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Reumah Horne and Shane Witehira, Ellen Faithfull and pēpi Florence, and Matthew Thomas and Natasha Suthon (Photos: Zoe Coyne/ZO & CO Collective, additional design by Tina Tiller)
Reumah Horne and Shane Witehira, Ellen Faithfull and pēpi Florence, and Matthew Thomas and Natasha Suthon (Photos: Zoe Coyne/ZO & CO Collective, additional design by Tina Tiller)

PartnersDecember 10, 2021

Embracing Māori birth traditions is changing the future for Northland families

Reumah Horne and Shane Witehira, Ellen Faithfull and pēpi Florence, and Matthew Thomas and Natasha Suthon (Photos: Zoe Coyne/ZO & CO Collective, additional design by Tina Tiller)
Reumah Horne and Shane Witehira, Ellen Faithfull and pēpi Florence, and Matthew Thomas and Natasha Suthon (Photos: Zoe Coyne/ZO & CO Collective, additional design by Tina Tiller)

Ngā Wānanga o Hine Kōpū is a kaupapa Māori birth and parenting programme reframing how to tautoko wāhine hapū and their whānau. Ataria Sharman met three wāhine hapū at the Whangārei wānanga.

This content was created in partnership with Te Hiringa Hauora/Health Promotion Agency

There are many signs that point to the special taonga status of wāhine hapū and wāhine Māori. We see it in the pūrākau of Papatūānuku and Ranginui, representative of wāhine and tāne (also the sky and earthly realms). In some narratives, whakapapa can be traced back through the women to Hineahuone, the first person formed from the clay of Papatūānuku by Tāne Mahuta. She is the direct connection to the atua. We find it in te reo Māori where the multidimensional meanings of words intrinsic to our identity bind them with the reproductive power of women. The word hapū or sub-tribe also has the meaning of pregnancy, whenua translates as land and is also the word for placenta, and whare tangata, the word for womb, also means house of humanity and is a celebration of women as the source of all life.

This view of wāhine hapū as taonga seems at odds with how some of our wāhine Māori experience our healthcare system. I’ve been told by the wāhine Māori in my life of how they had certain parenting or birthing practices imposed on them that don’t fit with their cultural values. They faced racial profiling and discrimination, mispronunciation of their names, and power imbalances between whānau and senior medical staff. Their cultural postpartum wishes were ignored, and often the time was not taken to even find out what those wishes were. But perhaps the biggest issue was not seeing other wāhine Māori in the system, especially as giving birth is such a vulnerable and intense time.

That’s why listening to the kōrero of Koha Aperahama (Ngāti Hine, Ngāpuhi) from Northland District Health Board and the programme coordinator of Ngā Wānanga o Hine Kōpū (Hine Kōpū), isn’t just refreshing, it’s downright enlightening. 

Hine Kōpū is a two-day programme for wāhine hapū on labour, birthing and parenting, which aims to prepare them and their partner for bringing new life into the world. The wānanga delivers antenatal knowledge grounded in Māoritanga and informed by tikanga and mātauranga Māori, including traditional birthing practices. In validating a Māori understanding of the world and its cultural practices, Koha has created an environment that is a safe space for whānau Māori. 

At the wānanga, day-to-day practical teachings are overlaid like whakapapa on top of a foundation of kaupapa Māori and teachings from te ao Māori. The wānanga emphasises the special place of “hine” in the Māori universe, the feminine in Māori spirituality that includes the atua wāhine. It’s a celebration of women and pregnancy. 

“You matter! It doesn’t matter what age you are or anything else, once we are on that hīkoi – it’s absolutely that you’re special,” says Koha.

Her call to the mahi of supporting hapū māmā and tamariki has deep whānau roots. It started with her grandmother, who would collect up tamariki from the other whānau, like a giant daycare for her hapū.

“It’s a taonga tuku iho from my own whānau, from my grandmother. That filtered down to my mum and became the norm in our house.” 

Koha Aperahama (right) speaks at a Hine Kōpū session in Whangārei (Photo: Zoe Coyne/ZO & CO Collective)

Trained as a nurse and midwife, Koha spent 10 years working in Kirikiriroa before returning home in 2009 to work at Ngāti Hine Health Trust. At that same time, a local Māori midwife in Kawakawa put out a call to the trust to support the running of wānanga for wāhine Māori, many of whom weren’t going anywhere for antenatal education. The first hapū wānanga that Koha was a part of was in Kawakawa and modelled off a Kaitaia version called Hapū Ora.

“We ran it in Kawakawa for our whānau, it was very localised within our own rohe. It wasn’t until 2017 that we looked at establishing a kaupapa for Te Tai Tokerau.” 

The local success led to the development of Ngā Wānanga o Hine Kōpū, which are now hosted at different locations across Te Tai Tokerau, and have gained national recognition for their impact on whānau. Government agency Te Hiringa Hauora (Health Promotion Agency) wants the programme to become an example of how kaupapa Māori antenatal programmes can work across Aotearoa. Te Hiringa Hauora is tasked with promoting evidence-based innovative approaches to health promotion, and believes Hine Kōpū has the potential to influence better health service design for women and babies across the country, particularly in maternal wellbeing.

Koha Aperahama (second from left) with, from left, Csarndra Ogle, smokefree kaitiaki for hapū māmā at Northland DHB, Tasha Wharerau, wāhine ora adviser at the Women’s Health Action Trust, and Mereana Pou, kaitiaki o ngā wānanga o Hine Kōpū (Photo: Zoe Coyne/ZO & CO Collective)

“There is a mass of evidence to show how critical the first 1,000 days of a child’s life are,” says Tanya Radford, programme lead for First 1,000 Days at Te Hiringa Hauora. “We know that this time lays the foundations for their entire future.

“In mainstream health, we talk a lot about models like Te Whare Tapa Whā but often struggle to deliver them. Ngā Wānanga o Hine Kōpū shows us how this is done locally and how this can be applied across other areas of the health system.” 

While becoming a parent is a hopeful time, some whānau face complex issues that get in the way of them being the parents they want to be, says Tanya. Programmes like Hine Kōpū, designed by local community leaders, show that solutions to these issues naturally come from those closest to the whānau themselves.

“When we adapt and listen to the expertise of whānau, we can build a new system that reflects whānau aspiration, recognises mātauranga Māori and moves beyond offering health services and information to helping people achieve their dreams.”

A safe space

Koha has always had a special touch with pēpi (Photo: Zoe Coyne/ZO & CO Collective)

At the Hine Kōpū wānanga I attended in Whangārei, it was a grey winter Thursday, windy and rainy with dull skies. But entering the Hihiaua Cultural Centre Trust was like being embraced. It was dimly lit, and there were couches, cushions and tables arranged in a circular shape. It felt like being contained in the womb – we were in the realm of Papatūānuku. 

There were kihi and harirū, and then I sat with the wāhine hapū, who were slowly coming through the doors. The wānanga didn’t start on schedule, but in this space, it felt like there was no sense of time and that it started exactly when it was meant to. 

A set of six ​​illustrated panels displayed Te Kore, Te Pō, Te Kōpiripiri, Te Whei Ao, Te Ao Mārama and Tīhewa Mauri Ora, each representing a significant event in the evolution of the universe. A key part of the wānanga is its grounding in Māori cosmic discussions of the celestial realm to help whānau understand their place in the world. The programme examines the multiple layers of whakapapa, from the present right back to Io – the supreme being. 

The Hine Kōpū vibes (Photo: Zoe Coyne/ZO & CO Collective)

Koha opened the space with mihimihi. She spoke to me about the intentional use of te reo Māori as a connector to pūrākau Māori, ira tangata and te ao Māori. There are no negative or fearful stories, it’s about using language to celebrate and uphold wāhine Māori to succeed as mothers. She invoked the whakatauki “he kākano i ruia mai i Rangiātea” – I am the seed which was sown from Rangiātea – in reference to the space above from where wairua comes and is planted into the womb. It’s an allegory of the power and beauty of pregnancy as a connection to tangata and the universe.  

“It’s about affirming the power of language, our ability to speak things into being,” says Koha. “If we use the language to talk about the special status of wāhine hapū, and you hear this from me and hear it from other kaimahi – you’ll actually start to believe you are special.”

Throughout the day and in the weeks following, I learned about some of the wāhine hapū – and their tāne – who chose to attend Hine Kōpū. I wanted to know about how their experiences of the wānanga changed the way they thought about their role as parents and their relationship with their pēpi.

Natasha Suthon (Ngāpuhi) and Matthew Thomas (Te Ātiawa)

Natasha Suthon and Matthew Thomas loved Hine Kōpū so much they attended twice (Photo: Zoe Coyne/ZO & CO Collective)

Speaking with Natasha Suthon and Matthew Thomas, I found a couple making the most of a second chance to create a better life for their whānau. ​​Natasha was born in Whangārei but raised in Taranaki. By reconnecting with their tūrangawaewae through Hine Kōpū, they’ve found a new sense of belonging and a new path.

The couple have been together for seven years. The last two years have been tough, with the couple and their four tamariki (with one more on the way) in and out of emergency and transitional housing.

“It was very, very stressful going from motel to motel. The kids were unsettled and it wrecked their routine. We’re blessed we’ve got a house now.”

Until recently, Natasha has struggled with addictions that sent her to rehab and Matthew has been in and out of prison. After Natasha finished rehab, the whānau made the decision to uproot and move back to Whangārei at the end of last year. The return home for Natasha was a fresh start. 

Now, this pregnancy has been an opportunity for Natasha and Matthew to confirm their commitment to better outcomes for their whānau.

“Matthew’s been able to come to all the scans and pregnancy wānanga for this baby. When we were using, that never happened. Last night, we went through baby clothes together. We’ve never done that before.”

Natasha and Matthew see the pēpi as a second chance (Photo: Zoe Coyne/ZO & CO Collective)

Both Natasha and Matthew have had to work hard to reclaim their lives from their past. Matthew’s facial tattoos are a legacy of his old life that mean it’s still difficult to secure work.

“We get judged a lot because of our past. I find it really offensive. We’re different people now.”

Although she’d already had six children, before attending Hine Kōpū with this new pēpi, Natasha had never gone to an antenatal class in the mainstream healthcare system. She found out about Hine Kōpū through their midwife. The wānanga has guided them to embrace their wider whānau in their pregnancy. 

All parts of a wahine’s support group are welcome at the Hine Kōpū wānanga. Koha champions the way the word whānau not only relates to the direct family (as well as giving birth itself), but also speaks to the support group around the wahine hapū, an essential element to the nurturing of the pēpi. Everything is about fostering that whānau unit to support the wahine hapū.

Natasha and Matthew plan to have a home birth and want to involve the whole whānau. Even the tamariki have been given their own roles in the upcoming birth.

“Matthew and my son are going to deliver my baby. I sat down with all the kids and told them their duties and what they’ve got to do. One of my daughters will wet the flannel, the other daughter is going to rub my back. My son will cut the cord.”

Matthew’s experience of the wānanga was life-changing. The bond he felt with the other tāne over the two days was so strong it left him with a lasting drive to be there for other men going through birth for the first time. 

“I’m going to go to the next one and introduce myself to all the first-time dads. Make jokes and crack up and make it even easier for them,” he says. 

True to his words, he and Natasha both recently attended another Hine Kōpū wānanga, their second in preparation for the arrival of their pēpi.

Reumah Horne (Ngāti Kahu ki Whaingaroa, Ngai Te Rangi, Ngāti Whakahemo, Ngāti Pikiao and Te Arawa) and Shane Witehira (Ngāti Kahu, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Toa, Raukawa ki te Tonga, Ngāti Kahungunu ki te Wairoa)

Reumah Horne and Shane Witehira were searching for mātauranga Māori traditions for pregnancy and birth (Photo: Zoe Coyne/ZO & CO Collective)

Reumah Horne and her partner Shane Witehira weren’t trying to get pregnant, but they were in a good position to start a family when she found out she was hapū. Their village has already had a big role in raising their child. They’ve been overwhelmed by the assistance from their wider whānau and friends, from the gifting of taonga like muka tai, oriori and kōhatu to photoshoots and material things for pēpi.

“We are so beautifully supported. I’m so grateful every day! We really do have a little village pēpi on the way and it’s really heartwarming to have that support.”

During her pregnancy, she’s also experienced deficit thinking from others. Suddenly strangers, particularly older people, seemed to assume because of her age she might be more likely to make poor choices in pregnancy and motherhood. She says when her pregnancy started to show, people began to tell her negative birthing stories and random people on the street would give her unsolicited advice.

“People assume that because you’re young, you’re clueless and you don’t have a support system around you. They think their advice is going to be helpful, but it’s just really hōhā.”

Sometimes it was even whānau, those who have had negative experiences themselves and wanted to prepare her for the worst. But on the other hand, lots of young māmā were eager to share their good experiences with Reumah.

“So many young māmā have shared their beautiful stories with me. I treasure all of those!”

‘It definitely helped us to make sense of many of the things we had learned on our journey so far,’ says Reumah (Photo: Zoe Coyne/ZO & CO Collective)

Her aunty, who had gone through the wānanga herself when she was pregnant with her baby who’s now two, had told Reumah about Hine Kōpū. Reumah attended her aunty’s home birth, and this experience is the main reason she’s decided to have a home birth herself. Her aunty also gifted the couple the same kōhatu (a sharpened stone to cut the umbilical cord) she used when she gave birth. 

“Sharing cultural practices like that with whānau is super special,” she says. 

Reumah knew the mātauranga Māori kaupapa was what she was looking for. She’d already made sure to have a Māori midwife and embracing tikanga as part of the pregnancy and birth was something the couple saw as a chance to revitalise traditional practices for their whānau. They were doing everything they could to learn tikanga practices through wānanga, whānau, podcasts and books. 

“It was really, really important to us. So we are very grateful to have stumbled upon this wānanga that brought so much mātauranga into one common space. It definitely helped us to make sense of many of the things we had learned on our journey so far.”

At Hine Kōpū they learned about oriori, traditional lullaby waiata for children. It was suggested they could have an oriori written for the birth of their pēpi, so they asked Reumah’s uncle to compose a waiata. 

“Our son now has his own oriori which is written and professionally recorded especially for him!”

On day two, the group learned how to make ipu whenua and ​​pūtangitangi out of clay. This exercise connects the group with the making of Hineahuone from the clay of Papatūānuku and traditional birthing practices. The ipu whenua are the vessels traditionally used to bury the placenta. By making their own ipu whenua, the wāhine are reclaiming this traditional after-birth practice. A whānau member was making an ipu whenua for Reumah, so she didn’t need to craft a second one at the wānanga, but she says it was special sharing the practice with other wāhine.

The pūtangitangi is a taonga pūoro – a small traditional flute instrument – and another important way the wānanga assists the reclamation of traditional birthing practices. Taonga pūoro are used during birthing rituals to recognise the arrival of new life and the couple have embraced the tradition as part of their pregnancy. 

“We use our porotiti to calm my super overactive baby all the time in the puku, and we have ordered clay and have started teaching the kids in our family how to make pūtangitangi.”

At Hine Kōpū the group shares the experience of stepping into their tikanga (Photo: Zoe Coyne/ZO & CO Collective)

The teaching of Hine Kōpū is framed by the Māori belief system of cosmogony. The universe starts with Te Kore, pure potentiality, the void and the beginning of everything. From Te Kore, the line of whakapapa continues until it reaches the creation story of Ranginui and Papatūānuku. Not only is this pūrākau about the birthing of the earth and her beings – the many atua Māori and their realms –  it’s a symbol of wāhine giving birth. 

This was the first time Reumah had heard the creation story framed in this way, linking the stories of Papatūānuku, an atua wahine, back to herself and her continuation of whakapapa through her pēpi.

“Looking at that as the beginning of everything, but also as the beginning of any life form, growing a little life or any project you do. I really can relate to that story. It’s about connecting to our atua.”

As the eldest in her whānau, Reumah has been around a lot of pregnancies. She and Shane had already learnt a lot about traditional birthing whakaaro through their research and other wānanga where they’d done a lot of their “unlearning”. So all the negative comments about pregnancy Reumah heard left her feeling frustrated for young mums who might not have access to the positive reinforcement she’s had. 

At Hine Kōpū, it was inspiring for them to see the other young māmā stepping into tikanga. Being a part of that journey with other people was really empowering.

“In these wānanga we end up unlearning the deficits. You get one big wave of unlearning and it’s like ‘woah, cool’.”

At the heart of her Hine Kōpū experience was the way Reumah felt looked after and embraced at the wānanga. It reminded her that as a woman, this is what her tinana is made to do. 

“Not in a fragile way, but in a ‘you are busy growing a life inside you, let us nurture you the same way you are nurturing your pēpi’,” she says. 

“It was so beautiful.”

Ellen Faithfull (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Rēhia)

Ellen and pēpi Florence returned to Hine Kōpū to share their knowledge (Photo: Zoe Coyne/ZO & CO Collective)

When Whangārei-based Ellen Faithfull was hapū, she travelled all the way to Hokianga for a Hine Kōpū wānanga because the local dates didn’t work. She and her partner spent two nights in Opononi just to attend. 

Ellen is a speech language therapist who did her master’s research on the experiences of whānau and kaiako with speech language therapy in kaupapa Māori education. Although she already had experience with being in kaupapa Māori environments, she says she learned a lot at the wānanga. 

She was taught how to create a uniquely Māori environment for her and her new baby. She learned how to use a muka tie for the umbilical cord, and also a waiata Māori lullaby to sing pēpi to sleep. When her beautiful brown-haired pēpi Florence was born, the couple used pounamu to cut the cord and a friend’s mother had woven them a muka pito tie. Florence slept in the wahakura made from harakeke that was gifted at the Hine Kōpū wānanga, creating an immediate connection with the taiao

“She didn’t have anything ‘hospital-y’ on her. Going straight into the harakeke, it was nice,” she says. 

After all that she’d learned at Hine Kōpū, Ellen wanted to contribute back to the community and share her knowledge with wāhine hapū. So one week before Florence was born, Ellen spoke at the Hine Kōpū I attended in Whangārei on how to communicate with your pēpi. She explained the importance of engaging verbally with baby and maximising language learning, even while still in the womb.

Elle speaking to the Hine Kōpū wānanga for the first time (Photo: Zoe Coyne/ZO & CO Collective)

Ellen used to live in Tāmaki Makaurau but decided to move closer to her tribal roots to start a family. Both her iwi and her husband’s iwi are in Te Tai Tokerau and her parents live in Whangārei. Coming back home to her community meant that when she went to hapū wānanga, people knew her from kapa haka, or knew her whānau. Being home allowed all these little connections and whakawhanaungatanga to happen during her pregnancy. She also found that the way she wanted to do things as a wahine Māori was normal, accepted and accessible here. 

“I keep thinking how glad I am that we came home to have our babies,” she says.

As a health professional, Ellen told me how she’s used to having to struggle to get her point of view across as a Māori woman. But this time as a hapū māmā she came into a system and a wānanga designed for her Māoritanga. She could talk about te ao Māori in a normal way and she didn’t have to fight to do so. The work was already done, by Koha and the team.

Most importantly, she feels Hine Kōpū is about a lack of judgement and instilling autonomy and confidence in the wāhine to make decisions for their family.

“This is how it happens, and here’s the info: now you decide what’s best for you and your baby,” she says.

Ambitions for Aotearoa

Koha infuses love into her kōrero to lift up wāhine hapū (Photo: Zoe Coyne/ZO & CO Collective)

The three wāhine I met had very different lives and three distinct experiences of Hine Kōpū. But each was similar in that it reinforced that their identity mattered and the experience they were going through was important and special. By embracing the wāhine hapū as taonga, and engaging with the taha Māori that ties them to their whakapapa, Hine Kōpū empowered the whānau to be confident on their journey as parents and the challenges it comes with. They were given the power to reclaim traditional practices that have been lost to generations of their family, to embrace their whānau as essential parts of the process of raising a child, and to know their culture would not just be acknowledged but welcomed as an essential part of their pregnancy and approach to parenting. 

Koha believes this can have huge benefits for Māori. And she has big aspirations: “That every hapū and whānau Māori [in Aotearoa] runs their own Hine Kōpū wānanga, with their own practices. You’d be totally affirmed because it’s yours. Because you own it. That would be awesome.”

The success of this vision would mark the permeation of the Hine Kōpū philosophy into communities, reclamation of traditional birthing practices and recognition of the taonga status of wāhine hapū and wāhine Māori across the wider health system. At the heart of the way forward is the way Koha infuses love into her kōrero to lift up wāhine hapū into understanding their taonga status. In greeting wāhine hapū as they arrive into her wānanga, she never forgets to tell them, “You know what? You look very beautiful today.”

Keep going!