The Problem With Pushing for Te Reo Māori in Every Space Available
Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori

The Problem With Pushing for Te Reo Māori in Every Space Available

Mainstream New Zealand's interest in Te Reo is (thankfully) growing, but we need a richer and deeper understanding of the language.
September 9, 2018, 10:00pm

When I have children, I want their entire worlds to be constructed in Māori.

I want to repatriate indigenous knowledge in our daily lives. Make sure they know that Aotearoa’s pioneers are not named Cook or Tasman, that they have names like Kupe, Toroa, and Wairaka. They will speak Te Reo, and also English. Maybe Spanish, maybe Samoan. When they graze their knees we will find some kawakawa and boil it in hot water, as my pāpā did for me. Recently, I learned that the Wellington suburb Karori is a shortened version of Kaharore. Which is a shortened version of Te Kaha o ngā Rore. The original name signals that this place is rich for bird snaring. It was a feeding ground for our tīpuna. I will teach them Te Reo so that when they visit a new place, they understand the history of that area.


Indigenous knowledge cements a deeper understanding of the physical world around us. You cannot learn Te Reo Māori without also gaining a deeper understanding of this land, and affirming your own ancestry—no matter where you come from. My iwi are Ngāi Tūhoe and Ngāti Viking. My whānau have lived in Te Urewera for hundreds of years. My Scottish ancestry can be traced 20 generations back.

For want of a better world, I will ‘Māori-fy’ our world view. This is not an act of isolation from mainstream New Zealand, but an act of integration. When we know who we are, and where we come from, it can provide the necessary tools to stand in the world as an individual. I am lucky to have this privilege on both the Māori and Pākehā sides of my family.

In Aotearoa right now, we are seeing a huge surge in Māori business and educational resources, as demand for Te Reo increases. Free and koha community classes to teach basic Te Reo often have hundreds of people on waiting lists. Fush Cafe in Christchurch made headlines with 2000 people registering interest in a free Te Reo class. The cafe also integrates Te Reo into the everyday cafe experience. Pipi Mā is a range of four plush dolls that can speak Te Reo to your children. Clothing. Moisturisers and balms. You can buy Māori-designed fabrics and clothing. If you own a recent-model Huawei you can select Te Reo as a language option for the phone. Māori tourism, Māori dairy companies. You can watch makeup vlogs in Te Reo Māori. In 2018, Te Reo Māori is becoming more and more accessible.


The 2013 census told us that in Aotearoa, 148,400 people could hold a conversation in Te Reo Māori. This was just 3.7 percent of the population at that time, and roughly 84.5 percent of those identify as Māori. All of this according to the Te Pūrongo Oranga Tangata (The Social Report 2016 from the Ministry of Social Development).

When the total number of reo speakers is only 3.7 percent of our entire population, do we have the resources to successfully give Te Reo significance and mana in all spaces? Can we Māori-fy the entire country, or should we be focusing our skills in certain places only? Te Reo is certainly not dying. The growing interest in beginner Te Reo classes is an indicator of that. However, what we are lacking, is those individuals who have a rich and deep understanding of the language. While I can count myself among the percentage of the population who can converse in Te Reo, my ability to pass on this language are still rudimentary. So it’s probably likely that the number of people who speak Te Reo and are able to/inclined towards creating more fluent speakers is less than two percent.

Beginners' access to Te Reo Māori is available to those who want to learn. But there is a critical need for more kaiako and reo teachers if we are to really push for people to become conversationally fluent in Te Reo Māori. I have watched over the last three years as my reo class has slowly dwindled in numbers. Three years ago there were 150 students in the class. Enough to fill the wharenui to the brim during lessons. Now, at the 300 level, there are probably 12 students in class every week.

Bar one mature student, we are all around 21 years old. Many of them are already sharing experiences of being the only Te Reo speaker in many of the rooms we walk in to. In 2015 Massey academic Raiha Hooker shared her thesis, which focused on indigenous employees in the workplace. Māori employees often feel a heavy pressure to culturally perform for their organisations—whether or not they actually know anything about their culture. I was once asked to ‘perform’ a pōhiri for an art exhibition. Even if I was skilled in the art of pōhiri, it was not at all appropriate for the space.

Annual plans by iwi and Māori organisations have measures in place, so that in the future we will have the human resources necessary hold Māoritanga in all spaces. To have Te Reo taught in all schools. To have more Māori resources readily available to families. To have successful biculturalism in the mainstream where indigenous employees do not feel overworked and undervalued, or ashamed because they don't know. To keep building Te Reo so that it’s practical on the marae and the stock market. When I rebuild the world for my own children, it will include the skills necessary to navigate the issues that are apparent to me.

We are on a path towards this goal, but the solution is not 0800 MAORIFY. I have spaces where I regret gifting Te Reo Māori names and translations, because I realised after that those organisations are not able to take care of those names and the histories that come with them. It seems hollow to have a Te Reo name for a space that has no genuine interest in looking after indigenous people. Te Reo is an enigmatic language, and it only takes a small amount of immersion to realise how practical the language actually can be. Allow more space for everything Māori in your life. The first time you dream in another language is a pretty crazy thing.

Follow Kahu on Twitter.