Dame Naida Glavish: The country made 'Kia ora' acceptable

By Jessica Tyson

The simple act of saying "Kia ora" on the phone nearly lost Dame Naida Glavish her job as a tolls operator in 1984.

When it was reported, the incident made international headlines and was one of the key moments in New Zealand that helped revitalise the Māori language.

“I went to work in the Post Office believing that the greeting “Kia ora” was a salutation to this country. It was, I am kia ora, kia ora is me, I am reo Māori, reo Māori is me and how could that be wrong,” Glavish recalls.

But when she was punished by her bosses and her job was at risk for using the greeting, Glavish had been prepared to accept her punishment and not make a fuss, if it hadn't been for the defiant words of her kuia. 

“On my way back to work going over the Harbour Bridge I thought I’ll give my supervisor a break and I’ll ease off 'Kia Ora, tolls here', she says.

“As I thought that, I heard this voice in my ear, ‘Nui ake tēnei take i a koe, this is far greater than just you’. I thought it was the wind coming through the window but I knew it was the voice of my grandmother. This is far greater than just you.”

The words of her kuia instilled a fighting spirit.  

“I said to my supervisor,' I will respect and accept what you have to do as a supervisor, the same as I will ask you to accept what will do as I have to do as the mokopuna of my grandmother'.”

Glavish kept her job and continued to use the greeting ‘Kia Ora’ and her actions made a huge impact in Aotearoa and made the phone tolls very popular.

“The supervisor took me off the tolls boards and put me on a midnight to 6 am shift because the tolls rooms were jammed with people ringing in wanting to speak to the kia ora lady,” Glavish says.

‘It was the country that won the war’

At the time, thousands around the country started to embrace the greeting.

“The airlines, for instance, the pilots would start their flights off with kia ora and schools were using kia ora. The University of Auckland changed the name of their paper which was Craccum, for that week and called it Kia ora. So Kia ora went right throughout the country. I can say that I fought the battle but  in actual fact it was the country that won the war.”

With the support of Māori leaders like Dr Ranginui Walker and Sir Graham Latimer, Glavish continued to demand change.

“Our reo is not simply our reo, it’s our genealogy, our whakapapa, it’s the skin we wear, it’s everything that is about us is our reo. It doesn’t speak our language, it’s who we are. It’s our connection to the universe, it’s our connection to Papatuānuku, our earth mother, to the rain and snow, and it’s our connection to who we are and I am very humbled to be a small part of that.”

Her will to fight injustice inspired Glavish’s career in politics. She stood unsuccessfully for Parliament and was one of the founding members and former president of the Maori Party.

Her latest and most prestigious title came when she was knighted. It recognises her work as a former teacher, a community advocate and spending the past 31 years working in the public health sector.

“I consider it to be a privilege to be of service and so nothing has changed for me. I was raised by grandmothers,” she says.

“These grandmothers raised me with the saying that 'if you see something wrong in front of you then you are duty-bound to correct it, because, if you do not, then you will become like it'.”

Dame Naida Glavish appeared on Te Ngākau Tapatahi, a show profiling Māori dames and knights. The new series from the Māori Television newsroom is running this week on Māori Television at 12pm. Find the first five episodes on Māori+ now and the full series from Sunday, January 23.