Former MP Dover Samuels is calling for a formal apology to a generation of children who were beaten - in some cases until they bled - for speaking Maori at school.

No less than an apology from the Prime Minister, on behalf of the government, would suffice.

Mr Samuels made his demand during an impassioned submission to the Waitangi Tribunal at Matauri Bay's Te Tapui Marae this week.

The former Maori Affairs Minister, now a Northland Regional councillor, attended Whakarara Native School at Matauri Bay in the 1940s.

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When he started school Maori was the only language he knew. As soon as he passed through the gate he was required to leave his language and culture behind.

The beatings were administered, "for no other offence but speaking the language of my people", with a supplejack vine about a metre long which the teacher kept under his desk.

They started in his early years at school and continued until he left.

They took place in front of the other children, which he said was an attempt to humiliate him and "cast a degrading image about me as a young Maori child".

"This in many ways has remained with me, the enduring symbol of the deliberate punitive acts of the Crown against my culture, my people and myself."

Mr Samuels said the beatings left welts and bruising on his thighs and sometimes drew blood. The thin trousers children wore in those days offered no protection.

Only later did he realise the beatings were Crown policy because they occurred throughout the country.

He estimated the boys at his school were whipped on average twice a week. He was reluctant to tell his parents in case they thought he'd been misbehaving and he got a "double dose".

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Mr Samuels said the apology he sought was not for himself but for a whole generation of tamariki.

Some argued the Government had made amends through the funding of kura kaupapa and kohanga reo, and the elevation of te reo to official language status.

Those were positive things but an apology was still required. "Lip service" from the Minister of Treaty Negotiations would not suffice.

"It has to be a genuine apology from the Prime Minister, and he needs to understand the depth of cruelty against a generation of Maori children."

Mr Samuels said taking away the language was part of a wider disempowerment of whanau and hapu. Later Maori also lost their land, their fisheries, and the rest of their culture.

It was no accident that the Crown's efforts to undermine the language focused not on adults but on young, developing minds, he said.

Mr Samuels made his submissions on Tuesday in the latest round of hearings in the Waitangi Tribunal's Northland Inquiry. The Tribunal told him they had heard similar accounts in the past, but not as graphic or in such detail.

Prime Minister John Key's office referred the Advocate's enquiries to Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson.

A spokeswoman for Mr Finlayson said he had asked his officials to explore options for a Crown apology.

The Crown had considered the issue of children being beaten for speaking te reo at school in a number of previous Treaty settlements and Tribunal inquiries.

The Crown's approach in previous settlements had been to acknowledge the treatment and its damaging effects, in the detail of its apologies to claimant groups.

Mr Samuels also gave evidence about "unlawful" actions by the Department of Maori Affairs leading to loss of land, most recently through the Matauri X debacle, and called for Motukawanui and Motukawaiti in the Cavalli islands to be returned to the descendants of the original owners.