MLW

The Māori language shouldn't be a passion but a responsibility if we are to rectify the rapid decline of te reo speakers, a Northland manager of te reo and tikanga says.

Northtec/Tai Tokerau Wananga pathway manager Ross Smith, aka Matua Ross, said the Māori language is on a rapid decline with the loss of elderly te reo speakers.

"I have personally observed a decline in the language with the decline in our elderly; there are many non-speakers of the language at tangi and other gatherings. Also, those learning it have decreased; prior to the first lockdown, we had a lot of students but, when we went online, many students either had no connectivity or technology and, at the same time, many lost their jobs; te reo took a backseat.

"If you're well-established in your job, then it's like an add-on to study a language. But it's not the language we speak out in the community so it's not going to get you a job."

Advertisement

Smith added: "People say that te reo is a passion but, for me, a passion is going fishing. A language and culture is a responsibility more than anything, it's a responsibility to our ancestors. However, it has to become a national responsibility, not a Māori one. While we were never taught the language, the next generation does have a chance."

Smith, Te Rarawa/Te Aupouri, said his whole whānau are proficient in te reo.

"We can hold a conversation. We can laugh in the language and cry in the language. We've made it a commitment in our lives."

He recalled sitting at the back of the class during school because the "knowledge standing in front of me wasn't mine".

"We were learning about Roman numerals and British history and I'd go home and ask my father, who was Māori, to help with homework and he couldn't help. I'd go back to school and hadn't done it and didn't want to tell them why because all the other kids had done theirs. I was sent to the principal's office, caned, strapped, suspended, then expelled. I can understand now why I was disruptive. They weren't talking my culture.

"Now it's my turn to stand in front and I'll assist the other culture in better understanding us."

A Northland couple, who have dedicated their lives to revitalising Māori language say Māori Language Week will be very much a normal week for them.

Rahera of Ngāpuhi and Waihoroi Shortland of Ngāti Hine, grew up speaking te reo and it was part of their everyday lives.

Advertisement

"In some ways it will be a very normal week for us because we are Māori language-bound all the time in every waking moment. Many of my generation would fall back into their language of choice – Māori – when they gathered. The language was alive in our presence. What we didn't realise in my generation, was that the language was becoming silent around us and beyond us. It was everyday life as my wife and I knew it where you walked around corners and you'd be met by your language at every turn and, in some ways, all our efforts are trying to return it to that."

The couple are educators, leaders and te reo exponents and have a string of accolades to their names, both receiving top honours for a lifetime achievement at the Ngā Tohu Reo Māori, National Māori Language Awards last year.

Waihoroi and Rahera Shortland receive top honours at the Nga Tohu Reo Maori, National Māori Language Awards last year.
Waihoroi and Rahera Shortland receive top honours at the Nga Tohu Reo Maori, National Māori Language Awards last year.

Waihoroi believes the decline in the Māori language began in the 1950s following the urbanisation from rural settings where the culture was strong.

"That particular track took a lot of people away from the rural setting. The generation that actually left had a very strong language but the children born of that generation were the masses that, in some way, were far more deprived. It dissolved and became more pronounced through the 60s and 70s and then people began to realise."

It was 1972 when a group of Māori language champions presented a petition with 30,000 signatures on the steps of Parliament calling for te reo to be taught in schools.

"That was the generation that spoke up and said 'I have a right to my language' and became more vocal," Waihoroi said.

"I belong to that generation in the 70s who spoke out. We quickly came to realise that we were privileged and it was our job."

Advertisement
Ngāti Hine Chairman Waihoroi Shortland speaks to dignitaries including the Prime Minister on the Waitangi Treaty Grounds during Waitangi Day commemorations
Ngāti Hine Chairman Waihoroi Shortland speaks to dignitaries including the Prime Minister on the Waitangi Treaty Grounds during Waitangi Day commemorations

The couple returned home in 2015 to live in Kerikeri after realising they could carry out their work from their roots.

"We carried out a lifetime's work, mostly in language, away from home and wanted to give back to the source. We've come back to the source of the language and now want to put back, with all our experiences, to this space.

"Reo is a lifetime journey so we're constantly looking for new ways to involve interest. We're leading towards the virtual development online to teach Māori. There are no limits."

The couple have dedicated their lives to revitalising the language because he feels they owe it to the language.

"We're managing to snatch it from a very high cliff at the moment. It has been dragged back from a safe zone but, to do that, is a never-ending task that falls on the next generation.

"The language has delivered to me all my life in everything I've done and we'll spend the rest of it giving back in any way shape or form. You have to walk that talk or you have to talk that walk."

Advertisement