“Tame Iti must respect his ancestors. Tame Iti must respect…”

You know what it’s like. Hanging around with nothing to write about and you’d do anything for a juicy racism story. Well, the Dominion Post (Stuff), won’t let you down.

A recent piece in that paper (link below) featured Maori activist Tame Iti. Known as much for his brass neck as his facial tattoos, Iti has vowed to write lines in English: ‘I will not speak Maori’. According to Iti, this is payback to the education system, for forcing him to speak English at school.

Some history

What Iti probably doesn’t know, nor care, about, are the efforts his forbears made to have Maori students acquire the international language of English and that this effort goes back to the late 1870s with the establishment of ‘Native Schools’.

No doubt Iti is a great fan of 'Maori Immersion' teaching as a way of acquiring Te Reo. However,  he ignores the efforts of his forbears to promote ‘English Immersion’ as the pathway for English acquisition and the resultant access to knowledge not available in Maori.

In the Turnbull Library, there is a petition to Parliament from Mr Wi Te Hakiro and 336 others. It is dated 1876 and refers to the Native Schools Act, enacted about 10 years previously.

The online address of the document is given below, but essentially Mr Te Hakiro requests that teaching in English be prioritised where possible and he goes on to say:

‘There should be a general playground for the Maori and European children together. There should not be a word of Maori allowed to be spoken in the school and the Master, his wife and children should be persons altogether ignorant of the Maori language.’

‘If the Parliament would consent to embody these suggestions in an amendment to the Native Schools Act 1867, it would be certain that in twenty-one years’ time, the Maori children would be on an equal footing as regards their education as the Europeans’.

The unwritten background to these ideas is that Maori kids would continue to speak Maori as their home language. In fact, Te Hakiro points out, with vivid examples, his concern that unless students used English on a continuous basis, they would quickly revert to using Maori exclusively.

English for two-year-old Maori

In an extraordinary insightful request. Mr Te Hakiro asks that in the exclusively English language school, children as young as two be taught in English. No doubt his empirical observation was that it is from that age that spoken language develops. Decades later, we understand that full well and that two to four years of age is the optimal time for deaf children to be fitted with cochlear implants.

If it’s the Chinese Century, it’s because of English

Having taught in Asia, let me tell you that learning English is a priority educational goal. One student whom I’m still in contact with and who I assisted when she wanted to change majors from a commercial subject to English, regularly remarks how glad she is that she took that step. The career opportunities that have opened up as a result, far exceed those available to her as a Chinese speaker with rudimentary English.

Stuff item on Tame Iti:


Turnbull Library scan of original document in Māori and English