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The Practice Of Maori Performing Arts At Ara Connects Students To Their Language And Culture

Kapa haka performance.

On any given week, Te Puna Wānaka on Ara Institute’s main city campus is open to visitors; people of all kinds looking for community, space to relax in, share, vent or get opinions. Te Puna Wānaka was created to make concrete the importance of Māori-centred facilities for students, local iwi Ngāi Tahu and Pasifika communities, and many whānau and community groups have held hui, wānanga and fono here, making good use of the excellent facilities.

Michelle Mahanga is one of two Kaiwhakauru in Ara’s Engagement Team. She wears a Kaupapa Māori hat within her role as a Business Development advisor and is proud of her affiliation with Te Puna Wānaka – that special space on campus where all cultures are validated and given a voice.

Armed with that thinking, Michelle and her husband, Taipari Mahanga, were asked to contribute to a programme that gave Ara Institute Māori & Pacific Trades Training students a sense of belonging, in a few short hours, on Wednesday afternoons.

These sessions came to be affectionately referred to as “Wednesday Wānanga” Michelle and Taipari’s contribution to ‘Wednesday Wānanga’ saw them utilize their skills in Māori performing arts. Both are exponents of Kapa Haka and teach the art form as a mechanism of healing and wellness in the communities where they reside.

Tasked to teach “He Toki ki te Rika Ako” – a haka written by Te Reo Māori advocate and academic, Hana O’Regan - Michelle and Taipari jumped at the chance to help increase the cultural capability of Māori & Pacific Trades Training students.

Unfortunately the COVID-19 shut-down put an end to the face-to-face ‘Wednesday Wānanga’ and therefore to a valuable part of Michelle and Taipari’s outreach to Ara’s Maori and Pasifika students, who can be at a higher risk than average of disengagement with their studies. The pair was determined that their supportive weekly meetings would continue – but now in the virtual space.

Just as so many other education professionals around the world were realising, Michelle and Taipari knew the value of providing a convenient, accessible way to keep in touch with their community of learners and keep them feeling positive and involved. “We knew that we had to rebuild our connections again, and ensure that our learners were still able to talk to us about what was going on. It’s a real mechanism for wellness.”

Using video conferencing and chat-room technology, Michelle and Taipari, alongside their Student Support Division colleagues, have been able to keep an impressive cohort of weekly wananga attendees. Despite the occasional lags, wifi drop-outs and tech-based confusion, Michelle was encouraged by the virtual group’s popularity, with groups averaging about 20-25 per session.

She also underlines the importance of the kapa haka experience in reaching out to vulnerable students. “When you're faced with social issues, cultural competency may not be really high on your priority list. So we tend to meet a lot of Maori who identify as being Maori but haven't really experienced what that truly means. So, when you present them with something like a strong vibrant haka, it ends up becoming something bigger - something really, really special and quite unique.”

Michelle summarizes by saying “The Wednesday Wānanga sessions have become a potent way to give life to Ara’s three values of Hono, Hihiri and Aroha. Māori performing arts were the vehicle that achieved a sense of belonging in a digital environment, which has been a very nice surprise.”

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