Katerina Mataira, moe mai ra

Dame Katerina Te Heikoko Mataira has died. Dame Katerina’s contribution to the survival of te reo Māori was enormous. She was one of the driving forces behind the renewal of the reo following generations during which its use in the education system was officially punished, causing matua and kaumatua to become reluctant to teach it to their tamariki mokopuna. She did this largely by what are essentially traditional methods; by promulgating the Te Ataarangi immersion-teaching method. Most simply and perhaps most crucially, she used the reo, illustrating that it is a living language, coining terms in reo which previously existed only as loanwords or bare transliterations; the most famous is probably ‘rorohiko’ (literally ‘lightning brain’; computer). She was also one of few authors to write prose novels in te reo, among her other works.

Her passing made me think of what is probably the greatest recent achievement of Māori — the Kōhanga Reo and Kura Kaupapa Māori immersion schooling systems, which have probably done more for Māori cultural wellbeing than any other set of initiatives. Beyond a simple mode of communication, a language represents a store of knowledge which cannot be losslessly translated; it has encoded within it māori (in the pre-Williams sense of ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ rather than referring to a race) cultural and historical meaning; and its use enables its users to tap into that baseline culture, granting them access to a resource they cannot find elsewhere. Sir James Henare described te reo as “the core of our Māori culture and mana” and asked, “if the language dies, as some predict, what do we have left to us?” and further, “the language is like a cloak which clothes, envelopes, and adorns the myriad of one’s thoughts.” Sir Mason Durie, who quoted Henare, also argues that the struggle for te reo “typifies Māori determination to assert a positive cultural identity in a contemporary world” (in Te Mana, Te Kawanatanga, p59). Many others have described the importance of te reo to Māori; these are just examples close to hand.

Dame Katerina’s death brought kōhanga and kura to my mind not only for these reasons, but because they are exemplars of effective public policy delivered through and mostly by the communities they target. They are what, if we are very fortunate and work very hard, Whānau Ora could be like. Looking at their success and looking at the potential for similar achievements in other fields, it is disappointing that the left so dogmatically opposes more initiatives along these lines, deriding them as “privatisation of welfare”, or as “pork and puha politics for Tariana’s mates” before they’ve even gotten started.


2 thoughts on “Katerina Mataira, moe mai ra

  1. I also mourn Dame Katerina Te Heikoko Mataira’s passing.
    She remains an inspiration, and I’d recommend people watch Julian Wilcox’s exemplary January interview with her.
    As for Tariana, her Te Reo is shamefully sub-par.
    The tangata of Te Tai Tokerau finally got a chance to korero recently; it’s not just “the left” where Tariana’s party lacks cred. If you don’t know, now you know.

  2. The meme that kōhanga and kura kaupapa are tremendously successful and doing really well needs to be questioned by people who are genuinely concerned for te reo. For one thing, they are now struggling desperately to find qualified teachers – not just speakers of te reo (rare enough), but speakers of te reo who are also teachers, especially subject-qualified (of course there aren’t too many high school students in Māori-immersion classes, but this is also true for mathematics). They are desperately under-resourced, were for a long time very poorly supported (part of the reason there aren’t too many young te reo speakers who should have been the first kōhanga generation out there had to go into English-medium primary schools) and they have a declining share of children in ECE and in primary school education. In the 80s something like 80% of all Māori children in ECE were in kōhanga; many, many more Māori children are in ECE now, but only 40ish% of them are in Māori-medium ECE (there is loads and LOADS of data on this in the Wai262 if anyone is interested and you should be by the way. you should be). In fact I believe in the last couple of years real numbers of kōhanga and kura students have declined, not just proportions. But we persist in claiming that they are successful because then we can think, oh, we’ve done enough! Te reo will be fine! In a sense kōhanga and kura have been successful in that they are emphatically Māori-driven and they did a lot to raise the profile of the language. But Māori need support from the Crown to keep going because the Crown is the key provider of education in the country.

    We must be galvanised now as in the 80s: older speakers, our last first-language speakers, like Katerina Mataira, are dying and there are no young people who can replace them.

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