Pioneer helped te reo survival

02:31, Feb 02 2013
Jean Puketapu
Jean Puketapu

Jean Gloria Edith Puketapu:

b Te Kairere, July 26, 1931;

m Ihakara Puketapu, 1s, 5d;

d Wainuiomata, July 31, 2012, aged 81.

Jean Puketapu was a driving force behind the creation of the first kohanga reo, in April, 1982. It was the beginning of a movement widely credited with helping keep the Maori language alive at a time when many feared it was dying out.

Mrs Puketapu grew up speaking te reo, and was determined her grandchildren would have the same opportunity. Her role in setting up the first kohanga reo, or language nest, in an old factory in Wainuiomata, Lower Hutt, was the start of 30 years of service to the language.


She was appointed the first national co-ordinator for Te Kohanga Reo and travelled extensively in New Zealand to help whanau develop their own nests. Until the day she died, she was very proud of the fact that, within a year of its foundation, the movement had spawned 300 kohanga reo.

As well as co-ordinating kohanga reo nationwide, Mrs Puketapu taught there with her baby granddaughter at her side.

In 1991, former Labour cabinet minister Whetu Tirikatene- Sullivan recognised her in a letter as "the founder" of kohanga reo. The same year, Mrs Puketapu was awarded a QSO in recognition of her contribution to the kohanga reo movement. In 2010 she was awarded the Te Tohu Whakapakari award from the National Kohanga Reo Trust, the trust's highest academic distinction.

Jean Puketapu was born in Tuai, below Lake Waikaremoana, the 11th child of Haami and Te Ngaroahiahi Waiwai. She had nine sisters and three brothers.

Her father was a shearer and a hunter, and her mother spent many hours working with him in shearing sheds as a qualified "fleeco".

As a young woman, Mrs Puketapu suffered from a respiratory condition, but that never held her back. She attended Kokako Native School at Tuai and was always full of stories from her early years.

She told friends and family how she was whacked at school for speaking Maori and whacked again for speaking English when she returned home.

She travelled by horseback to and from religious services (karakia) at the local marae, often riding with three of her sisters on a single animal.

On one occasion, she slipped off the back of the horse in her Sunday best. After she had fallen, the horse decided to lift its tail and go about its business. When she arrived at the marae, she found herself on the receiving end of a whack for dirtying her clothes. That is how life was in the Ureweras in those days.

She loved to recall childhood memories of hydro schemes being developed at Kaitawa and Piripaua. Her older brothers, 28 Maori Battalion veterans John and Bill Waiwai, both worked on developing the Lake Waikaremoana-fed power schemes after returning home from World War II.

Life changed for the better for Mrs Puketapu when she was awarded a scholarship to attend Hukarere College in Napier.

In 1949, aged 18, she moved to Waiwhetu, Lower Hutt, and lived with her sister Te Awhekaehe (Effie) and her sister's husband, Norman Rua, a son of Rua Tapunui Kenana, the Maori prophet, faith healer and land rights activist.

Armed with references from W R Tier, the head teacher at Kokako School, Sister Janet Kearney of the Presbyterian Church Maori Mission in Waikaremoana and I I Hunter of Hukarere College, Mrs Puketapu obtained work at the railways workshop in Woburn as an office assistant.

She held this position till December, 1954, when she began working for the New Zealand Roads Board, followed by the Public Trust Office.

This period, which saw her playing sport for Te Aroha Hutt Valley Association, coincided with efforts to fundraise and build a marae at Waiwhetu spearheaded by Ihaia (Paddy) Puketapu.

The young lady became an active supporter of the marae project. She took part in the kapa haka team, as well as joining community wide fundraising efforts.

Mrs Puketapu and her sisters Wiki and Joyce are credited with introducing the double long poi to the Wellington region.

Her mother, Te Ngaroahiahi, along with other Tuhoe kuia from the Ureweras, agreed to come to Waiwhetu to assist with the weaving of the whariki (mat) and the tukutuku (ornamental wall panels) to adorn the new marae.

The Arohanui ki te Tangata marae was opened on September 10, 1960, and the panels and whariki remain intact to this day.

IN THE mid-1950s, Mrs Puketapu met Ihakara (Kara) Puketapu and the young couple were married in March, 1956, in Tuai.

They bought their first home in Wainuiomata and raised their five children there till moving to their Wainuiomata valley farm property, Taumairangi, in December, 1968.

The year before, Mr Puketapu was awarded a Harkness fellowship, which involved a move to the University of Chicago, where the children attended pre-school and elementary school. During this time, Mrs Puketapu taught African American women in the ghetto areas how to read and write.

Mr Puketapu's second study programme was based at the University of New Mexico, so the family moved to Albuquerque, where Mrs Puketapu spent time teaching at the American National Art Center.

In 1973, the family moved again, this time to London, where Mr Puketapu worked for two years as a diplomat at the New Zealand High Commission.

During this time Mrs Puketapu and her daughters crafted the woven rope which secured the poupou (post) carved by Inia Te Wiata, which still stands in New Zealand House in London.

When the Puketapus returned home in 1975, Mrs Puketapu worked at Wainuiomata College as a Maori teacher.

She became involved with the kohanga reo movement in 1981.

In 1989, she was awarded a Winston Churchill Memorial Fellowship, which enabled her and her mokopuna, Te Awa, to spend four months in Arizona and New Mexico. There they studied curriculum methods and systems in the Spanish and Pueblo Indian languages.

In 1995, Mrs Puketapu was made a Justice of the Peace.

During her latter years she continued to maintain her active involvement and contribution to Te Kohanga Reo.

A firm believer in the need for Maori and English languages to exist side by side, Mrs Puketapu insisted on the establishment of whanau classes at Waiwhetu and Pencarrow schools.

Even in her old age she never ever really retired from her teaching and mentoring roles. She moved for a while to a teaching role at Wainuiomata's Parkway College, where she was head of the Maori Studies Department.

In 2004, she received her Diploma in Teaching Early Childhood Education-Whariki Papatipu, aged 73.

Until her death she was an active member of the Maori health service group advising the Hutt Valley District Health Board. In this role she exhibited a keen interest in child health, maternity care and breastfeeding initiatives.

Seven thousand people attended her tangi at the Waiwhetu marae. She was buried on the whanau farm in the Wainuiomata valley, Taumairangi.

Sources: Kara Puketapu, Kuini Puketapu, Mereana Storey, Ngahaka Puketapu-Deys, Rangipaea Dentice, Te Awa Puketapu, Enoka Puketapu and Peggy Luke.

The Dominion Post