Overcoming the past and looking to the future – the story of a wharekura

Issue: Volume 100, Number 1

Posted: 4 February 2021
Reference #: 1HAG_9

Established as a Native School in 1896, Te Wharekura o Rakaumanga in Huntly has emerged from a challenging past as a proud and flourishing kura. The Education Gazette talks to principal John Heremia and student Hana Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke about its confronting and challenging past, its struggles, its successes and its aspirations.

Hana Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke is in her final term at Te Wharekura o Rakaumanga when Education Gazette catches up with her. It’s not the first time we’ve met Hana – we profiled Maahina, a book she wrote and published about maramataka, the Māori lunar calendar and its connection with people’s wellbeing in Issue 11, 2020.

“The book has sold out twice now. I honestly thought it would just be my friends who bought it,” laughs the 18-year-old.

Now Hana is pondering how she will continue to manage her maramataka publishing business while studying for a degree in business management and Māori and indigenous studies at the University of Waikato.

It’s quite a different sort of challenge to those her great-grandmother faced as a student at the same school. Hana is the fourth generation of her whānau to attend Te Wharekura o Rakaumanga.

“My great-grandmother was beaten for speaking Māori. This was an English-medium school back then. And then my grandfather, Taitumu Maipi, was still not allowed to speak the reo. He fought for our school to be a full immersion school. He was part of an activist group for revitalisation of the reo. My father was one of the first out of our whānau to speak Māori. And then there’s me today – I’m able to be enriched in my culture through all different aspects.”

Hana is confident that when she has her own children, they will build on this progress.

“I want my children to be able to understand and learn our culture using all their senses, hear the reo, speak the reo, be it, feel it from our tinana, wairua, hinengaro – holistically. If they know it confidently enough then they’ll be able to adapt to other cultures, religions, perspectives without being hesitant in knowing who they are, because they have a strong sense of their identity.

“If they have that strong foundation they will be fine. It’s about being exposed to all different cultures – not just being closed off to our own. I know my culture confidently enough to express and learn from other cultures.”

Hana’s strong sense of identity has been shaped by her people.

“All the kaumātua around here have instilled in us to revitalise the reo and indigenous knowledge that we try and practice every day in school. It’s about ‘Maaku anoo e hanga tooku nei whare’ – ‘I will build and fashion my own house’ – that covers the physical, spiritual and mental sides; and also the whānau and the whenua.”

The school’s cultural group, Āwhina i te Kaupapa, has also had a profound impact on Hana.

“We travelled over to Hawai’i and Australia and China – we visited those indigenous groups and from there we were able to converse in our indigenous languages and we could see the similarities and each other’s customs. There was so much respect and a shared vision for trying to revitalise our cultures. And all from a rangatahi perspective.”

A part of that history

Tumuaki John Heremia – known by many as Barna – should take credit for transforming Te Wharekura o Rakaumanga into the place it is today, where ākonga like Hana are flourishing. He has been involved with the kura for over 40 years, but he’s far too humble.

The school was established in 1896 as a Native School. Under the Native Schools Act 1867, Māori were required to donate the land for the schools before communities would receive support from the Government to set up a school.

“The people from the Rakaumanga area here wanted to build a school because every winter it was very dangerous for their kids to cross the river by punt – there was no bridge back then,” says John.

So a Native School was established on a site near where the Huntly Power Station sits today.

“From a Māori perspective the Native Schools were set up under assimilation policies, more to civilise Māori and get them included as part of society sooner than later. That was part of the primary purpose – also to support Māori boys to be good farmers and girls to be domestic servants.

“Māori kids were beaten like hell if they got caught speaking Māori on school grounds. It was to discourage them speaking Māori and use English as their main language.

“Probably the people at that time thought that was a good thing to do. Te Wharekura o Rakaumanga was part of that history.”

Fast-forward to 1969, and the school became a state primary school – one of the last Native Schools to be redesignated into the state system following the abolition of Native Schools.

Shortly after, the Huntly Power Station was commissioned as part of Prime Minister Muldoon’s Think Big Projects.

“When they decided to build the power station, our school was in the road. The easiest thing to do of course was just smash it down,” explains John.

Using the levers of the Public Works Act, the Government made the decision to demolish the school and relocate students to the other schools in the community.

But this proved to be a catalyst for resistance. Led by ex-students Māori Queen Te Atairangikaahu and her brother Sir Robert Mahuta (before he was knighted), people began protesting against any further degradation of the right for Māori to have access to a quality education.

“They understood they couldn’t protest to prohibit advancement of the building of the power station, but they were determined that the school should not be lost. They had to go right back to ‘this land was gifted by the Māori people; you can’t just do this.’”

As a result, the school was relocated to its current site in 1974. But the protests achieved more than just saving the school.

“It actually galvanised the people to look upon the purpose of schools and the possible removal of access for their children to education and learning. And it also helped them to think: what is learning?”

John’s story

It was around this point that John’s association with the school began.

Upon graduating from Waikato University, he moved to the Huntly area, where he has remained for over 40 years. He was approached in 1978 to become an Itinerant Teacher of Māori for schools in the area. These teachers operated in a similar way to Bible in Schools teachers, visiting schools to teach te reo Māori.

“In those days they gave you a guitar and a tape recorder and told you, away you go. I went around teaching kids a, e, i, o, u; tēnā koe, e tū. Rakaumanga was designated as my base school.”

Despite widespread suppression of te reo Māori, John had never let his reo slide. He is of Tūhoe descent, growing up in one of the small pockets of Aotearoa that held onto the language.

Like the Far North, Whanganui River and the East Coast – Tūhoe land had been identified as unproductive land that couldn’t be redeveloped into land block sales for returning soldiers after the war. “So our isolation firmly helped us retain a lot of those sorts of things.”

This was fortunate as his schooling did little to affirm his identity as Māori.

“In my early years, I was left trying to grapple with why I should be proud to be part of the Commonwealth. Our reading material reflected more about what was happening in England. I knew more about Robin Hood than I did about Te Rauparaha. I knew more about King Arthur than I knew about King Korokī.”

John witnessed the full effect of the Government’s policies when he first moved to the Huntly area. He was appalled to discover an absence of te reo Māori in the Huntly area.

“When I first started interacting with this community, I was actually quite shocked because I couldn’t hear te reo Māori being spoken anywhere other than ceremonial occasions on the marae.”

Revitalising te reo Māori

John says the strength and conviction to revive te reo Māori came from older people and academics, as well as from a lot of people who did not even speak Māori themselves.

One of those people was Selby Neill, the principal at Rakaumanga, where John was the only Māori teacher.

“Selby was Dutch and an awesome man. He said, ‘You should revive te reo Māori, you should ensure that Māori culture is being reflected in how we look after our kids’.

“A large number of children who were coming to Rakaumanga were Pākehā and some of them came from Dutch families, and they were talking about the importance of language. They were the ones who were encouraging us to embrace our own language.”

Following its relocation to its new site, Rakaumanga became a bilingual school in the mid-late 1970s. And then following in the footsteps of Hoani Waititi, the first kura established by Tom and Kaa Williams with a focus on revitalising te reo Māori, Rakaumanga became a kura in 1986.

John says back then there was initially some resistance to a Māori immersion programme.

“Even when bilingual education was allowed, inspectors from the Department of Education would come round from schools to measure that there was an equivalent amount of time that was also being taught in English.”

But the kura grew. It achieved official redesignation as a Total Immersion Māori co-educational composite (Years 1–15) Tribal Wharekura on 1 January 1995. The first cohort of Year 13 students educated within a Kaupapa Māori programme graduated in 1997.

Fears of decline

John says they experienced the full range of emotions, as the revitalisation of te reo Māori gained momentum.

“In the early years it was a feeling of determined passion, then a feeling of euphoria when you started hearing little ones say ‘tēnā koe’. Because in this community in the ’70s and ’80s, no one under the age of 13 was speaking Māori.

“So, Nan was saying ‘You’re awesome’, Dad was saying, ‘You’re awesome’. Then we went through this period of maintenance and sustainability early-2000s and that’s when the work actually began.”

By the mid-2000s, John believes they entered a period of gradual decline.

“Once you’ve heard one speak Māori, then 10, then 100, 1000, Scotty Morrison, no more pakipaki (applause). And you still need the pakipaki. See that’s the thing with being Pākehā – you don’t recognise the plethora of occasions, the events, mediums that celebrate you being Pākehā.

“For Māori, that was occurring through kōhanga, kura, wharekura and started to trickle out into society. But it still pales in significance to the rich endorsement Pākehā receive for te reo Pākehā, Pākehā values, ways and social etiquettes.”

John is concerned by a burgeoning trend he’s noticing: parents who have been nurtured in te reo and have emerged from their Māori medium education to be successful in both Māori and non-Māori worlds, but are opting to send their children to English medium schools after a few years of kōhanga reo or primary school.

“Although it’s a mere trickle, a concern for me is that this trickle can turn into a deluge easily.”

Despite John’s fears, Te Wharekura o Rakaumanga is flourishing. They have difficulty managing the number of enrolments and enquiries and have seen a big increase in the number of Pākehā children enrolling. Students have even relocated from other parts of the country to attend the wharekura, boarding in Huntly, Ngāruawāhia or Hamilton.

“We are still riding the wave of success, and as any surfer would like to think, the wave is going to continue. The people themselves have to want it. People who came through kaupapa Māori education, when they start sending their children to non-kaupapa Māori schools, that’s the start of it going under.

“I think it’s still important that there is still a lot of passion and commitment by Māori in general to keep the wave going. It’s your active participants, the students and the parents of the students and their parents – they have to believe it and own it for it to work for it to carry on.

“When we became a kura in 1986, how did we measure success? We don’t measure it with the children we’re working with in ’86, we measure it with their children – intergenerational change and sustainability.”

Looking to the future

Near the entrance of the kura stands an impressive sculpture. It represents the journey the kura has taken from a Native School in 1896, to becoming a state primary school in 1969, to its relocation in 1974, to becoming a bilingual school in the late 1970s, to a kura kaupapa in 1986, to a full wharekura in 1995, to what it is today.

Wood is not meant to pierce steel, yet it does here, showing that with passion and commitment, anything is possible. The story is welded onto the steel along with all the names of local marae, as a reminder that the school belongs to its people.

“We are still excited about the growth of kaupapa Maori education,” says John. He says 20 to 25 years ago the focus was on growing te kōhanga reo. Now there is a strong focus on helping rangatahi transition into higher education or employment and have meaningful and prosperous lives.

“Part of that role is supporting community and wider society to understand ‘where are these kids coming from?’ Contrary to belief, not everyone knows how to play a guitar and knows all the words to Ten Guitars, but they do offer other world views. We also want employers and businesses to understand that having these Māori people as part of your staff adds value to your company. That’s a work in progress. We also have to work on it ourselves and with our people.”

John says earlier graduates from the kura have done an extraordinary job at setting the benchmark and they’re scattered throughout society.

And now, as she embarks on her tertiary studies, Hana will join the Rakaumanga alumni, paving the way for the next generation to continue to strengthen te reo and tikanga Māori, and emerge, as Hana has done, proud, confident and secure in the knowledge of who they are and where they are going.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 1:20 pm, 4 February 2021

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