Why we have so much to thank the activists for

18:18, Mar 25 2012

Last Friday I was lucky enough to speak at a powhiri welcoming the new principal to my children's primary school. It was a big day for the school.

Welcoming a new principal is a big deal in itself, but it was also the first time the school had undertaken a powhiri and it was primarily led by the kids themselves.

The incoming principal was supported by teachers, whanau and students from his current school and it was a moving ceremony watching them farewell someone who they obviously cared about and the way they handed him over to his new school.

Many of the kids present may not actually have understood the process or the symbolism of what was occurring at the time but it was clear that the process itself had them fascinated.

And as I spoke to the visitors and the children in Maori (followed up by an English translation) it struck me how different things were in 2012 to what I had experienced as a child attending a mainstream school in Aotearoa. Back then the idea of a powhiri at a mainstream school would not ever have been considered.

Which got me thinking about the process of change and how Aotearoa 2012 and its attitudes to things Maori is a lot different to Aotearoa 1976. And how one of the primary reasons for that change is because of Maori activism and the Maori protest movement over the last 40 years.


One of the early goals of the Maori protest movement was the promotion of te reo Maori and Maori culture to counter the effects of years of active discouragement from speaking Maori in school and years of assimilationist policies.

By the early 1970s, therefore, Maori language and culture was in a perilous position.

That spurred a new generation of Maori leaders to stand up and actively work to halt the further loss of the Maori way of life, sometimes in the face of open hostility from wider New Zealand society.

But undeterred by what mainstream society may have thought of them they continued to fight for what they believed to be right. And as a result of this refusal to accept the status quo a number of ground-breaking programmes were established including Maori Language Week, Te Kohanga Reo and Kura Kaupapa Maori and eventually Wananga.

The Te Reo Maori claim to the Waitangi Tribunal (lodged by Taranaki kaumatua Huirangi Waikerepuru) led to the passage of the Maori Language Act and recognition of Te Reo as an official language of New Zealand.

This contributed other changes such as the official recognition of Maori place names including recognition of Taranaki as an official name of our maunga.

These gains have led to a point where Maori is now regularly heard on radio waves and on television. To the point where the idea of a powhiri and other Maori protocols are far more widely understood if not participated in.

And while many people may think of Maori activists as being Tame Iti-esque in appearance the reality is that these activists included a range of everyday people from kaumatua and kuia to university students. They were all concerned for the future of their language and way of life.

The protest movement push for recognition of te reo Maori is simply one example of the positive effect of activism on New Zealand society. And while some New Zealanders may still not believe these effects have been positive, from where I sat on Friday watching a sea of young faces engaging in a new cultural experience, expanding their minds, I didn't see a down side.

All thanks to the political and social activism of our people over a generation ago.

Our nation has a pretty good history of peaceful protest events both large and small which have helped shape our history and identity. From movements such as Parihaka and Women's Suffrage to the 1981 Springbok Tour protests and anti-nuclear movement.

As recently as last week a number of New Plymouth ratepayers gathered to protest at the council's latest rating proposals.

And while I'm sure none of these people would have viewed themselves as activists, they clearly felt strongly enough about the issue to voice their position to the authorities.

I guess it all depends on who's doing the classification.

I am reminded of the words of the political activist, professor and novelist Eliezer Wiesel.

"There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice - but there must never be a time when we fail to protest".

Taranaki Daily News