Te Tai – Treaty Settlement Stories

RIMA | 5
1945–1978 Language under threat

Key events in this chapter

  • 1953: 26% of Māori schoolchildren can hold a conversation in Māori
  • 1957: Sixth edition of Williams’ Māori dictionary is published; a major revision
  • Early 1960s: te reo Māori use in dramatic decline across the country
  • Late 1960s: Ngā Tamatoa is established
  • 1970: Te Reo Māori Society is established
  • Early 1972: 30,000 signatures are collected on a petition supporting the survival of te reo Māori
  • 1972: Petition to promote te reo Māori is presented to Parliament
  • 1972: 14 September is declared Māori Language Day
  • 1973: Richard Benton begins a survey of te reo Māori in New Zealand
  • 1975: The Treaty of Waitangi Act is passed and the Waitangi Tribunal established.

After the Second World War, te reo Māori faced many serious challenges and even the threat of extinction. In 1900, 95% of Māori were fluent in te reo Māori, but the proportion had decreased to 25% by 1960. Of great concern was the loss of language among children: only a quarter of Māori schoolchildren could speak Māori in 1953, and just 5% in 1975.

The loss of language reflected a decline in Māori wellbeing. Māori had been seeking to highlight this state of affairs for some time. In 1961 the government released a report by Jack Hunn on the work of the Department of Māori Affairs. While many Māori disagreed with Hunn’s research methods (Māori were not consulted) and the report’s ultimate conclusion (that Māori and Pākehā should be integrated), the report did highlight the poor state of Māori wellbeing. Māori life expectancy was 15 years less than Pākehā, and Māori were three times as likely to be unemployed.

The decline was partly caused by urbanisation. During and after the Second World War, Māori, encouraged by the government, began to move into towns and cities and integrate with the Pākehā population. Away from their marae and home communities, their use of te reo Māori, already in decline due to earlier state education practices, slipped away even more. The Hunn report had identified the trends of urbanisation and integration and encouraged their continuation, with Māori whānau ‘pepper-potted’ among Pākehā families.

A 1960 video showing the transition undertaken by Māori moving into the city. At the time, over 70% of Māori still lived in rural areas.
Archives New Zealand - Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga. Maori Today. National Film Unit, 1960.

Not only were increasing numbers of Māori living in English-speaking communities, the media available to Māori were similarly dominated by the English language. Radio broadcasting had grown in popularity since its beginnings in the 1920s. A small amount of Māori content existed (including Te puna wai kōrero, a long-running English-language programme reflecting the interests of Māori, and Māori showbands and pop music), but the medium was overwhelmingly broadcast in English. Rare exceptions included a wartime Māori-language news broadcast.

In June 1960 television was broadcast for the first time in New Zealand. The medium quickly spread throughout the country. Broadcasting was controlled and funded by the government and was almost entirely in English for several more decades.

The Hunn report also commented on education, noting that Māori were under-represented at university and in apprenticeships. Māori teachers sought to address these gaps by creating homework centres and Māori education advancement committees, and by raising funds for the Māori Education Foundation. Māori also supported the Playcentre movement, but Playcentre advocates encouraged Māori parents to speak English in order to prepare their children for primary school. Primary and secondary classes were still overwhelmingly taught in English.

English was also strong within Māori homes. Between 1973 and 1979, Dr Richard Benton led a survey of 6470 Māori families throughout the North Island on their use of te reo Māori. He concluded there were about 64,000 fluent te reo Māori speakers, but that these speakers only felt secure speaking on marae and at certain religious observances. Another 30,000 Māori could understand conversational Māori. A major conclusion of Dr Benton’s study was that te reo Māori played a very marginal role in the lives of Māori children; of the 4090 households with children surveyed, only 170 had a youngest child who was fluent in te reo Māori. The language was simply not being passed on to the next generation, with Māori children being raised as monolingual in English.

Richard Benton with Judith Huntsman.

Within this environment of assimilation, a revitalisation movement for te reo Māori began.

At the end of the 1960s a group of Māori students at Auckland University established Ngā Tamatoa, a group dedicated to highlighting and addressing the causes of Māori oppression. Te reo Māori and its continued survival was a major focus for Ngā Tamatoa. A similar movement also began at Victoria University in Wellington, where in 1970 the Te Reo Māori Society was established. It encouraged the university to support te reo Māori tuition, among other revitalisation projects.

Ngā Tamatoa sitting on Parliament's steps
Members of Ngā Tamatoa on Parliament’s steps in late 1972.
Alexander Turnbull Library, Dominion Post Collection (PAColl-7327); EP/1972/5388/11a

One of the goals of Ngā Tamatoa and the Te Reo Māori Society was to have te reo Māori taught in schools. Along with Huinga Rangatahi (the New Zealand Māori Students’ Association), they gathered 30,000 signatures from across Aotearoa on a petition supporting this initiative. The petition was delivered to Parliament on 14 September 1972, with the support of many kaumātua.

David Broughton (later Rawiri Paratene), co-ordinator of the Māori Students Federation, discusses the importance of the language and the petition, and Hana Te Hemara Jackson of Ngā Tamatoa presents the petition to MPs, including Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan and Matiu Rata.
TVNZ

Hana Te Hemara Jackson, one of the organisers, presented the petition and challenged politicians to prioritise saving te reo Māori. In the submission that accompanied the petition, she said speaking Māori was:

the only real symbol of Maori identity ... For us to be able to speak Maori is the truest expression of our Maori tanga. It is the substance of our Maori tanga. It is our link with the past and all its glories and tragedies. It is our link with our tipuna. 1

14 September 1972 was declared Māori Language Day. Three years later, it was expanded to Māori Language Week. But there were still many battles to come to save the language.

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