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Ngauranga Kura Ranginiwa (left) raised three mokopuna, or grandchildren, including Stevie-Rei Pokaia (right). As a kaiako, or teacher, at a Kohanga Reo—a school of Māori language and culture—Ranginiwa helped teach her mokopuna. Following the path of her kui, or grandmother, Pokaia now works as a kaiako. Ranginiwa and Pokaia are shown on Ngāti Te Whiti land at Kawaroa, Ngāmotu, Taranaki.

Born from a movement that swept New Zealand in the 1970s, the Māori model has helped cultures around the globe reclaim what colonization stole.

The Māori saved their language from extinction. Here’s how.

By Aroha Awarau

Photographs by Tania Niwa


Five years ago, in the heart of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation, along the Canadian St. Lawrence River across from Montréal, Kanen’tó:kon Hemlock and Ieronhienhá:wi Tatum McComber pondered a question posed by their friend and mentor, Māori language advocate Sir Tīmoti Kāretu.

Kanien’kéha, the Mohawk language, is one of the world’s many endangered Indigenous languages. Over the past two decades, McComber (Bear Clan) and Hemlock (Bear Clan) have been part of a community effort to operate an immersive language school, which surrounds Mohawk students with fluent language speakers. As she put together plans for the school at the turn of the 21st century, McComber looked around the world for inspiration and forged relationships with others who have successfully rekindled their languages. There might not be anyone as well-versed in this endeavor as the man who sat across from McComber, Hemlock, and a group of fellow Kanien’kéha speakers at their school’s kitchen table.

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Kāretu’s question for them was straightforward: What was their dream for the future of the language? More time to study the intricacies of Kanien’kéha with the nation’s first-language speakers, now mostly elders, said McComber. Kāretu (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāi Tūhoe) leaned back: “Well, you had all this time with them already. Has it helped?” Yes, but not enough, not yet. Elders were aging, and young speakers still had much to learn. What they needed was greater urgency.

Hemlock says this was a very Sir Tīmoti kind of response. Direct and considered, expectational and instructive. McComber—the founder and a teacher of 10 years and counting at the language nest school in Kanien’kehá:ka—says that from their first meeting with Kāretu in 2019, his guidance and drive have motivated her and her fellow Kanien’kéha speakers.

“Don’t wait for money, don’t wait for anyone’s approval, and don’t wait for anyone to jump on board,” McComber says. Just do the work.

It’s the same message Kāretu and his cohorts carried with them six decades ago, when te reo Māori, the Māori language, was approaching endangered status. And it’s the same message he preaches today as he travels to Indigenous communities across the world with a delegation of te reo speakers and teachers.


His words carry the weight of hope because of what Māori organizers accomplished and built—and what others have been able to build with their blueprint.

| A renowned educator, former Māori language commissioner Sir Tīmoti Kāretu helped lead the rejuvenation of te reo Māori. Shown here on the beach in Waimārama with the island of Te Motu-o-Kura in the background, he now mentors Indigenous language teachers around the world.

In the early 1970s, a contingent of young, urban, and university-educated Māori began to form a movement in Aotearoa—the te reo word for New Zealand. These activists called themselves Ngā Tamatoa, or Young Warriors. Along with other regional groups, they organized against the New Zealand government’s marginalization and forced assimilation of Māori communities, starting with policies designed to stem the use of te reo Māori.

In 1867, New Zealand passed the Native Schools Act, outlawing the use of te reo in schools. Teachers and school administrators beat students who dared to speak their mother tongue. Those abused Māori children became Māori parents; trying to protect their own children from the same fate, many discouraged the use of the Māori language, first in public and then at home. The number of native speakers dwindled, and the language was at risk of being lost.

“Everything during that period was learning how to be a colonizer,” says Tame Iti, a renowned Māori activist and artist, who joined Ngā Tamatoa when he was 17. In 1972, Iti (Ngāi Tuhoe, Waikato, Te Arawa) and fellow Ngā Tamatoa members marched with the Te Reo Māori Society to the steps of the New Zealand Parliament in Wellington. The contingent carried a petition, signed by more than 30,000 people, that called for Māori to be taught in all public schools. The highly visible nature of the protest, Iti believes, imbued Māori communities across Aotearoa with the confidence to reclaim te reo Māori.

Dame Iritana Tāwhiwhirangi was a founder and instrumental leader of the movement’s first major success: Kohanga Reo. Opened in 1982, the Kohanga Reo model was one of commitment. Parents and toddlers were expected to speak only te reo both in the classroom and at home, and the curriculum focused solely on Māori history and culture. Elders and other proficient language speakers led the classes. Translated in English to “language nest,” the Kohanga Reo was the first program of its kind to use total language and cultural immersion. For Māori communities, the schools were a revelation.

According to Tāwhiwhirangi (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāpuhi), the program started with five schools and within three years expanded to more than 300 locations. The rapid spread of Kohanga Reo marked an unprecedented success of cultural reclamation. For Tāwhiwhirangi, it showed the widespread, pent-up desire Māori families felt to educate their children according to their own non-colonial standards.

“The families on the ground are fundamentally the basis for learning the language,” she says. “Kohanga Reo, in the first years, it flew. Why did it fly? Not because I was there with a teaching background, not because of Tīmoti.”

The difference-maker, she said, was that the Kohanga Reo, particularly in the early years, were entirely community led. Families raised the money to rent or buy classroom spaces, and volunteers planned and taught classes. The New Zealand government was intentionally uninvolved with curriculum and oversight. At the early nurturing stage in particular, Tāwhiwhirangi says, language starts at home.

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| Students at Hoani Waititi Marae are the third generation of tamariki, or children, fully immersed in Māori language and culture.

Oriini Kaipara was born in 1983, right as the movement to revitalize te reo took off. Her parents and grandparents helped start the local Kohanga Reo, one of the first to open in Aotearoa. Kaipara and her classmates were taught to speak Māori “all the time, everywhere, no matter what,” she says. As a child, Kaipara (Ngāti Awa, Tūhoe, Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Rangitihi) did not understand that she was part of a movement or that her class was, as she says, the “guinea pigs”—they were just Māori kids, with Māori teachers and administrators.

“Our grandparents ruled, our parents ruled,” she says. “They just really wanted to instill in us the beauty of our language, our culture, and who we are.”

Māori families soon recognized the work could not begin and end with the Kohanga Reo. In 1985, in Kaipara’s corner of Aotearoa, a group of Māori elders and educators founded Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Hoani Waititi—the first te reo immersion school for primary school students. Meanwhile, a contingent that included Tāwhiwhirangi and Kāretu, who was appointed Māori language commissioner in 1987, organized the passage of the Māori Language Act, which gave te reo Māori official status alongside English and, later, New Zealand Sign Language.

As Kaipara grew up within the new Māori-led school system, she says, she learned the responsibility she and her classmates shared, both to Māoridom and to their parents and grandparents for the sacrifices they had made. In 2021, Kaipara became the first news broadcaster with a moko kauae, a traditional chin tattoo, to host prime-time news.

“Kaupapa has given me this cool way of being confident, standing comfortably in front of people and publicly speaking, reading the news in English as well as in Māori,” she says. “Navigating two completely different worlds with ease.”

The language nest model quickly became one of Māoridom’s most important exports for Indigenous communities worldwide.

Around the same time as a young Kaipara was in Kohanga Reo, Native Hawaiian language advocates were beginning to address language loss. In 1982, Māori language scholar Tamati Reedy traveled to Hawai‘i for a lecture and to spread word of the newly established Kohanga Reo. Within two years, a small group led by Larry Kimura, now a professor of the Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, set up the first language nest schools in Hawai‘i, called Aha Pūnana Leo. The following year they opened a language nest school in Hilo and another in Honolulu.

Four decades on, the Aha Pūnana Leo system includes 13 preschools across Hawai‘i; organizers and administrators have also opened a series of primary and secondary immersion schools. Like the Kohanga Reo, the Aha Pūnana Leo became a beacon: When McComber was researching how to operate the Kanien’kéha language nest, she traveled to Hawai‘i to learn how they’d adjusted the Māori model to fit their cultural needs.

“We wouldn’t have been able to get where we are without the support of other Indigenous peoples who are doing the work,” Hemlock says. “We’ve always needed each other.”

From the Puyallup Tribe in Washington State to the Sámi in Finland, Indigenous communities have begun to follow the example set by the Māori language nests six decades ago. As Kimura notes, the act of mastering one’s own language extends beyond learning a new set of words and phrases. It allows communities to view and understand the world as their ancestors did and keeps their way of life alive and well for the generations to come. “It’s not just language,” he says.

It’s everything.

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Above Article is taken from


National Geographic Magazine - July 2024 issue

Indigenous Futures


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