Kia ora to an enlightened attitude towards te reo

01:20, Aug 02 2010

Like a lot of Pakeha, I try to keep a low profile during Maori Language Week.

It's not that I don't appreciate the annual celebration of New Zealand's native language – it's just that I am deeply embarrassed by the fact I know so little of it.

I can't even introduce myself in te reo, which is pathetic considering I can do it in French and Japanese.

If there is one thing that makes me consider the reasons for my inadequacy in this area, it's Maori Language Week. And without wanting to pass the buck, I think the education system let my generation down when it came to learning te reo.

The only languages taught at the schools I went to came from Europe. At Wellington College, there were Maori kids everywhere but zero Maori being taught. Of course, if your name was Rangi Hohepa and you wanted to study Latin, you were in luck.

It didn't even occur to me how ignorant I was until my final year of school. Along with the rest of the prefects, I was leading 1200 young men in a full-on haka when it dawned on me that I had no idea what the words coming out of my mouth actually meant. It turned out that none of us did.

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So why haven't I done something about my shocking lack of Maori in the years since? The answer is a mixture of laziness, procrastination and fear. Laziness because I haven't got off my butt and made the effort. Procrastination because I always tell myself I'll get on to it in the future. And fear because I feel bad enough about the problems facing many Maori to want to compound things by ballsing up their language, particularly on the airwaves.

Inevitably and boringly, some readers will now be writing these thoughts off as political correctness, which tells you just how determinedly some people rationalise history to make themselves feel good. However, instead of reciting Maori statistics for everything from infant mortality and life expectancy to imprisonment and literacy, I would like to remind everyone about something that happened only 26 years ago.

In 1984, Naida Glavish of Ngati Whatua was working as a telephone toll operator when she got into trouble for answering calls with the exotic greeting "Kia ora". Her supervisor told her off and insisted she use only English greetings. When Naida refused, she was demoted.

Thankfully, the story was leaked and, following public debate, Naida got her old job back. While it had a happy ending, that little bit of recent history tells us a lot about how anti-Maori a lot of New Zealanders were not that long ago.

And while some will cry that the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction since 1984, I'm not sure it has.

Take Nelson, for example. Look around this city and tell me what you see that suggests anyone was here before whitey.

Go down to Tahunanui Beach and you'll find a statue of Abel Tasman, a Dutchman who anchored in Golden Bay in 1642. He didn't even enter the bay that somehow ended up with his name.

It's a little better on Wakefield Quay. Chris Finlayson's mural features the word Aotearoa, Tim Wraight's lovely carving has a bicultural feel, and some Maori history is included on the Early Settlers Memorial Wall. However, there is nothing in the area that tells the Maori story with the volume of that statue of grumpy-looking British settlers.

Head into town and, with the exception of the visitor information centre and Wakatu Incorporation's offices, there is little sign of tangata whenua (people of the land, for those of you who are even more ignorant than me). Inside Wakatu's HQ there is a magnificent carving, but most people don't know it's there.

Sure, the city's heritage interpretation panels are improving, and I love what the council has done under the Aratuna Normanby Bridge, but I can't help thinking that Nelson needs a major Maori artwork in a prominent place. Something big that reminds Pakeha we weren't the first people here and reminds Maori that Nelson, or Whakatu, is their home and that our society values them and their culture.

Who knows? It might even inspire a few more of us to finally learn some te reo.

The Nelson Mail