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Wahine Toa: Hana Te Hemara and the fight for the Maori language

Māori issues

Today marks the 50th anniversary of a petition on the teaching of the Māori language being presented to parliament by Hana Te Hemara.  Aaron Smale talks to some of those who knew her.

The Crown’s war against Māori started near the small Taranaki town of Waitara.  And the fight-back on one of many fronts also originated there.

Hana Te Hemara (Te Atiawa, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngai Tahu) was born and grew up near Waitara near where the Crown attacked Taranaki iwi in the opening round of the Land Wars of the 19th century, a pivotal event in the country’s history.

Those events displaced Māori not only from their land but also in their ability to retain and maintain their own culture. One of the losses that followed was that of the Māori language itself, particularly through the Native Schools where children were physically punished for speaking their mother tongue.  But over the past 50 years a long fight has been carried out by Māori to recover their language. That fight landed on the Crown’s doorstep in the form of a petition signed by over 30,000 New Zealanders. 

On September 14 1972 Te Hemara led a group up the steps of Parliament to present the petition for the Māori language to be taught in schools, a turning point that changed the trajectory of the Māori language. That legacy is still unfolding. 

Amokura Panoho grew up knowing Te Hemara as Aunty, but even then she had an aura about her that spoke of someone important.

“She was very glamorous. Very glamorous. I didn’t know the politics side of my aunty until I went to live with her in Auckland.”

“I always remember her and Uncle (Syd) being incredible dancers back in the day.

“I kind of knew that they were famous in our small world, but I didn’t know what for. People would talk about my aunty Hana and uncle Syd as being important people, but being young I never really kind of understood that context.”

That context was a time of social upheaval as Māori moved to the cities and a new generation took on a different style of leadership, which meant a different attitude to how the Crown should be challenged for the damage done by colonisation and its breach of the Treaty of Waitangi. For generations Māori had been hidden away in rural communities and were largely ignored by Pākehā society. That changed when an urban generation grew up and started going to university and weren’t prepared to be as deferential as their elders.

Two of that new brand of Māori leaders were Syd Jackson and Hana Te Hemara.

Te Hemara’s story has been somewhat overshadowed by her husband, Syd Jackson, the firebrand unionist who was the megaphone of the Māori activism group Nga Tamatoa. But while Te Hemara wasn’t as loud as Jackson, many describe her as fierce in her convictions with a strong willingness to back up those convictions with action.

Donna Awatere-Huata was studying music at Auckland University and joined the Māori Club, which became a social point of contact for a number of students who were among the first of their families to go to university. Caught between the culture of their parents and the isolation from whānau that went with urbanisation, the group became a second home and the seedbed for a number of social movements through the 1970s.

“She was very sociable and used to host us. So often we’d have an event and you go over there. And she she always loved having people over to entertain, she’d make big pots of food. She was very much a manaakitanga woman. So that’s how I knew initially.”

Some of the political discussions went over her head but she found a lifelong mentor in Te Hemara. 

“It was our job was to entertain, not to change big things like colonial society, so I was out of my depth, but [Hana] really was the leader. They always say Syd Jackson and Hana, but look, I can tell you that she was the driving force. She’s one of those people where they get onto something, they just go for it, they are so passionate and focused. ‘If you can’t support me get out of my way” and nothing was too big, she would just take it on.”

“She is a giant and one of the women who influenced me to become the woman I am today. She was inspirational.”

One of the subjects that fired up Te Hemara was the loss of the Māori language. There had been alarm in a number of quarters of Māoridom about how the language was dying out.

“The fact that she had didn’t have her language was a great source of anger to her that she had been denied her mother tongue. And so it was her and her alone, who had the inspiration, for the language petition. We joined with the Māori Language Society in Wellington.”

“The first meeting, it was at West Auckland, it kind of solidified. As I recall, it was at that meeting that Hana first mooted this idea that that Māori language should be our first priority, and that we should start a petition. And we should go around the country collecting signatures. And that was the first thing that we did. She really was a woman who once she got something in her mind she was immovable. You needed that kind of fierceness, that fierce passion, that driving passion.”

Hana Te Hemara speaking at Te Tii Marae, Waitangi in 1972. (Photo: John Miller)

The petition was not entirely a bolt from the blue however.

“The Māori Women’s welfare League were jumping up and down because before 1970, ever since they started, they’d been calling for the teaching of Māori language in schools. So it wasn’t something that Hana plucked out of the air. It actually had been something that had been pushed for for a long time. And they had this hui and they had two key speakers. One was Ngoi Pewhairangi. And she talked about holding fast to the Māori language.”

A gradual and steady erosion of the language over the previous 100 years had accelerated into a collapse as Māori moved to cities in the post-war period.

Māori communities at the turn of the 20th century were predominantly Māori speaking but the schooling system had already undermined the use of te reo as the primary vehicle of communication. Generations of Māori had gone through the Native Schools, which were a tool of assimilation, and grew up being punished for speaking their language. They then became parents and didn’t speak te reo to their children, for fear of disadvantaging them or exposing them to punishment. It was these children that grew up speaking only English and the intergenerational transfer of language was lost in many whānau.

This loss of language was exacerbated with the large-scale migration of Māori to urban centres, particularly in the 1950s and 60s. In Māori communities, even those where English had made inroads, te reo was still the predominant means of communications. But in cities and large towns English held sway and Māori who moved to these environments had little choice but to communicate in the language of Pakeha.

Compounding this was the exposure to mass-media that was exclusively in English. It was during this period that the Māori language declined even more sharply.

Dr Richard Benton of the New Zealand Council of Educational Research undertook a comprehensive survey of the Māori language in 100 communities during the mid to late 1970s, a study that was the first to systematically audit the state of the Māori language. The findings were grim and confirmed what many knew anecdotally.

But those concerns were confined to Māori and academic circles. The group that became Nga Tamatoa was taking those issues out to wider New Zealand society. And they were taking those subjects to the New Zealand public in ways that neither Pākehā or Māori were used to.

The late Moana Jackson, Te Hemara’s brother-in-law, said in an interview that Nga Tamatoa didn’t so much start a conversation as take that conversation into spaces it had never been heard before.

“I always talk about the great service Nga Tamatoa did, that it encouraged our people to take the stories that we’d always told on the marae, off the marae. To talk about things that had not been talked about before because it was too hard, it was too difficult. I think Nga Tamatoa helped, not alone, but I think it helped embolden our people.”

At first though there were many, Māori and Pakeha, who didn’t want to hear.

Awatere-Huata says Te Hemara often took flak not only from Pakeha but also from Māori.

“She had to to withstand the backlash that we got from Māoridom, not just from Pakeha, but from Māoridom. I was with her on the bus when we went to meet the New Zealand Māori Council. And they kept us waiting in the rain and we had to go across a river. And the longer they left us on the other side of the river, the harder it was going to be to cross over that river, the tide was rising. And it we’re standing out there in the rain. They were telling us a message which was, we do not support what you’re doing. They let us know. As far as they were concerned they had been working hard to make gains. And the kind of method that we were using, which was to protest at Waitangi, to do the petition, they just felt that we were taking us backward, creating antagonism.”

Some of that resistance was because many of those from previous generations had inherited a negative attitude towards themselves and their own culture because of what they’d been through as children in the Native Schools. But Nga Tamatoa also found allies among that generation who backed them. One even gave them their name, linking them to not only the warriors of old but those of the 28th Māori Battalion.

“We’d gone up the coast to paint one of the marae, I think it was at Tokomaru Bay. And when we came back we stopped at Nga Tamatoa at the marae there I can’t remember the name of the whānau, the hapu that has that marae, but it was there that Aunty Ngoi Pewhairangi gave us the name Nga Tamatoa. It came from that marae and that Nga Tamatoa actually referred to the return soldiers from the 28 Māori Battalion.”

The petition itself became a flaxroots project that spanned the country and gathered more than 33,000 signatures.

“If you look at the petition, it’s pretty rough. It’s primitive. It’s one line that way, two lines this way, typed up and handwritten. And it’s on very unclassy paper. The fact that we managed to get 30,000 people to sign it, in those days that was a huge accomplishment. And I think it shows the groundswell from ordinary Māori who supported what we were doing.

“We went everywhere. We went to marae, to tribal areas, we went to schools, we went to shopping malls, birthdays, weddings, sports clubs, we went where Māori were. We were all over the place. We were pretty fearless. But you toughened up forever.

“It wasn’t easy to get 30,000. People didn’t know whether putting their name on that paper, the police could identify them, you could easily be targeted. And the fact that people signed it anyway just shows you that the time was right to say, ‘stop this, stop brutalising our families for speaking te reo and you start undoing the damage that you’ve done.’”

Joe Te Rito was a university student at Victoria University in Wellington when he joined the Te Reo Māori Society, which was similar to the Māori Club at Auckland University. Many of the meetings were around learning te reo. A number of Māori student groups from around the country met at Waiwhetu marae in Lower Hutt and it was there that the petition came up in discussion.

“The petition was discussed at that meeting and from there everybody was charged with the task, going back to their own areas and universities.” But it wasn’t only Māori who signed it – there were significant number of Pākehā who also added their signature.

A sheet from the Maori language petition

Te Rito says there were a number of people involved but there was no question that Te Hemara was the driving force.

“Hana she was a very demure person. She was petite. She was always immaculately dressed. She really wore high fashion and she created her own fashion, and she was really disarming. But people did not realise that behind that exterior there was a fierce, young proud Māori woman in there who had not had the opportunity to learn the Māori language. She did not grow up speaking it and that’s what drove her, the fact that she and a lot of the people of those generations, a lot of the young people the rangatahi didn’t have the reo Māori. And so it was it was a real desire, a hunger.”

“She’s a credited with the whole idea of creating a petition. She was fiercely fighting for the revitalisation and provision of te reo Māori in schools.”

Te Rito says an unfortunate aspect of the story around the petition is that the Te Reo Māori Society’s role has become overshadowed somewhat by Nga Tamatoa, not because of any particular rivalries but because the media focused negative attention on Nga Tamatoa’s activists.

“The media perpetuated a myth if you like. The Te Reo Māori Society, we’ve been made invisible for the past 50 years and we’ve actually had to fight for our space and our role in this which was critical.

“(The media) sought to demonise the cause and to demonise Māori people by saying to the public of New Zealand, ‘oh, look at these radicals, Nga Tamatoa, shit-stirrers, they’re causing problems.’ The effect of that is that for for the next five decades, it was Nga Tamatoa that was the only group credited with it. But we played a major role in there.”

But Te Rito says he remembers the presentation of the petition with Te Hemara leading the way as a great moment.

“September 1972, there we were walking up to Parliament with our 33,000 signatures. I’m really proud of that moment.”

The wording of the petition is a very obvious slap back at the Hunn report of 1961, which talked about the integration of Māori into New Zealand society but was perceived by many Māori as another word for assimilation. The Māori Schools had been finally closed down in the late 1960s but the damage to the Māori language and to Māori self-esteem is felt to this day.

Much of the legislation through the 1960s was about taking remaining Māori land and assimilating Māori into Pakeha society. The petition turned this on its head, stating: “We, the undersigned, do humbly pray that courses in Māori language and aspects of Māori culture be offered in ALL those schools with large Māori rolls and that these same courses be offered, as a gift to the Pākehā from Māori, in ALL other New Zealand schools as a positive effort to promote a more meaningful concept of Integration.”

In other words, the integration of Māori and Pakeha should not be a one-way street. Māori should be able to flourish and enjoy their own culture instead of being expected to conform to another, while Pākehā could benefit from the gift of the Māori language too.

Māori language petition being delivered to Parliament (Auckland Star collection)

Dr Oliver Sutherland was a Pākehā scientist when he first met Syd and Hana in the 1970s. He was challenging Pākehā racism and formed, with others, ACORD (Auckland Committee Opposed to Racial Discrimination) that worked closely with Nga Tamatoa and the Polynesian Panthers.

Sutherland says Jackson often got a lot of the attention but he says Te Hemara was formidable in her own right.

“Hana was no shrinking violet. She didn’t take such a public profile as Syd, but that didn’t mean to say she wasn’t a powerful, powerful voice and a powerful presence.”

He says both Hana and Syd were at the forefront of changes in New Zealand society that are now taken for granted.

“They were absolutely consistent. There was never any compromise about their analysis and their vision for for what needed to happen. Nga Tamatoa did shift the ground. You’ve got to have a vanguard and they were the vanguard without doubt and Syd and Hana were right in front of that. They were a very, very, very powerful partnership. And the Māori language petition was just one of of numerous kaupapa that they were involved in.”

Amokura Panoho says in celebrating Hana Te Hemara now it is sometimes forgotten how much resistance she faced and how hard it was for her to champion the causes she did.

“Aunty Hannah was always the recipient of snide remarks by men that were fluent. I was with her when she experienced overt racism, being harassed while just walking through a carpark or something. Just simple things. Aunty would brush that off. But I knew she used to get hurt by that behavior towards her, quite hurt by it.”

“But that’s why the mountain was so important to her, like a talisman, like a sentinel that sort of grounds you again and fortifies you, and you go back out in the big world again. She used to cry when she left.”

But the small suitcase with a collection of signatures that was laid on the steps of Parliament by a young woman from Waitara set off a series of developments and change in the direction of the Māori language. Kohanga reo started not long after. The Waitangi Tribunal was established and the language claim was one of the first and still most important claims heard by the tribunal. Māori became an official language of New Zealand. Education in Māori is now available right up to tertiary level and several generations of Māori children have grown up with Māori as their first language.

Panoho says her Aunty would be thrilled but also humbled.

“I think she’d be so proud of what we’re doing now. But I don’t think she had any real expectations that she should be the primary emphasis of recognition.”

https://www.newsroom.co.nz/wahine-toa-hana-te-hemara-and-the-fight-for-the-maori-language Wahine Toa: Hana Te Hemara and the fight for the Maori language

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