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Victoria to honour kōhanga reo pioneer

27 November 2006

Victoria to honour kōhanga reo pioneer

A Māori leader who played a key role in establishing the kōhanga reo movement and reversing the decline in the Māori language is to receive an honorary doctorate from Victoria University.

Iritana Te Rangi Tawhiwhirangi (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāpuhi, Canadian, English) will receive an honorary Doctor of Literature degree at the University’s marae-based graduation ceremony, Te Hui Whakapūmau, on 8 December.

After graduating from the then Wellington Teachers’ Training College in 1948, Mrs Tawhiwhirangi began teaching on the East Coast before joining the Department of Māori Affairs as a Welfare Officer in Ruatoria. It was in this role that she worked to develop a network of playcentres on the East Coast, the first network of early childhood education for Māori in the regions.

Her involvement with early childhood education continued when she moved to Lower Hutt in 1972 and in 1980 she became the first Māori woman to be appointed as one of the Department’s District Officers, rising to be Chief Executive of the Department’s Community Services section the following year.

Following on from policy work she undertook on the establishment of language nests, in 1982 she was appointed as an inaugural trustee and first General Manager of the Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust Board, a position she held for two years. The first kōhanga reo, Pukeatua, was opened in Wainuiomata, one of about 100 established in 1982 and, by 1994, there were more than 800 catering for about 14,000 children.

She returned to work for the Department full-time in 1984 as National Director of Community Services, and was appointed Assistant Secretary of Māori Affairs in 1986. Retiring from the Department in 1989, in 1990 she returned to the Trust Board, where she served as Chief Executive Officer till 2003. She remains a trustee of the Board.

In a long and varied public career, Mrs Tawhiwhirangi has served on a host of government or official committees and working parties involved in the development of education policy. Her significance as an educational leader was recognised when she was a member of the Ministerial Working Group for the development of a strategic plan for early childhood education in 2001 and facilitated the collaborative bicultural project that resulted in the development of Te Whariki, the Ministry of Education early childhood curriculum for all New Zealanders.

She has also been involved with a wide variety of community organisations, including the Māori Women’s Welfare League, of which she is a life member, and the Māori Education Trust. She has been a guest lecturer at the former Wellington College of Education, Victoria University, University of Alaska at Fairbanks, the University of British Columbia and the University of Utah. She received an MBE in 1992, a Women’s Suffrage Medal in 1993 and was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2001.

Vice-Chancellor, Professor Pat Walsh, said Mrs Tawhiwhirangi was one of the cornerstones of the Kōhanga Reo movement.

“While initially designed as a means to revitalise the Maōri language, kōhanga reo achieved much, much more by mobilising thousands of Māori parents to become involved in the education of their children.

“Picking up on the playcentre philosophy of community ownership and management, she helped create a whānau development model that is not only underpinned by cultural and administrative sovereignty, but has also created new opportunities in education and employment for Māori women. Internationally, the Kōhanga Reo model is now the established benchmark for the regeneration of indigenous languages. The excellence seen today in the annual national Te Korimako oratory competitions, for Māori secondary students, is derived from the foundations laid by Kohanga Reo.

“While she works from a Māori kaupapa or philosophy, she is one of those rare people who can move effectively in both the Māori and Pākehā worlds and be respected in both. She is politically astute and has shown outstanding leadership in lobbying members of Parliament of all political hues to provide funding for the kōhanga reo movement, without which it probably would not have survived.”


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