New Zealand's rich Maori culture began with the Polynesians who landed in the
country many centuries ago. They formed a proud society that was well known for
its creative artistry, especially in woodcarving. The Maoris had no written
language. Instead, they regarded carving as a way of passing on their legacy.
Their history and legends were carved into wood, thus ensuring that the younger
generation would not lose their rich cultural heritage.
As New Zealand became
more modernized, however, the Maoris began to lose their sense of history and
heritage. The Europeans arrived and began to take over various aspects of life
such as the economy and education. English became the national language and as
cultural ties became eroded, so did the number of master carvers.
Unable to cope with the rapid changes of European civilization, most Maoris,
like Greta Williams, felt trapped between two worlds.
At home, she was not allowed to speak English because her grandparents did not
understand the language and if she accidentally lapsed into her native tongue at
school, she was punished and made to clean windows and toilets.
Like Greta, many other Maori children faced the same dilemma. Schools
reflected European rather than Maori culture and because of this, many Maori
children did badly in their studies. This led to a vicious cycle since poor
results inevitably led to low-status jobs and this in turn to financial problems
and trouble with the law.
Feeling helpless in a society where all things Maori were looked down upon,
most Maori families had no choice but to conform and by the 1960s, almost 90 per
cent of Maori children could not speak their native language.
While they accepted some of the changes that European culture imposed on
them, the Maoris refused to stand by and do nothing while their land, history
and culture were destroyed.
A group of dynamic Maori leaders launched an
ambitious campaign called Tu Tangata (stand tall) which was
aimed at instilling Maori pride. Amidst the many changes caused by the Tu
Tangata campaign, the most important of all was to re-educate the Maori
children. To do this, older women who had grown up in traditional Maori
environments were called in to teach children the native language. The children
attended kohanga-reo -- Maori for 'language nest' -- where they learnt
traditional songs and picked up information on Maori music, dance, carving and
These kohanga-reo exist till today and through the lessons that are
learnt there, older Maoris are at least assured that their language, culture and
tradition will not die with them.