Comments allegedly describing te reo Māori in racist terms such as “monkey language” shocked the Ōtaki kura students who attended a council meeting in late February.
The comments were revealed after a teacher at Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Rito made a complaint to Mayor K Gurunathan.
A group of six year 12 students from the kura in Te Rauparaha Street were invited to a meeting of Kāpiti Coast District Council on February 25 where councillors were hearing submissions on the proposed Kāpiti Gateway Centre in Paraparaumu. The mainly 16-year-old students were there to support regional iwi, who were gifting a Māori name – Te Uruhi – for the centre.
It was also a learning opportunity for the rangatahi; seeing how council meetings operated, and hearing about the historical and cultural significance of Te Uruhi from iwi representatives.
After KCDC iwi liaison manager Kahu Ropata spoke, the rangatahi sang a mōteatea, traditionally presented after a speech. The mōteatea took the speaking time over the allotted three minutes, angering some other members of the public gallery who had opposed the gateway project. A haka then ensued.
Te Rito teacher Ariana Reweti, who accompanied the students, said in her letter of complaint that someone told the students to “sit down”, a woman asked why they were speaking Māori: “I should speak Chinese”, and someone asked “Why do we need to listen to this monkey language?”
Te Rito tumuaki (principal) Janey Wilson told Ōtaki Today the comments shocked the students.
“They had been told they were going to a meeting where some people would be opposed to the project, and that’s OK, but what they heard shocked them,” she says.
“It wasn’t just the comments, it was also that it came from older people – adults who the students thought would have more respect.”
She says there was clearly tension among a group of people close to the students, who heard some heckling about the use of te reo.
“Was that heckling directed at them? I’d say, yes.”
Janey says that growing up and going to school in Ōtaki, the students wouldn’t normally experience those sorts of comments.
The comments were not heard by the mayor or councillors, so no action was taken at the time. And with no CCTV cameras in the council chamber covering the public area, possible offenders could not be identified later.
After receiving the complaint from the kura, however, the mayor sought a meeting at Raukawa Marae in Ōtaki with iwi and the students, where he apologised on behalf of the council.
Ōtaki Ward councillor James Cootes also attended. He told Ōtaki Today everyone deserved to be treated with respect regardless of race, gender or views.
“I sit about 15 metres away from where the events unfolded so it was only later that I heard from several people the abhorrent comments that were spoken,” James said. “What impressed me most was that despite this behaviour, the tamariki from Te Rito and those with them remained composed and respectful.
“The unity shown on the day across the three iwi was something I’ll never forget and was powerful.
“The experience at Raukawa Marae, although saddening, was a humbling moment and as we learned more about what occurred it became obvious that we need to work harder to ensure everyone is safe in our whare, or meeting house.”
Janey says the apology was appreciated: “It was good for the kids to hear that.”
The tumuaki says she’s proud of how her students reacted at the meeting in the council chamber, and how they’ve conducted themselves since.
“They didn’t react, they did what they’re taught to do. Part of our values as a kura is to respect all people. They were wearing the school uniform. They just carried on with honour and with dignity. I was proud of them.”
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