In spite of more than 200 years of European settlement of, and presence in, New Zealand can we still hear the faint echoes of the clash of cultures or have we become a little too sensitive about our differences?
The use of te reo Maori by Opotiki District councillor Louis Rapihana at the opening of a Whakatane Grey Power meeting brough a surprising suggestion that he had insulted those who did not understand what had been said. If anyone has been insulted he has and he responded with an initial decision to take the matter to the Race Relations Commissioner. His annoyance was understandable but have both sides have since agreed to have a discussion about the issue which was a much better choice.
It is a little ridiculous to suggest that an invited guest, Maori or otherwise, would deliberately insult his hosts and if that had been his intention, he would have used the language they all understood.
The fact that councillor Rapihana was asked to open and close the meeting was a clear indication, at least from those organising the event, that they thought a Maori component was appropriate.
He is one of a growing number of Maori men who have revised the tradition of full facial moko or mataora and they would have known he was a fluent speaker of his native language so there should have been no surprises. Those in attendance would also have known that his speech, by the way it was delivered, was a prayer or karakia. That is what he was asked to do.
If he had been asked to do anything else other than recite a prayer, he no doubt would have, like most bi-lingual people, either spoken in English or translated what he had said if he had spoken in Maori.
In a uniquely Maori setting such as on a marae or at tangihanga Maori orators will not translate but most will do so at other events as they know it is impolite not to and a waste of time if the audience does not understand.
However, at almost every local body meeting in the country and even our Parliament is opened with a prayer of some sort and increasingly that observance is in Maori. Those people who have no interest in religion and no understanding of Maori are usually polite enough and intelligent enough to observe civilised protocol to go along with the process.
Not all that long ago Roman Catholics in New Zealand listen to, and repeated largely by rote learning, prayers and religious observances in Latin every Sunday at Mass which few really understood but no one got upset at the lack of translation.
In spite of huge efforts by educators and others over the past three decades it has been estimated that only about four percent of New Zealanders are fluent speakers of Maori but a growing number of people are gaining what has been called a working knowledge of the language. In the past two or three years we have seen and heard news presenters on TV and radio increasingly use Maori for introductions and notices. Those people who say they don’t understand the language in fact know more than they realise. They may not have the ability for casual conversation or idiomatic Maori but the community understanding is gradually increasing.
A generation ago, particularly in remote rural communities, most people were reasonably bi-lingual as my extended family was. Even at a very young age we knew when and where to speak in Maori or English as well as the language in between which Bill T James made famous and only those who learn it as children can speak properly. It is not slang but the equivalent of New Zealand Creole and a true language in its own right.
Then spoken Maori seemed to fade away as we lost parents and grandparents or moved to more central towns and cities. The loss of the language has been arrested by the kohanga reo movement and other initiatives but that positive development is not helped by ill-considered comments, particularly in writing, from those complaining that they do not understand what was being said.
At the close of my last annual general meeting as president of the Grey Power Federation a few years ago I was formally addressed by two fluent speakers of Maori which they followed with a particularly appropriate waiata. As they knew I had an understanding of the language they did not translate as they were speaking directly to me. I was moved by their generous comments, which most others in attendance did not understand, but they received resounding applause none-the less. No one felt insulted.
It is the role of an orator to speak and be heard. It is the role of a listener to hear and understand. If that means taking lessons in Maori, there are many opportunities.