Te reo Māori isn’t being forced on NZ, we’ve just finally stopped suppressing the language – Gary Dell
OPINION: By Gary Dell
I live in Aotearoa New Zealand, but I grew up in New Zealand.
One of my great-grandfathers was a man called Ben Keys. During the turn of the 20th century he travelled the country mapping tribal lands. His diaries are in the Alexandra Turnbull Library in Wellington and his maps are still used today during Treaty settlements.
He spoke fluent Māori – not just what is commonly understood now as Māori but several different dialects. Most of which are extinct now.
In 1908 he married Katarina Rangikawhiti Te Mihiarangi Butts. They had eight children. All his children spoke te reo Māori. This was three generations from me.
His daughter, my grandmother, was Mavis Gwendoline Keys. My eldest sister Billie was named after her … (best not to ask).
She was born in 1920 and grew up ashamed of her Māori heritage, as being mixed race was seen as lesser. She spoke te reo but would have died rather than let mainstream New Zealand of the time know it.
Oddly enough my granddad Douglas Dell, the man she would marry, grew up trilingual as he not only spoke English but Māori and Egyptian. This was two generations from me.
My dad is Ken Dell, he was born in 1944. He grew up in Te Puke and due to local Māori playmates, his dad’s and his grandparents’ influence, grew up bilingual in English and te reo Māori.
When he was 7 he was caned for the grand crime of having a private conversation at school, a conversation that he and his mate held in Māori. Government policy at the time on the Māori language was the Native Schools Act, which came into force in 1867 and was finally repealed in 1987.
The policy basically boiled down to beat the language out of the child. This was rigorously enforced. My dad never spoke te reo Māori again … at school. He was also discouraged from speaking it when he joined the military.
Unlike today, the military of the 1960s-80s didn’t embrace the Māori warrior ethos it does today. Dad still speaks conversational Māori but he’s never forgotten or forgiven for being beaten for speaking his native language and the betrayal when his mother sided with the school. This was one generation from me.
So from 1867 till 1987, there was an act to suppress a people and their culture, heritage and language. Under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, this is considered an act of genocide and is a war crime, but here it was government policy for 120 years.
It wasn’t until the early 1980s that it started to become common to hear te reo Māori on the TV and that was the humble ‘kia ora’ – and those words were considered controversial.
In 1987 when the Act was repealed and te reo Māori was made an official language of New Zealand it hadn’t been enforced in over a decade but it didn’t mean that te reo was going to make a comeback.
Nor was there any attempt to promote Māori, it just meant that the attempts to suppress it became covert rather than overt. Funding for Māori language classes just didn’t happen in many places, and often didn’t exist at many schools or, if it did, only if there was interest, and wouldn’t be done properly for decades.
From 1987 to the mid-2010s there was lip service paid to te reo Māori, mainly with replacing a few place name signs so they were bilingual.
It wasn’t until 2004 that there was a television channel for te reo Māori and up until the last decade there have been few classes on Māori culture or history taught at schools past Waitangi Day and Māori language month.
Even then those lessons are about a primitive stone-age people which isn’t incorrect but it doesn’t tell the whole picture … covert rather than overt.
So the true irony of people claiming Māori has been forced upon them because it’s spoken on the TV, added to the national anthem and seen in place names and used and pronounced correctly a lot more often now, is overlooking the fact that for 100 years English was literally beaten into their fellow New Zealanders at school.
Many of them were their schoolmates, it was actually, physically forced upon Māori children for generations.
My name is Gary Dell, I was born in 1972. I grew up in Browns Bay in Auckland during the 70s-80s. My dad never spoke Māori around me, no one did, as such I barely speak a word. I can remember people who would pretend to have Greek or Italian heritage rather than admit to having had a Māori ancestor. Mixed race was still seen as lesser.
I went to high school in 1985-88 and the language options at those schools were Japanese and French. My wife, who went to school in the Far North, is a Pākehā and she speaks more te reo Māori than I do, but then her school actually taught it due to a large Māori population.
My name again is Gary Dell, I look Pākehā, I am of Māori descent, I claim Māori heritage, I’m on the Māori roll for the elections. But I don’t speak the language.
This is my generation.
Ko tenei taku pepeha poto ki te taha ō tōkū Pāpā.
Ko Ngongotaha tōkū maunga
Ko Rotorua tōkū roto
Ko Te Arawa tōkū waka
Ko Ngati Whakaue tōkū hapū
Ko Tama Te Kapua tōkū rangitira
Ko Mavis Keys tōkū kuia
Ko Douglas Dell tōkū koroua
Ko Ken Dell tōkū pāpā
Ko Vivian Lake tōkū whaea
Ko Gary Dell tōkū ingoa
Ko Te Raro Ō Te Rangi toku marae
Tēnā koutou, Tēnā koutou, Tēnā tātou katoa.
• Gary Dell is a union organiser and occasional writer and lives in the Manawatū.
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