When I first stepped off of the plane in Dunedin, New Zealand, I was astonished by the fact that Māori words are absolutely everywhere. Reporters greet viewers in Māori on the news, airplane pilots introduce themselves and the flight in Māori, and the vast majority of street signs are in both Māori and English. People on the street often greet you with a smile and a “kia ora!”, which translates literally as “be well”, but is used more informally as a “hello!” Our orientation at the University of Otago even held nearly an hour of Māori ceremony and dance.
There is one movement that is partly to thank for this: Kia Kaha te Reo Māori – “Let’s make the Māori language strong” – the motto of Māori Language Week. Māori Language Week began, according to the New Zealand Government Archives, in 1975, despite the fact that Māori was not an official language of New Zealand until 1987.
As an American, I was struck by the prevalence of indigenous language, which starkly contrasts my experience in the US. At home, I couldn't name the Native American group which held the lands I now live on, let alone recognize a single word of their language. But in New Zealand, the incorporation of the native language is increasingly important. When it comes to Māori specifically, I interviewed Dr. Erica Newman, Professor of Māori Studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, who told me that “there are times when English does not sufficiently or appropriately convey the meanings of some practices and words,” so understanding many of these words is important to maintain the true cultural heritage of the area. For example, the closest word in English we have to the Māori word "whakapapa" is genealogy, but in Māori it means so much more: the deeper connection and spiritual responsibility you have to each and every one of your ancestors. It is all about conceptualizing the layers of generations that formed you into who you are. Those without whakapapa, orphans for example, struggle to place themselves within the collective identity and to discover where they fit in the tribe. And even that brief description can't properly convey the meaning or weight that whakapapa holds. Consequently, there are words and meanings that would be entirely lost if the language was.
Māori Language Week is not only a show of support for the language, but is also a symbolic gesture by those who support it, acknowledging the history and roots of the country. Te Aotāihi Kutia-Ngata, a native Māori student and peer tutor in the Māori Studies department at the University of Otago told me,
This connection transcends human relationships, as well as the constraints of time and space, by letting us connect to our ancestors through recital of whakapapa (genealogy) and our environment through karakia (incantation/prayer) and ingoa (names). Māori culture and customs can only be fully comprehended with the Māori language, for it is through this language we understand what we are doing and why we are doing it.
An Otago Daily Times article written in September 2018 by John Gibb describes the momentum of Māori Language Week on the University of Otago campus and the growing support - both in activism and attitude - accompanied by a growth in the number of events each year. At these events sponsored by the university, fluent Māori speakers are invited to wear a wrist band identifying them so that conversations in te reo Māori (the Māori langauge) can happen more easily.
Māori Language Week features many events in addition to university sponsored ones, such as community organized parades. The New Zealand Herald reports that thousands of individuals from all over Northland turned up to march in celebration of te reo Māori.
While Māori Language Week is effective in throwing the Māori culture onto the national stage, there are a few problems with it: first, from my experience living in New Zealand, the rich aspects of the culture are forgotten outside of Māori Language week. Māori words themselves are everywhere, but the deeper cultural connection is not understood or considered outside of the second week of September. In my interview with Dr. Erica Newman, she stated that having only one “token week” - as she called it - means that people only focus on the language and rich culture for a moment, patting themselves on the back for acknowledging it at all, and then forgetting for the rest of the year. She believes that te reo Māori should be included much more than once a year, but states, “if it gets more people speaking more often, then I do support it.” In other words, if a week is all they can get, they’ll take it, but more is required for full integration of the language into everyday use in New Zealand.
All of this is hugely important for the language. The forces of colonialism brought strict and strategic isolating assimilation of Māori through urbanization and educational systems in which the passing down of te reo Māori was banned and punishable. The Education Ordinance Act of 1847, specifically, made it so that mission schools only received state funding if they taught in English. The Native School Code of 1880 compelled the role of the teacher to go past simple academic instruction to life instruction: westernizing and turning young Māori into 'law abiding citizens' rather than actually educating them. Through 1931, speaking Māori at school was not allowed and students who did so could face corporal punishment. Even when not speaking their native tongue, the children were treated with "indifference or hostility" because they did not fit into the Pakeha (white New Zealander) oriented system. It wasn't until the 1970s that speaking Māori was allowed in schools.
This stifling of the culture through the educational system means that the older generations know the language in a much larger capacity than the younger. The following graph from Statistics New Zealand shows this by compiling census data. It shows both the spike in language knowledge in older generations (ages 50-85) and the decrease in the number of fluent speakers over just 12 years within each age demographic.
As the older generations pass on, the language will die with them. This huge problem is precisely why the efforts on university campuses, the parades, and the use of Māori in public spheres such as the media are so important: it revives the love of the culture, not only in Pakeha, but in native Māori themselves.
Te Aotāihi Kutia-Ngata expands on Dr. Newman’s ideas, as mentioned earlier. In our interview she noted that while the growth in immersive Māori experiences such as through NZME (New Zealand Media & Entertainment) has grown, the fact that the language is only celebrated once per year “only highlights the past prejudices that our language has endured”. She furthers this, stating that one week is not enough, because true equality means full integration.
We need our language to be at a point where we no longer need to celebrate it once a year for a week, because it will be so normalized within homes and schools and parks everywhere across Aotearoa that it won’t be treated differently.
It's true that Māori words are all over the place year round, but the presence of the language on airplanes, in the media, and on signs, as I mentioned earlier, are all simply superficial. Yes, the words are everywhere - but the language isn't. The words are there on the very surface level, but the same cultural meaning is not held behind them in the rich manner that is deserved - they feel like more of a formality. Having semblances of the language there at all is a step in the right direction, but there's a long way to go. And as both Dr. Newman and Te Ao agree, they have to start somewhere.
Despite the movements and public support, there are also Kiwis (New Zealanders) who disagree with the incorporation of te reo Māori at all. An opinion piece by Dave Witherow as published in the Otago Daily Times states that “inflicting te reo on the entire population is contemptuous,” and that the prevalence of English in the country means that “those who prefer te reo have a right to their choice, but not to insist on inflicting it on the English-speaking majority.” This negative take on the subject implies that all cultures should assimilate for the convenience of the majority, which is simply not ethical, moral, or just, while also diminishing the roots of the very country Witherow calls home. Not only is it amoral, but ironic, as it was once a Māori majority and English speaking minority in the country, and the imposition of English was inflicted on the majority nonetheless. Would Witherow have held the same sentiments then?
While the week is incredible because it keeps the culture alive, there are also events - year round - that either border on or outright exemplify the commodification of the culture through performances and feasts that are meant purely to attract tourists.
I was lucky enough to take part in the evening experience, Te Po, when I was traveling the North Island of New Zealand. The experience was beautiful, involving the manuhiri (visitors) in the festivities in the form of dance and song. I was spellbound by the Māori facial tattoos that look to lead from the mouth and spill down the chin, transfixed by the dances and duets which told the legends of gods and demigods such as Maui, Tāne, Hine-tītama, and Hine-nui-te-pō, and I was amazed by the sacred geysers which we were brought to after our feast. It took weeks for the spell to wear off, and then I realized: was that magical night an accurate representation of Māori culture, or just an artificial and forced representation? This commodification of culture was something I was unable to push from my mind: what should be private rituals to the gods are performed for tourists. Audience members are pulled from the crowd to take part in sacred ceremonies. The $128NZD (approximately $84USD) felt like a steal for this interaction, which felt special at the time, like a glimpse behind the curtain. But do the Māori involved believe they are sharing their culture, or are they just knowingly benefiting from the novelty? And perhaps most importantly: who am I to comment on the choices they make surrounding their own culture?
Regardless of the drawbacks it presents: the limitations and implications of only one week and the sometimes overt commodification, Māori Language Week is incredibly important. It is the first step in leveling the playing field and maintaining the rich culture and heritage of Aotearoa. According to Lizzie Stevenson, a student at Otago, the week “unifies New Zealand as a country and helps us all as people to recognize and remember the importance of our land’s mother tongue and culture”. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Newscasters are becoming more knowledgeable, business classes to learn te reo are filling up quickly, and awareness is being spread. Overall, my point is not that the event isn't a fantastic initiative that has been and will continue to do good for the culture. It is both of those things. However, we cannot overlook the flaws that currently exist with the event, and must not settle for one week and imply that it's 'good enough', because it isn't.