Written by: the Forget Me Not Life Stories team - If you have children or grandchildren at school, you’ll know that nowadays te reo Maori and Maori culture play an important role in the New Zealand school curriculum. Children today understand and use more Maori words and pronounce them much better than most of us schooled in New Zealand in earlier decades. Kapa haka is a common sight at school events and Matariki – the Maori new year is widely acknowledged and celebrated.
This year Maori Language Week is being celebrated between 13 to 19 September 2021. This year also marks forty-nine years since the Maori Language petition calling for te reo to be taught in schools was presented to Parliament – a change that now seems almost inevitable.
While it’s great to see Maori culture and language being celebrated and respected in this way, sadly many of the people we have worked with from earlier generations had very different experiences. Below is a sample of comments from clients’ stories – published with their permission but with identifying details removed:
- “My great-grandmother was a descendant of a chief. I wanted to learn about Maoridom when I was a little girl but I wasn’t allowed. People were discouraged from having anything to do with Maori culture when I was growing up. The government and the culture of the time stopped us from learning about Maori culture or speaking te reo. I pleaded with my mother to teach me te reo Maori, but we weren’t allowed to speak te reo or talk about it. When we asked our mother, she said, “No! No! I’m not allowed – I can’t.” My maternal grandmother sometimes sneaked my two older sisters down to the riverbank and taught them a little bit of te reo Maori, but I never had the opportunity as she died when I was only five.”
- “We also had some teachers who came up from the South Island. None of us were allowed to speak in Maori in those days or we’d get the strap. I always used to say to them, ‘I don’t like you girls, you’ve come up from the South Island. You don’t know how to speak Maori down there.’ I could have been fluent in te reo Maori but we weren’t allowed to speak it at school… Ever since then I’ve wished I could have learnt to speak it because they were still speaking it at home.”
- “I remember at school, children from Maori families were forbidden to speak the Maori language, and even at home, speaking the language was discouraged.”
- “My twin brother and I enrolled at [Name] School when we were five. It was a fairly big school. My older brothers and sisters had all gone to a Native School where they were taught well and were the top of their classes. They received a good education, but when we moved, my twin brother and I ended up in a school with a teacher who wouldn’t teach us and were put in a corner and ignored. The school took us down and I still feel quite bitter about it. I suspect it was because our brothers and sisters were high achievers and Maori, and the teacher was determined that we would not succeed like they had. Fortunately, when my mother bought a house, we shifted schools. We went from Primer 1 at [Name] School to [Name] School where we were only in Primer 1 for one day. They administered some learning tests and then shot us over to Primer 4.”
- “When I started high school in 1936, I took Latin, French, English Grammar and Literature. I asked, ‘Why don’t we learn Maori?’ I was told, ‘Latin is the base of modern language, French is a second language and Maori is a dying language.’ Eighty-four years later, Latin is rarely taught or used, Spanish is a second language in the world and te reo Maori is a living language.”
- “I remember on one occasion Willie was telling me about speaking the Maori language. I asked, ‘Were you taught Maori?’ ‘No,’ he told me, ‘we weren’t allowed to talk Maori at home. My granny talks it all the time and I don’t understand a word she says!’ I enquired, ‘Well, your sisters, do they speak Maori?’ ‘No, they’re not allowed to, I told you that.’”
Tōku reo, Tōku Ohooho, Tōku reo, Tōko Mapihi Maurea
My language is my awakening; my language is the window to my soul