Indigenous | Schools

Taonga removed from Te Atatū Intermediate child’s neck: Auckland mum fumes amid claims; school says allegations not substantiated

Keavarni Caffery with her mum Toni Paikea, who wants to know why her daughter was forced to cut off her taonga at school. Photo / Joseph Los'e

An Auckland mother of three is fuming after her 11-year-old daughter claims she was forced by her school to remove a precious taonga from her neck - a pounamu gifted by her brother, who survived a lethal dose of electricity in a horror workplace accident.

The school itself says it’s still getting to the bottom of the matter but so far the family’s claims about a teacher’s actions have not been substantiated.

West Auckland mother Toni Paikea - whose son Jahden Nelson last April lost both his arms in the accident last year - told the Herald her daughter Keavarni arrived home from Te Atatū Intermediate school last Friday holding her taonga in her hands. Her string necklace had been cut.

“At first I thought the taonga might have come off while Keavarni was playing sports or running around,” said Paikea, 48, a spiritual and faith healer.

“But Keavarni said as she was heading to her class, a number of students were being growled at for uniforms and other things by a whaea standing in the doorway.

Cut it off

“The teacher, who had taught Keavarni, saw the string of Keavarni’s taonga. Keavarni said the teacher told her to take the taonga off. Keavarni just wanted to get to class and didn’t want the fuss. She cut it off and the teacher took the taonga.

“I don’t know if the taonga did a pukana to the teacher or what,” Paikea said.

At the end of school, Keavarni said she collected her taonga and took it home.

Paikea said when Keavarni recounted to her what happened, she was immediately on the phone to the school. She finally talked to an office administrator who took a message and said that it “would be passed to the principal”.

“It was a Friday afternoon, so I knew nothing would happen quickly,” Paikea said.

What was even more devastating for Keavarni, Paikea said, was that she had worn that taonga since she was five. The taonga had been given to her by her brother Jahden.

Special bond

Last April, Jahden had both his arms amputated following a horrific workplace accident when a metal pole he was holding touched high-voltage overhead lines on a Massey work site, sending a lethal electric current through his body. He was lucky to survive.

Paikea said Jahden had gifted the greenstone to Keavarni just before he became a dad for the first time.

“The taonga had a very special bond for Keavarni and her brother Jahden but it’s not the same now,” Paikea said.

When she held the taonga on that fateful Friday, she knew the mauri (life force) had been sucked from the greenstone. But her tupuna (ancestors) advised what to do, and how to cleanse the negativity around the taonga.

That night she said karakia over the taonga, blessed it with holy water and left it outside.

About 1am, Paikea woke to her dogs barking. She said her tupuna told her it was okay to bring the taonga back into her home and give it back to Keavarni.

Taonga allowed

Paikea said she had thought long and hard about the incident over the weekend and contacted the school again on Monday morning.

The next day she got a call from one of the deputy principals at Te Atatū Intermediate, who said they would arrange a hui. Paikea said there's been no more contact since then but decided to come to the Herald because what happened was culturally unacceptable.

Paikea said she didn’t want the teacher “tarred and feathered” but also didn’t want anyone else’s child to go through a similar event.

“Keavarni is, like me, very spiritual but now says she doesn’t want to be a healer. It is a gift from our tupuna and I want Keavarni to make her own choices and not be stopped by a teacher,” Paikea said.

Te Atatū Intermediate Principal Lloyd Evans told the Herald their policy is all students may wear taonga to celebrate their culture and identity.

Dealing with colonialism

“We are aware of the concerns that have been raised. Information gathered to date does not substantiate the claims made about the teacher’s actions,” Evans said.

“Earlier this week a member of our leadership team contacted the whānau, seeking a hui to discuss the matter, and with a view to addressing their concerns and resolving the matter. We will continue to support the whānau in resolving this matter as soon as possible, with a positive outcome for all.”

Paikea said that Evans’ response has stunned her.

“My daughter has worn that taonga for five years. Why would she just cut it off?” Paikea said. “And why would the teacher hold on to it all day? We will get to the bottom of this one way or another.”

Bernie O’Donnell, an academic and cultural adviser to Auckland University, said the alleged incident highlighted that New Zealand still has a long way to go to find cultural unity.

“We talk all the right talk and we talk about equity and Te Tiriti but at the end of the day, we still have to deal with colonialism.

“That [alleged] incident is unbelievable in this day and age but is actually the reality.”

- New Zealand Herald.

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