COMMENT:

Compulsory or not, Te Reo Māori fervour is swamping language schools in New Zealand and there is a waiting list for eager learners, the majority, Pākehā.

I read an article recently by one such Pākehā learner, and was intriqued by his enthusiastic views on the New Zealand in which he is living in and loving.

Firstly I'm pleasantly surprised at the success of the activism of some of my generation in the 1980s.

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We were following a hundred-year tradition of legal protest over the public disappearance of the Treaty of Waitangi agreement and subsequent negation of any Māori/Pākehā bicultural possibilities.

Māori language pioneers came from urban Māori facing racism as well as language and culture loss. Coming into the 1960s, university-educated Māori and Pākehā, like Te Reo Māori Society, raised the issue of a declining Māori language population and my generation of the 70s inherited this torch.

A turning point was the legal challenge of the 1986, te reo claim to the Waitangi Tribunal that raised the public status of te reo Māori and introduced a more pragmatic approach and a browner less whitwashed public face.

The litigants included a group of Wellington people (of which I was one). We fundraised to get a short-term radio broadcast licence and then lobbied politically to get that station to air for brief periods over five years while the court case was built.

The radio station, Te Reo o Pōneke reached many listeners through a committment to 80 per cent reo Māori content and a news and current affairs format. It had minimal music, largely because at that time there was little commercial appetite for contemporary, Māori language-infused music and so little on offer.

The on-air reo rejuventated Māori spirits and seemed to open the hearts of Pākehā listeners to a New Zealand they had not heard about before.

To me, as an Irish-Māori, the feedback was a pleasant bonus. Many of my Wellington Irish clan were avid listeners despite not understanding a word.

I remember the first Māori Language commissioner telling me in 1987 that for reo Māori to survive, it needed Pākehā support.

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Some Pākehā support had been there before in the nineteenth century, prior to large-scale settlement, through missionaries learning how to speak Māori so they could carry the Gospel message.

And a few children of those missionaries grew up as the first native bi-lingual Pākehā, at a time before English speaking Pākehā began to outnumber Māori.

Of course from first contact Māori had picked up English as a trading tool and so many Māori grew up bilingual. But with more Pākehā arriving, the Pākehā need for Māori lessened and the tide turned against bilingualism in this country. New Zealand in 1860 had changed dramatically from the language frontiers that confronted the missionaries in the early 1800s.

It's clear now from a reading of the Treaty clauses in English or Māori, that the taonga so treasured by Māori was also available to British settlers.

So the success of te reo Māori claim in making the language official has meant that since 1987, te reo Māori has been studied, taught and learned. In the process it has become valued not just as a taonga but has also acquired monetary value. You can make money from teaching Māori language. Reo learning courses now need accreditation and so te reo sits in a matrix of learning outcomes. In short, te reo is a commodity on the open market.

From a tikanga Māori perspective formed by values from a Māori worldview, this creates problems.

• It's ignorance when people think of te reo as some sort of supermarket where they can browse through and take the bits they want.

• It shows lack of cultural respect when te reo is learned as a personal skill to be used in any way without its cultural supports of whanau and tikanga.

Now I come back to what this Pākehā writer was saying. His sentiment was fine, that he was now able to korero Māori to his 7 year old daughter who he said was, "fluent".

It was his use of the phrase "speaking Pākehā" instead of "speaking English", that got me thinking of languages as indicators of ethnic or social origins.

"Speaking English" is maybe more commonly used as a way to describe our British settlers' West Germanic origins through Anglo-Saxon immigrants coming to Britain from the 5th to 7th Centuries AD. Whereas "speaking Pākehā", describes tikanga of a human species unique to Aotearoa/New Zealand validated by interaction with Māori, as historian Michael King argued.

I guess that's what pleasantly surprised me in how our thoughts are changing. Kiwis are perhaps unknowingly recolonising themselves by finally understanding what the Treaty of Waitangi promised. Funny when you realise identity all begins with language. Pākehā was a word coined by Māori to describe non-Māori (to Māori) and the word Māori began to be used by Pākehā because of the response they got to their questions of "Who are you?"

Pākehā took the adjective "māori" (meaning normal, or natural) as a noun for a race of people. And Māori have been running with that since.

Let's keep on running.

- Piripi Whaanga is a Hastings writer, broadcaster and songwriter. He has nearly 50 years of journalism, 40 years of that in Māori print, radio and television.