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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The change we don’t notice


The video above is an ad currently in rotation on New Zealand television. The ad is significant not for what it sells, but for the change it represents. It’s also a reminder that we sometimes don’t realise how far this country has come.

I watched the very beginning of the recent test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British and Irish Lions. While I watched, I noticed something when they played the New Zealand national anthem: Participation.

Nowadays it’s customary to sing the first verse of the national anthem first in Māori, then in English. This is something that’s been done at netball matches for a very long time, but with rugby test matches, it was always English only.

In 1999, Hinewehi Mohi sang the anthem in Māori only at the test match at Twickenham. The outcry was palpable. The debate was useful, however, because it led to the current tradition of singing the first verses of both the Māori and English versions of the national anthem.

In 2014, TV3 (now called newshub) brought on a new weather presenter, Kanoa Lloyd. She frequently used Māori placenames in her reports, and referred to the country as Aotearoa. People complained. “I've never really encountered people who take offence to Maori being used," she said at the time.

By 2016, TVNZ had introduced its new lineup for its Breakfast morning programme. From the beginning, the presenters have routinely used Māori placenames and greetings, and one commenter on Facebook was not having it: “I watched this week and hated the maori [sic] greeting nonsense and the maori [sic] place name nonsense.” He said that on Facebook. Where everyone can see a person’s real name and, more likely than not, quite a bit about them. Well, points for owning one’s racism, I suppose.

The thing is, there are always racists and monoculturalists in New Zealand as elsewhere, and there probably always will be. Despite common belief, they’re not all foreign-born, either, but they do seem to make up an extraordinarily large segment of listeners of talkback radio.

Be that as it may, the people who become apoplectic at the use of, say, Tāmaki Makaurau instead of Auckland are becoming fewer and fewer as the use of Te Reo Māori becomes more common.

Which brings me back to the test match. The cameras panned across the faces of the All Blacks, and most were visibly singing along to the Māori version. So were the people in the stands—and the fact they were was obvious in the audio. They all also sang the English version—which was, admittedly, louder, no doubt because so many people still don’t know the Māori version.

But it struck me how far this country has come since the national controversy in 1999, and how clearly the Māori version of the national anthem was being embraced, especially by proud younger New Zealanders, but by all age groups at the rugby match.

Then, a day or two later I saw the ad up above, and noticed how strongly everyone sang the anthem in Māori. 20 years ago, such an ad would never have been made, let alone broadcast, and not just because the anthem at rugby matches was English-only 20 years ago: The idea of everyday Kiwis embracing Te Reo Māori, even if only a bit, was still little more than a dream.

So, sure, we have our very own racists and bigots, and we have people who resist change just because it’s change. But we also have millions who embrace New Zealand’s unique identity that merges Māori and European cultures in a way not like anywhere else, and more and more these days that means embracing, at the very least, Maori words and phrases—and a verse of the national anthem.

We ought to take stock of how far we’ve come. Sometimes a mere ad can drive that point home.

The lyrics of the New Zealand national anthem:

E Ihowā Atua,
O ngā iwi mātou rā
Āta whakarangona;
Me aroha noa
Kia hua ko te pai;
Kia tau tō atawhai;
Manaakitia mai
Aotearoa

God of Nations at Thy feet,
In the bonds of love we meet,
Hear our voices, we entreat,
God defend our free land.
Guard Pacific's triple star
From the shafts of strife and war,
Make her praises heard afar,
God defend New Zealand.


Complete lyrics are on the website of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, which is the arbiter of everything related to use of the national anthem.

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