Week in Review

Stop colonising the Māori language

Aaron Smale says the Crown's use of Māori language in its departments and documents is a fig leaf. He offers some words in te reo that the state should adopt properly

It’s become noticeable of late that government departments are increasingly sprinkling Māori terminology throughout their documents and the language they use. It’s crept up slowly and now seems to be ubiquitous.

It’s encouraging that the Māori language is being embraced and appreciated in non-Māori circles – long may it continue. But there is a fundamental problem with the trend in government departments. Apart from just jumping on a bandwagon, the state is colonising the Māori language to cover its own failures on policy that affects Māori. A pig by any other name is still a pig.

Take for example Oranga Tamariki. Even the name itself is problematic. The branding got off to a bad start in the English version and then Māori was used to paper over their flaws. The original name was the Ministry for Vulnerable Children. This was, understandably, branded as patronising and labelling children with negative connotations.

A Cabinet paper I saw at the time showed then Social Development Minister Anne Tolley had wanted to name it the Ministry of Children’s Futures, which besides being a clumsy mouthful raised all sorts of philosophical questions that were wider than the ministry itself. So they stuck with Vulnerable Children.

Embedded in this name is an idea (which is not limited to government departments ) of the great White Saviour swooping in to save these poor, vulnerable (brown) children. The unspoken subtext is that their useless parents are a menace and their vulnerable children must be rescued. It quietly erases the parents and whānau and then the state steps into the breach. But most of the children that are labeled as vulnerable are from whānau who are wrestling with various complications of poverty and trauma, sometimes over generations, be that addiction, stress, or just trying to put food on the table and pay the bills.

By focusing on the children and implying the problem lies only with their parents, the state can avoid talking about how its economic policies are screwing their whānau over.

When all these questions started to get a little too tricky, some clever dick (more dick than clever) did what any corporate would do – come up with a rebrand. A brand doesn’t necessarily have to have any literal meaning, it’s about emotional appeal and positioning. So the solution to these problems is branding – give it a Māori name.

The intention is to make it sound like the government department is embracing Aotearoa’s first language and trying to be culturally sensitive. The reality is something else as a blizzard of reports on Oranga Tamariki has shown – the report from the Ombudsman on Oranga Tamariki basically concluded that the removals of children were unlawful. And the majority of those children were Māori. The name change had done little to nothing to improve the “outcomes for Māori” because the inputs and underlying racism is the same.

In this colonization of the Māori language, Oranga Tamariki is the obvious example but it’s not limited to that. Housing New Zealand is now Kainga Ora. This linguistic gloss doesn’t address the problem that too many Māori – and many non-Māori – are homeless or living in sub-standard housing. If you’re living in a car or a shitty, overcrowded house it’s doubtful whether a Māori name for the old State Housing would make your life any better. Nor will the state magnanimously building a couple of dozen “affordable” houses that sell for $600k a pop (how many of these have already been flipped for a handsome profit?). A Māori re-brand is not addressing the fundamental issues that led to this housing issue for Māori – which are, a rubbish education system that lets Māori kids down, low-paying jobs and over-priced houses. Labour took a tilt at house prices by considering a capital-gains tax as one measure. But they chickened out because they didn’t want to offend people who had more than one house. It takes guts to make structural changes and they lost their bottle. Far easier to tart up Housing NZ with a Māori name to show how culturally sensitive they are.

But then Labour has a history of this. Ardern’s mentor Helen Clark touted the Closing the Gaps policy only to ditch it when she got jittery about a possible backlash from Pākehā New Zealand. She even dumped it before Don Brash got on his racist high-horse.

This change without any change has a long history. The old Native Schools that began shortly after the Land Wars as a way to assimilate Māori were renamed Māori Schools in 1947. But Māori children still got whacked for speaking their mother tongue in Māori schools – even adding the word “Māori” itself doesn’t change anything. You might as well have named them Martian Schools for all the difference it made. My grandmother experienced this violence before 1947 and some of my older aunties also did after 1947. Changing the names of government institutions to a Māori language version doesn’t change their behaviour.

And now we have a promise from the PM to have a new holiday for the Māori New Year, Matariki. This led to gushing approval from all quarters, with many pundits calling it a political master stroke. Which is a load of horses**t and those pundits need to get out more. This change won’t make a jot of difference to whānau sleeping in their cars, although they might be able to look up through the windscreen at the stars of Matariki and be grateful it’s a holiday. “Be kind” doesn’t cut it.

All this co-opting of Māori language and culture by the state is little more than cynical marketing and doesn’t address more pressing and structural issues that Māori, and the country at large, actually face. The state’s cultural appropriation of Māori language is not Tino Rangatiratanga, it’s just the state colonising the Māori language (ie. theft) while it continues to implement policies that continue to disadvantage Māori. And those policies (or lack of) are hurting others as well. Ask a millennial about buying their own home and they’ll probably look at you like you’re announcing you’ve just tested positive for Covid. While introducing a new Māori holiday might be celebrated with gratitude by any New Zealander who enjoys a day off, it does nothing to answer the hard questions about what kind of society we actually want to be.

If the state wants a few Māori words that it wants to adopt, start with the second article of the Māori version of the Treaty of Waitangi. There’s a big Māori phrase in there that the Crown has always tried to avoid – Tino Rangatiratanga. Right now that concept might be more relevant than ever, not just for Māori but for the country as a whole as we face an uncertain future. The political, economic and environmental trends we’ve slavishly followed for decades have been exposed as not only redundant but actually dangerous. Maybe we should adopt not just a language but a way of thinking that’s indigenous to this country. Let’s start a conversation about what Tino Rangatiratanga might mean now instead of patronising attempts to use Māori language to continue denying it.

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