Te Pou Taurahere graduate Boston Rangi-Whaikawa-Henry is embraced by his proud nanny, Aileen Rangi-Whaikawa-Mills (Photo: Supplied)

‘When I was carving my whakapapa, I could feel my ancestors helping me’

A new programme replacing woodwork at two Hamilton intermediate schools is helping young Māori connect through the art of whakairo.

Outside the wharenui bearing his carvings, Matua Rei Mihaere drives his closed fist through the air.

Thirteen pairs of eyes look up at him as he asks, “If you see this at home or anywhere, what do you do? You come tell me or someone else because there is always another way.”

The carving expert and chairman of Kirikiriroa Marae is speaking to Te Pou Taurahere carving programme’s newest graduates. Dressed in their Hamilton Junior High School and Melville Intermediate uniforms, the 13-strong contingent are today receiving certificates and taonga they carved. The graduation ceremony, held at the end of the 2019 school year at Kirikiriroa Marae, marks an important six months for Te Pou Taurahere.

Set up as a Whānau Ora initiative through Te Kōhao Health, a specialist Māori health, education and social service provider, the programme focuses on teaching students the skills and traditions of whakairo. Run in conjunction with Hamilton Junior High School and Melville Intermediate, it lets students learn carving instead of woodwork under Matua Rei and his assistant Hakopa Parker.

Carving teacher and Whānau Ora cultural navigator Matua Rei Mihaere outside the Kirikiriroa Marae wharenui in Waikato (Photo: Supplied)

For Matua Rei, who was one of the carvers for the late Queen, Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, the programme is an important way of reaching disconnected youth and reversing some of the negative statistics prevalent among Māori men in Waikato. Looking at his proud young pupils, he describes Te Pou Taurahere as a programme designed by Māori for Māori. It is mana motuhake in action.

“The thinking was about how we can create and secure a contract for our whānau who are disconnected from their heritage,” he says of the programme’s origins.

“When we say that, it’s that they’re [students] uncertain about their iwi. Right from the start, they don’t know a karakia, those basic things that were entrenched in us in our earlier days as Māori. It’s retracing that and trying to bring them through with some of those key values that are important to us as Māori.

“That’s what those kids get to learn.”

Matua Rei believes the development of the boys over two terms, and the impact of that on whānau members (some of whom are present at today’s graduation), shows how valuable initiatives rooted in this kaupapa are. Changes among the programme’s first group of boys are particularly special, he says.

“The previous groups were the naughty kids: the ones that need a lot of support. When I say that, there’s stuff behind them that’s holding them back, that’s stopping or minimising their progress.

“That’s why I encourage them to get their whānau to come to their graduation. Because a lot of those whānau, all they see is a kid who needs lots of support. So, when a kid gets up and produces a taonga and hands it over, they think: ‘Wow, what happened? That’s not like him’.

“It’s like something’s changed, something’s happened to turn that kid’s thinking around to initiate a different purpose in life. It’s giving them the opportunities to grow, to develop and to be creative in a Māori world.”

The students receive a certificate and the taonga they carved at a graduation ceremony at the end of the six-month programme (Photo: Supplied)

That opportunity, and the knowledge accompanying it, is fundamental for these students, their families, and all Māori, Matua Rei says. To illustrate its importance, he draws on his work with high-needs whānau over the years, discussing the mamae and problems that stem from individuals being disconnected from their wider whānau and tūrangawaewae.

Rattling off names of various mainstream social services he has been part of, such as the Ministry of Social Development’s Strengthening Families, Matua Rei describes why he believes the most effective support services for Māori address disconnection in addition to other needs.

“Often, even when they [whānau] were getting access to those services, they weren’t getting the right support,” Matua Rei says. “I came from a Māori lens and brought kaupapa Māori through [in services and programmes]. I was able to identify lots of Māori out there who were uncertain of their iwi, their maunga, their waka, and see a lot of them now – it’s the third generation coming through.”

A Te Pou Taurahere student proudly displays his carved mere (Photo: Supplied)

Working with those families, and the kids involved, takes time, he says carefully. It is often not straightforward, and programmes like Te Pou Taurahere assist in connecting to whānau who need support.

Boston Rangi-Whaikawa-Henry is one of today’s 13 graduates. At the ceremony, the 13-year-old Melville Intermediate student presented his grandmother Aileen Rangi-Whaikawa-Mills with mere he carved.

He grins when I ask how he discovered carving.

“Movies: I saw it in movies,” Boston says.

“At first, I thought it was kind of fake, but once I got into the programme, I could feel the wairua of it. And when I was carving my whakapapa, I could feel my ancestors helping me, my tūpuna.”

Importantly, it became a way to learn about whakapapa.

“So, one side of my mere, I’ve represented all my family, and the people inside it. On the other side, it had my whakapapa from up north on it. It’s connecting to both [sides].”

Now, he holds knowledge such as “my iwi, my awa and where I’m from”.

“Matua Rei, he taught me how to draw the different designs and I got the hang of it,” Boston says. “He started to help me and then I learnt how to do it myself.

“It’s really good that he taught us part of his knowledge – what he was taught from someone else. I’ve never had that experience before,” Boston says.

Respect for the craft, and “the rules”, was another learning point, he says. He recites one of the more challenging rules.

“We had to do push-ups if we didn’t abide by them. One of the rules was no blowing on sand dust, otherwise you’ll lose your mana. All the little wood chips that we carve off, they represent our tūpuna. Blowing on them is like blowing away that [ancestors], and that’s not good. But it’s hard, because blowing on the sand dust seems natural.

Aileen, who is listening to Boston talk about carving, says she was “surprised” to hear her second-eldest mokopuna was part of a carving programme.

“I was nicely surprised because I didn’t know he was interested in it.”

Boston’s first carving, also a mere, was a special bonding point for the pair. Unlike the one presented today, the whakapapa design on it was Tainui.

Aileen says: “I saw it at their house… and when he explained it to me, I was like ‘wow’.

“Of all my grandchildren, he’s the one, and I just thought, that’s great,” she says. “And when we go up home for tangis and things like that, he sees all the photos and he starts identifying why he belongs there and through who.”

Matua Rei, who identifies Boston as one of his keenest students, says his experience shows how Te Pou Taurahere sets an important foundation for young Māori boys.

“Ideally, we’d have it at every school, so everyone can have the opportunity to learn.”

David Cooke, principal at Melville Intermediate, echoes the sentiment. He sees how his students benefitted from Te Pou Taurahere’s unique approach. Working with Matua Rei, who approached him as well as Hamilton Junior High School with the programme concept, has been critical to that, he says.

“So often in the past, schools that have led partnerships – while they’ve consulted, they have not collaborated,” David says. “Consultation is not enough. There must be a willingness to listen and to walk the journey together. In a collaboration you collectively decide the end point; where you’d like your students to be. There are far more benefits to a collaborative way.”

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