Volume 4 Number 5
Hence We Stand Tall
01 May 1991
New Zealand balances on the edge of old-fashioned maps. But its Maori people can teach the world a thing or two about rediscovering cultural pride and identity. Edward and Elisabeth Peters investigate a renaissance nurtured in 600 pre-schools.
As the welcoming karanga rings out, we walk slowly onto the marae (sacred meeting place) of the Maori people at Ngaruawahia. It is over ten years since our last visit to Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud, as the Maori people call New Zealand. But time has not faded the memory of a Maori hui (gathering). The experience envelops body and soul.
We are here with several thousand, including people from overseas, for the second World Conference of Indigenous Peoples. For four days we live together, sleeping on mattresses in large rooms. Warmth and welcome are showered on us. Our nervousness slips away, we lose our fear of tears, as well as laughter.
The gathering is run by the people of the Kohanga Reo movement, a Maori grassroots programme of cultural and linguistic revival. What energy they emit! Hustled from meeting to workshop, we notice a mood of purposefulness in marked contrast to much of what we saw among Maori people a dozen years before. What has happened?
We ask Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, who has been at the heart of Kohanga Reo since its conception in 1980. Her face tells tales of struggles fought and mountains climbed. Once she starts talking, she doesn't seem to need to pause for breath - a trait she shares with the didgeridoo player who has come to the conference from Australia.
Her approach is no-nonsense: the secret of the transformation, she says, was the Maori decision to take responsibility. `I said to people, "You've been belly-aching for years that you don't like what the Pakeha (white New Zealanders) are doing. Up off your behinds and do it yourselves." '
Maori have every reason to blame their European colonizers for turning them into second-class citizens. But they seem to have recognized that blame, however justified, has the power to paralyze. In moving beyond it, new energy and initiative have been released. Anger has been channelled into strategy rather than blasting the opposition. People are talking of a Maori renaissance.
To understand the shift, cast your mind back to the 1970s. The Maori people, 12 per cent of New Zealand's population, were in a state of depression. In the previous two decades they had moved in large numbers to the urban centres in search of employment, better housing, health care and education. In the process they felt they had to become different people, blending into a social culture which was foreign to them.
Separated from their tribal roots, battling to survive in a Pakeha-dominated society, Maori became increasingly marginalized. They were (and still are) grossly over-represented in the prisons, the dole queues and the ranks of problem drinkers, while correspondingly under-represented in higher education, the professions and power structures. The media reinforced the stereotype of a problem race.
In 1975 a study of Maori people's views was commissioned by the government's Department of Maori Affairs, for which Mrs Tawhiwhirangi worked. She remembers the subsequent meetings well. 'We said that nobody was to speak of a "Maori problem" again. We knew the problems absolutely, but we kept wallowing in them. This time we were going to leave them aside and talk about the joy, the wonder, the beauty of being Maori.'
It was the beginning of 'Tu Tangata', the 'stand-tall' policy, a bold experiment in transferring initiative to Maori people. `You have to have faith in people,' says Mrs Tawhiwhirangi. `Some let you down, but more don't than do.' Women's workshops, small business enterprises, language initiatives, arts and crafts centres began popping up like mushrooms.
In 1980 a large tribal hui was called to consider the future of the Maori language, which was thought close to extinction. In the early part of the century Maori elders had encouraged their people to speak English, believing - with the anguish born of experience - that this was the only road to achievement in a Pakeha-run society. The policy had led to several generations unable to speak their own language.
One of the Maori elders told the hui, `We must stop expecting the Department of Education to fix our language. When a child is born we've got to do as our ancestors did, put it to the breast and speak Maori.'
And so the concept of kohanga reo, or language nests, was born. They were in effect to be pre-schools conducted entirely in the Maori language, with the aim of making every Maori child bilingual by the age of five. The idea of total immersion - in Maori values as well as language - was conceived by Dr Tamati Reedy, then Assistant Secretary for Maori Affairs. 'Kohanga Reo is providing the fundamental shift that is going on in the minds and hearts of our people, that we can lift ourselves up, we don't have to depend on anybody else,' he says.
The issue was far more than the saving of a language. It concerned the restoration of authority, dignity and spiritual power (mana) to a people. As an official report put it, `Without the Maori language there can be no Maori culture and the survival of a unique Maori identity.'
The government offered N7.$45,000 to start five pilot schemes. The Maori people, highly excited, came in large numbers to see what was happening. Such was their response that within 12 months they had set up 112 kohanga around the country. Today there are over 600.
Those wishing to start up a kohanga were offered seed funding of $5,000 (enough for one child) and warned that on average a further $45,000 would have to be raised. This came mainly through parental contributions of $25 a week. In the first three years of the movement, government contributed $1.5 million and Maoridom put in about $30 million.
It was not until 1990 that kohanga were put on the same financial footing as other pre-schools, with a full government grant on a per-child basis.
How, many ask, did a people who were economically depressed manage to make these sacrifices? `There was no magic,' says Mrs Tawhiwhirangi, who has administered the programme since its earliest days. `We simply said to people: "You are valuable".'
From the start Kohanga Reo has been built on the principle of inclusion and responsibility, and carried at the heart of the extended family. Parents and grandparents, men and women are all involved and all decisions have to be taken collectively. The fluent Maori speakers, mainly older people, contribute not only their language skills and spiritual leadership, but also their knowledge of history. For the Maori oral tradition is one of the strongest in the world, passed on from generation to generation since the great canoe migrations brought the first Maori to New Zealand over a thousand years ago.
The kaupapa (philosophy) of Kohanga Reo is holistic - caring for mind, body and spirit. Traditional methods of education are used: story-telling, dance, drama, games and ritual. Prayer and meditation are a natural part of every day. The kohanga stress connectedness to nature and awareness of family roots. Children receive dignity, pride, fluency, confidence and discipline.
The adults involved discover creativity and a sense of achievement. Women have taken the leading role. The pay-off has been startling. Last year there were over 5,000 Maori women in business, compared with about 150 in 1984. Most of them had had a Kohanga Reo management experience. Meanwhile the kohanga have helped men to become more involved in the care of the younger generation.
In spite of the success, the tasks ahead are formidable. Only 15 per cent of Maori children of pre-school age are currently enrolled in a kohanga. There are still far more fluent speakers dying than are being nurtured to replace them.
There is also the problem of what happens to the children when they leave the kohanga. Peter Goddard, Auckland District Manager of the Ministry of Education, praises Kohanga Reo for having `forced other levels of education to be more reactive to the demands of Maori people'. But he acknowledges the difficulties of providing enough support for Maori language and cultural development within the state school system. While 11 Maori primary schools have been established, this is only a beginning.
`We have a monocultural education system,' says Peter Sharples, one of the moving spirits behind these initiatives. `What we are trying to do is to produce Maori options. Then we will see kids who value things Maori and are able to make a more meaningful Maori input into New Zealand society.'
Although Kohanga Reo is now almost universally acclaimed, there were objections at first. Mrs Tawhiwhirangi remembers telling social welfare critics: `You - not you personally, but society – have snuffed out every Maori initiative. You come along and say, "you're doing it wrongly", then our people say, "we'll leave it to you". Trust in these people, give them a chance. That's the contribution you can make.'
It hasn't been easy for Pakeha to do this. Many of them have been critical of certain features of Maori life. What is striking to the outsider is to see Maori themselves tackling these very problems.
Mrs Tawhiwhirangi, for one, doesn't mince her words. `I come into these kohanga,' she told one group, `and you people are smoking. One of the rules is no smoking. How can you be so concerned about the language for our children and you're smoking yourselves to death. Children model on you. You don't like the Pakeha trying to fix you. Well, fix yourselves. The answers are within you.'
Alan Duff is another straight talker, a new Maori writer whose first novel, Once were warriors, sold out in five weeks. He rejects any romantic notions of modern Maoridom, an unfashionable stance at a time when the dispossessed have claimed a degree of spiritual superiority. His work depicts the worst of the `underbelly' of the Maori working class. It is a disturbing picture, but ends with optimism.
`He told the people off,' he writes of one of his characters, `shouted and speeched atem to change their ways before the ways changed them. Nor was he into blaming people, the Pakeha, the system, the anything for'
the obvious Maori problems. He just toldem: Work! We work our way out. Same way as we lazed ourselves into this mess.'
Many Pakeha, no doubt, are glad about this realism in Maoridom. But, as historian Michael King points out, `the most persistent error Pakeha have made in their association with Maori is to measure them by European standards, find them wanting and declare them to be unreliable or unsuccessful, and then blame them for this. Such a system of measurement can create genuine failures because people who are written off by others tend to write off themselves and allow their talents and initiatives to bleed away.'
Events of the 1980s, culminating last year in the commemoration of the Treaty of Waitangi which linked the British Crown with the Maori people 150 years ago, have quickened the nation's conscience.
`1990 was the year that New Zealand finally lost its innocence,' says Chris Laidlaw, former rugby star and now New Zealand's Race Relations Conciliator. `There is no substitute for honesty in human relations and we are now edging toward the admission that in terms of the relationship between Maori and Pakeha we got it wrong over and over again, and we must now put it right.'
There are still reservations among the Pakeha -`we don't have many racists in this country,' says Laidlaw, `but we have more than enough people with small hearts and still smaller imaginations' -but reparation has begun. The Waitangi Tribunal, established in 1975, is investigating Maori grievances, largely concerning land and resources. The government aims to settle all outstanding major claims by the turn of the century.
The Tribunal has played an important role in the growing self-confidence of Maori people who hitherto felt government was not willing to listen to them. What most Maori want is not takeover but to be recognized as equal partners, with a right of self-determination (te tino rangatiratanga). To many Pakeha this sounds like separatism. In reality it means control of your own development - something no Pakeha would relinquish.
Identity is at the heart of the issue. Mrs Tawhiwhirangi recalls a meeting with some Pakeha Rotarians. One criticized her for describing herself as a Maori, rather than a New Zealander -`I don't refer to myself as a Pakeha'. Mrs Tawhiwhirangi retorted, `If you have a problem identifying who you are, that's your problem not mine. I have no problem identifying as a Maori, and as a New Zealander. But you're wanting me to refer to myself as a New Zealander so you don't have to cope with me as a Maori. Allow me to be me, and find yourself, so that we can join hands.'
Political commentator Colin James rejoices in the growing Maori self-confidence. 'Pakeha too are becoming more conscious of their roots,' he says, `and that's positive for Maori. If you're unconfident of your background, you're more likely to be scared of someone else.'
Some Pakeha are still fearful. Others are wrestling with feelings of guilt. But, as the historian and elder statesman of the Maori radical movement, Ranginui Walker, points out, `guilt is not creative'. `Maori can't bring about the transformation by themselves,' he says. `Right-thinking Pakeha are part of the process too.'
The vision that sustains many is one of a bicultural society where both races contribute from their strengths and both cultures are equally valued. Some oppose this on the grounds that modern-day New Zealand is multicultural, with large numbers of Pacific Islanders and Asians. Why should Maori culture receive preferential treatment? Perhaps because it has no other home.
At Mrs Tawhiwhirangi's meeting with the Rotarians, one man said, `You must agree that to be a Maori in this country is to be at a disadvantage.'
`No,' she replied, `I consider I have a distinct advantage. You speak English, I speak English. I speak Maori, you don't. One tick to me. Here I am, not a Maori in the room. I know the drill, which fork to use, no problem. Bring you onto my marae, you wouldn't know which side was up. So who's disadvantaged?
`Let me tell you folks: to be bilingual, bicultural is to be able to live in two universes. It's an enrichment. You should not make your children the poorer for not being able to deal with another culture.'