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Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi is a language restorer
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Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi is a language restorer
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Conversations
24 April 2014

Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi is a language restorer

Interview by Briar Hale

Many moons ago, the shaky isles of New Zealand were discovered by sea-faring warriors from Hawaiki: the Māori people. They developed customs (tikanga) and language (te reo), and lived in tribes until the arrival of the first colonial settlers some five centuries later.

Their way of life soon became overwhelmed by imperial changes, and by the 1980s only a tiny number of fluent speakers in te reo Māori remained. It was commonplace for Māori children to be punished for speaking their mother tongue at school, and the fragmentation of traditional society through urbanisation saw further decline of their language and culture.

Seeing the marginalisation and suffering of her people, Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi spearheaded the Kohanga Reo movement, the “language nest,” to help young children and their family rediscover their lost identity. Kohanga reo centres fully immerse children in te reo Māori through community and play, saving a language that very nearly disappeared into the unknown. Now in her mid-eighties, Iritana is a Dame Companion of The New Zealand Order of Merit, a 2014 finalist for New Zealander of the year, and has been knighted by the Queen (an offer she very nearly refused.) When we speak, she is humble about Kohanga Reo, which over 30 years after its inception is still teaching thousands of children around the country the language of their roots.

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DAME IRITANA TAWHIWHIRANGI: I’m from Ngati Porou, an eastern tribe in the North Island. I grew up with 18 of us in one house; my uncles and aunties, my grandparents. We lived hand to mouth. We had the bush, we had the sea, we had our crops. We didn’t know we were poor. We didn’t feel poor. My first job was teaching in 1948 up in the East Coast. I had the good fortune to relieve the headmaster at Waiomatatini, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, a pioneering Māori teacher. When I went there I observed the classes and the way she was with the students. Everyone supported her, and I found those support networks very valuable—I was teaching 35 children and I didn’t know which way was up. So I got the idea of kohanga reo (the language nest) from the important role of the extended family and the extended community support. That was in 1948, and it wasn’t until 1982, many years later, that I was able to implement that model.

BRIAR HALE: How did you go about trying to re-teach and re-inspire people to learn Māori?

We began in 1981 in response to the concern that our language was not going to survive. We decided to focus on the beautiful parts of Māori culture. We would not focus on the negative aspects of Māori culture, but to focus on the beauty and acknowledge the attributes that give Māori pride.

We realised we had to stop expecting the government to revive the language and make it safe: Māoridom had to do it themselves.

We’ve got to get these children at birth, and their families. So that’s the idea of the language nest—a place where we could fully immerse the children so they would know their language and culture. We started off with four centres in Wellington and one in Auckland. Within three years there were over 300. The Kohanga’s purpose has always been to uplift families from the base of Māori language.

So was it like setting up Māori-language kindergartens?

In those first five years, Kohanga reo was never viewed as being an early childhood education movement. It was actually a Māori movement, based on the Māori culture, and it worked amazingly. It was exciting. Families can come with the children and make learning exciting, make being together a joy, watch them fly. When you take people’s lives and let them know they’re important, you get their support. It’s a whole different approach. When the Prime Minister David Lange said to me, “What magic do you use to move Māoridom this way?” I said, “I don’t use magic, I just told them how important they were.”

Kohanga reo took off due to passion of the Māori people, through the effort of the families, their elders, and those with a passion for the language. We once had around 800 centres throughout the country. Numbers dropped in the 1990s due to government regulations about buildings and teaching qualifications—older folk were hurt by it and stopped coming. Every day we strive to keep western ideology to the side.

The movement has truly revived a dying language and made a tremendous difference to Māori. Do you feel that you’ve achieved that?

I was nominated for a knighthood but declined. My daughter called me and said, “Don’t be stupid Mum, it’s not about you. It’s about all those whanau around the country.” So I accepted because of them. My greatest wish is that this movement is carried by all Māori. There is mutual ground where Māori and Pakeha (non-Māori) can meet. There are benefits for all of us, but first we have the massive task of unifying our people. I have never seen so many achievements as I’ve seen in our kohanga graduates. There’s over 60,000 of them now and thousands of children enter Kohanga every year. People always said, “But what about the English language?” If you didn’t have one teacher in this country children would still learn English, because it’s all around them. Children are tremendous sponges. I’m very optimistic about the future. If we get it right and keep on involving people the way we have done, our philosophy can be utilised by other cultures.

This has been a long road, but let me just say, it has been magnificent.

Briar Hale

Briar Hale is a teacher and writer based in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

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