The history and mana of te reo Māori, and understanding the meaning of mana reo for whānau and pēpi.

He taonga tuku iho

Te reo Māori is unique to Aotearoa. It was seen by our Māori ancestors as a sacred taonga given to mankind by the gods, and was at the heart of te ao Māori. In ancient times, in fact, oratory was the basis on which all aspects of life rested, and the power of te (the word), was unequalled.

Speechmaking through headed formal and informal group interactions, while speechmaking through also had a significant role. Being able to remember and recite history, karakia, , ngeri, waiata and whakapapa was, and still is, a highly prized skill.

Mana reo, the language from the gods, is said to have its own life force. When te reo rangatira is shared through , whaikōrero, waiata and haka, we get a sense of this life force or power the ancestors spoke of. They believed that through their commitment to te reo they were able to know the will, mind and power of the gods. In more modern times a commitment to te reo Māori might just mean it has more chance of survival.

Colonisation and te reo Māori

One of the most negative aspects of the colonisation of Aotearoa was the suppression of the Māori language. In 1880 the Native School Code tried to standardise the native school system. The code outlined how they were to be established and set down rules about governance, curriculum and hours of instruction. It wasn’t until 1894, however, that schooling for Māori children became compulsory.

From the start, the priority for the native schools was the teaching of English. The intention was to phase the schools out once English had been fully established. Te reo Māori was allowed initially to help in the teaching of English. However, attitudes changed as time went on until eventually speaking te reo was prohibited and tamariki Māori were punished for speaking their home language at school.

The sad fact was that many whānau Māori, confident and secure in their language and , supported this requirement. Their thinking at the time was that learning English was preparing their tamariki for more success in a Pākehā world. As the numbers of English speakers arriving in Aotearoa kept increasing, the use of te reo Māori decreased. It was reduced to the extent that its use was limited to smaller Māori communities that lived separately from Pākehā.

Recognising the risks for the language

The result, as we now know, was that by the mid-20th century the language was dying out. Between 1920 and 1960 there was a significant decline in the number of reo Māori speakers. Not until the 1980s was the seriousness of the situation really acknowledged at a government level. This resulted in several initiatives attempting to stem the loss and revive the fading language.

The Te Reo Māori claim made to the Waitangi Tribunal in 1985 resulted in te reo Māori being recognised as a that the government was obliged to protect under the Treaty of Waitangi. Recommendations resulted in the establishment of the Māori Language Act, making te reo Māori an official language of New Zealand. The formation of the Māori Language Commission, renamed in 1991 to Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, was also a part of the recommendations for helping revitalise the language.

Language and identity

Language is a tool by which humans communicate, and is how they share their hopes and dreams, their thoughts, feelings and their concerns with one another. Language is the vehicle to bring knowledge, culture, customs and traditions from the past to the present and into the future.

Te reo Māori is the means by which traditional prayers, incantations, myths and legends are shared. It shows us the habits and practices that have shaped our histories.

Many show us how important te reo Māori is in maintaining the uniqueness of Māori. When Māori Battalion veteran and Ngāpuhi leader Tā Hēmi Henare spoke to the Waitangi Tribunal hearings in 1985 he said:

‘Ko te reo te mauri o te mana Māori.
The language is the life force of the mana Māori.

Ko te kupu te mauri o te reo Māori.
The word is the life force of the language.

E rua ēnei wehenga kōrero e hāngai tonu ana ki runga i te reo Māori.
These two ideas are absolutely crucial to the Māori language.

Ko te reo, nō te Atua mai.
A language, which is a gift to us from God.’

He asked, ‘If the language dies, as some predict, what do we have left to us? Then, I ask our own people, who are we?’

Power and authority are closely associated with language and communication. The importance of language should not be underestimated. Te reo Māori is the core of our Māori culture and , and without it our prestige, land ownership and culture will cease to exist.

It’s been said that a people without their own language lose their power and unique identity.

This reference to the importance of te reo Māori and its relevance to identity is reflected in other whakatauākī and whakataukī. For example:

Ko tōku reo tōku ohooho, ko tōku reo tōku māpihi mauria.

My language is my awakening, my language is the window to my soul.

Ka mau koe ki te kupu a tōu matua.

Hold fast to the words of your father.

Ko te kai o ngā rangatira, he kōrero

The food of leaders is oratory.

Toi tū te kupu, toi tū te mana, toi tū te whenua.

This whakatauākī from Tinirau of Wanganui is a plea to hold fast to our culture. For without language, without mana and without land, the essence of being Māori would no longer exist but be a skeleton, which would not give justice to the full body of Māoritanga.


In modern times the term ‘mana’ has taken on various meanings, including the power of the gods, the power of the ancestors, the power of the land and the power of the individual. Mana is inherited from the through , and defines the position of tamariki within a cosmic order.

Mana is enhanced through the actions of the whānau and through individuals. This article describes mana and its role in the learning and wellbeing of tamariki.

Mana reo

Mana reo is literally the mana of language. These days, mana reo includes the ability to express oneself in the Māori language. The survival of the language as a living medium is the key reason behind this aspect, another being the importance of understanding and using the language to gain greater depth with the culture.

According to , each kaupapa embodies an area of learning and development that is woven into the whāriki of whānau, to provide a strong foundation for ongoing positive growth of babies and young children.

  • Mana atua – Wellbeing
  • Mana whenua – Belonging
  • Mana tangata – Contribution
  • Mana reo – Communication
  • Mana aotūroa – Exploration

Within the context of Āhuru Mōwai (the Māori dimension of the ‘Parents as first teachers’ programme), mana reo relates to the ability to communicate and interact with others in effective ways.

Children experience an environment that promotes and protects positive interactions.

For babies and young children, this learning is gained through an environment that fosters verbal and non-verbal communication skills for a range of purposes. They will discover and develop different ways to be creative and expressive, and will experience the stories and symbols of their culture in positive and affirmative ways.

Book: Barlow, C. (1991). Tikanga Whakaaro — Key Concepts in Māori Culture. Auckland: Oxford University Press.