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At Puni Reo Poitarawhiti, it’s not just wāhine who are encouraged to get involved (Image: Zico O’Neill-Rutene)
At Puni Reo Poitarawhiti, it’s not just wāhine who are encouraged to get involved (Image: Zico O’Neill-Rutene)

ĀteaOctober 13, 2022

Taking te reo Māori from kura to the netball court

At Puni Reo Poitarawhiti, it’s not just wāhine who are encouraged to get involved (Image: Zico O’Neill-Rutene)
At Puni Reo Poitarawhiti, it’s not just wāhine who are encouraged to get involved (Image: Zico O’Neill-Rutene)

An annual netball tournament in Tāmaki Makaurau is helping tamariki bring te reo into a new arena.

The rain that teases in black clouds above the asphalt courts of Netball Waitakere doesn’t seem to worry the 600-odd tamariki who’ve gathered on a Friday morning in May for the Puni Reo Poitarawhiti tournament. From 22 schools across Auckland, the crowd of year five to 13 netballers is noisy, bubbling with early morning anticipation to take to the court. But this hum of excitement is different to your usual netball tournament – it’s all in te reo Māori. The reason these students from across Tāmaki Makaurau got up early to pile into vans bound for Henderson is bigger than sport. 

“The kaupapa is not netball,” says Maria Marama (Te Arawa/Ngati Whakaue/Cook Islands), one of the key organisers of the 2022 Puni Reo Poitarawhiti tournament. “It’s about the reo, and we’re using the medium of netball to experience what it’s like to speak te reo outside of kura kaupapa contexts.”

Maria Marama, a key organiser of the 2022 Puni Reo Poitarawhiti tournament (Photo: Zico O’Neill-Rutene)

But as anyone who’s pulled on a bib knows, it’s not a true netball tournament without Tāwhirimātea stopping by to christen the courts with a downpour. “The rain will pass,” the organisers assure us as they guide the masses into the indoor courts for the pōwhiri to open the day’s proceedings.

Puni Reo Poitarawhiti is Aotearoa’s first Māori language netball tournament, bringing together students from kura kaupapa Māori and mainstream schools to celebrate te reo in a fun environment underpinned by hauora. It’s designed to create a safe space to speak te reo and normalise its use in everyday places. 

“Whiua te pōro!”

First held in 2018, Puni Reo Poitarawhiti is the brainchild of husband and wife Jenny Lee-Morgan (Waikato – Ngāti Mahuta, Te Ahiwaru) and Eruera (Eru) Lee-Morgan (Te Arawa, Pare Hauraki/Pare Waikato). Hearing pockets of te reo Māori being spoken at their children’s Saturday netball games inspired them to create an event that encouraged tamariki to speak te reo Māori outside of traditional spaces.

“Research tells us that our people want more than the traditional domains to be Māori and to practise te reo, and it also tells us that it needs to be fun and engaging,” says Eru Lee-Morgan. 

Eruera (Eru) Lee-Morgan, Puni Reo Poitarawhiti co-founder (Photo: Zico O’Neill-Rutene)

He created the Puni Reo initiative to establish spaces for the use of te reo Māori in meaningful and, importantly, everyday ways – centred around activities like sports, where Māori language is not the norm. The hope was to normalise te reo Māori outside of the formal settings of kura and on the marae, because many Māori speakers still feel unsafe using te reo outside Māori spaces.

This kaupapa is as vital as ever: just a couple of years ago two kura kaupapa netball teams were asked not to speak te reo Māori by coaches, parents and other teams at the Tauranga Netball Centre. And earlier this year a young Māori employee at McDonalds was asked to stop speaking te reo to customers.

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Unitec researchers Professor Jenny Lee-Morgan and Dr Jennifer Martin (Te Rarawa) examined how Puni Reo Poitarawhiti worked to normalise te reo Māori in non-traditional spaces in their 2021 report Te Riponga: Puni Reo Poitarawhiti, funded by Māori research centre Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga. Lee-Morgan is the centre’s pou for the Pae Ahurei: Living Uniquely research cluster that supports the invigoration, protection, renewal and future-proofing of all that is distinctive to Te Ao Māori. The report found that students relished the opportunity to “play” in te reo Māori in a space they would usually be required to speak English.

“Puni Reo Poitarawhiti incentivises learning and speaking te reo Māori in a culturally safe environment, while pushing the Māori-language normalising boundaries to new domains,” the report summarised.

“Pā tinana” 

Sophia and Kahukura, two year nine students from Ngā Puna o Waiōrea, say it’s been cool speaking te reo in a setting outside of school, doing something they love. Both students play netball outside of this tournament, but this is the only place where they’re umpired in te reo Māori.

“At Waiōrea we already speak a lot of reo so it was easy to adjust, but it’s cool learning the calls and cheering on your teammates, which you don’t usually do in te reo,” says Sophia.

When the rain clears, the tamariki take to the court again (Photo: Zico O’Neill-Rutene)

For the tamariki to feel truly comfortable using te reo at these events, Eru Lee-Morgan says it’s important that the kaiwhakahaere and kaiako lead by example – and that includes speaking te reo Māori in front of the tamariki as much as they can. He says it’s important to “model the kaupapa”, so students see their leaders’ enthusiasm as they’re encouraging the teams from the sidelines, or organising them between games.

According to Te Riponga, the students do realise when their kaiako aren’t trying their best to kōrero in te reo Māori, and they find it discouraging.

“Teachers who were seen as strict in enforcing students’ commitment to speaking Māori were seen by the students as positive,” the report said. “It kind of wrecked the mood a bit when people just started to speak English,” commented one student.

One of the leaders who’s walking the talk as the MC at Puni Reo Poitarawhiti 2022 is Marutawhao Delamere (Te Whānau-A-Apanui, Ngāti Maniapoto), a representative netball player in the Northern Stars men’s team and an alumnus of Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Hoani Waititi. 

Marutawhao Delamere is the MC of Puni Reo Poitarawhiti (Photo: Zico O’Neill-Rutene)

He’s out on the court speaking to students about their day and holding competitions for spot-prizes over the loudspeaker as he patrols the courts, mic in hand. At one point he gathers a rōpū together to play “Pūkana” on one of the empty courts, their yells ringing around the complex.

“Kia kaha e hoa mā!”

Delamere says kids at kura kaupapa often don’t get many opportunities to interact in te reo Māori with students from mainstream schools in settings like this. Having the chance to act as tuakana to schools is an invaluable experience for the kura kaupapa students. Puni Reo Poitarawhiti helps these tamariki to realise the value of te reo Māori, and how it can be functional in spaces outside the school and the whānau.

“Days like this help to ensure that they can speak it away from home and away from kura, to give them another space where they can feel comfortable using their reo. For our mainstream kura, just speaking the reo itself is a huge thing for them and means not only are we reaching more Māori, we’re reaching more non-Māori,” says Delamere. 

Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Māngere student Tahurangi Houston (Image: Zico O’Neill-Rutene)

It’s a forum for learning too. Delamere says there are many kupu and rerenga kupu used during Puni Reo Poitarawhiti that can be applied to situations outside of sport and are finding their way into the everyday vernacular of Aotearoa. The more phrases like “ka rawe” and “kia kaha e hoa mā” find use in a practical setting in a familiar environment, the more they start to find their way into popular culture.

To help students understand, and feel confident to use Māori kupu on the day, Netball Waitākere has commissioned signage with popular netball-related kupu to hang around the centre. 

Netball Waitakere manager Murray Gardiner (Ngai te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui, Tūhoe) says the signage encourages non-fluent students to challenge themselves throughout the day, and gives them some basic vocabulary so they have some kupu to work with if their reo Māori isn’t as strong.

“The kaupapa of the day is to kōrero Māori and an element to assist with that is the signage… It helps the mainstream schools to know the calls and speak the reo as much as they can.”

Tamariki from schools across Auckland, years five to 13 compete (Photo: Zico O’Neill-Rutene)

Marama says using the vehicle of sport provides positive associations with the language, and connects learning and using te reo Māori with enjoyment. Te Riponga found that exposure to te reo during Puni Reo Poitarawhiti “can be exhilarating and inspire motivation for players and supporters alike to kōrero Māori.”

“Those tamariki who are hearing the reo being spoken will go home and share that reo. Even if they have one or two kupu that they pick up today that they have never heard before, the fact that they can go away and use it at home and use it with their friends is encouraging.”

That sense of “fun” is crucial to the success of the day, says Eru Lee-Morgan. The Te Riponga research showed that in order to maximise the effectiveness of the reo Māori learning, “fun” needs to be at the heart of the experience.

“To sustain the Māori language we need fun and engagement. It has to be fun. It’s literally mobilising the reo, activating the reo,” he says. “Whanaungatanga, kotahitanga, fun. Kia hurō – to enjoy, to be excited. That’s the experience here.”

“Mā te hautoru”

Kairoa, a student from Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Māngere, has been to Puni Reo Poitarawhiti once before, and as well as getting to speak in te reo Māori all day, he enjoys getting out on court and playing in the mixed teams. 

Caris, a student from Rangeview Intermediate, says her hands are so cold she can’t catch the ball or run very fast. But that doesn’t stop her from beaming as she recounts the game her team just played, where she got to play her favourite position; pokapū (centre).

Kairoa, a student from Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Māngere (Photo: Zico O’Neill-Rutene)

Marama hopes the Puni Reo initiative grows – and that even our international sports teams will one day use te reo Māori in more ways. While the haka and reo Māori anthem are a great showcase of our unique language, she thinks there’s room for far more reo on our sports fields.

“Imagine an international sports team that speaks Māori. That’s what we can hope for. We’re not there yet, but it’s a start, and the fact that this competition is growing bigger and bigger is a great sign.”

The immediate vision for Marama, Lee-Morgan, Delamere and the other organisers of this day is that the Puni Reo Poitarawhiti initiative will be taken across the country, and across sporting codes.

“It’s all about engaging the people of that rohe to allow them to carry the kaupapa through, and we would help them with that. I think this kaupapa has the potential to continue in every sport,” says Marama.

“Toru, rua, tahi; rawe!”(Image: Zico O’Neill-Rutene)

At the end of the typically Auckland day where downpours were punctuated with bright sun, the tamariki gather on the indoor court for prizegiving. They warm their hands with their breath and laugh among themselves as they celebrate new friendships with other kura groups. 

For Eru Lee-Morgan, Marama, Delamere, Gardiner, the students and all the others that played a part in the day, the kaupapa doesn’t stop when the final school van leaves the carpark. The hope is that normalising the reo with Puni Reo, where it is celebrated and encouraged through play, means the kaupapa will spread like tree roots, reaching not just the rangatahi who were present at the tournament, but their whānau, wider communities, and all of Aotearoa.

While it’s soaked through everything else, the rain can’t dampen the spirits of the kids who’ve spent their day learning, playing and embracing their reo. As Eru Lee-Morgan says: “Rain, hail or shine, the kaupapa must go on.”

Glossary of poitarawhiti reo terms

Whiua te pōro: Throw the ball

Pā tinana: Contact

Kia kaha e hoa mā: Let’s go team!

Mā te hautoru: Through a third

Kaiwawao: Umpire

Tūhapa: Offside

Maaka paetaha: Throw in

Piro: Score

Keep going!