While in some countries around the world the culture of the indigenous population has been erased or marginalised by western colonisers and settlers, New Zealand has taken steps to ensure its indigenous Māori traditions exist side-by-side with non-native ones.

Perhaps the best example of this is the assimilation into rugby culture of the haka, a traditional Māori wardance performed shortly before kick-off by the All Blacks, New Zealand’s phenomenally successful rugby union team.

The haka is performed by Māori and non-Māori players, and has also been performed by the country’s other national sporting teams, including the rugby league team, the women’s rugby union team and the ingeniously nicknamed ‘Tall Blacks’, the country’s basketball team.

Māoris performing the haka wardance.
Māori warriors perform the haka wardance

And since 1975, New Zealand has been encouraging its citizens to celebrate the indigenous language, too, by engaging with Māori Language Week, a government-sponsored event aimed to raise public awareness of Māori revitalisation, learning and public usage.

A change in attitude

The New Zealand government hasn’t always been so accommodating of Māori culture.

From the mid-19th century, the use of Māori in schools was phased out of the curriculum, resulting in increasing numbers of Māori people switching to English as their first language.

By the beginning of the 20th century, all Māori members of parliament were university graduates who spoke fluent English.

And by the 1980s, fewer than 20% of the Māori spoke the language well enough to be classed as native speakers. Even many of those people no longer spoke Māori at home.

Subsequently, many Māori children failed to learn their ancestral language (also known as ‘te reo’, meaning ‘the language’), and so it wasn’t passed on to subsequent generations.

A Māori place name near Hawke's Bay, New Zealand.
The world's longest place name is a Māori one

Although Māori-language recovery programs were initiated in the 1980s, it has been a struggle to halt the decline.

Reasons for this include the loss of older native speakers, the supply of good quality teachers never meeting demand, and accusations of excessive regulation and centralised control, alienating some of those involved in the movement.

The long road back

Today, Māori is spoken by 3.7% of the overall New Zealand population and by 55% of Māoris, according to a 2015 government survey.

It’s also one of the country’s official languages along with English and New Zealand Sign Language.

Maori man sticking out his tongue. During Māori Language Week there will be various indigenous events.
A Māori warrior

Even non-Māori speakers use some Māori words in their everyday speech. For example, it is common to hear ‘Kia kaha’, which means ‘be strong’.

‘Kia ora’ is often used instead of ‘hello’, ‘good luck’ or ‘best wishes’ and is also the name of a New Zealand radio station and a global soft drink.

And it’s not unusual to hear an English-speaking New Zealander say that they’re going to get some ‘kai’(i.e., ‘food’).

Although learning Māori has hitherto not been compulsory for New Zealand school children, that could soon change.

High-level support

In 2018 New Zealand’s Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta said that the government wanted Māori to be a ‘core subject’ in the country’s primary schools by 2025.

And the country’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern - who wants to raise her young daughter speaking both English and Māori – has also said the language is 'part of who we are as a country'.

This summer more than 150 teachers embarked on a $12 million pilot programme to increase the use of Māori in the classroom.

New Zealand’s Associate Education Minister Kelvin Davis said the programme will help ensure correct use of the language and contribute to the Government's pledge to integrate Māori into all classrooms by 2025.

"It's important that Māori students are able to hear and speak and see their language being spoken on a daily basis by their teachers, by other non-teaching staff, because the Māori language is a taonga (‘treasure’),” he told Radio New Zealand in July, 2019.

The government aims to have a million residents speaking at a basic level by 2040.

How does Māori Language Week help?

Māori Language Week is always held around September 14, the day that commemorates the presentation of the 1972 Māori language petition to the New Zealand parliament.

During Māori Language Week some fluent speakers of the language pledge to speak only Māori, while workplaces, schools and local communities organise activities and events in support.

Māori Language week features traditional events.
Māori women in traditional dress

There are workshops, lectures and book launches throughout the country and in 2018 the country’s capital, Wellington, hosted a large parade around its streets.

Despite the efforts to grow the use of the Māori language it remains on the UNESCO list of endangered languages.

But with a population and government that is respectful and supporting of its indigenous culture, New Zealand seems intent on ensuring ‘te reo’ is around for a long time yet.