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Māori studies expert shares 'inspiring' history of how Māori Language Week came to be in Aotearoa

As New Zealand celebrates Te wiki o te reo Māori, or Māori Language Week, a Māori studies lecturer has shared the significant history of how the week came to be.

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Vini Olsen-Reeder says a petition delivered to Parliament in 1972 sparked generations of action. Source: Breakfast

In 1867 the Native Schools Act came into force in New Zealand, a plan to phase out native schools.

Professor Vini Olsen-Reede says the act didn’t ban te reo in schools, but it did incentivise the teaching of English if a school wanted funding from the Government.

He says the effect of that on Māori was quite complex, which included corporal punishment.

“It means that a lot of students in those native schools at the time were subject to lots of different kinds of treatment.”

Many Māori children were punished for speaking their first language at school, which then led onto the next generations missing out.

“Some of them might have been physical or more mental forms of abuse in those schools,” says Olsen-Reed.

“There aren’t any records of people actually recording their corporal punishment acts on children for speaking Māori, which kind of lends itself to the idea that people probably knew it was wrong. They probably knew it wasn’t necessarily allowed but they were doing it anyway, which is quite sad.”

Fast forward to 1972, and the Māori language petition was delivered to Parliament asking for active recognition of Te Reo Māori.

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The Māori activist group, Ngā Tamatoa, alongside the Te Reo Māori Society initiated the nationwide petition, which had over 30,000 signatures and became the starting point for a significant revitalisation of te reo.

It was delivered on September 14, 1972, which a few years later became Māori Language Day, and later Te wiki o te reo Māori.

Olsen-Reed says it was a massive amount of signatures for that time and was an immense amount of work. 

"The petition sparked a whole range of people to gear into action and I think that's one of the things that is most inspiring about that time.

"It inspired absolute generations of people to do anything they could to revitalise the language, both Māori and non-Māori.

"I think the movement that we have today and the fact that I'm sitting here talking to you is a real tribute to the work that they’ve done and continue to do."