Reasons for learning Moriori
Moriori cultural activists are aiming to emulate some of the achievements of their Maori cousins. Back in June the government made a one-off grant of six million dollars to a trust set up to help the Moriori people research and promote their history and language. The Te Keke Tura Moriori Identity Trust was the idea of the Hokotehi Moriori Trust, which is the organisation that represents the tchakat henu (that's tangata whenua in Maori, and indigenous people in English) of Rekohu and Rangiauria (Chatham and Pitt Islands). The grant was accompanied by an acknowledgement of the suffering that Moriori endured at the hands of both the Crown and the two Taranaki iwi who invaded Rekohu and Rangiauria in 1835.
Over at the Television New Zealand website there is an interesting discussion about the new grant with lawyer and historian Maui Solomon, who is perhaps the most famous living Moriori. Solomon explains that the money will help Moriori scholars make proper use of the records of their language that were written down in the second half of the nineteenth century by a series of Pakeha ethnologists. The most notable of these scholars was Alexander Shand, a long-time resident of the Chathams whose research was guided by the Moriori elder Hiruwaru Tapu. Shand published a number of studies of Moriori culture and history, and spent many years working on a full-scale dictionary of the language. In 1910, though, he lost his life in a house fire that also destroyed his unpublished manuscripts. Other scholars published partial Moriori vocabularies, and in 2001 Rhys Richards synthesised a lot of earlier texts in his Reo Moriori o ngā karapuna o Rekohu (The Moriori language of the ancestors on the Chatham Islands).
By the time the Moriori language was being written down, the people who spoke it had suffered decades of slavery at the hands of Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Awa. Low birth rates and gradual assimilation to Maori culture meant that, even after the end of slavery, the Moriori language continued to decline. Tommy Solomon, who had become famous for being the last full-blooded Moriori by the time he died in 1933, spoke Maori rather than Moriori.
The 'Moriori renaissance' of the last quarter century has brought a renewed interest in the Moriori language. Words and phrases began to used to be used on ceremonial occasions; when members of the Waitangi Tribunal visited Rekohu and Rangiauria to conduct research in the nineties, for instance, they were welcomed to the islands in Moriori. Nevertheless, Maui Solomon says there is today only one person who can speak Moriori fluently, plus a few more who can karakia and chant in the tongue. It must be lonesome to be the sole speaker of a language.
Can reo Moriori be fully reanimated? The example of Cornish, which was extinct for well over one hundred years but now has a couple of thousand speakers, would seem to suggest that the task is not impossible. And there are reasons why non-Moriori should care whether reo Moriori is resurrected in the twenty-first century. The language may well be a unique source of information about many aspects of human history in the Pacific.
About three thousand years ago people spread east from the edges of the Pacific into Samoa, Tonga, and smaller islands of the region known today as Western Polynesia. Over a thousand years a distinctive culture solidified there, and in the first centuries AD the great wave of exploration and settlement that would eventually reach Rapa Nui, Hawaii and Aotearoa began. The new Polynesian territories shared a family of languages known as Eastern Polynesian. Hawaiian, Tahitian, Maori, and Moriori are all part of this family, which is itself a part of the larger Polynesian family, and beyond that the Austronesian family.
Only after following helpful winds and ocean currents as far east as Rapa Nui and the coast of South America did the Polynesians make the difficult journey south to the land we know today as Aotearoa. We do not know the exact origin of the first settlers of these islands, but we can say that they came from somewhere in central east Polynesia, a region that contains the southern Cook Islands, the Austral, Society, and Marquesas Islands, and Pitcairn Island.
Moriori are the descendants of a group of very early Maori who left Aotearoa about seven hundred years ago, perhaps in an attempt to make a return journey to the Cooks or Austral Islands, and discovered Rekohu and Rangiauria. There was little or no contact between Aotearoa and the Chathams for many hundreds of years, so Moriori were not influenced by the culture that Maori iwi developed in Aotearoa until the invasion of 1835. Even after the invasion, their language was little altered by the borrowing of foreign words.
Moriori therefore probably contains an exceptional number of words which hark back to the 'proto-Polynesian' tongue which was spoken three thousand years ago, on the western edge of the Pacific. Moriori contains other words which were developed during the settlement of central Eastern Polynesia - words which early Maori would have brought to Aotearoa, but which have in many cases fallen out of use. Words like namu (mosquito) take us back from the cool kopi forests of Rekohu to the heat and haze of central Polynesia. Moriori can help scholars understand ancient Polynesian society, and the pattern and timing of Polynesian migration.
Moriori might perhaps be compared to the Icelandic language, which preserves much of the old Norse tongue in which the medieval sagas of the Vikings were written. Swedes and Norwegians cannot understand the texts of those sagas today, because their languages have changed a great deal, but Icelanders can still read the stories with ease.
Maui Solomon is realistic about the prospects for reviving the Moriori language, saying that he hopes to see a few score speakers to emerge over the next couple of decades. Every movement needs a vanguard, and the world will be a richer place if Moriori is spoken and studied in the twenty-first century.