WELLINGTON - Beneath the carved timber roof of a traditional “marae” meeting house at Wellington High School, dozens of students watch entranced as a play performed entirely in the Maori language unfolds.
Many only understand a smattering of the indigenous language, but pick up emotional cues from the performers. Some audience members are close to tears as the production in the New Zealand capital ends.
It is a scene that actor Eds Eramiha says would have been difficult to imagine as recently as two decades ago, when te reo Maori was widely regarded as a dying language not worth teaching.
“Attitudes have changed immensely,” he said. “When I was at school, te reo Maori wasn’t held in high value, it wasn’t spoken, it wasn’t as freely available as it is to our kids today.”
Te reo was banned in schools for much of the 20th century which, combined with the urbanization of rural Maori, meant that by the 1980s, only 20 percent of indigenous New Zealanders were fluent in the language.
That number was virtually unchanged by 2013, when census figures showed that just 21.3 percent of the Maori population could converse in te reo.
An official report published in 2010 warned the language was on the verge of extinction.
“Te reo Maori is approaching crisis point,” it said, with older native speakers “simply not being replaced” as they passed away.
The contrast with New Zealand today is striking. The language is enjoying a surge in popularity among Kiwis — Maori or otherwise — embracing their South Pacific nation’s indigenous culture.
Te reo courses are booked out at community colleges, while bands, poets and rappers perform using the language.
Te reo words such as “kai” (food), “ka pai” (congratulations), “whanau” (family) and “mana” (prestige) have entered everyday usage.
Even the way Kiwis define themselves has taken on a te reo tone, with an increasing number preferring to use “Aotearoa” rather than New Zealand.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is a passionate champion of the language, saying one of her great regrets is not being able to converse fluently in it.
“We have a guardianship role, a duty of care to te reo Maori,” she said this month. “It’s our job to nurture it because it’s about more than a language.”
Ardern chose to give her daughter Neve a Maori middle name ‘Te Aroha’ (‘the love’) when she was born in June.
Her government has set a target of having 1 million fluent te reo speakers by 2040.
With the Maori comprising only about 15 percent of New Zealand’s 4.5 million population, that would mean many non-Maoris adopting the language.
It is a prospect that excites Charles Royal, a Maori academic and storyteller at the national museum Te Papa (Our Place).
“We’ve never had so many te reo speakers as we have now,” he said.
“What te reo enables me to do is articulate who I am in a very particular way . . . as a New Zealander,” he added. “It’s the vehicle by which humanity first gained a voice in this part of the world.”
Royal said the earlier rejection of te reo stemmed from a sense of inferiority and a mistaken belief that European history was more important than that of New Zealand.
But he said Kiwis now feel more positive about their place in the world and the rising popularity of te reo is an expression of this confidence.
As an actor, Eramiha observes that te reo “flies off my tongue a bit better (than English), the flow’s different.”
Head teacher Angela Fieldes has noticed a similar phenomenon among toddlers exposed to te reo at the Wellington child care center she helps run.
“They pick it up really, really quickly, so it just becomes part of their day,” she said after the children performed a “waiata” (song), reciting Maori colors, numbers and vowels.
“They love the singing and I think a big part of learning te reo is that it’s so rich in the way you can use song.”
Royal said there are still New Zealanders who maintain Maori culture is not valuable, but they are an aging minority.
He said the fact that so many non-Maori, including “pakeha” (New Zealanders of European descent) want to learn te reo is “absolutely fantastic.”
“It makes me feel proud to be Maori, it’s an act of generosity on both sides,” he said.
Eramiha echoes the sentiment, saying the passion for the language has been evident as his Taki Rua theater troupe performs in te reo across the country.
He expressed confidence in the language’s future, saying: “People from other cultures come up to me after our shows and say, ‘Can you teach me how to say ‘Hello?’ “
“It’s a treasure for us to be able to pass it on and a great gift to see other people wanting to learn it. It’s amazing.”