It was only a generation ago that Sir Pita Sharples' mother and other Māori students had their language "beaten out of them", the academic reminded TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning.
Sir Pita recalled the tears of joy he shed years later, when his mum finally "broke the shackles of colonisation" and started speaking te reo again.
"It's still a long way to go, but (attitudes) are changing," the former Māori Party co-leader said as New Zealand kicks off Māori Language Week.
"My mother was...subject to the laws of the day - a hiding, a strapping, if you spoke Māori in the school ground," he said. "You've got to understand what that means: A whole race was hit corporally for speaking the only thing they knew.
"My mother said when they argued they had to jump out on the road, out of the school grounds, and have a good old fight or a row and then come back into the school. It was a real thing. It wasn't just a one-off shot. It was beaten out of them."
That treatment of the language is directly related to some of our modern day problems, including the high proportion of Māori who are homeless and in low-paying jobs, Sir Pita suggested.
"They've been supressed," he said. "It effects the way to you look at life and you feel secondary."
As for its impact on his own life, Sir Pita said he never got a chance to learn te reo from his own mum.
"I grew up in a little village - the Māori elders spoke Māori to themselves and English to us, and we weren't taught any Māori at all, so we grew up Māori-less," he recalled. "Then I went to a boarding school where they spoke Māori...and so I started to learn. It was my goal.
"And still my mother would speak to me only in English. Then one day in my last year, I was head boy, I got this letter. I recognised my mum's writing on the envelope - 'Oh good, money!' - so I opened the envelope and it was all in Māori. And I cried. She had broken the shackles of colonisation. She just finally admitted that she's been processed. And from that day on she spoke Māori all the time to us kids."
Māori Language Week serves as an important counter balance to the many New Zealanders who still have the mindset of a century ago, he said. The next step to righting a historical wrong, he argued, will be to have the language compulsory in schools.
"That (mindset of beating the Māori out of students) has carried right through even now," he said. "People feel really good about standing up and saying, 'Maori's a waste of time', stuff like this. They feel that confident about it. So we're not even past that stage.
"A lot of people don't know this story properly and they should learn. And then they'll understand their neighbour."