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The Journey of Te Reo Māori

Key content


Key content

In this clip we explore the derivation of the word "whakapapa" – and the importance of this concept.

We look back to the beginning of the world; from the "nothingness" came light and life – and language.

We highlight the Māori story of creation – with Ranginui (the skyfather) being separated from Papatuānuku (the earth mother) by Tāne (the guardian of the forests, who releases oxygen for living).

Things to think about


Things to think about

How might you integrate the creation myth into your teaching?




Tame Kuka - Te Reo Māori Advisor, School Support Services, Waikato University:
Te tīmatanga o te ao. As I’ve said, we’ve all come on journeys, and everything is about journeys. And in terms of the Māori dimension, a Māori way of looking at things, we too have the beginning of the world. And whakapapa is important.

Matua Pa Blackie, he aha te kaupapa o tēnei kupu te whakapapa.

Matua Tuteira Pohatu - Kaumātua, Te Reo Māori in English-medium Schools:
Whakapapa, just on the word itself is to put one thing on top of the other.

Whakapapa also, personal whakapapa, your own, tells you about events in time.

If we go back to ... right back to Māui, you find that as you come down that line – that whakapapa where we’re talking about laying stuff – that there were events that happened at a certain tūpuna nē?. Something happened during that time.

So, in other words what it’s telling us, the sort of history that happened right up until your time.

So there’s a whakapapa for everything, not just for you as a person.

The trees, they have a whakapapa, the rocks, fish ... no matter what it is, they all have a whakapapa. And it’s a journey as our rangatira here has spoken about, a journey where we all take part in.

Tame Kuka - Te Reo Māori Advisor, School Support Services, Waikato University:
That’s about the first time I’ve heard it, whakapapa being explained as in terms of events rather than names. I’ve always associated whakapapa with names, but now that I think about it, obviously whakapapa is about events as well.

The Christian belief is that there is a supreme being, and we have that belief as well in Māori – Io.

And although this is a very shortened version of the karakia, it does outline the main passages through time. About nothingness, absolute nothingness to darkness to light to life. And so that’s the whakapapa for us as a people.

Now when you look at this, you know the scientists around the world say that the universe started with the big bang theory. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, then all of a sudden there was this great explosion and planets and whatever flew out into space and are still travelling.

Now, if you look at this karakia here, it’s exactly the same explanation.

Nothingness – ko te kore ko te pō.

Darkness – ko te pō uriuri pō nakonako pō tangotango. All shades of darkness through time, millions of years.

Ko te wheiao, ko te ao mārama, ko te ao, tihei mauri ora.

And all of a sudden, out of all this darkness there was this explosion of life – tihei mauri ora. Exactly the same theory as the Big Bang one.

Once the world then started, Io; then there was the sky god and mother earth, Ranginui and Papatūānuku. And then there children, the gods.

Okay, and they were separated. The earth was encircled around – enclosed with dust and gas – so that nothing was able to get in.

And so that was Ranginui, and the children inside knew that in order for life to occur, those gases and that dust and cloud had to be, you know separated, so that light could get in and life could form.

And so they all tried to separate them, but who separated them?


Why was it him? What do trees do? What do they give off? Oxygen.

What do they take in? Carbon dioxide, all that rubbish stuff.

And they give us life and that’s eventually how life then starts to grow. And once all this dust and cloud and ice and rocks around the earth parted, then life grew.

So you know the scientific beliefs and thinking in the world is ingrained in Māori as well.

And we had then the beginnings of life, and we had you know Nature, and we had the water, and we had everything else.

This is where we believe all languages started.

And what sort of languages were they?

There was the language of te taiao , the language of nature.

Te papaki o te tai, and I mean papaki is to move and slap against and move against. It was the movements of the seas against the rocks; it was the sound of waves crashing against rocks; it was the murmur of little waves as they just lapped around the rocks. And when storms came, and there was an angry reo and there was the harshness of waves smashing against rocks.

So there was the language of te tai, te hoihoi o te hau, the winds; Tāwhirimātea had his own language, and we also know the gentle murmuring of breezes, we know the fierce sound of high winds.

And that’s with all language, and there’s no difference to te reo Māori – it started then as well. And that is why a lot of te reo you know, is based around nature. It is so close to the concepts of nature.

So, languages can be traced way back to the beginnings of the world. Every language not just te reo. However, we can trace it through whakapapa. I don’t know about other languages.

Okay, so in terms of the language itself, where does it come from? Mai i hea? What’s happened in its journey? Okay.

Now we’re getting down to the world that we know

1840 was the Treaty of Waitangi, obviously then, you’ll realise that there must be an infiltration now of another language or languages. Not only did European bring in te reo ā-waha, the language of the mouth, but they brought in other types of languages with them didn’t they? Body language okay, facial language. All sorts of languages that we don’t think about.

But by ten years after the treaty, that’s a huge stat that, that the Pākehā population surpasses the tangata whenua. Imagine the implications of that in terms of language usage. In terms of what is being seen as the dominant and predominant language. And not just language but everything that flows from language.

1867 the Native Schools Act: only the English language is allowed in the schools. But not only that – and worse I think, in terms of the social dynamics of a people – that the only curriculum areas that were allowed to exist in native schools were things like carpentry, cooking, animal husbandry, not things like maths and Latin and science. The so-called academic subjects were not allowed in those schools.

1896: the Māori population the lowest ever. You know you can see, just in terms of a few years, 40 to 50 years how the population dropped. So with it goes language, with it goes culture, with it goes custom.

And what comes in the vacuum that takes its place? The other thing. So the impact on te reo must have been huge then.

Still in 1913, 90% of the children were native speakers, obviously, yeah. Because most of the people at home still spoke the language, it was only in the institutions like schools and churches and towns and that, that English was the dominant language.

Thank goodness 1920s, Āpirana Ngata and those brave people down there, they realised if they didn’t do anything that everything is going to be lost.

In the '40s, urban drift. The farming community was, not in disarray, but it was decline and that there was more work in town for more people. So everyone drifted to town.

In the '50s they had this policy called "Pepper Potting", which was when you moved to town and Māori applied for homes, they were given homes but they were not allowed to stay in communities ... they would put one Māori family in that street, another one in that street and another one in that street so that it would make them better tuned to community much quicker. But what they didn’t realise was the social implications of the loss of who they were, the loss of their language, there was no support around them, and so on.

In the '60s – and I quite remember this, my grandmothers – they were wrapped in Playcentre. They realised the importance of education, but what they didn’t realise was that the education that they were offering their mokopuna was based around an English language. So you can see all these things that are starting to .... sort of... whakapapa, you know on top of te reo.

1970s, Ngā Tamatoa. Thank God for them, too. A group of young Māori university students who realised enough was enough. And they agitated the government and the ministry and schools and universities about te reo. These people were grass roots, and the groundswell started here in the '70s.

'78, 70,000 fluent speakers around then. That’s not a bad number. But when you look at 1985, which is only seven years later, 20 000 of them had gone. Those fluent native speakers ... gone. But in between that drop there were bilingual schools, wānanga, te kōhanga reo, another milestone in the revival of te reo. Māori Language Act.

Then we come to 1995 ... you know from '78 to '95 we’re down now to 10 000 speakers. 60 000 gone. And you look at that rate of decline, it wouldn’t be long before there’s nought. Now it’s climbed to 136 700 speakers of te reo, but when you think about that, what sort of speakers? So what’s coming about is almost a new type of te reo Māori, and I suppose that’s how languages go. But I know that people have said that English has followed the same path, but the difference is that English has always had a solid block of speakers, it has never declined. What it has is changed form, it's changed shape, to cope with you know, evolution.

Māori couldn’t cope with evolution and the numbers dropped drastically. This is the tool that we’ve been given to try and help arrest that Te Marau (he holds up a book), this one here, okay?

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