Mind your language: the backlash against the te reo revival

Credit: Original article can be found here

Meng Foon​ remembers it was just two little words. Tēnā koe. Just two words.

This was a while back. Before he was Race Relations Commissioner, Foon was a councillor in Gisborne and later its mayor. He sent a newsletter around the community, with that greeting: tēnā koe.

He didn’t expect it would frighten anyone, or even surprise anyone. But a response came back, almost like clockwork. It said: “That’s not the language of this country.”

Do we hear that less often now, that kind of sentiment, or variations on it? Maybe, in general, we do. But there are occasions when it flares up, an intolerance of te reo as a sign or expression of some greater intolerance or fear about all things Māori. This looks like one of those times.

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon remembers the controversy caused by Dame Hinewehi Mohi singing the national anthem in te reo at a Twickenham All Blacks’ game during the 1999 Rugby World Cup.

Simon Young

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon remembers the controversy caused by Dame Hinewehi Mohi singing the national anthem in te reo at a Twickenham All Blacks’ game during the 1999 Rugby World Cup.

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These are strange days for Māori and politics, and the growing use of te reo is again a focus. Place names, greetings, familiar phrases: for some New Zealanders, these words represent a threat.

In Tauranga last month, Kim Williams​, the spokesperson for a newly formed ratepayers’ advocacy group, was delivering a routine Māori greeting when she was drowned out by a chorus of jeers and hoots. “Excuse me,” she fired back. “I’m giving you a welcome.”

After a recording of the event leaked, she claimed that only two or three “abusers” were responsible for the derision, and the rest of the noise came from reasonable people shutting them down, yet the situation seemed volatile enough to warrant the input of conservative radio host Peter Williams​, who was acting as MC.


Lower Hutt coffee shop Espresso Rescue tries to use te reo all year round, not just during Maori Language Week.

“I thought that was exceedingly rude,” Williams told them sternly. “We have two official languages in this country, te reo and sign language. We speak English as well.

“If people wish to speak te reo, I don’t have a problem. I don’t see anything wrong with a greeting in one of the official languages of this land.”

It was one of a series of incidents that prompted Tauranga journalist Tony Wall​ to lament that his beachside city had been shamed by racist incidents. The others were an arrest in relation to a video that reportedly incited violence, hate speech and death threats towards Māori people and culture, and a petition claiming that democracy is being taken away from those who don’t identify as Māori.

Three months earlier, in Paraparaumu, a group of year 12 students from Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Rito​, a te reo immersion school in Ōtaki, were subjected to racial taunts and abuse.

The students had been invited to an official event to support local iwi who were gifting a Māori name for the new Kāpiti Island gateway centre, Te Uruhi​.

Rawinia Higgins, deputy vice-chancellor Māori at Victoria University of Wellington, and Māori Language Commissioner, urges people not to be bystanders.

Kevin Stent

Rawinia Higgins, deputy vice-chancellor Māori at Victoria University of Wellington, and Māori Language Commissioner, urges people not to be bystanders.

“Why do we need to listen to this monkey language?” one member of the public muttered.

“Why are they speaking Māori? I should speak Chinese,” another said.

Tumuaki (principal) Heni Wirihana Te-Rei​ told Stuff that the Ōtaki students, who were also reportedly heckled as they performed a haka, “have never been exposed to such in-your-face racism”.

“They’ll carry this for the rest of their lives,” said Meng Foon​, who joined Kāpiti Coast mayor K Gurunathan​ for a meeting with the shaken Ōtaki students.

Go back another couple of months to the end of 2020. An ugly racist slur was spray-painted on the sign of Te Wharekura o Arowhenua​, a Māori school for primary and secondary students in Invercargill.

How would you respond? According to a report by RNZ, principal Gary Davis​ spoke with the kind of understanding that comes with being sure you are on the right side of history.

“There is no way we can support or condone these sorts of degrading and racist comments, but I’m convinced once this person gets over their personal hurt, they will realise the hurt they’ve caused to others,” Davis said.

They were just as sanguine at the top of the South Island two months earlier when a vandal defaced a sign that said “Haere mai ki Whakatū”​ (Welcome to Nelson), covering up the Māori name and replacing it with the English version, Nelson.

“It is disappointing that this has occurred, [but] we will continue to increase the visibility and use of te reo Māori within our community,” Mayor Rachel Reese​ said.

In Wellington in July 2020, political candidate Troy Mihaka​ had to clean up his election signs after someone covered up his authorisation in te reo with one urgent word that sounded like an angry demand. It said: “English.”

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon says there’s no need for people to feel threatened.

Chris Skelton/Stuff

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon says there’s no need for people to feel threatened.


What’s happening? Are they isolated incidents or do they reflect something deeper? Are these and other similar expressions, which are heard on radio, read in letters to newspapers and shared on social media, the last gasps of an embittered minority who say the unsayable or is it a sign of a growing anti-Māori sentiment, a backlash against the rapid “Māorification” of New Zealand?

Both ideas are partially true. People say we notice racism more, and are quicker to call out that which we might once have quietly disapproved of.

“We need to think of what we would do when or if we see others, particularly youngsters, attacked because they are speaking or singing in te reo Māori,” says Rawinia Higgins​, deputy vice-chancellor Māori at Victoria University of Wellington, and Māori Language Commissioner.

“Don’t be a bystander, do something to let those other people know they are not alone.”

Higgins notes that when she sees complaints about te reo, there is often a uniformity, as though they were tools in a political campaign.

There is no doubt there is a political effort to create a sense of crisis around “Māorification” or worse: “Māorification by stealth”.

Both opposition parties, National and ACT, have tried to stoke a sense of unease around a social climate in which Māori culture and language are increasingly central. The silent minority sees the Government dedicate $108 million to Te Ahu o Te Reo Māori​, a programme designed to upskill 40,000 New Zealand teachers in te reo over four years. It sees a new history curriculum putting Māori at the centre. It sees Matariki coming as a public holiday in 2022. It sees Māori wards in local government. It hears whispers about a mysterious document called He Puapua​.

Historian and former Labour politician Michael Bassett​ helped set the scene when he joined forces with two other former politicians, Rodney Hide and Don Brash, in a blogging triumvirate at the start of 2021.

Dr Michael Bassett lamented the replacement of European names by Māori ones in a blog post this year.


Dr Michael Bassett lamented the replacement of European names by Māori ones in a blog post this year.

An early entry from Bassett, on New Zealand’s “modern cultural cringe”, lamented the replacement of European names by Māori ones. Were we still New Zealanders, Bassett wondered, or were we all now “Aotearoaians”​? He spoke for those who couldn’t keep up with the changing names of government departments and were confused by random outbreaks of te reo on RNZ. He imagined the Māori Language Commission “churning out new words at 200 kph”.

Of course, he didn’t use the Māori name for the commission, Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori​.

People will say in private, but not in public, that this one article, which appeared briefly on the NZ Herald website, was surprisingly influential.

“Waka Kotahi​ for Transport? Why?” Bassett asked. Foon hears this kind of thing from people, too, when they are confronted by a state agency with a Māori name. Are they, as Pākehā, even allowed to use it?

Foon has a foolproof answer to that one.

“What’s your phone called?” he asks them.

“Samsung,” they say.

“Are you Korean?” he asks.

Foon, himself a fluent te reo speaker, is a reassuring voice that keeps a lid on the debate, refusing to let it boil over. There also seems to be little public appetite for racial division along the lines of the Foreshore and Seabed controversy that was successfully exploited back in the days of “iwi versus Kiwi”, as a cynical but successful billboard campaign had it in 2005.

“There are always people who don’t believe in the Treaty of Waitangi or think the earth is flat,” Foon says. “But there’s no need for them to feel threatened.”

The He Puapua report from Te Puni Kōkiri​ outlines the steps that should be taken to get New Zealand to fulfil its obligations under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The signing of the declaration was a result of the John Key Government’s arrangement with the Māori Party. The same Government was in place when the Māori Language Bill passed in 2016, requiring the Crown and Māori to work together on revitalising te reo.

In its vision for the year 2040, the He Puapua report hopes to see that te reo is flourishing, its use is widespread and its integrity is protected, and that “all New Zealanders will embrace and respect Māori culture as an integral part of national identity”. To get there, te reo would have to be compulsory in primary schools.

“We encourage New Zealanders to let go of unnecessary fear about He Puapua’s recommendations,” Foon and Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt​ wrote this month. “Attempts to stoke fear into anger aren’t helpful and it is becoming increasingly evident that such moves are out of step with the majority of New Zealanders’ beliefs.”

They described the parallel governance that might result from He Puapua as similar to indigenous political systems in Canada and Nordic countries.

“There are certainly parts of our communities who will feel ‘threatened’, however, I suspect that is related to their lack of understanding or appreciation for bilingualism or multilingualism, rather than specifically about te reo Māori,” Rawinia Higgins says.

“As a nation we are predominantly monolingual compared to other countries, and consequently this can cause some to feel inadequate. This is changing, however, as people recognise the advantages of being bi-or multi-lingual.”

Meanwhile, the avenues for complaint are closing down. The Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) announced in March that it will no longer consider complaints about te reo on radio and television.

The BSA had received 27 enquiries about the use of te reo in the preceding nine months, which was five times more than in the same period the year before, but it can no longer be considered a breach of standards to broadcast in te reo.

A spokesperson for RNZ says the BSA’s guideline has become useful when it replies to listener complaints, which come and go but usually peak every year around Māori Language Week.

Foon is impressed by the BSA’s position and says the Human Rights Commission is thinking of doing the same thing.

“It is a human right to have Māori as the native language of Aotearoa,” he says.

Similarly, New Zealand’s Media Council ruled in February that a complaint about the cheerful phrase “Kia ora, Aotearoa!” on the Stuff website had no grounds on which to proceed.

“Furthermore the greeting complained about is widely used and widely understood by most inhabitants of these islands,” the council said. “They need no translation. It is up to each news organisation the extent to which it uses Māori words.”

Wellington City Councillor Jill Day led the capital’s bicultural project.


Wellington City Councillor Jill Day led the capital’s bicultural project.

Bilingual places

There are the greetings on the radio and the welcomes in community halls, and then there are the changing place names of Aotearoa.

Four Wainuiomata High School students launched a petition last year to get Hutt City Council to ensure that half of the city’s names would be Māori by 2025.

The same kind of thinking was formalised by neighbouring Wellington City Council in 2018, kicking off with a new name for Civic Square, Te Ngākau​. The policy itself was called Te Tauihu​ and aimed to make the capital a te reo Māori city by 2040.

“There was a small group who opposed it and did so in an overtly racist way, but this was really on the fringe,” says Wellington City Councillor Jill Day​, who led the development of the policy.

“There were some councillors who would use coded language about delays to express their discomfort with correcting place names or the use of dual names in places like Te Ngākau Civic Square or Paekākā Botanic Gardens. Their discomfort generally came through in coded language, comments like ‘this is not the right time, not a high priority, it’s not the right place’.

“There was clearly ignorance about Wellington’s colonial past and the importance of taking steps to address historical wrongs.”

Day adds: “In reality the most important part of the process has been improving the way that we work with mana whenua​. The revitalisation of te reo Māori must be led by Māori and in Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington) that should be mana whenua.”

Further north, Rotorua declared itself a bilingual city in 2017 and Ōtaki aimed to be the first officially bilingual town, some 40 years after the town had no Māori speakers under 40.

Language revivals like that one are obvious success stories, despite the sad incident down the road in Paraparaumu. While conscious of the occasional backlash and complaint, Rawinia Higgins also focuses on the positive. As she said in March, the minority opposed to change becomes smaller every day.

During last year’s Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori​, or Māori Language Week, Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori came up with the Māori Language Moment.

“Exactly 1,057,000 of us stopped to celebrate te reo at the same time,” Higgins says. “That’s one fifth of the entire population. Te reo is uniting New Zealanders from all backgrounds. Importantly the overwhelming majority were younger New Zealanders. They are not threatened by te reo. They see it as part of their identity as a New Zealander, because it is.

“Te reo is bringing us together,” she adds. “It isn’t driving us apart. We have people learning te reo in mosques, rest homes and Buddhist temples. Our digital campaign reached thousands of New Zealanders overseas who want to learn te reo. All of this kind of change will not be welcomed by some people.”

When Foon thinks back to the racial divisiveness of New Zealand politics in the early 2000s, the uproar that greeted Dame Hinewehi Mohi​ when she sang the national anthem in te reo at Twickenham or the controversy when Dame Naida Glavish​ dared to greet callers with “kia ora” as a telephone operator in the 1980s, making her the Rosa Parks​ of the te reo revival, it’s like night and day. It gives him hope.

Tangata Tiriti​, or those non-Māori New Zealanders, are filling up language classes. Kids learn songs and kapa haka at school and correct the pronunciations of their doddery parents.

Foon says: “The younger and working generation are ensuring they are respectful and are learning it.”

It’s a long way from a complaint about two words.