The mother of kohanga reo

BIG CONTRIBUTION: Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, who received a DNZM for services to Maori education.
BIG CONTRIBUTION: Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, who received a DNZM for services to Maori education.

Wellingtonian Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, 83, spearheads the Maori immersion movement. She is in the midst of a Treaty of Waitangi claim brought by Te Kohanga Reo Trust Board, which says the Crown has undermined kohanga by trying to marginalise it into Pakeha early childhood education. A keen golfer with a sharp sense of humour, Dame Iritana reads law textbooks. She talks to education reporter Michelle Duff.

Where are you from, and where did you grow up?

I'm from Ngati Porou, and I grew up in the Hicks Bay area. That's where I was born, under a waterfall, right there. 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.

What was your first job?

My first job was teaching in 1948. I began teaching up in the East Coast. I had a father who wanted me to become a nurse, and in those days girls had two choices, nursing or teaching, and I decided on teaching. My father wanted me to be a nurse so I went the other way. [Laughs]

How did you become involved with the kohanga reo movement?

When I first started teaching, I had the good fortune to relieve the headmaster at Waiomatatini, Sylvia Ashton-Warner [pioneering Maori teacher]. When I went there I observed the classes and the way she was with the students. When she wasn't very well everyone came to school to support her, and I found the support networks very valuable - I was teaching 35 children from age 5 to standard 2, and I didn't know which way was up. So I got the idea of kohanga 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.

Why did kohanga begin, and how?

When the Maori elders came to Wellington and made a statement that Maori had to take responsibility for the language themselves, and they were to start when the children were born. About 120 Maori leaders came to Wellington between 1980-81. We realised we had to stop expecting the government to revive the language and make it safe, Maoridom had to do it themselves. We've got to get these children at birth, and their families. We had four pilots in Wellington and one in Auckland. Within three years there were over 300.

What was it like being involved with those early years of kohanga reo, and seeing the movement grow?

Kohanga reo in those first five years was never viewed by us as being an early childhood education movement. It was actually a Maori movement and it worked amazingly. It was exciting. When you take people's lives and let them know they're important, when you get their support and give them responsibility it's a whole different approach. When David Lange said to me, 'What magic do you use to move Maoridom this way?', I said 'I don't use magic, I just told them how important they were.' I've never seen myself as fixing anybody's life, I think it's arrogant. Any skills that we have should be used to help people stand taller.

What do you think of the state of Te Reo now compared with when you began?

When it first began I can tell you many families didn't have a clue, and now we have many graduates who are involved in the sports, in the arts, academic achievements. I have never seen in my lifetime so many achievements as I've seen in these kohanga graduates. Standing tall, speaking Maori. People always said, 'But what about the English?'. The thing is if you never had a teacher in this country children would still learn English, because it's all around them. Children are tremendous sponges, they can learn whatever is around. I'm very optimistic about the future. If we get it right and keep on involving people the way we have done.

What are you listening to at the moment?

To be quite honest with you I don't have much chance to listen to music at all. I love country and western, that's my choice.

What book is by your bedside table?

I read everything. I'm very curious and inquisitive. I've just finished reading Mai Chen's Public Law Toolbox. She gave it to me two weeks ago and I've read it. I start straight after the news around 7.30-8pm, and I read until about 1am.

We've heard you enjoy a round of golf. How did you get into playing?

I'm mad about it, I'm a golf fanatic - I'm the president of the Maori Women's Golf Association. I've been interested in sports all my life. I played hockey for years. When they came to ask me to play golf I told them I couldn't think of anything more stupid than chasing a little white ball around, but I'm afraid I got addicted.

If you could invite people to dinner, who would they be and why?

Piri Weepu, and . . . oh, I'm just thinking who else, because if I single one out all the rest will get miffed. I'd say Bubby Turner from Wainuiomata. I've known her for years when I first came to Wellington and she has always been there. She's an amazing person, very humble and loves trackpants. I invited her once to Government House with me and I told her if I've invited her, she's not to come in trackpants. So she didn't come.

What would you cook them?

Muttonbirds and puha. Ain't that a Maori feed?

The Dominion Post