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The Waitangi Tribunal Maori Language Claim

By / 26 July 2010

‘The language is the core of our Maori culture and mana. Ko te reo te mauri o te mana Maori. If the language dies, as some predict, what do we have left to us? Then, I ask our own people who are we?’ These were the words of distinguished Maori Battalion veteran and Nga Puhi leader Sir James Henare when he spoke, in 1985, before the Waitangi Tribunal as it heard the Maori language claim.

The claim asserted that te reo Maori was a taonga that needed to be nurtured. The tribunal’s recommendations, released in 1986, were far-reaching. They led to legislative and policy changes that assisted in the resurgence of te reo Maori from the later 20th century.

Staking a Claim
The Maori language claim to the Waitangi Tribunal grew out of mounting concern among Maori about the state of the language. There were major initiatives to strengthen the language, such as the establishment of kohanga reo (Maori language pre-schools) in 1982, but only about 50,000 fluent Maori speakers remained, most of them elderly. Action was needed, and soon: ‘Ka ngaro te reo, ka ngaro tāua, pērā i te ngaro o te moa.’ (If the language be lost, man will be lost, as dead as the moa.) The moa was gone, but if it was worthwhile saving endangered birds such as the takahe, was it also not worthwhile to save a language and the culture it supported, Maori asked? This was not only for Maori, as Minister of Maori Affairs Koro Wetere told Parliament in 1987, but ‘for the whole nation’.

Retention and protection of Maori language map
The Treaty of Waitangi, signed between Maori chiefs and the Crown in 1840, obliged the Crown to protect te reo Maori. It was claimed that the Crown had failed to do this and was therefore in breach of the Treaty. The claimants asked that the Crown officially recognise te reo Maori, particularly in the areas of broadcasting, education, health and the public service.

During the tribunal hearings in 1985 many Maori spoke of the demise of the language. Some recalled punishments they received for speaking te reo at school. Others argued that a culture could scarcely survive, let alone flourish, without its language. Kohanga reo had grown rapidly in number in three years, and even though there were more than 400 in 1985, youngsters soon lost their fluency when they entered English-only primary schools.

One land, two languages?
The tribunal noted that ‘no Maori may use his language in the Courts of New Zealand if he can speak English’. This was the result of a 1979 case involving Te Ringa (Dun) Mihaka. When the District Court refused to let him address the court in te reo Maori, he appealed to the High Court and then the Court of Appeal. Acting for himself, Mihaka relied on the Treaty of Waitangi for his case. The Court of Appeal agreed that ‘the use of the Maori language in New Zealand is a matter of public importance’; the Treaty had no legal bearing on the matter. The court based its decision on the English common law that applied in New Zealand after 1840.

The statute governing the use of English in the courts was ancient, dating back to 1362. Maori claimants noted that it was ‘ironical that over six centuries later the same statute should be invoked to protect the language of government against the indigenous language of New Zealand’.

Secretary of Justice Stanley James Callaghan acknowledged that denying Maori the right to use te reo Maori in the courts ‘may give rise to such a deep-seated sense of injustice as to prejudice the standing of the courts in some Maori eyes’. The legal situation was, he concluded, ‘at odds with our bicultural foundation at Waitangi in 1840′.

The Waitangi Tribunal agreed. It found that the Treaty of Waitangi was ‘directed to ensuring a place for two peoples in this country’. It questioned whether the promise of the Treaty could be achieved ‘if there is not a recognised place for the language of one of the partners to the Treaty. In the Maori perspective, the place of the language in the life of the nation is indicative of the place of the people’.

The tribunal noted that ‘no fair-minded New Zealander would deny them what they ask for’, but it also examined various arguments against the claim: that official recognition was an empty gesture, that te reo could not adapt to the modern world, that it was not an international language, and that minority languages should not be imposed on the majority.

The tribunal saw te reo Maori as an adaptable language that included new words. The tribunal pointed out that with official recognition minority languages had survived and flourished elsewhere. Official recognition of both languages and cultures would encourage respect for their differences.

Paths into the future
The tribunal released its report on the claim in 1986. It recommended five ways for the government to remedy the breaches of the Treaty regarding te reo: pass laws allowing te reo Maori to be used in courts and dealings with local and central government; establish a statutory body to ‘supervise and foster the use of the Maori language’; examine the teaching of te reo Maori and ‘ensure that all children who wish to learn Maori should be able to do so’; recognise and protect te reo in broadcasting; ensure that speaking both Maori and English be a necessary or desirable requirement for certain public service positions.

The Māori Language Act 1987 declared te reo Maori to be an official language of New Zealand and set up Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Maori (the Maori Language Commission) to promote the Maori language. The Education Amendment Act 1989 recognised and promoted kura kaupapa and whare wananga.

The sale of some state-owned broadcasting assets from 1990 onwards led to Maori legal action and further Treaty claims demanding a greater role for te reo Maori in the electronic media. As a result, there were further developments in Maori broadcasting, such as the reservation of radio frequencies for Maori. In 1993, Te Mangai Paho was established as a Crown entity. Its primary function is to promote Maori language and culture by making funds available for radio and television broadcasting, and the production of programmes to be broadcast.

Changes in television have been slower. In 1996 the government tested special purpose Maori television by piloting a television service in the Auckland region. Maori broadcasters saw it as a chance to make Maori television a reality, but it ceased operation in early 1997. Two years later, government approved funding and spectrum for the establishment of a nationwide Maori television channel; it launched in 2004.

- nzhistory.net.nz

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