"English is the language of today. Why isolate people with Māori tungā [sic] and te reo?"
The above quote is taken from the results of a survey recently conducted by the Library & Information Association New Zealand, Aotearoa Te Rau Herenga o Aotearoa.(1) The comment is indicative of an attitude held by a large minority of librarians (23%), and is indeed, possibly a view held by many New Zealanders generally. This article seeks to address the issue of ambivalence and hostility toward the Māori language by tracing its history from the time of colonisation through to the present day. It also looks at why librarians in particular have a professional obligation to support the language's continued development and use.


As a nation we have always acknowledged Māori culture as part of our heritage. From New Zealand's Coat of Arms to the haka performed by the All Blacks, Māoritanga is part of New Zealand.(2) Central to any cultural existence is the oral tradition, captured in song, poetry and story. Language is central to the individual and groups identity, being the principal medium by which knowledge, ideas and cultural values are transmitted.

During the colonial era many settlers were bilingual and missionary instruction was given in the Māori language. The Bible and prayer book were translated into Māori. Governor Grey's book Māori Myths and Legends written in Māori was read by large numbers of settlers. Church authorities, who were mainly Pakeha, recorded their proceedings in Māori and when a Westminster-style government was established after 1852, its proceedings were recorded both in Māori and English.

At the time of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, Māori was still the dominant language in the social, commercial and political arenas. However, by the 1850s the numbers of settlers increased mārkedly. The control of education affairs passed from Māori and missionary hands to the colonial government and the missionary run schools were required to teach all instruction in English. Māori language and culture disappeared from the school environment and curriculum and it was not until the 1930s that some aspects reappeared.

Later, in the 1940s and 1950s social forces within Māori communities were also diminishing the viability of the language. Factors included Māori urban migration after the second world war, the dominance of English language broadcasting through diverse communications media and the belief held by many Māori parents that English was going to be more beneficial for their children.


On 6 February 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between Queen Victoria's British Government and Māori chiefs. The Treaty allowed the Crown to establish government over the country while guaranteeing Māori sovereignty over their lands and possessions. Māori were also accorded the rights of British citizenship. The Treaty is seen as the founding document for this country that formalised an agreement between a colonial minority (Crown) and a native majority (Māori).

The link between the Treaty and te reo Māori was highlighted in 1985 when a case was brought before the Waitangi Tribunal. Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i Te Reo (Inc.) and Huirangi Waikerepuru in their submission to the Tribunal deemed that the Treaty's principles and broad objectives would not be achieved if there was not a recognised place for the language of one of the partners in the Treaty.(3) In their view, the place of the language in the life of the nation was indicative of the place of the people.

The Crown's response to this was the designation of the Māori language as an official language in 1987. It also established a Commission for the Māori Language (Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori), that would advise, monitor and promote the Māori language, and issue certificates of competency to interpreters.

Article 2 of the Māori version of the Treaty of Waitangi states that the Crown guarantees to Māori te tino rangatiratanga o ō rātou taonga katoa (the full chieftainship of all their possessions). The Waitangi Tribunal's declaration that the term taonga (possessions) included the Māori language was adopted by Parliament in the preamble to the Māori Language Act 1987.

The dominance of the English language has seen the use of the Māori language diminish. However, by the 1970s Māori, conscious of the implications of the decline of the language, were beginning to react in positive and innovative ways.

The past two decades have seen the renaissance of Māori culture and language, and a renewed call from the Māori world for the language to be recognised in the wider New Zealand context.


For a language to continue to be spoken naturally, it must have a core of native speakers, ie. people who speak it as their first language. It is estimāted that today only 50,000 people are fluent speakers of Māori; that is, 1.5% of the total population, or 12% of the Māori population.(4)

This figure may appear healthy in comparison with many of the languages spoken throughout the world, particularly those of other colonised indigenous minorities. However, the true state of the Māori language becomes clearer when one realises that the majority of these 50,000 speakers are middle-aged or older. The need to develop Māori language programmes and provide appropriate resources is therefore vital for the survival and maintenance of the language.

In 1977 the first bilingual school was set up in Ruatoki, in the Bay of Plenty. There were three more in 1980 and by 1987 nine were established. In the 1990's approximately 171 schools were catering for over 8000 students. At the same time the Te Ataarangi movement led by Katarina Mātaira and the late Ngoi Pēwhairangi introduced a new method to the teaching of Māori language.

One of the most significant and successful Māori language initiatives, the Kohanga Reo movement, gained momentum in the early 1980's. This programme, based on the total immersion of Māori children in Māori language, culture and values from birth, was made available through early childhood whānau centres. In 1981, the first kohanga reo began at Pukeatua. One year later, 107 were established and by 1988 over 500 were providing education for approximātely 8000 (ie. 15%) of Māori children under five. At the end of 1990, 616 had been established with a projected figure that almost 20,000 children would have participated in kohanga reo by the end of 1995.

The specific Māori learning style developed in kohanga reo was then extended to primāry education in the form of Kura Kaupapa Māori. This was as a direct response from Māori who were committed to the survival of Māori language and saw mainstream primāry schools as unsuitable to the needs of kohanga reo graduates. The aim is to produce bilingual students who achieve an equally high competence and proficiency in English and Māori.(5)

The first kura, Hoani Waititi, was established in 1985, operating ini­tially with no Government funding. In 1993, 23 state-funded kura were operating with 11 private kura set up but awaiting approval for state funding. Fourteen more are currently in the process of being established.(6) The National Government, in its budget projections for 1995, allocated a further $12 million to establish more kura kaupapa.

Kura Kaupapa Māori and Te Kohanga Reo initiatives are key factors in the revitalisation of the Māori language. Along with Te Ataarangi and Whare Wānanga (Universities) they are attempting to reverse a trend which has seen te reo Māori move perilously close to extinction. However, lack of written material and teacher resources combined with difficulties in finding the available resources continue to undermine the full potential for development.


The library profession in New Zealand has long acknowledged the need to address the specific information resource requirements of Māori.(7) However, it is mainly in the last decade that te reo Māori has been recognised as an important component of these needs. This recognition has largely come in response to trends in Māori education as outlined above, as well as the large influx of researchers working with Māori language materials in pursuit of Waitangi Tribunal claims.

As the preeminent professional body for librarians and information workers, the Library & Information Association New Zealand, Aotearoa Te Rau Herenga o Aotearoa (LIANZA), has endeavoured to provide guidance for its members in the area of bicultural development and services for Māori. This guidance has gained momentum over the last five years in particular, and is evident at annual conferences, in the professional literature, in special projects and in the changing rules and structure of the Association itself.

The Association's manual on Public Library Standards is currently being redrafted and is expected to provide more explicit guidance to members regarding commitments to the Treaty of Waitangi and services for Māori clients. A research project, Te Ara Tika 2, is also currently underway to examine the information resource needs of Māori clients.

Previous research results indicate that although New Zealand librarians are not all of one mind on the issues of biculturalism and services to Māori, most of the Association's members are positive about the bicultural direction LIANZA has taken.(8) In some cases library staff are favourable towards bicultural development but lack the support and endorsement of their funders or governing authorities. However, although most librarians acknowledge the need for improvement, a significant minority are less positive about the recent momentum of change, with some comments directed specifically at the relevance of te reo Māori.(9)


There are compelling reasons why it is important to recognise the relevance of te reo Māori. New Zealand is the only place in the world where Māori is spoken as a native tongue. As such it is a taonga (treasure) unique to this country that deserves protection and nourishment. Linguistic diversity is a global reality that underpins cultural identity. The enhancement of cultural identity through te reo does not entail cultural isolation. As Māori Language Commissioner, Timoti Karetū states, "In time, the progress of the Māori language will not only be an indicator or a renewal of the Māori culture, it will also serve as a litmus test of Pakeha commitment to a pluralistic society".(10)

The Treaty of Waitangi and legislation such as the amendments to the State Sector Act (1988) and the Local Authorities Act (1974) oblige all agencies funded by central and local government authorities to be cognisant of the aspirations of Māori people. This is frequently reflected in mission statements, charters and strategic plans. Many libraries, including those in the public and education sectors are therefore in a position to draw on this as a foundation for change.


New Zealand librarians face the challenge of helping to create an environment that supports and nurtures the Māori language. This challenge may be approached in a variety of ways, including:
• the installation of bilingual signs
• the provision of library promotional material in Māori for distribution among Māori communities
• the provision of quality Māori language resources
• the adoption of Māori subject headings in catalogues and indexes
• the appropriate care, description and promotion of Māori language heritage material eg. manuscripts and newspapers
• the employment of library staff with Māori language ability
• Māori language training for library staff, especially basic pronunciation skills
• Māori language displays
• the use of Māori greetings
• close liaison with Māori language clienteles, eg. kohanga, kura, local iwi, etc.
• the adoption of a bilingual name
• the production of appropriate, user-friendly access tools to Māori language materials eg. indexes, bibliographies, inventories and path finders
• special Māori language activities eg. story-telling, waiata, book readings, etc...


Te reo Māori has always been a precious and unique ingredient of New Zealand culture. Its current decline in fluent speakers is largely attributable to a prolonged period of damaging education and social policies, as well as changing social dynamics such as urban migration.

Since the 1980s there has been a revitalisation of the language through initiatives and events including Kohanga Reo, Te Ataarangi, Kura Kaupapa Māori, Te Taura Whiri i te reo Māori and the Waitangi Tribunal claims process. However, the critical mass of fluent speakers remains smāll and the future of te reo Māori as a viable language of communication is not assured.

Librarians are well placed as educators and professionals to contribute towards the creation of a more conducive Māori language environment. Many libraries (eg. public libraries and school libraries) are funded by bodies, which have a legislative obligation to be responsive to the needs of Māori. Although some librarians are hampered by unsympathetic governing authorities, most are positive towards bicultural development and appreciative of the directions taken by LIANZA. A sizeable minority however, is yet to be convinced or impressed by bicultural imperatives, including the need to support te reo Māori.

The nourishment of the Māori language is integral to the development of a positive New Zealand cultural identity, based on partnership and diversity. Let's join the momentum for change and work together for a positive future.

Tahuna te ururoa, kia tupu whakaritorito te tupu a te harakeke.
(Burn off the undergrowth so that new shoots of the flax bush grow)

Pai Mārire
Hinureina Mangan

1. Draft survey results report. LIANZA, 1995
2. Findings of the Waitangi Tribunal relating to Te Reo Māori and a claim lodged by Huirangi Waikarepuru and Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i Te Reo (Inc.), 1986
3. ibid
4. Waite, 1. Aoteareo, speaking for ourselves. Learning Media, 1992
5. The benefits of Kura Kaupapa Māori. Te Puni Kokiri, 1993
6. ibid
7. MacDonald, Tui. Te ara tika, Māori and libraries, 1993
8. ibid
9. Draft survey results report. LIANZA, 1995
10. The Dominion 2.6.95