Karanina Sumeo: Speaking te reo Māori will help us understand history

Karanina Sumeo: Speaking te reo Māori will help us understand history

August 9, 2019

The right to language is a fundamental human right. It is also integral to enjoying other core human rights associated with culture, identity, freedom and dignity. For indigenous peoples, denial of the right to language has often gone hand in hand with other human rights violations such as confiscation of land, suppression of culture and denial of self-determination.

Ko te reo te hā, te mauri o te Māoritanga - the language is the very life-breath of Māori culture.

Languages play a significant role in our lives. They connect us to our cultural identities, carry our values and stories and help us navigate our relationships with each other. Our languages are symbolic of New Zealand's rich history, our bi-cultural foundations, contemporary super-diversity, our place in the Pacific and our global connectedness.

This week is Te Reo Māori Kūki 'Āirani, the Cook Islands Māori Language Week. The theme for this year is "Taku rama, taau toi: ora te Reo" - My Torch, Your Adze: The Language Lives.

Cook Islands Māori is one of several indigenous languages of the Pacific that may be lost altogether within a couple of generations unless we halt its decline. The need for strategic action is why the Commission is one of several organisations working together to develop a National Languages Policy.

Many Kiwis still speak only one language, and only around 4 per cent can confidently speak the indigenous language of Aotearoa, te reo Māori. The indigenous languages of our Pacific whanaunga are also at real risk.

The fragile state of indigenous languages around the world prompted the United Nations to declare 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Indigenous languages have also been highlighted as the theme of the International Day of Indigenous Peoples, marked around the world today, on August 9.

As Kiwis, we need to fully embrace and encourage a positive attitude to language diversity

Languages play a crucial role in peace-building, fostering positive race relations and intercultural dialogue. Embracing our own indigenous language is important for all New Zealanders. Understanding te reo Māori can contribute to cross-cultural understanding and can help resolve issues where world views collide.

A greater understanding of our indigenous language would help many New Zealanders better understand what is at the heart of the events unfolding at Ihumātao.

Whakataukī adorn many of the signs displayed by those occupying the land.

These sayings capture key sentiments and help provide context from a Māori world view. Aphorisms such as "Toitū te whenua - the land remains", "Mā wai rā e taurima? Who will take responsibility?" and "I riro whenua atu, me hoki whenua mai - as land was taken so land must be returned" capture fundamental principles that are at the heart of the issues there.

Words and concepts such as mana, tapu, mana whenua, and kaitiakitanga are central to the issues when Māori are involved, but are often not well understood or taken into account by law-makers, or reflected in decisionmaking processes.

When we fail to embrace other languages and cultures, we fundamentally fail each other. We fail to understand and appreciate our different worldviews.

This is precisely why all New Zealanders should have the opportunity and support to learn te reo Māori and use it in the home, in education and the community. It helps us to better appreciate the indigenous culture that helps shapes our uniqueness as a nation.

It is encouraging to see the Government commit to a sizeable goal of ensuring one million Kiwis speak basic Te Reo Māori by 2040 through the Maihi Karauna – Crown Māori Language Strategy. Recent funding boosts for language revitalisation will make in-roads in promoting a stronger sense of national identity.

However, much remains to be done to secure Te Reo Māori as a living language.

This means inspiring the use of te reo Māori at work and home. Making the effort to correctly pronounce Māori names and places. The revitalisation of te reo should be the right and responsibility of all New Zealanders. Te reo Māori provision needs to be a national priority. That means supporting each child, including Māori to speak the indigenous language.

We also need to do more to integrate Māori history, culture and perspectives into the national education curriculum. Our children should be encouraged to actively engage in Māori culture in their schools and neighbourhoods. This will help foster interest and a greater understanding of the many complex cultural issues we face today. It would also go a long way to combat discrimination against Māori and help to eliminate stereotypes.

As we mark the International Day of World Indigenous Peoples and the Year of Indigenous Languages, the process of normalising te reo Māori should be reflective of our commitment as a nation to the Treaty of Waitangi and as a promise to the multicultural future of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Ko taku reo taku ohooho, ko taku reo taku māpihi mauria – my language is my awakening, my language is the window to my soul. 

This first appeared in the NZ Herald on August the 9th 2019.