OPINION: Language “worrier”’ than a “warrior”.

About 3000 indigenous languages are under threat. Professor Rawinia Higgins, Toihau o Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori wrote an Opinion piece for Sunday magazine on how far we’ve come to protect te reo Māori and how far there is to go.

 Extracted from Stuff’s Sunday magazine’s February 6, 2023, edition.

OPINION: I was asked what is it like to be a Māori language warrior? I find the term “warrior” interesting. It conjures up ideas of a powerful individual battling against adversity, fighting for what they believe in. I am no Xena, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, or Māori activist and leader Hana Te Hemara and although I am the Māori Language Commissioner, I probably spend more time being a “worrier”’ than a “warrior”.

 Don’t get me wrong, my ancestors are from Tūhoe and Ireland so fighting for what I believe in is in my DNA. However I’m also tasked with leading the Maihi Karauna (Crown Māori Language Strategy). And while we are on track to reach some lofty targets by 2040, we are a long way off.

 Sadly the same cannot be said for the rest of the world: our planet loses a language every 40 days. For our Pacific relations, globalisation, climate change and severe weather events have a devastating impact on language survival.

In December I represented the Pacific region on the Global Task Force for the Decade of Indigenous Languages at the launch and the UN General Assembly in New York. I urged world governments to do what ours did 35 years ago: protect your indigenous languages in law and make your indigenous languages your official languages. When we track the language journey our nation has been on, we know that using the law is one very powerful thing a government can do.


 Spreading the language far and wide (kia māhorahora te reo) is the objective of the Maihi Karauna and that relies on normalising our language. This requires New Zealanders from all walks of life to value te reo Māori and actively support it. Normalising means ensuring our communities are given opportunities to use te reo in all spaces and places, whether a little or a lot.

 I am always heartened by the collective efforts around the country to ensure that te reo is a living language. More organisations are adopting an approach to normalise the use of te reo Māori as part of their core work.

Whether it is in signage, greetings, translations, songs or being able to choose te reo as the language when you’re checking out your groceries at Countdown. Seeing, hearing and using our indigenous language has a profound effect on how we see ourselves as a nation.

 2022 was the year of te reo Māori anniversaries: 50 years since the Māori language petition was placed on the steps of Parliament, 40 years of Te Kōhanga Reo, Māori language television programmes and 35 years since te reo became an official language and the establishment of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori – The Māori Language Commission.

 It is hard to believe how far we have come over the five decades, yet despite all our efforts I am always amazed at how some things never change.

I get a lot of emails and messages to tell me we’re not doing enough to revitalise te reo. Many more telling me we’re doing too much and to stop “ramming [te reo] down our throats”. We’re accused of language trauma because we encourage people to learn te reo, told off for not publicly shaming incorrect pronunciation and routinely blamed for Siri/Alexa/Google Maps shortcomings.

So I look forward to sitting on the Toitū panel at the Auckland Arts Festival on March 26, to compare stories with the first Māori Language Commissioner, Sir Tīmoti Kāretū, who was once refused permission to advertise job vacancies in te reo. Something that would be illegal in 2023.

I will enjoy chatting with te reo exponent Pānia Papa whose work helps ensure te reo has no limitations in the modern world. Two warriors and a worrier… I write this worried about what to say… making sure I say it correctly because I will be on a panel with the gurus of the language… I worry that I worry too much… it’s Waitangi weekend and the Toitū panel is next month. Maybe I will worry about what to say next weekend.