essentially a basic human right - access to myself. Now we've got to change that.'

Maori journalist Queenie Rikihana Hyland works with the Levin Chronicle.

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