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Background to te reo Māori

Tirohia tēnei whārangi i te reo Māori

"The language conveys the soul, the spirit, the culture of the people…” Dr Kathy Dewes (2012)

Language is integral to the notion of culture and an important aspect of cultural identity. Language embodies the beliefs and knowledge systems of the culture, it reflects the cultural world view, and it transmits values and customs from one generation to the next.

Te reo Māori is the indigenous language of Aotearoa New Zealand. It is the ancestral language of the tangata whenua (te iwi Māori) and is a taonga (treasure) that is guaranteed protection under the Treaty of Waitangi. It is an integral component of Māori culture and plays a significant role in cultural participation and identity (Ministry of Social Development, 2010).

Revitalising te reo Māori

Since the arrival of Europeans to Aotearoa New Zealand, te reo Māori has undergone many changes. Where once it was the common language for all, its use underwent a decline so that many feared it would die completely. Concern for the survival of the language has resulted in many initiatives and programmes to revitalise and ensure te reo Māori remains a living language.

Early revitalisation initiatives came out of Māori community-led action. These initiatives included the introduction of Māori language day (now Māori language week) in 1975, and Māori-language recovery programmes in the early 1980s, such as Te Ataarangi (a language learning system), Te Kōhanga Reo (Māori language pre-schools), and Kura Kaupapa Māori (Māori-medium schools).

The 1985 Te Reo Māori Claim Wai 11 lodged with The Waitangi Tribunal asked for the protection and recognition of te reo Māori. The tribunal found that te reo Māori is a taonga that is protected under the Treaty of Waitangi and that the government was obliged to protect and support the language.

The Māori Language Act 1987 declared Māori to be an official language of New Zealand. It also established the Māori Language Commission Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori to promote its growth. In the same year, Māori-language radio stations began broadcasting. Māori Television was established in 2004.

The government has had an official Māori language strategy since 1997, which aims to strengthen the proficiency in, use, and recognition of te reo Māori. In May 2014 a revised strategy shifted the emphasis of revitalisation from government to tangata whenua and to focus on increasing the use of the language in whānau and communities (Te Puni Kōkiri, 2014).

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