Dame Katerina Te Heikoko Mataira has died. Dame Katerina’s contribution to the survival of te reo MÄori 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 MÄori — the KÅhanga Reo and Kura Kaupapa MÄori immersion schooling systems, which have probably done more for MÄori 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 mÄori (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 MÄori 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 MÄori 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 MÄori; these are just examples close to hand.
Dame Katerina’s death brought kÅhanga 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, WhÄnau 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.