Te Tai – Treaty Settlement Stories

Story: Te Mana o te Reo Māori

ONO | 6
1978–1985 Māori initiatives for language revitalisation

Key events in this chapter

  • 1978: Te Reo Māori Society presents second petition to Parliament
  • 1978: Rūātoki School becomes the first bilingual school in New Zealand
  • 1979: Te Ringa Mangu (Dun) Mihaka is refused the right to use te reo Māori in court
  • 1981: The kōhanga reo movement begins
  • 1982: The first kōhanga reo is established at Pukeatua in Wainuiomata, Lower Hutt
  • 1983: Derek Fox and Whai Ngata present the inaugural episode of Te Karere, a five-minute programme presenting issues from the Māori world in te reo Māori
  • 1985: Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Hoani Waititi (a Māori immersion primary school) opens in Auckland
  • 1985: Te Reo Māori claim (WAI11) is brought before the Waitangi Tribunal by Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo
  • 1986: Report of the Waitangi Tribunal on Te Reo Māori claim (WAI11) asserts that te reo Māori is a taonga guaranteed protection under Article 2 of the Treaty of Waitangi.

In the wake of the 1972 te reo Māori petition, the movement to revitalise te reo Māori grew. Further petitions continued to express Māori desire for the Crown to help save their language. In 1978, Te Reo Māori Society of Wellington presented a 30,000-signature petition requesting the creation of a Māori television production unit within the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation. Another petition in 1981, signed by 2500 people, called for Māori to be made an official language of New Zealand.

Group of people marching with protest signs.
People march in Wellington on 1 August 1980, during Māori Language Week, to demand that te reo Māori have equal status with English.
Alexander Turnbull Library, Evening Post Collection; Reference: EP/1980/2470/20A-F

Recognising the importance of language, many Māori groups and individuals advanced revitalisation initiatives across different areas, including education, broadcasting and the justice system.


Dr Richard Benton’s research had shown that te reo Māori was not being passed to the next generation. Spurred by this knowledge, the language revitalisation movement focused on education. A series of hui held at Waiwhetū Marae in Lower Hutt determined that te reo Māori must be taught from birth, a decision that led to the creation of kōhanga reo. These pre-school language nests centred around kaupapa, tikanga Māori and whānau involvement, and stressed the importance of kaumātua in passing on language and knowledge.

The first kōhanga was established at Pukeatua, Wainuiomata in 1982. The kōhanga reo movement grew rapidly over the next four years: by 1986 there were 415 kōhanga attended by more than 6000 children.

Henrietta Maxwell teaching at one of the early kōhanga reo in Wainuiomata (starts 10 min 42s in).
Waka Huia TVNZ, YouTube

Te reo Māori education for older children was more difficult to implement. In places where Māori was still spoken in the home and community, it was possible to establish bilingual schools. The first bilingual school opened at Rūātoki in Te Urewera in 1978. For Māori in urban Pākehā-dominated communities, bilingual schools were harder to set up. Tamariki graduated from kōhanga reo and went directly into English-language primary schools. A solution came for West Auckland parents in 1985 with the opening of a kura kaupapa Māori (Māori immersion primary school) at Hoani Waititi Marae. Other kura kaupapa soon followed.

Learning te reo Māori wasn’t restricted to tamariki, as increasing numbers of Māori adults began learning the language during the 1970s. At Tokomaru Bay, Ngoi Pēwhairangi and Kāterina Mataira started Te Ātaarangi, a community-based te reo Māori learning programme that used coloured plastic Cuisenaire rods (known in Māori as rākau) as learning aids. Te Ātaarangi spread throughout New Zealand and is still used today.

Members of Ngoi Pēwhairangi's group Te Hokowhitu-a-Tū sing 'Whakarongo'.

In 1975, three iwi in Ōtaki began work on the ambitious Whakatupuranga Rua Mano – Generation 2000 plan. By 1981 they had established Te Wānanga o Raukawa to teach Māori culture and knowledge at a tertiary level. The wānanga continues today.


Getting te reo Māori onto the airwaves was another area of focus for language revitalisation. In the 1970s state broadcasters dedicated less than 90 minutes of programming each week to topics specifically aimed at Māori. Little of this content was presented in te reo Māori.

In the early 1970s, the Te Reo Māori Society and other organisations called for the establishment of a Māori radio station.

They were unsuccessful, but Radio New Zealand did set up a new unit, Te Reo o Aotearoa, which broadcast Māori and Pacific news and magazine programmes in many languages.

In the early 1980s, an experimental Māori radio station broadcast for a few days each year. In 1987, Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo (the Māori Language Board of Wellington) set up Te Reo Irirangi o Te Upoko o Te Ika, which ran for two months. After positive community and listener feedback, it was made a permanent station in April 1988 – the first permanent Māori radio station.

Tama te Huki and Piripi Walker at a radio broadcasting station.
Tama te Huki (left) and Piripi Walker on their first day of broadcasting at the pioneering Wellington Māori-language radio station Te Upoko o te Ika.
Alexander Turnbull Library; Reference: EP/1987/2071/8. Photograph by Merv Griffiths

At the same time, Māori were advocating for a place on the nation’s television screens. In 1980 a weekly magazine programme on Māori affairs, Koha, began screening on Sundays in primetime. It was presented in English.

An excerpt from a 1981 episode of Koha. Merata Mita presents an item on the kaumātua flats in the Urewera.

Three years later, a daily Māori-language news broadcast, Te Karere, produced by Derek Fox and Whai Ngata, was launched. With a small budget and a meagre four minutes of airtime, Fox and Ngata produced a quality programme that was so popular in Māori-speaking communities, Fox claimed it was impossible to get a drink at the pub while it was on.

A 1985 clip from Te Karere showing segment reporter Whai Ngata interviewing Pita Sharples.

The Courts

A smaller, but still important, initiative was the use of te reo Māori in the justice system. In 1979, Te Ringa Mangu (Dun) Mihaka was accused of assaulting a police officer. He represented himself in the District Court and sought to make his case in Māori. The judge refused to let him do so. An appeal to the High Court was unsuccessful, with the judge ruling that English had been the customary language of the New Zealand court system from the earliest colonial days. ‘Any extension of the official use of the Māori language’, the judge’s statement said, ‘was a matter for the legislature, not for the Courts’. 1

Although Mihaka’s case was unsuccessful, it provided evidence for another hearing that would have a massive impact on the place of te reo Māori in New Zealand: the WAI11 claim to the Waitangi Tribunal.

Quote printed on a card.

For the teacher

Te Mana o te Reo Māori is great for students' self-directed learning. They can explore the chapters in their own time and at their own pace.

Support them with specially created educational resources that focus on exploring their own personal connections to te reo Māori.

These resources develop the students' understanding of Whakapapa, Tūrangawaewae, Whanaungatanga, Mana Motuhake, and Kaitiakitanga though key questions, activities, and language support.

Teacher support material for Chapter 6

All Te Mana o te Reo Māori educational resources

1 ‘History of te reo Māori in the courts’, New Zealand Law Society – Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa.