By Dr. Pita Sharples
I was at a celebration Wednesday night to acknowledge the work of two retiring Māori Language Commissioners, and to welcome their incoming successors.
The date was auspicious – 25 years to the day since te Ture o te Reo Māori, the Māori Language Act, came into force. So it was an occasion to review the history of the Māori language movement that started in the 1970s.
Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, who was leaving te Taura Whiri, was saluted as the godmother of the Kōhanga Reo movement. As usual on such occasions, speakers recalled her colleagues and friends who have passed on, including Nanny Jean Puketapu-Waiwai, a founder of the first kōhanga reo at Pukeatua in Wainuiomata. Jean had died that very day and was lying in state on Waiwhetu marae.
The kōhanga movement was born at the first national Hui Whakatauira of kaumātua at Parliament in 1981. Jean’s generation of elders seized on the idea as a way to revitalise te reo Māori, which was in a steep decline. They returned to their home areas with directions to their people to start up kōhanga, left, right and centre! Kōhanga certainly gave our people belief that our reo could survive.
Ruakere Hond, the other departing Commissioner, is respected as an exponent and advocate of all things Taranaki. He was a founder of Te Reo o Taranaki, who have organised the people, produced resources and inspired a generation to cherish their unique dialect.
Justice Joe Williams was a law student when he worked on the Waitangi Tribunal claim for te reo Māori. He traced the origins of the language movement, from Te Reo Māori Society, Ngā Kaiwhakapumau i te Reo, through the emergence of kaupapa Maori education and Māori broadcasting. Then he produced statistics showing that participation in kōhanga peaked in 1987, and has declined ever since. He concluded there is still a lot to do, and Māori must mobilise once again to protect te reo Māori.
His message, that Māori still hold the future of our language in our own hands, no doubt inspired the new Māori Language Commissioners, Dr Katarina Edmonds and Dr Poia Rewi. Arohatia te reo!
Dr. Pita Sharples is Co-Leader of the Māori Party