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Te Reo Māori and New Zealand Sign Language: The Right to Access Your Culture

Updated: Oct 6

Stephanie Awheto signs 'kia ora'. Source:

For generations, Deaf New Zealanders were unable to access Te Reo Māori through New Zealand Sign Language. Thankfully, this is gradually changing due to the work of passionate activists.

While there have been nationwide efforts to revive Te Reo Māori, a lot of work still needs to be done to enable people to access Te Reo and tikanga Māori through NZSL. This has meant that Māori Deaf have often remained separated from their culture.

The late Patrick Wikiriwhi Thompson was a Māori Deaf activist who dedicated his life to making Māori culture accessible through NZSL. His legacy has had a significant impact on the Deaf community.

Thompson partnered with interpreter Stephanie Awheto to create new signs that encapsulate the cultural meaning behind a word or phrase in Te Reo Māori. Awheto has a deep knowledge of both languages and has brought this to her work - creating beautiful and unique signs.

Stephanie Awheto explains that without Māori signs, there is often a conceptual gap when translating between Māori and NZSL. This is because a Māori word was historically first translated into English and then into NZSL.

“The concepts are different. For example, in English you say ‘Hello,’ when you greet someone. However, in Māori, [kia ora] is a blessing - wishing them good health. So, there is a big difference even in how we greet each other.”

The symbolism behind these greetings might be missed without having a unique sign for them. Māori Deaf Culture Language is an incredibly important part of cultural identity.

Thompson has explained that truly immersing in sign language that included Māori concepts, and discovering his identity as a Māori Deaf individual through this newfound access, was like being “born again.” There is still much work to do. Since Thompson’s passing, Awheto has continued to carry his legacy forward.

However, interpreters who are proficient in Māori and NZSL are extremely difficult to find. As a result, many Deaf individuals are still not able to fully immerse in traditional Māori ceremonies and gatherings.

New advocates continue to grow awareness for this movement. Deaf Youth leader Eric Matthews told Te Ao Māori News that he hopes NZSL can be included in Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week) and that Māori Deaf can truly discover their tikanga.

He hopes that by empowering Māori Deaf to access their culture through sign language, all Māori will appreciate "the beautiful flowing signs that we use when we waiata, alongside our facial expressions."

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