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Māori warriors on Waitangi Day Māori warriors on Waitangi Day Patricia Hofmeester
29 Jan
A language debate is forcing New Zealanders to consider how the modern country needs to engage with the past. Klaus Dodds explores

In New Zealand (or to use the Māori language place name, Aotearoa) there has been an interesting debate about the use of ‘te reo’ on Radio New Zealand (RNZ). Te reo means ‘the language’ and refers to that spoken by the indigenous peoples of New Zealand, the Māori. Since 1987, te reo Māori has been one of New Zealand’s three official tongues, which include English and, since 2006, New Zealand Sign Language.

In December last year, former National Party leader, Don Brash, complained that RNZ was forcing English-speaking presenters to use Māori. His intervention followed earlier media reporting about the manner in which Māori was used in public life. For the critics, Māori language promotion sits uneasily with a country where only a small minority can claim competence in its written and spoken forms. It is estimated that Māori may be spoken by around three per cent of New Zealanders compared to English which is near universal amongst the domestic population. Many other Asian and South Pacific origin languages are spoken in everyday life, but none thus far have official language status.

The ‘debate’ about the use of Māori in public life is playing out in public institutions such as RNZ. In February 2017, the broadcaster announced a so-called ‘Māori strategy’ and spoke about its willingness to develop ‘personalised language plans’ for its journalists and producers. What this entailed was a commitment to allow its employees to use te reo in broadcasting. Brash complained that he could not understand the broadcaster’s use of Māori and resented the fact presenters did not translate those extracts into English for non-Māori speakers. He was also quick to point out there were already Māori television and radio stations for native speakers to access if they so wished.

It is important to note that Brash’s intervention regarding the use of te reo needs to be placed in a wider political and cultural context. Brash is a former Leader of the Opposition and an experienced public figure in New Zealand. He’s also, importantly, the leading light of a pressure group called Hobson’s Pledge. Established in 2016 and named after the first Governor-General of New Zealand (William Hobson), the group is eager to bring to an end any advantages that Māori might enjoy in New Zealand society. It has been very critical of the guaranteed existence of seven Māori seats in the New Zealand parliament. Instead it proposes that all citizens, regardless of their origin, should be treated as equal. Failure to do so will, the advocates argue, lead to a more fractious and divided New Zealand.

Unsurprisingly, there are both Māori and Pakeha (New Zealanders of European descent) who take a different view about how New Zealand should conduct itself. The origins of modern-day New Zealand lie with the Treaty of Waitangi. In February 1840, the treaty was signed between the British Crown and more than 500 Māori chiefs. It established a series of obligations on the part of the Crown in return for ceding, at least in the English version, sovereignty over territory. The Māori version of the treaty, however, presented a different vision of what had been agreed upon. Instead of a sovereignty transfer, Māori agreed to share governance but also expected to retain possession of their lands and resources. The original meaning of the Treaty has been a source of controversy ever since.

The use of the Māori language on RNZ is, for many New Zealanders, a touchstone issue. Should 21st century New Zealand be actively investing and supporting both English and Māori language education in its schools? Should New Zealanders actively embrace singing the national anthem in Māori and learn to pronounce Māori place names such as Taupo (as Toe-Paw rather than Tau-Po)?

As with other countries, such as South Africa, language issues always matter to personal and collective identity. They touch upon geopolitics because they contribute to everyday maps of meaning. For example, embracing te reo Māori means not only being attentive to the indigenous inhabitants, but also means thinking about the country as located within the South Pacific – as opposed to being an English-speaking output of a former empire.

Though there is a great deal more Māori that is spoken and heard in New Zealand public life today, we should not exaggerate the change. In Wales, it is commonplace to see bilingual road signs and documentation in both English and Welsh. This is not the case in New Zealand. Māori lessons in schools are not compulsory, but this might change in the near future, subject to political will and capacity building in Māori language training and teacher education.

New Zealanders and visitors alike should prepare to learn some new place names for New Zealand, and North and South Island – respectively, Aotearoa, Te Ika-a-Maui and Te Waipounamu. Listeners unhappy with hearing te reo Māori on RNZ can of course turn off their radio, but it is most unlikely that they will be able to silence those who are determined to ensure that one of the country’s official languages is spoken and heard in the public sphere.

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction

This was published in the February 2018 edition of Geographical magazine.

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