Rosemary McLeod: Māori are changing Pākehā, just as Pākehā changed them

The Māori Language Week Wellington march in Wellington.

The Māori Language Week Wellington march in Wellington.

OPINION: Caught in the big, boisterous march that kicked off Māori Language Week in Wellington on Monday I wondered why it took so long for us to accept that a language is a world, and we lose something by not living in it.

In a goofy, inattentive way I learned Latin and French at school, unconvinced that I'd ever need either of them, so unwilling to put an effort into learning them properly. Like many kids, I was an idiot about this. It doesn't matter if you never go to Paris or ancient Rome, or a marae. A language is deserving for its own sake.

I can still read and understand some French, in spite of myself, and even now use meagre Latin to nudge at the meaning of unfamiliar words. I'm no longer convinced that Latin is a corpse with a rusty dagger through its heart because it survives in the language we use every day. For that matter, most Pākehā already know and use far more Māori words than our parents did; we just balk at the idea that we should work at it. I get that. I'm lazy too.

Preserving the language will hopefully mean preserving tikanga Māori too.

Preserving the language will hopefully mean preserving tikanga Māori too.

No language is irrelevant or pointless, though, whatever you think as a stroppy 13-year-old. They are all worlds that open up new ways of thinking and understanding. Pākehā thought we were bringing civilisation to savages, and back in the early 19th century missionaries – my ancestors among them – took great care to learn te reo so that Māori would become Christian. But maybe to them, we looked like savages: we brought alcohol and guns as well as religion, and land wars that led to illegal confiscations of Māori land. Americans make triumphant westerns out of such conflicts. I like to think we have been quietly ashamed.

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We now live with the consequences of the lack of respect for the natural world that formed a large part of Māori language and understanding. The difference is that Pākehā have always strived to improve on nature, and where possible, eliminate it, with predictable results. Look at the state of the planet. Marvel at the plastic clogging the sea.

My Scottish great-grandfather busily felled native forest at his timber mill while becoming an expert, according to his obituary, on its many uses. The Scots were kicked off their clan lands and replaced with sheep in the 19th century – one reason for their mass emigration – and came here to eliminate forests and raise sheep, as he did. I guess the erosion of the land that followed came as a surprise. I guess nobody thought about the mass extinctions of wildlife. Not when we were bringing new wildlife here from Europe, and it was bound to be better.

I knew two Wairarapa rivers to play in as a kid, the Ruamāhanga and the Waingawa. Today the official site tells me the Waingawa is clean, but the lower Ruamāhanga has three swimming sites with a moderate risk of causing illness, and another two sites where you should swim "with caution". I'm not sure what that means, but count me out.

Māori are unimpressed with our record on the environment. The craze for dairying has gone too far, it will take decades to clean up after it, and the draining of aquifers looks like a future disaster in the making. The short-sightedness is baffling. A stronger Māori voice in government would, I should hope, have made for a more sensible approach.

Language is a symbol of our separation. I realised that when I went to a tangi when I was young, and for the first time was surrounded by Māori who spoke to each other in te reo quite naturally. It was another country I'd never known existed.

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Preserving the language will hopefully mean preserving tikanga Māori too, and why not? It's not as if we have anything startlingly better to offer as our churches empty, and we lose our traditional beliefs. Is our only measure of the value of a language always going to be its usefulness for overseas trade? Are we really that crass?

History has a way of turning full circle. Once the dodgy conquerors of a foreign country, Pākehā have become fellow citizens in a joint culture we're slowly evolving even as we kick against it. Māori are changing us, just as we changed them. Hopefully they'll be better at it than we have been.

 - Stuff


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