Thursday, January 25, 2007

Maori as a Second Language

Being the good American I am, I'm always fascinated by other places' languages. I just found out today that Maori is actually the official second language of New Zealand.
I've never been to New Zealand, but this is interesting given the debate today over whether to enshrine English as the "national language" of America. By declaring English the official "first language" and Maori the "official second language" I don't think they're actually protecting Maori's status as a language as a culture. Rather, it is making their culture and language officially "secondary" to the primary culture, which is Anglo.
This is particularly complex because part of New Zealand's history is that they promised to protect Maori as a language in the Treaty of Waitangi (which apparently is rife with controversy itself--if I'm not mistaken, I believe that the English version is actually different than the Maori version, not just a pure translation--feel free to correct me on this one if I'm off). So on the one hand, there has to be official recognition of Maori, but recognizing it as secondary is...sort of offensive. At least it seems it would be that way to me.
I think that with the current debate over making English the "national language" in America, these are important issues to consider. It is a largely symbolic gesture, made to reassure skittish Americans that the dominant Anglo strain will not be washed away in a sea of Hispanic immigration. However, these things can also seen as an assertion of superiority. And since this does shape how we view an entire class of people, I'm extremely concerned about how this will shape generations of younger Americans and how they view our neighbors to the south, much less Hispanics in their own communities.


nick said...

oh horowitz, why oh why do you have to turn your perfectly fine pontification on the inequity of everything into a discussion of New Zealand politics? Yes, maori is the official second language of the country, and yes, this does denote some kind of symbolic stratification of the languages. But you are dead wrong to make your larger cultural extrapolations. The maori, like many other indigenous peoples have had quite a bit of cultural warfare to overcome. But unlike virtually every other indigenous people, they've had some astonishing successes.

#1 The Treaty of Waitangi was not thrust upon the tribes (or iwi) as many american treaties were. Instead it was earned. Maoris across the country were far superior fighters than the colonists and never lost a battle of even numbers.

#2 You're right that there were translation issues with the treaty. Indeed, it did say different things in different languages. Further, it had multiple meanings in each of the various maori languages. But those differences were made relatively moot when the english violated the terms of their own translation less than five years after the signature.

#3 What is important about the treaty is not its nineteenth century application, but rather its influence on modern kiwi politics. For decades, actually a whole century, the official policy was to ignore and disenfranchise the maori. School children were taught not to learn about their culture because, in the words of one man i met, "they won't be around that much longer to matter." But the maori didn't go away. Despite pressures from above, they clung to their tribal affiliations. New branches of iwi have sprung up in urban areas and every january maori return to the regions of their origin and participate in all manner of family-reunion type activities. Moreover, they became political. Through their actions, they've convinced (rather than forced) the government to move back towards that original document. While not all wrongs can be righted, the government has granted them land rights retroactively, given them funding for iwi-based social service organizations, and yes, made maori the official second language. Now all official New Zealand documents feature both english and maori. Public schools teach maori (though it's optional). There is even a publically-funded all maori tv station. And the maori perspective is a far more understood, accepted, and even popular point of view for all kiwi youth than it ever has been.

Simply calling it a second language misses the point. It is official. If, as you say, words have power only if they are spoken by powerful people, then the Maori language now certainly qualifies.

JusticeForAll said...

Interesting! I'm definitely going to have to learn more about this.
I'm going to challenge your use of the words "convinced" vs. "forced" (like everything on this blog, words matter!). Political action is usually forced--to my knowledge, no one has ever made policy changes because they thought it was "nice" to do, but rather because they were under pressure from a particular group or looking for leverage.
I guess the real question is--the power of declaring it a "second" language is to close the gap, but can it ever truly be closed with an official symbolic cultural stratification? There's no question that in the post-colonial era the New Zealand government has done a better job of treating the indigenous groups with respect than most Anglo-dominated governments. The US could learn a lot from them, but I'm just not sure that the gap between colonizer and colonizee will be erased unless they are put on official footing.
In one way, I agree with you--it's better to have power relations stated than unstated. That way, it is easier to change them. Which is probably why the Maori voice (as you say) has more power than other indigenous peoples do.
I think it's also worth noting that the argument I've raised here about whether Maori's official "second distinction" will ever afford them true equality is raised frequently by anti-Affirmative Action activists. Unfortunately, it's a slight perversion of the logic I have above. I'm saying there needs to be complete and official equality, whereas anti-Affirmative Action activists would let prior modes of dominance run unchecked.