Maori resist rightwing attack on language and culture in Aotearoa

Fighting to defend and extend the gains won through half a century of struggle. Waitangi Day hikoi, 6 February 2024. Photo by Mark McGuire.
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It took 40 days of wheeling and dealing after the election last October before New Zealand/Aotearoa finally had a new government. The National Party leader, former business executive Chris Luxon, claimed the Prime Ministership after striking a deal with two far right parties — ACT and New Zealand First. The agreement brokered between the three parties included a pledge to strip all existing laws of references to the Treaty of Waitangi. The treaty, written in Te Reo Maori, underpins Maori claims of sovereignty. The government has also disestablished Te Aka Whai Ora (the Maori Health Authority), which will be wound up at the end of June.

ACT is a libertarian outfit led by David Seymour. The party is bitterly opposed to any state support for workers and the poor. NZ First is an anti-immigrant, nationalist and socially conservative formation. Led by populist Winston Peters, the party engages in classic culture war politics, such as demonising transgender people. Peters recently characterised the use of Te Reo Maori by government departments as “woke virtue-signalling.”

The new hard right government, dubbed the “coalition of chaos” by those on the receiving end of its policies, is on the rampage. It has launched an assault against Maori and the working class as a whole. The Fair Pay Agreements Act, which facilitated workers bargaining collectively across industries, was an early casualty. Plus Luxon brought back negative gearing, providing massive tax concessions for landlords.

The government is also pouring more money into policing and prisons. Maori make up 52 per cent of the prison population but only 16 per cent of the total population. This law-and-order agenda will further entrench the problem of Maori being the most incarcerated group in Aotearoa.

Within weeks of taking office, Luxon’s coalition government was branded the most anti-Maori in generations. In an opinion piece, President of Te Pati Maori (The Maori Party) John Tamihere asserts that the common ground between the three coalition partners is their hostility to Maori: “What anchors these three parties and these three men together is their anti-Maori sentiment.” Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, the co-leader of the Te Pati Maori, accused the government of showing “all the traits of typical white supremacists” in its approach to Maori policy.

Hard-won gains in language use are now at stake as the government undermines decades of progress for Te Reo Maori. Government departments are now required to communicate “primarily in English” and the government will remove Te Reo Maori from all official documents. The primary names of most government departments are being changed from Te Reo Maori to English. The government has also announced its plan to legislate English as the official language. Public servants who are proficient in Te Reo have received a language allowance for using the language at work. This working condition, in place since the 1980s, is also on the chopping block.

Resisting assimilation. Language suppression was at the core of the assimilationist agenda imposed when the British colonised New Zealand. In 1867 the Native Schools Act was enacted, establishing schools for Maori children. All instruction was in English, with children prevented from speaking their language. A whole generation of older Maori faced beatings if they dared to speak their language. This experience of trauma is almost universal. Many recount being whipped until they bled.

The impact of these policies was devastating. The Languages Atlas, published by UNESCO, lists Te Reo Maori as a vulnerable language.  The brutal assimilationist agenda resulted in Te Reo fluency amongst Maori falling from 90 per cent in 1910 to 26 per cent in 1950. By the 1980s fewer than 20 per cent of Maori knew enough Te Reo to be considered native speakers. But that was about to change.

As radical social movements swept the globe, Aotearoa was not immune. The Maori protest movement blossomed in the early 1970s. As part of a broader renaissance in which Maori asserted their identity and struggled for their rights, the movement focused on issues such as redressing Treaty of Waitangi grievances and the fight for land, culture and language. The movement established a Tent Embassy on the lawns of the Parliament in Wellington to assert their rights as Indigenous people.

In 1972 the militant Auckland-based group, Nga Tamatoa (The Young Warriors) led the fight for recognition of their language. They collected more than 30,000 signatures on a petition to parliament demanding Te Reo Maori be taught in schools. This petition is widely recognised as having sparked the language revitalisation movement. It led to the creation of a Maori Language Day, which by 1975 had become Maori Language Week. Things moved quickly. The first officially bilingual school opened in 1978. The first Maori language radio station hit the airwaves in 1983 and Maori Television started broadcasting in 2004.

In 1980, during Maori Language Week, the movement led a massive march on Parliament, calling for the Maori language to have equal status with English. Seven years later, the Maori Language Act was enacted, making Te Reo an official language. This was the culmination of decades of struggle for recognition and promotion of Te Reo Maori.

While the language is still vulnerable, there’s growing support for Te Reo across Aotearoa, especially amongst young people. Data from the 2021 General Social Survey, showed that the ability of New Zealanders over 16 to speak Te Reo Maori in day-to-day conversation is improving quite quickly. Since 1918, the number of people being able to speak more than a few words rose from 24 per cent to 30 per cent. The figure for those under 35 is 41 per cent. There is a huge uptake in enrolments in courses to learn Te Reo Maori with figures shooting up 76 per cent over a decade, reaching more than 34,000 by 2022. The increase is largely driven by Pakeha (people from European backgrounds) wanting to learn the language. The number of Pakeha students has overtaken Maori students for the first time.

No going back! Young Maori, who are bilingual and used to their language being treated with respect, see Luxon’s downgrading of Te Reo as an attack that makes them feel like they are less of a people. They are the children and grandchildren of the ‘70s activists, and they deeply understand what the older generations have gone through.

Having fought for more than half a century to revitalise Te Reo and achieving so much, Maori, with their long proud history of defiance and militancy, are resisting the assault. They have many Pakeha standing with them.

Last December, on the day the new parliament commenced sitting, Te Pati Maori called a National Day of Action against the government’s Maori policies. Huge multicultural crowds heeded the call to action. The protests included car cavalcades, which drove along major arterials at walking pace disrupting traffic for hours.

Then in January, Kiingi Tuheitia, the Maori king, convened an important national hui (meeting) to bring Maori together to hold the government to account. About ten thousand people travelled to the North Island town of Ngaaruawaahia for the protest meeting.

There is a groundswell of resistance in opposition to the Luxon government’s attempts to turn back the gains of half a century. Waitangi Day, the country’s National Day, saw more than 80,000 people visit Waitangi where the treaty between Maori and the British was signed 180 years ago. This crowd, the largest in over 30 years, cheered the final leg of the hikoi (march) as it entered the treaty grounds. A tradition for 40 years, the Waitangi hikoi is a cornerstone of the Maori protest movement. It starts at Cape Reinga and marches 200 kilometres south to Waitangi. Ruben Tipari, organiser of the hikoi, told the crowd, “we want our people to not just hikoi together and then go home … back to our individual lives. We want them to sustain this resistance. Sustain this solidarity.”

Lifeblood of a culture. Like Te Reo Maori, many languages are threatened globally — a third of the world’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers left. The rate of language loss is estimated at about one language every two weeks. When Australia was colonised, there were more than 250 distinct First Nations languages. Today only 120 are still spoken. As a consequence of assimilationist policies that mirror the pattern in Aotearoa, all are vulnerable with the most spoken First Nations language — Walpari — having only around 3,000 speakers.

Language is the foundation of First People’s identity. Many First Nations are oral societies. In these societies, language holds stories, protocols, history and customary law. When a language is lost, the link to the historical and cultural past is severed.

It is necessary to address the systemic injustices that have contributed to the decline in the use of Te Reo Maori. Only then will it be possible to say that the language is no longer in danger. Te Reo Maori remains vulnerable because of the brutalities of colonisation which stole the land and suppressed culture. Land loss and language loss went hand in hand as Maori were driven from their rural communities and integrated into the urban capitalist economy. Today, Maori are among the poorest section of the working class. They are over-represented in low-paid jobs, with many working in the service sector and labouring jobs.

Unite and fight! The coalition of chaos — comprised of National, ACT and NZ First — has reignited the Maori protest movement, which is fighting to defend the treaty and Te Reo Maori itself. Maori are disproportionately impacted by Luxon’s, assaults on collective bargaining, cuts to the minimum wage and a draconian new regime of sanctions on welfare recipients. Meanwhile rents are soaring and food insecurity worsening, with almost 10 per cent of the population relying on food charities.

To consolidate the fightback, what is needed is a united front of working class organisations to bring Maori, Pakeha, Pasifica and immigrant workers together to fight the Luxon government’s entire reactionary agenda. Alongside the fight for housing, increased welfare and union rights, the defence of the Treaty of Waitangi and respect for Te Reo Maori must be central demands.

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