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Te reo Māori and the Presbyterian Church (1945)

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Lachy Paterson
12 November, 2021

Missionaries learning and preaching in te reo Māori was a fundamental factor in Māori converting to Christianity in the nineteenth century; they also reached out to Māori through print, with the Bible, psalm books, and at times, through Māori-language newspapers and other periodicals.   One such publication, Te Waka Karaitiana, was started by the Presbyterian Māori Mission in the mid 1930s and continued into the 1960s.  In July 1945, it published an article on te reo Māori and what it meant for Māori identity and culture.

Throughout the nineteenth century, most Māori lived rurally in their own kāinga, and spoke te reo Māori.  Although the government instituted its own village schools in 1867, with the express aim to teach English to Māori children, Māori remained the primary language of the home and church in many Māori settlements, at least in the North Island, in the first half of the twentieth century.  But the government’s policies were slowly working, so that some kaumātua were lamenting that some Māori children could no longer understand te reo Māori.  As Rev. Rēweti Kōhere, an Anglican, noted in July 1945, ‘When I preached in the Ohinemutu church a few months ago the Maori vicar asked me to preach in English, otherwise I would not be understood by the young people. On the other hand, elderly Maoris cannot be ministered to by a European clergyman.’[1]  When Rev. T.C. Brash, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church visited the mission school and community at Waiohau in June 1945, he spoke to the children in English but his sermon to parents was interpreted by Rev. Hēmi Pōtatau.[2]  Māori were already moving to the cities during the war to undertake essential work, but it was clear that this trend would only continue after the war, with further impacts on the Māori language and culture.

The three main Protestant missions to the Māori people, the Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians were therefore, by the mid 1940s, suffering somewhat of an existential crisis, as to how increased mixing of Māori and Pākehā might be reflected in the church.  We have discussed this already with regard to the Anglican Church, where the Bishop of Auckland tried to place his Māori priests more under increased Pākehā control.   This was happening as the main Protestant churches, through the National Council of Churches, were discussing avenues for more cooperation, perhaps even union as a single church.  There was also a general agreement among Pākehā at this time, including within the churches, that the assimilation of Māori into Pākehā culture and the English language was not only inevitable, but of benefit to them. If Māori and Pākehā would be increasingly mixing in wider society, what were the implications for the future of Māori missions and churches?  Was it just the language barrier that inhibited fuller communion?  In response, the NCC appointed a Māori Sub-Commission which surveyed interested parties, including the questions ‘In Church life do you favour the blending of the two races? Or should we continue to have separate Maori Churches?’[3]

However the Presbyterian Church was already creating a pathway, when the General Assembly of its Synod in 1944 voted for the formation of a Māori Synod (today called Te Aka Pūaho).  Using the example of the leadership shown within the Māori Battalion during the war and that Māori had also ‘faced up to responsibility at home’, it sought to allow Māori to exercise more leadership within the church.[4]   At this time, the Presbyterian Māori Mission catered to a number of small rural Māori settlements mainly within Tūhoe and the Eastern Bay of Plenty, with a few outliers, such as Nūhaka and Taumarunui.  These were mainly run by Pākehā ministers and deaconesses, under Rev. John Laughton.[5]  The mission had several gifted linguists, Laughton himself who served on the Māori Translation Committee, and Sister Edith Walker, but all clergy were expected to learn te reo Māori.

Rev. Hēmi Pōtatau was elected the first Moderator of the Hīnota, or Māori Synod, which met at the Church’s marae at Ōhope in May 1945, attracting 75 adults and 50 children.  For Laughton, he felt that ‘the work of the Maori Mission would never again be wholly Pakeha’ and that ‘it is now Maori and therefore assured of permanence’.[6]  In his address to the Synod, Pōtatau alluded to his time in the Māori Battalion, and how the Māori soldiers had proved themselves.  Likewise Māori would now run the Synod; just as Māori has supported their soldiers overseas, they must now financially support their parishes and synod.[7]  Te Waka Karaitiana reported that  ‘te reo Māori is the language of the Synod, and the Synod strongly determined that our language should be saved, that it be spoken in karakia, and that all Māori parents be sympathetic to teaching the language to their children, that is because the Māori language is the mauri of Māoritanga; if the language is lost, then Māoritanga will be lost.’[8]  The Synod then formed a committee for committee for publishing material in te reo Māori, using their press at Whakatāne.  ‘One of the main jobs of this committee is to write Māori publications suitable for teaching the people about the complexities of religion.’[9]

The article, “Te Reo Maori”[10] appears in the same issue of Te Waka Karaitiana, and although it does not mention the church or religion directly, it should be read in the context of the challenges to the separate Māori church, and the formation of the new Māori synod.  The newspaper indicates that it was the paper’s editor who wrote the piece.  Given that it talks of ‘tō tātou Māoritanga’ [our Māoritanga], it is unlikely that Laughton, a Pākehā, was the author.  Pōtatau had recently been appointed as deputy editor,[11] so it might have been him.  As the piece says ‘Those of us who are quite good at speaking English know the difficulty of converting some of our Māori thoughts into English’, so it remains untranslated.  It is an interesting text because, written in 1945, does not use many of the words we would expect today; for example, “Māoritanga” relates to mana rangatira, to identity, and to tikanga, depending on context.  Many now would also disagree with the author’s assertion that Māori had given up the hope for rangatiratanga, but again, this was written by a Māori churchman in the 1940s.  What it does show, is that Māori were acutely aware of the danger to te reo Māori and the repercussions its loss would have on Māori tikanga and identity.  It also shows that tīpuna could write complex thoughts in the everyday language that they used at that time. 

Image: “Historic Moment” A Special Synod when the Māori Mission were presented with the scroll to authorise them as a Māori synod of the Presbyterian Church. From left: Revs. ?, Ratu Lewis; Dr Alan North; Rev. Tommy Taylor; Elder from Waimana; Rev. Smith; Rt. Rev. James Baird (Moderator), Rev. Laughton; Rev Hēmi Pōtatau, the youngest minister; Rev. Warren Foster. Photograph shows Rev. Baird handing the scroll to Rev. Hēmi Pōtatau.  Ref: P-A517.10-20, Presbyterian Research Centre.



Mai ano o te ekenga tokomaha mai o te Pakeha ki tenei whenua kua puta mai te tohe o te Maori kia mau tonu ai ano i a Ia tona Maoritanga. I te mea ka whakaheke mai te Pakeha i ona mano ka kite te Maori i ona whenua e paheke atu ana i a ia, ka kite ia i te Pakeha kei te nuku haere te tokomaha ake i a ia, ka whakatu ano tetahi wahanga o te iwi i te kingi Maori hei pupuri i te mauri o te Maori. Na wai ra ka tino nui te awangawanga o te Maori ki tona Maoritanga ka mau pu ia ki te Pakeha, he mea kia kaua tona Maoritanga e ngaro atu i a ia. Ka mutu te whawhai e kiia nei ko te whawhai Maori, ara ko te whawhai o te Maori ki te Pakeha, he maha nga Maori i he manawa tonu atu, i mutu tonu atu te tumanako ki te rangatiratanga o te iwi Maori. Ki a ratou kua pu te ruha, kua ngaro te Maoritanga, kua kore rawa e taea te whakahauora, te whakatikatika. Ka noho, ka mahi nga Hahi, ka mahi te whakapono, ka mahi nga kura, ka mahi te tari o te ora ki te karo i nga mate e haukoti ana i te iwi, na i muri rawa mai nei ka puta ko nga kiima ahu whenua hei oranga mo te iwi, hei whakamanawa hoki i a ratou.  Na kua mau te mauri o te iwi Maori, kua mutu tana haere tira ki te reinga, kua piki ano tona kaute, taihoa ake nei ka rite ano te tokomaha o te iwi ki te tokomaha i te wa i takahi tuatahi mai ano te waewae o te Pakeha ki runga o Aotearoa. Otira ka nui te wehi o te hunga titiro whakaaro nui ki to tatou ahua i roto i enei wa kei ora noa iho, ka tokomaha te iwi e kiia ana he Maori, engari ko te mana Maori ka ngaro i a ratou; ko nga kiri he Maori engari kahore kau te mauri Maori i runga i a ratou. Na, i enei ake tau kua kite tatou i te whakaarahanga i etahi o nga mahi tohunga o te Maori kua mahue haere, te raranga whariki, te whatu kakahu, te whakairo me era tu mea.  He aha ano te kiko o te whakahoutanga i enei mahi rangatira o nga tipuna. Koia tenei he rite tonu ano ki era atu takatutanga o te Maori kua whakararangitia i runga ake nei, ara te whakatutanga o te kingi Maori, me te pakanga Maori he hopu i te mauri o te Maoritanga kei ngaro.  Mehemea ka ata titiro marama o tatou hoa Pakeha ka kite ratou i te tika o era takututanga o te Maori i roto i era wa, tae noa ki te whawha hou nei ki ana mahi rangatira o mua i roto i enei ra, he mea kia mau i a ia tona Maoritanga me te mauri, me te mana o tona karangatanga. Ko wai ano te iwi e tika ana tangata kia kiia he tangata ka whakaae noa iho kia ngaro te mauri o tona karangatanga iwi?  Otira i roto i enei takatutanga katoa hei pupuri i to tatou Maoritanga ko te mea nui rawa hei tiaki ma tatou i roto [i] tenei wa ko te reo Maori kei ngaro, no te mea ahakoa kei te piki to tatou kaute inaianei, ahakoa kei te hoki atu tatou ki te whai i era mahi o mua penei me te whakairo kia kaua e makere noa atu i a tatou ki te makere te reo kua ngaro te Maoritanga. Moumou te ora mai o te kiri Maori, moumou te mau o te mahi whakairo me era atu mohiotanga rangatira o te iwi, mehemea ka ngaro te reo Maori, ehara te Maori i te Maori, he Pakeha pango noa iho te Maori i taua taima. Otira ehara ano taua Maori pango i te Pakeha, heoi ano he poriro noa iho ia, kahore e mohiotia ko wai tona papa i te mea hoki kua ngaro te mauri o tona Maoritanga.

Ko nga reo katoa he temepara tapu, he nohoanga tuturu o te wairua o te iwi no ratou taua reo. Ko te wehenga o nga reo o te ao he whakaahuatanga noa iho o te wehenga o nga tikanga me nga whakaaro heke iho no mua rawa, me nga ritenga o tena iwi, o tena iwi. Ahakoa te pono o te ki he kotahi tonu te ahua o te ngakau tangata, ahakoa no tehea iwi o te ao, no tehea iwi o te ao, otira kei raro iho i tera kotahitanga kei te wehe nga tikanga me nga ritenga o nga iwi o te ao pera tonu ano me te wehe o o ratou reo. He rereke nga whakaaro o tetahi iwi i nga whakaaro o tetahi iwi. Na nga whakaaro Maori i tino tuturu te Maoritanga, otira ko te whakatinanatanga o nga whakaaro ko te reo. Ko te reo Maori te mea i hangaia e te Atua hei kete rau i nga whakaaro Maori. “E kore e taea te riringi i te waina hou ki roto i nga ipu tawhito”. E kore ano hoki e ora nga whakaaro Maori mehemea ko te reo Pakeha hei kairau mo aua whakaaro. Kei te mohio tatou e ahua marama nei ki te korero Pakeha ki te uaua rawa o te whakawhiti i etahi o o tatou whakaaro Maori i roto i te reo Pakeha. Ko te whakapuakanga o te wairua o nga iwi katoa kei roto i tona reo ake ano. Ka nganga te manawa ora o te wairua o nga iwi katoa ki roto i tona reo ano, i tona reo ano.  He hara nui te patu i nga tinana o tetahi iwi, kati he pera ano te hara o te patu i o ratou wairua.  Ki te katia te tangata ki roto i tetahi ruma pakupaku rawa e kore nei e hehe tona manawa, ka hemo ia, he mea patu pera hoki i runga i te katinga o tona nga.  Kati ki te tangohia atu te reo o tetahi iwi he pono te ki ko te katinga tera o te nga o to ratou wairua, na he pera tonu atu te hara o te patunga pera o te wairua o taua iwi. Ko te huarahi tera e tino ngaro ai te Maoritanga.

Ko te aitua nui rawa tenei mo nga iwi iti o te ao e turakina ana e nga iwi nui. Ehara i te mea ko te hinga o to ratou toa me to ratou kaha, ehara i te mea ko te tangohanga atu o to ratou whanua [whenua] tupu i a ratou, ahakoa ano te nui o enei aitua, otira koinei ke te tino aitua, te tino mate nui whakaharahara o nga iwi o te ao e turakina ana ki raro ko te ngaro o to ratou reo.  Ka wahangu te reo ke o tetahi iwi, kua mate taua iwi i roto i taua ra, kua kore e mohiotia he iwi i muri iho, kua tukitukia te ahurewa o tona tapu i roto i taua ra, kua tahuna tona Maoritanga ki te ahi i taua ra kia kore atu. No reira e te iwi i a tatou katoa e ngakau nui nei kia mau tonu to tatou Maoritanga, pera ano me o tatou matua i mua i a tatou, i ngakau nui ai ki taua mea koinei te mea nui rawa he whakaaro ki to tatou reo kia korerotia, kia akona atu ki a tatou tamariki, kei reira hoki te mauri o to tatou Maoritanga. 


[1] Waiapu Church Gazette, 1 July 1945, 6.

[2] Te Waka Karaitiana, June 1945, 74.  ‘na te Motereta te korero ki nga tamariki, nana ano te kauwhau ki nga pakeke, a na Hemi tana kauwhau i whakamaori’. Pōtatau was registered as a certified interpreter in 1947.  See “Maori Interpreters – Reverend Hemi Potatau”, Ref: ABJZ W4644 869 Box 296, Archives New Zealand.

[3] Church News, May 1945, 7.

[4] The Outlook, 29 November 1944, 13.

[5] See Lachy Paterson, (2012). “The rise and fall of women field workers within the Presbyterian Māori mission, 1907-1970”. In H. Morrison, L. Paterson, B. Knowles & M. Rae (Eds.), Mana Māori and Christianity. (pp. 179-204). Wellington, New Zealand: Huia.

[6] The Outlook, 20 June 1945, 15.

[7] Te Waka Karaitiana, June 1945, 66-70

[8] Te Waka Karaitiana, July 1945, 84.  ‘Ko te reo Maori ano te reo o te Hinota, a i tino kaha te whakatau a te Hinota kia tohungia to tatou reo Maori, kia korerotia hoko i roto i nga karakia, a kia aroha nga matua Maori katoa ki te ako atu i te reo o te iwi ki a ratou tamariki, koinei hoki ko te mauri o te Maoritanga ko te reo Maori, ki te ngaro te reo, ka ngaro te Maoritanga.’

[9] Te Waka Karaitiana, July 1945, 85.  ‘Ko tetahi mahi nui ma tenei komiti ko te tuhituhi i nga pukapuka Maori e tika ana hei ako i te iwi ki nga ahuatanga hohonu o te whakapono.’

[10] Te Waka Karaitiana, July 1945, 82-84. 

[11] Te Waka Karaitiana, July 1945, 92

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