National | Kōhanga Reo

'Kōhanga kids are changing Māoridom' - Dame Iritana Tāwhiwhirangi

Dame Iritana Tāwhiwhirangi has helped thousands of tamariki grow up surrounded by their mother tongue of te reo Māori through Te Kōhanga Reo movement since 1982.

As a founder of the movement, she says it’s the first children who were enrolled in kōhanga reo who are now the leaders changing Māoridom.

“Look where the language is. It's all over the place. Anything that wriggles is actually interested in the language. It's everywhere. I source it back to those mokopuna that sat at the feet of those expert, linguistic elders,” Tāwhiwhirangi says.

“They were loved, they were safe, they were happy. They understood the culture and they picked up the language. That generation now is the driver of not just Māori language, not just that but Māori development or phases of it.”

'Straight to the whānau'

Tāwhiwhirangi became involved as a founder of Te Kōhanga Reo in the 1980s when there had been a growing concern among Māori that te reo was endangered. Māori Affairs chief executive Dr Kara Puketapu introduced the philosophy of Tū Tangata to revitalise the reo and called on Tāwhiwhirangi for her help.

Tāwhiwhirangi says she came up with the idea to “go straight to the whānau” to help revitalise the language, which installed hope and faith in Māori families.

“[The whānau] said they didn't see themselves as trained teachers. They didn't see their culture as being valued and when they took responsibility, they were the drivers. They were the movers and shakers of the movement. When you see people who, where the light comes on in their eyes, when they're standing tall and they realize how much they've got to offer, which was never asked for before, when you get that kind of people dynamic going on and people believing in themselves, that is a joy to behold. It really is.”

Tiny funding

In the first year of the movement, kōhanga reo centres were only offered $5,000 each a year in funding but it worked.

“No resources except a miserable $5,000. That's all they got. I only had enough to give about $5,000 to a hundred new centres. So this year you had 115, the following year, another 100. Within three years we had over 300 kohanga that were operating, really, really excitingly.”

Dame Iritana was knighted in 2009 for her services to Māori education and says the honour is a tribute to hundreds of whānau around the motu.

Kuini award

“That is actually the essence of how kōhanga started in 1982, with hardly any language around, but those people brought their babies. The parents came along, sat in the kōhanga and listened to the language.”

But there’s one award she ranks higher than becoming a dame when she had an award presented to her by the Maori Queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu, on behalf of the trustees and families of Te Kōhanga Reo movement.

“She had the award carved for me and she presented it representing as I say, the trustees and every whānau in the country. When it happened, I was deeply moved by what she was doing on behalf of the total movement.”

Dame Iritana Tāwhiwhirangi 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.