Te Reo Rangatira: The struggle for Maori language

Language is the lifeblood of culture. The struggle for Māori language is an essential part of the struggle for rangatiranga – Māori self determination – just as the struggle to suppress the language was an essential part of the colonisation of Aotearoa.

Ko te reo te mauri o te Mana Māori! Nā Tā Hemi Henare

Te Reo Rangatira, Te Reo Māori is the first language of Aotearoa. The Waitangi Tribunal found that Te Reo is a taonga and as such is guaranteed the protection of the Crown. The Wai 262 Report, however, shows how government’s Māori Language Strategy has failed – while more Māori and non-Māori know more Māori words and phrases, there is a dwindling pool of fluent speakers.

But Te Reo Māori is much more than a language of communication, it contains within it the fields of Māori philosophy and knowledge that is at the heart of Māori culture, heritage and wellbeing. All Te Reo Māori initiatives have struggled to achieve their goals because of the heavy cultural and financial limitations forced on them by the government agencies they report to.

Numbers of Te Kohanga Reo dropped from 850 to 460 after the movement was shifted from Te Puni Kōkiri to the Ministry of Education. The Labour government put a cap on the number of Ngā Kura Kaupapa that could be opened shutting off parents ongoing access to Te Reo after Kohanga. The number of Wānanga was capped at three by government once Wānanga had shown that they could attract huge numbers of Māori (and later non-Māori) into tertiary education. Most Māori PTE’s that grew from MACCESS have closed due to limitations put on them by NZQA and funding cuts by TEC.

The majority of the funding spent on Te Reo Māori at the moment, is not in Kohanga, kura, immersion classrooms or Māori broadcasting, it is spent in mainstream classrooms. Ministry of Education research shows that little is retained two years after the learner leaves school.

– Mana Party Policy

According to the 2006 Census, 23% of Māori (131,613 people) could (at least) hold a conversation about everyday things in te reo, but Māori was the primary language for only a minority of these speakers. Māori, like many minority languages throughout the world, is at risk of extinction.

Despite massive growth in the world population, languages are becoming extinct. Of the world’s roughly 6,800 languages, fully half — though some experts say closer to 90 percent — are expected to disappear before the end of the century.

This mass extinction parallels the extinction of animal and plant species, and just as a handful of species have replaced the thousands of food crops that used to be grown, a half-dozen languages – Arabic, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, French, and above all English – are rapidly taking over. Reversing this destruction is not straightforward because it is not a simple matter of state repression – although that plays a part. Like the extinction of dolphins, language extinction is a by-product of efficiency and standardisation in the pursuit of profit.


Māori language arrived here with the first settlers from the Pacific but developed here over a millennia a unique way of understanding the universe. Each language reflects the whenua it is born from – while words can be translated, no language is equivalent. Te reo Māori has a special place in this country because it is a product of this country. The few “New Zealandisms” like fush and chups only serve to highlight how recent the arrival of English is in this country and how shallow “New Zealand’s” cultural roots are. It is te reo rangatira – not the language of chiefs, because it is the language of all Māori, chief, commoner and slave – but the chief language.

When European settlers first arrived, Māori was unquestionably the dominant language, which was reflected in the printing output of the early settlers and the fact that Te Tiriti o Waitangi was written in Māori, not English. Literacy spread rapidly as Māori converts took translations of the Bible from the stockades of the missionaries into the country. Until the late 1800s, there were more literate Māori than Pākehā. The status of Māori language declined with the dominance of British settlers, as emigration increased beyond all the expectations of the chiefs who signed the Treaty. After 1880, just 40 years after the Treaty, Maori were a minority in Aotearoa.

There was resistance, notably from the Kingitanga movement, and this resistance was cultural as well, including newspapers in te reo Māori, such as Te Hokioi o Niu Tireni. Using modern techniques like newspapers was part of the struggle. But once the Land Wars established a state that was run by British settlers and part of the Empire, English was aggressively pushed through the newly established Native Schools. Many older people can remember being forbidden to speak in Māori at school – often by well-meaning teachers who saw English as the key to personal advancement. From the Land Wars until the Second World War, Māori were largely confined to rural areas, working as seasonal labour for Pākehā farmers and farming what land (often marginal) they had managed to keep. The cities, professional careers, and further education were all Pākehā-dominated, and while a few Māori were able to achieve in te Ao Pākehā, such as Apirana Ngata MP, they were the exception. Their advancement often came with a high price tag. Ngata paid for his seat in parliament by acting as a recruiting sergeant for the Empire in World War One.

After the Second World War, there was a “long boom”, as the arms race drove government spending – and economic growth – all over the world. The US industrial cities recruited African Americans from the South, the UK recruited in Jamaica and India, Germany recruited Turks, etc to fill the increasing demand for labour. In Aotearoa, the combination of a continued loss of tribal land (much taken for “war purposes” by the Labour Government) and job opportunities in the cities meant young Māori left their own rohe for the cities. This was the period of the biggest loss of te reo Māori.


From the 1970s onwards, many elders realised that without action the language would die, and started working to establish language learning for young people, starting with kohanga reo, which were modelled in part at least on the Irish Gaelic revival.

These grassroots efforts were part of a political revival in the 1970s, which went hand in hand with increased working class militancy in NZ and national liberation struggles throughout the Third World – most famously in Vietnam. Nga Tamatoa – the young warriors – took militant action in defence of Māoritanga (eg shutting down the annual mockery of the haka by Auckland engineering students) and Dame Whina Cooper united iwi with the slogan “not one more acre” in mass hikoi.

The high point of the “fire last time” in Aotearoa was probably the protests against the 1981 Springbok Tour. The militancy and solidarity workers had learned in successful strikes combined with disgust with the crimes of the South African apartheid regime in massive demonstrations against racism –in South Africa, and in Aotearoa. Tino rangatiratanga was back on the agenda.

Victories and defeats

The forward march of our side seemed irresistible, even by the piggish stubbornness of the arch-conservative Prime Minister Robert Muldoon. When he was defeated in a landslide Labour win, many Māori activists, and many socialists, thought Aotearoa might finally be winning out against colonialist New Zealand.

The Labour government, true to their promises, gave more authority to the Waitangi Commission and made Māori an official language. The Māori Affairs department was given more power and more funding. The grassroots work done by many activists to save te reo Moāri seemed at last to be recognised.

But there was a dark side to the Labour government – for all of its social liberalism (that means anti-sexism, anti-racism, nuclear-free laws etc) – it was a true government of the bosses. The Labour government privatised state assets and introduced user pays; it sacked workers and sold the forests and the railways. Under the Lange Labour government and the National government that followed there was the biggest transfer of wealth from working people to the rich in the world at the time.

So while it seemed there were more opportunities than ever for te reo, and there was more opportunity available for the increasing number of Moāri tertiary graduates, ordinary families were feeling the pinch and none more so than Moāri, who are more likely to be poor and working class. In the years between 1987 and 1989, one fifth of Māori lost their jobs. In the 1990s, although unemployment was high for all New Zealanders, Māori levels of unemployment paralleled the 1930s depression.

Strong communities: Strong culture

It’s not possible to have a strong language in communities that are impoverished, where ranagatahi have to leave their papa kiānga to find work – or even leave the country. This is the socialism ABC. Before understanding ideas, or learning language, you need to eat. The government could throw as much money into teaching te reo but it won’t change a thing so long as the Maori communities who are the kaitiaki of the language are kept in poverty.

We reject iwi corporates and tribal capitalism. Capitalist methods are never going to be able to protect or nurture the language because capitalism is always driven by profit, not by need. It acts to break up families, communities and cultures and impose standardisation and uniformity – the McDonalds model, where gigantic corporations employ standardised workers for the lowest possible wages and sell standardised products to atomised, separated individuals.

They demand efficiency for the sake of private profit, but this efficiency hides a real impoverishment, in the same way as efficiency in farming destroys biodiversity and the natural world itself, which it depends on for its resources. The destruction of languages is similar. While learning a mainstream language – whether it is English, Chinese, or Spanish – is a good thing in itself because it allows you to communicate with people all over the world, it is no reason to lose your own language, which gives you your unique point of view. Anthropological evidence increasingly suggests being monolingual – speaking just one language –is a historical abnormality.

Te Reo and Internationalism

When two Australian shearers came over here to set up a union, they had the rules of the union translated into Māori. They recognised good union members had to understand the union to own the union. When we defend te reo, we also need to recognise that it’s not a competition where only a few languages (say English and Māori) can survive. It’s the opposite. The more diversity there is in language the more people are tuned into learning other languages. In our immediate neighbourhood, in the Pacific, there are plenty of languages – as many as 800 in Papua New Guinea alone –that we need to recognise and defend as well. In PNG, the biggest threat to their reo is the oil, gas and mining industry, which will, if it can, drive their iwi off their land into the cities. Without their land, the iwi suffer, and without speakers, language dies. The land wars and the language wars are not over, they continue. And there can be no tino rangatiratanga without te reo rangatira.