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50 years ago, this petition saved Māori language from dying out

A landmark public movement which saw the then-endangered Māori language saved from a government-enforced death has celebrated its 50th anniversary.
The Māori Language Petition called for greater recognition of Aotearoa’s native tongue and its teaching in schools. The petition has been credited as the starting point for the revitalisation of Te Reo Māori.

More than 30,000 signatures, from Māori and non-Māori (pakeha), implored parliament to take up the language’s use.

“We the undersigned, do humbly pray that courses in Māori language and aspects of Māori culture be offered in all those schools with large Māori rolls,” it read.

“And that these same courses be offered as a gift to the Pakeha from the Māori in all other New Zealand schools as a positive effort to promote a more meaningful concept of integration.”

A dark past

Te reo is increasingly commonplace in Aotearoa, and is widely used in songs, news and weather forecasts, advertising and branding, going far beyond the well-known greeting of kia ora – but this hasn’t always been the case.
Te reo was in widespread use among Māori even through the tumult of the 19th century, but by the end of World War II, government policy had swung decidedly in favour of English.
In mid-20th century New Zealand, using te reo at school led to beatings, bringing shame to a generation of speakers.
Many are still loathe to discuss their experiences.
In her maiden speech to parliament, Justice Minister Kiritapu Allan described her grandmother’s schooling, saying she was strapped and “her name was changed to Kitty” on day one.

“Whatever the intention, it was nevertheless the effect that my Nana’s cultural identity was whipped out of her at that school, and so too, some might say, was her voice,” Ms Allan said.

Bringing it back from the brink

Acclaimed academic and activist Ngahuia Te Awekotuku told Radio NZ the culture around language in the 1960s and 1970s was poisonous.
“It was like, ‘learn English and you will do well, learn Māori and you will be caught in another time’,” she said.
“Maori was… considered a dead or dying language, and yet in 1972 there was a huge number of native speakers.”
Addressing the crowds at parliament, acting Prime Minister Grant Robertson said the 1972 activists were “strong, determined and revolutionary”.
“They knew if things didn’t change, te reo Māori could be lost,” he said.
Jacinda Ardern’s government is making strides towards its goal of a million proficient te reo speakers.

As of last year, 30 per cent of Kiwis could speak more than a few words of te reo – including 41 per cent of those under-35 – up from 21 per cent in 2016.

What about Australia?

Australia’s past, and it’s status as one of the most linguistically diverse regions in the world, presents similarities to the Aotearoa experience.
Of the more than 250 distinct First Nations language groups that were present at the time of colonisation, today only 120 are still spoken, with many at risk of being lost forever.
Similar accounts to that of Justice Minister Kiritapu Allan’s grandmother are common here in Australia, where decades of government policy held that Aboriginal culture, of which language was central, should be wiped out.

Wiradjuri Elder Stan Grant Sr, who helped bring Wiradjuri language back from the brink of extinction, has told the story of his grandfather Wilfred Johnson.

He was arrested in the late 1940s after a policeman overheard him calling to his son in Wiradjuri, as it was forbidden to use Aboriginal languages in public.

Their work in saving many languages from dying out is ongoing, though for others it is too late.

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