Māori Language Commissioner Professor Rawinia Higgins addresses the United Nations General Assembly in December 2022
To mark International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we are releasing the address given by Māori Language Commissioner Professor Rawinia Higgins to the United Nations General Assembly in December 2022.
“Governments must use their power to protect irreplaceable pieces of our human identity. Aotearoa New Zealand has shown that an endangered indigenous language can become a powerful uniting force. Indigenous languages can unite nations at a time where we need to unite more than ever before. We invite the rest of the world to join us".
E ngā reo o ngā hau e whā, tēnei te reo rahiri o Te Whare o te Reo Mauri Ora ki a koutou katoa. Ko Rawinia Higgins tōku ingoa, ko au te Toihau o Te taura Whiri I te reo Māori.
To the many languages and the peoples of those languages, I bring greetings from the House of the Living Language, Te Whare o te Reo Mauriora to you all. My name is Rawinia Higgins, and I am the Māori Language Commissioner in Aotearoa, New Zealand. I’m honoured to represent the peoples of Te Moana-nui-ā-kiwa, the Pacific, the largest of the United Nations social cultural regions.
While some think oceans separate nations, for indigenous peoples we aren’t separated by oceans - we are connected by them. Our ancestors navigated, explored and settled a third of the surface of the planet, long before our colonisers. Mapping our languages along the way. As my late friend Doctor Teresia Teaiwa said “Pacific people sweat and cry salt water, so we know the ocean is truly in our blood.”
Exactly three hundred and eighty years ago this week, the first European arrived off the coast of Te Waipounamu, the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. And the first thing he did was rename the land he saw, it turned out he was lost. So when he returned to Europe, another random name was chosen for my homeland. When I passed through customs the other day, that same random name was still on my passport. Yet at home many of us are calling it Aotearoa, New Zealand.
Indigenous peoples have been fighting for basic rights for generations. The rights to our lands, environments, identity, language, and culture. Fundamentally, the right to exist as the indigenous peoples of our respective homes. We are still fighting. Like others here today, our language was banned in schools, our children were punished for speaking Māori and told it was of no value. Our language was forcibly replaced with English.
Our peoples battle for the Māori language has been fought in our homes, on our streets, in our classrooms, courts and in our Parliament. Fifty years ago, less than 5 % of Māori children could speak Māori. Today, it is now the first language of nearly 25% of Māori children thanks to our collective efforts. We are on a journey and although we are not there yet, we are making good time. It takes one generation to lose a language and three to restore it as a living language.
So how did this happen for us in Aotearoa, New Zealand?
Firstly, Māori people mobilised through grass roots community initiatives that have now become institutions of our society. Secondly, the Government used the law to protect our language establishing a Māori Language Commission thirty-five years ago and then partnering with Māori people and creating Te Mātāwai in 2016. And finally, more New Zealanders are embracing our language and are helping to normalise it. Eight in ten New Zealanders now see Te Reo Māori as part of their national identity while three in five of all parents want their children learning Māori in school.
We are a nation of five million mostly mono lingual non-Māori people. Yet in the middle of the covid lockdown when we called on our country to get one million people speaking, singing and celebrating our language at the same time, 1.1 million people joined us. While some critics thought protecting our language in law would divide us, it has done the opposite. The Māori language does not separate us. Like our oceans, our language unites us.
Despite our advances, the story is not the same across our region. If current trends continue, we will lose 250 languages by the end of the decade. And of the world’s languages, one in five are from the Pacific and they are under threat. In the Pacific, severe weather events are devastating island nations costing trillions and forcing people to move. Changes to the environment pose significant threats to Pacific peoples and languages. These are not just natural disasters; they are a result of human inaction and therefore humans must take action to address them. We cannot sit idle and allow climate change to displace Pacific peoples to other nations where their languages may not be welcomed and where they may not thrive.
Our ancestors explored and settled the Pacific Ocean using our own indigenous knowledge and our own languages. We are also on a journey today and just like in our ancestors time, there are no passengers. Everyone has a role to play, Governments have the most powerful role of all. Governments must use their power to protect irreplaceable pieces of our human identity. Languages tell the stories of humanity. They are an anchor to our past and a compass to our future. Aotearoa New Zealand has shown that an endangered indigenous language can become a powerful uniting force. Indigenous languages can unite nations at a time where we need to unite more than ever before. We invite the rest of the world to join us. Kia ora.
For the full video please watch here