Image: Gregory Bodnar / Flickr
Māori Language Week fills me with all kinds of emotions. As a Māori woman who is now learning her language in her late twenties, a part of me absolutely loves this week. I feel proud, and I want to celebrate our precious reo. But I find that underneath my pride and positivity I am also angry. My language – which I am collecting in dribs and drabs, devouring each small morsel that is gifted to me and constantly hungering for more – deserves to be celebrated for more than one measly week in the year.
My language deserves to be sung from the highest peaks of Aoraki, Taranaki, Ruapehu, and Tititea in a collective waiata of aroha. Ringing out both in the karanga of kuia and the chattering of school children. It deserves to be spoken, and to be heard, every day of the year. Not in one single week when it is finally treated by the wider community as something worth celebrating.
The small, defined neatness of a single week is attractive in its accessibility. It allows people and organisations to get on board with the reo in a way that is easy and uncontroversial. Even I found myself vowing to speak as much te reo Māori as I could this week, before I caught myself. Why am I vowing to speak as much reo as I can this week, when I should be speaking as much reo as I can every week.
During Māori Language Week, there is a danger of te reo Māori being seen as a fun novelty. Something that is vaguely interesting to Pākehā for that short period then forgotten soon after. The week in itself can feel like a token. Tahi, rua, toru, whā. Kia ora. Kei te pēhea koe? It is better than nothing. It provides a window for many Pākehā whose only interaction with the reo would otherwise involve passing butchered place names down the generations. It has been fought for by advocates with much more mana than I, and I have immense respect for them. It should be celebrated, and the many inspirational Māori speakers who contribute to it should be applauded, but it is not enough. Not even close.
In the broader context of 2017 Aotearoa, however, the fact that the wider community relegates Māori language to just one week doesn’t surprise me. When the Crown announces that it will fund language lessons for primary schools students in these terms: “Schools will choose from at least 10 priority languages, which we expect to include Mandarin, French, Spanish, Japanese and Korean, along with Te Reo and New Zealand Sign Language,” placing the two official languages of New Zealand at the end of the list and phrasing them as “along withs”, its view of Māori is quite clear.
The Government’s plan to introduce foreign languages into primary schools spits in the faces of its Treaty partners. After robbing Māori of our language, trampling on it and demonising it for generations, the Crown is now offering to teach te reo Māori to children, but only as one of a number of options. Most of these options are not official languages of New Zealand. These non-official languages are said to be ‘more useful’ than the language that the Crown itself sought to kill, wielding its state instruments – its schools, borstals and even its national telephone service – like an axe.
But you know what is useful? Kiwi kids who can use the official languages of their own country. Kiwi citizens who understand the importance of te reo Māori and Māori culture to the identity of New Zealand and New Zealanders. A country that is proud of its indigenous culture. A population that is no longer divided by the racism that will continue to plague our nation until true understanding of our history and our relationship is fostered. Those things are useful. Much more useful to a country like New Zealand than a generation of kids who can speak a smattering of Spanish or a handful of Mandarin.
So this Māori Language Week, we should bask in the sound of our beautiful language, but we should also think about next week, and the week after. I am filled with hope that we are gathering momentum, and that one day in the future we'll live in a country where the majority of citizens speak the language of the land. That future is within our reach, and we should strive for it – a future in which every week is Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori.
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