Celebrating Te Reo Maori – the Maori Language

Celebrating Te Reo Maori – the Maori Language

David McNabb
Sun 24 Jul

This is the last of the 3 services that I am coordinating while Glynn our minister is on leave.  I want to thank members of the social justice team, the worship committee and others who have supported our efforts.

Today we are focusing on Te Reo, the Maori language, and joining with the nation in celebrating Maori language week, or given we are a bit late, Maori language month!

Ann McKenzie’s comments note our relationship with Te Hinota Maori, the Maori Synod of our national church.  This relationship evokes the covenant between Pakeha and Maori promised in the Treaty of Waitangi.  It notes that Te Maungarongo, the national marae of PCANZ in Ohope, is one we all share in our community of faith.  Visiting the marae is one of the ways we strengthen our relationship with Te Hinota Maori, the Maori synod.

Dorothy McCarrison has spoken about the work of the Restorative Justice Trust and its partnership with our local iwi Ngati Whatua.  The ministry of reconciliation offered to those affected by crime.

Maori language is not only spoken but also sung.  The first waiata or song we sang during our service today was Whakaaria mai also linked to the hymn O Lord my God through its shared melody.  Whakaaria mai is itself based on a loose translation of the last verse of the hymn “Abide with Me”.  Even though the meaning of both sets of words is different there is something about the melody and the way Howard Morrison first immortalised it during the 1980’s.  It has been popular ever since with Maori and Pakeha alike.  I’ve sung it in work and marae settings and even had it at our wedding many years ago!

Ehara i te mea is a waiata often sung in Maori and social service settings.  I became familiar with it through my social work practice.  Where I work at Unitec, teaching social work, it is one of the waiata learned by students.  The meaning of the waiata focuses on the power of love and the way in which it is a gift handed down to us through the generations.  A sentiment that echoes within the Church.

Poi E is one of the most popular songs in NZ and is having yet another renaissance with the launch of a documentary last week at the Auckland film festival – Poi E: The Story of Our Song, directed by Tearepa Kahi.  My wife Pam and I were fortunate to attend the launch at The Civic.  We thoroughly enjoyed the documentary on how Poi E was created in 1982 by Ngoi Pewhairangi with the music and Dalvanius Prime with the lyrics.  Poi E is performed by the Patea Maori Club, hailing from Pam’s home town.  After the launch of the documentary we were treated to a performance by members of the Patea Maori Club who were present.  Pam couldn’t resist staying on to greet members of the Club, many of whom are relatives.

Part of the significance of Poi E is that it was the first Maori language pop tune that became a hit.  It had been deliberately created to encourage young Maori in particular to treasure and learn the Maori language.

So why bother with the Maori language?  Isn’t it enough to have English as the language that we all speak in NZ, which has also become the main international language?

Te Reo Maori is an official language of NZ formally recognised in 1987 and was the first language spoken in this land.  It evokes our history, the Treaty of Waitangi as our founding document, and to being a bicultural nation in a multicultural society.  Language articulates culture.
English is certainly the most functional language in NZ and even internationally.  However it is not a ‘neutral’ language and was imposed as part of the colonisation of NZ.  At St Luke’s our commitment to social justice means we are interested in the Waitangi Tribunal findings that restore land illegally taken by the Crown and others, and more broadly restore other treasures such as Te Reo Maori.
Our Christian heritage connects us to missionaries who were active in the agreement to the Treaty of Waitangi and translated the English language version of the Treaty into Maori.  The Maori language Bible remains a significant book for Maori.
Our own PCANZ has committed to a bicultural church where the relationship with Te Hinota Maori, the Maori synod is privileged.  As Ann mentioned.  The use of Maori language is part of that relationship and commitment.
Christians are used to engaging with many languages: the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible, the Latin tradition of the Western church, and many languages that come to us through sacred literature and music.  New Zealanders from the British tradition like myself tend to only speak English whereas many other Kiwis are familiar with more than one language.
Maori have advocated for a revival of the language which has formally been supported by government since 1986.  The Maori language strategy, the establishment of Maori language education facilities and the establishment of Maori radio and television stations all witness to this.  More non Maori speaking Te Reo will help avoid its demise through limited use.
Maori language was further popularised by the singing of the national anthem in Maori at national events including rugby matches which is now well established.  Who would have thought this possible in an earlier generation?  These days I generally come across the Maori language more outside of church than inside it.  NZ society is slowly embracing more Te Reo and a unique identity when placed alongside English.
Increasingly Maori language is used in public life and to not have it featured becomes the problem.  Globally it is our point of difference, as the marketers would say.  The culture behind the language offers the majority Western population wisdom from a different culture rooted in the Pacific.

So I encourage you to at least learn to pronounce Maori language if you don’t currently do so.  We had lessons in the language available here at St Luke’s recently and may do so again, you can even learn online.  Try singing in Maori and practising greetings.  Practice chanting the Lord’s Prayer in Maori as we have done again today.

We come back to the shared wisdom between Maori culture and our Christian tradition in the whakatauki or proverb read out earlier:

He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

What is the most important thing in the world? It is people! It is people! It is people!