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Bid Underway in New Zealand to Revive Maori Language

FILE - People walk past Maori language signs in Wellington, New Zealand, Sept. 13, 2018.
FILE - People walk past Maori language signs in Wellington, New Zealand, Sept. 13, 2018.

GISBORN, NEW ZEALAND - New Zealand has launched an official campaign to revive the indigenous Maori language. The ambitious project is part of an official strategy that sees the revival of the language as a key part in national identity and reconciliation.

The language has been surprisingly resilient on its own. Case in point – an album by Maori heavy-metal band Alien Weaponry recently went straight to number one in New Zealand. But census data has shown that the number of indigenous speakers in country has fallen.

Glenis Philip-Barbara, the former head of the Maori Language Commission, is optimistic about the future though.

“There aren't as many people speaking Maori as I'd like, I mean, around two-in-five Maori can have a conversation in te reo Maori (the Maori language), which is still quite low. But, look, we've made huge gains since the days when we were at two per cent. That was the 1970s, so we are steadily growing and, of course, without a proper command of the language you don’t actually have that in-depth understanding of your own culture,” Philip-Barbara said.

Maori TV is publicly funded. Its presenters and journalists speak only in Maori.

It is a far cry from when children were beaten or whipped at school for speaking their native tongue.

Tina Ngata, an indigenous rights campaigner, believes colonization has had terrible consequences for language.

“We talk about this idea of cultural genocide and that one of the forms that colonization takes is that the policies, the legislation, the funding, the structures really lend itself towards only letting you survive if you survive as a colonial version of yourself, and it is much more difficult to survive as a Maori. Our resistance to that is to continue to flood our communities with beautiful Maori-speaking, Maori-singing ceremonial and contemporary versions and on-going, evolving versions of ourselves,” Ngata said.

Millions of dollars of government money has been promised to help revitalize Maori. Like many other New Zealanders, the country’s prime minister, Jacinta Ardern, is eager to learn.

"What is the most important thing in the world? The people, the people, the people," she said.

Words such as kia ora (hello), and kai (food) have long been part of New Zealand English. It is hoped that by 2040, one million Kiwis will be able to speak basic Maori.

Indigenous New Zealanders make up about 15% of the national population.