The revitalisation of Te Reo Māori has come far since the days of my father, who was punished in school for speaking his first language. The number of fluent speakers is on a slow rise, and Te Reo Māori visibility is increasing exponentially every year. Reo classes are full to the brim, with long waiting lists. More and more I hear the language spoken around Wellington city.
Vini Olsen-Reeder (Ngā Pōtiki a Tamapahore, Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Pukenga, Te Arawa) is a Te Reo lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington. Last year he received his PhD at Victoria University. It was the first ever to be written in Te Reo Māori for the university. He plays his part in the movement of language revitalisation. Part of his job at the university is to consult for organisations on their language strategies. For the most part that work is rewarding, but apparently not everyone is heartened by the swelling waka of linguists who are bringing Te Reo back into our lives.
Over the course of the year this reo expert has received several emails from people angry at his promotion of the language. Vini shared the content of these emails with VICE NZ.
“No I don't want to see it everywhere," read one. "It is an ugly language used by tribal, tattooed former cannibals and not needed or wanted by Anglophones. People like you promoting it in this manner are a nothing but a bloody nuisance.”
The letters started arriving when Vini appeared in an online article in May, and they have kept coming. He received the above example just this month. Vini has handed all the emails over to the police who have opened an investigation. Police have so far determined that this message was sent using a fake name and fake email account. The mystery correspondent also used the title ‘Dr’ when it appears that they are not, in fact, a doctor. When Vini called the police to report it, the phone operator knew how to speak Te Reo Māori. Ka wani kē!
Vini Olsen-Reeder grew up in an English-speaking household. When he started at Victoria University in 2008, he didn't know any Te Reo at all.
“I remember walking up to the waharoa, and at that time there was no carving and no covered bits,” Vini told VICE NZ. “There were just a whole lot of people standing out on the road. Heaps of them were speaking Te Reo, and I was feeling quite anxious... It was a really freaky thing. It was the first marae I’d ever visited. I didnt really know anything. No knowledge of tikanga, or reo, or what to expect."
Vini came to university to study music, but when his interest in a music degree faded, he turned towards his Te Reo minor. Te Reo was something that made him feel good, something that was “filling up some of that space” within himself. Vini maintains that you don't have to be a lecturer to be valuable to the space of language revitalisation.
“I think anyone whose learning to Te Reo, no matter who they are, is contributing something meaningful to New Zealand as a society.”
Other emails made inaccurate and racist claims that New Zealand had a “hidden history” of European settlement stretching back thousands of years and that Māori are 1.2 percent ‘neartherndal’ [sic]. Whoever is behind the email also had the following to say:
“I remind you that without the English language and alphabet Māori would not have had a written language. Removing English is an attempt of denial of our European culture and input into the building of our country.”
Vini Olsen-Reeder says these emails are a dark reminder that the mechanism of free speech is not correctly understood. Stalking a person’s contact details online and choosing to write them hateful emails is not free speech. The police investigation is ongoing.
Vini shrugs his shoulders at me.
“I wonder about the good that they could do with their time if they just decided to do something good and meaningful. Coz it must take a while.”
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