Journey to Aotearoa

The team wanted to learn about the Maori Kohanga Reo schools, the language nest program, which was able to reverse in three decades the alarming situation of language and culture endangerment that threatened the Maori people. They also learned about the Maori fundamental schools, the Kura Kaupapa. Their proposal was to learn about these programs in order to contribute to the preservation and revitalization of the Kaingang language and culture.

During the second semester of 2017, the linguist Marcus Maia (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro/CNPq/CAPES), the Kaingang teacher and linguist Marcia Nascimento (UFRJ/CNPq), and the anthropologist Chang Whan (Indian Museum) visited Aotearoa New Zealand, “the island of the long white cloud”, as it is called by their first inhabitants, the Māori indigenous people. The team wanted to learn about the Māori Kohanga Reo schools, the language nest program, which was able to reverse in three decades the alarming situation of language and culture endangerment that threatened the Māori people. They also learned about the Maori fundamental schools, the Kura Kaupapa. Their proposal was to learn about these programs in order to contribute to the preservation and revitalization of the Kaingang language and culture. As most indigenous peoples in Brazil, the Kaingang, who live in villages in the southern states, are confronted with threats to their language, culture and identity.

Marcus Maia, Chang Whan and Marcia Nascimento

The O TU ROA language nest

Te Reo Māori, the Māori language, belongs to the Eastern Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family. It is spoken mainly in New Zealand by approximately 50% of the Māori people that comprises around half million people, representing about 15% of the whole population of New Zealand. Te Reo Māori is an official language in New Zealand since the 1980’s, on the side of English and the New Zealand sign language. Compared to many indigenous languages in the world, the vitality situation of Māori is relatively stable. According to the criteria established in the UNESCO Atlas of the World Languages in Danger, the Māori language is considered vulnerable, but not severely or critically endangered, as most Brazilian indigenous languages, for example.

In the Green Book of Language Revitalization, the linguists Ken Hale and Leanne Hinton evaluate that the program created by the Māori to revitalize their language and culture is one of the most effective ever implemented in the world.

It has not always been like this, though. After World War II, a large part of the Māori population needed to leave their villages and move to urban areas in New Zealand in order to cope with the difficulties of the post-war period. The life in the cities forced many Māori to move away from their traditional customs, significantly impacting the use of the language. In 1970, less than 20% of the Māori could speak their language fluently. The realization of this threat to the survival of their language and culture led many elders to start the Kohanga Reo movement in New Zealand. In the Green Book of Language Revitalization, the linguists Ken Hale and Leanne Hinton evaluate that the program created by the Māori to revitalize their language and culture is one of the most effective ever implemented in the world.

Tu Roa language nest, Otaki, Nova Zelândia

This program, which was able to significantly reverse the endangerment trend of the Māori language and culture is called Kohanga Reo, “language nest”. In order to learn about the Māori language nest program in loco, the CNPq post-doc scholar and Kaingang language teacher, Marcia Nascimento, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) linguistics professor, Marcus Maia, and the Indian Museum anthropologist Chang Whan, visited New Zealand with the support of CNPq, CAPES and Massey University, a research university with which UFRJ signed an agreement of academic cooperation in 2016. Under this agreement, three faculty members of Massey University, two of them Māori, had come to Brazil to teach classes at a Language Education and Revitalization course offered by the Graduate Program of Linguistics at UFRJ, during the second semester of 2016.

During their stay in Brazil, the Massey University team also visited the Kaingang indigenous land of Nonoai (RS), where Marcia Nascimento was born, starting the evaluation in loco of the sociolinguistic situation of the Nonoai villages, in order to make it possible the future development of a project of intercultural dialogue between the Māori and the Kaingang.

Marcia Nascimento Kaingang and Mari Ropata, during visit to the Nonoai Kaingang area

On Wednesday, September 13th, 2017, the Brazilian team visited the O Tu Roa language nest, in the city of Otaki, near Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. Otaki is a coastal town, located in an area where several Maōri iwis (tribes) still keep their land. Created in 1987, the O Tu Roa Kohanga Reo is one of the most traditional language nests in the region. Nowadays, about 20 children are registered full time, attending activities daily from 9AM to 3PM. The school physical structure makes it possible to develop the Maōri philosophy of identity empowerment and sense of belonging, together with the acquisition of the Maōri language, through several different activities in the curriculum.

The visit to the language nest Te Kohanga Reo O Tu Roa was a rewarding experience for the Brazilian team. We were received according to the traditional protocols of foreigners, called Powhiri, in the Māori language, starting by the karanga, an exchange of recitations between those who are bringing the new guests and those who are receiving them, before entering the Maōri house. Then, there were welcome remarks from the school principal, and chants presented by about 20 children, in the range of 2 to 5 years, accompanied by educators and caregivers. In return, the Brazilian team also made thank-you speeches and Marcia sang a traditional Kaingang song. We also offered a “koha”, a gift to the children, a small piece of ceramics, an anteater with a cub, made by the Brazilian indigenous people Karajá, which aroused great curiosity among the little children. After the formalities, a snack was served.

Healthy eating habits are developed in the language nest

Mari Ropata, educator, curriculum coordinator at Maōri Studies, at Massey University, who had visited Rio de Janeiro and the Kaingang community of Nonoai, was our Maōri host in Aotearoa. Mari explains that the Kohanga Reo emerged as a movement characterized by the concept of “grassroots actions”, that is, actions based on initiatives of a spontaneous nature started by elders and other community members, as an answer to challenging issues in the villages. More specifically, the iminent loss of the language and culture of their ancestors. In this sense, the Kohanga Reo, the language nests, were initially organized by mothers and grandmothers as early education and childcare centers during the language acquisition stages.The most basic rule has been the strict use of the Maōri language in all the activities carried out in the language nest, such as story-telling, chants, games, gardening, meal times. All activities are always developed only in Te Reo Maōri.

The tamariki, children, play in a free environment full of Māori cultural references

What stands out strongly in O Tu Roa is the rigor in complying with the protocols established as essential for the acquisition of the Māori language by children. The main precept that the Kohanga Reo is an exclusive territory of Te Reo Māori is strictly observed. In a Kohanga Reo, everything happens only in the Māori language. The English language, New Zealand’s colonizing language, is expressly prohibited in the Kohanga Reos. Languages other than English can occasionally be spoken, though. We sang in Portuguese and in Kaingang for the children. At the entrance of O Tu Roa, near the space for recreation, there is a space for gardening, where children cultivate different vegetables, for the production of the food that they consume in the language nest, fostering since an early age the awareness of the importance of adopting healthy eating practices.

What stands out strongly in O Tu Roa is the rigor in complying with the protocols established as essential for the acquisition of the Māori language by children. The main precept that the Kohanga Reo is an exclusive territory of Te Reo Māori is strictly observed. In a Kohanga Reo, everything happens only in the Māori language.

After the reception and welcome ritual, the children followed the activities guided by the caregivers and educators. Activities were targeted to different age groups, but children were free to move from one group to another. On average there was one caretaker for every five children. The activities involved picking vegetables in the garden and participating in food preparation. Another group helped prepare a loaf of bread, while another collected the garbage in the Kohanga Reo’s yard. After lunch, children usually have some time to rest or sleep, especially the younger children. In one of the rooms each child has his / her mattress and blanket.

One of the important issues regularly worked with the children is the sense of belonging to a people and their connections with the “other” in a kind of kinship system, as well as their relations with the land and the environment, on several levels. Thus, the identity constitution of the children begins with the recognition and identification of the mountain to which they belong, their river, their canoe, their tribe, as well as their clan and family – grandparents, parents and siblings, besides their Marae (which is a a kind of sacred house, a space dedicated to ancestral memory) and finally the individual, the ahau ‘I’, that is, the child. This information constitutes a kind of identification card for children, and is displayed in a large panel at the entrance hall. All the rooms bring in their decoration, Māori cultural icons, such as sculptures of deities, indigenous traditional drawings and patterns and many works done by the children. O Tu Roa is indeed a deeply inspiring experience.

Te Kura Kaupapa Maori O Te Rito – A Maori Fundamental and High school

We arrived at the school before 9 in the morning. The day was September 29, Friday. Te Kura Kaupapa Māori Te Rito can be translated as the Māori School of Fundamental Education “the bud”. At the entrance, nobody in sight, all quiet. After parking the car in the front yard, Mari Te Ropata, our cicerone and hostess since we arrived in Otaki, tells us to wait in the car, and goes inside. We were already aware that we would be received with a Powhiri, the ceremonious protocols of welcome for the first arrival of the manuhiri, the outsiders, in culturally institutionalized Māori spaces. Because it is a solemn moment we can not film or photograph. For the Powhiri, we already knew, the women, Mari, Márcia and Chang, should wear skirts, or at least a sarong, wrapped around the waist. Mari signals for us to come out of the car, indicating that we can go now, profiled behind her, Marcus last

Entrance Portal to the school yard

We positioned ourselves at the entrance, before the Māori gateway. From the inner courtyard of the school, a woman chants the Karanga call aloud, in rhythmic cadence, as if wondering, we imagine, “Who comes there? Who’s there? “Mari responds, also singing her counterpart, most likely reporting who she is leading, and so we slowly proceed, moving closer. The woman on the patio, certainly a schoolteacher, again chants her reception chant. “Haere mai rã, e te manuhiri tua rangi! Haere mai rã, e te manuhiri tua rangi”, we hear at a certain point, which, as we learned later, means” Welcome dear dear strangers from far lands. Welcome!”

The chanting continues, and with it we move slowly until we reach the foot of the porch stairs, towards the door of a room. We took off our shoes, and as we entered, we were surprised to see a room full of children of varying ages waiting for us, all seated on the floor in rows, solemnly quiet and attentive.

After being taken to sit in the only four chairs in the room, facing the children sitting on the floor, a man, certainly a teacher, begins to speak in Māori. We cannot understand the speech, we can only fish one thing or another like “manuhiri” – strangers, “Brazil”, “Haere mai” – Welcome … At a point, Mari, who was sitting with us, pokes Marcus so that he gets up and delivers his protocol speech in Portuguese. Marcus says that we feel very honored to be received at the school, that the vision of such enthusiastic children is always a breath to renew our hopes for the future … Even if the people present, teachers and students, do not understand anything, the speech of the visitor cannot be in English, the strictly forbidden language inside Te Kura Kaupapa, the Māori fundamental immersion school. The moment, we perceive, is also an opportunity for children to experience a sensitive contact with another language, another people, with human alterity. After Marcus talks, Mari signals us to sing. I then sang the song I had been rehearsing for the moment. “Um dia a areia branca… ♪ seus pés irão tocar… ♪ e vai molhar seus cabelos… ♪ a água azul do mar ♫ “One day the white sand … your feet will touch … and it will wet your hair … the blue water of the sea …”. The smiling eyes enchant us in retribution. We leave as koha – ritual gift – for the children a peteca, a Brazilian feather shuttlecock, which later, after the solemnity, makes the greatest success, and also a box with pé-de-moleque, the Brazilian candy made of peanuts. It occurs to us that, coincidentally, the day was September 29, the day of São Cosme and Damião in Brazil, day of giving sweets to the children, and the pé-de-moleque is one of the most traditional sweets of the occasion.

The children waited for us sitting on the floor.

Then another teacher makes a speech in Te Reo Māori, which unfortunately we cannot understand, but we are sure that the content is only positivity and teaching for the children. Then there is a movement throughout the room, and we are indicated to reposition our 4 chairs against the wall because the children will make singing and dancing presentations for us.

Girls in the front, singing and dancing for the manuhiri, the foreign visitors

They are at first a bit shy, but with the accompaniment of the guitar and the encouragement of the teachers, they soon flow with naturalness and resourcefulness in the beautiful performance. The girls in the front and the boys behind. Then the boys come forward and the girls retreat, and Mari whispers to me that the little ones will do a haka. We were delighted because we had never seen a performance of haka by kids! The boys, however, already profiled, are very shy and cannot start. Someone then goes out there to get a bigger boy from a more advanced class to lead the haka.

Soon after, children from a larger group enter and make another beautiful presentation. Mari quietly explains that the class had been selected to participate in a Māori singing and dancing school competition in the region. They are all, therefore, well rehearsed. First the girls in the front, with the boys marking the beat, and then the boys advance and the girls retreat to the performance of the haka, now with the group very cohesive and strong.

Girls’ chant and dance presentation

The power of Haka!

After the presentations, “Ka pai! Ka pai! “(Very good, very good!). Mari signals us to say the traditional introduction of “My tribe, my mountain and my river”, which we had forgotten to do at the beginning – so many were the emotions!

Ko Carioca to ku iwi.                   “Carioca is my tribe”
Ko Corcovado to ku mounga.    “Corcovado is my mountain”
Ko Rio de Janeiro toku awa.       “Rio de Janeiro is my river”

Marcia, on her turn, introduces herself:

Ko Kaingang to ku iwi.               “Kaingang is my tribe”
Ko Krĩjyjymé to ku mounga.      “Serra do Mar is my mountain”
Ko Gojvenh toku awa.                “Uruguai is my river”

Marcia, then, sings her Kaingang song:

2 X Se͂pe tánh kur kupri
Isy͂ ã tovãj vãnh ty͂ tĩ

2 X Hãra ã isovãnh sór mu͂
ky͂ sy͂ ser tĩg my͂ ser

2 X Kur my͂rér kane͂ tánh
Isy͂ ã tovãj vãnh ty͂ tĩ

2 X Hãra ã tĩg ky͂ isy͂ ser
goj kafã ra tĩg mu͂

The lyrics can be translated as “when I am here with you, I feel so good, I do not want to leave any longer”. Mari explains the meaning in te reo Māori and everyone is touched by Marcia’s words.

Then there is a brief round of questions, culminating on the name of the toy we brought, “PETECA”, a Brazilian toy of indigenous origin, and with the request to show how the game is played. We give a brief demonstration and call the children to try it. This is the moment when we can see that children are all really the same, at the time of fun. Everyone gets very excited, they laugh and ask to play! The solemn atmosphere ended! Incredible their self-confidence and how they appropriated the game, even inventing new rules!

Marcus shows how the peteca is played

After the fun with the peteca, while the kids go to the wharekai, cafeteria, we are invited to the teachers’ room for a snack. Food, kai, is a nice component of the Powhiri. You cannot miss it. In the teachers’ room, where we can speak in English, we are introduced to two young female employees, who according to Mari, are former students of the school, at the time when Mari herself was the “principal”, the director of the school.

Mari explains that Kura Kaupapa follows the 13-year grading, according to the official system of basic school education in New Zealand. Yet it is a school of immersion in the Māori language, with all the curriculum especially suited to the transmission of Māori culture and language, in addition to the common disciplines, which are also transmitted in te reo Māori. She explains that children leaving Kura Kaupapa display a high rate of achievement and pass university exams easily. However, the official statistics on Māori students, by including all students from schools in the regular system, where they usually face difficulties of various kinds, such as discrimination and bullying, along with those who have passed through the Kura Kaupapa, inappropriately indicates a general result of low achievement for the Māori students. A faulty procedure, therefore, as Mari argues, because statistics do not report on the good performance of Māori students coming from the Kura Kaupapa.

A former student, today a teacher: the same gesture several years later

After the snack, with muffins, cheeses, crackers and fruits, with coffee and tea, we visit the school premises. First we go to the large, well-equipped kitchen, where we find active students, sweeping, washing and drying dishes. The involvement of the students in the maintenance of the school’s cleanliness and order is a customary and natural practice in the Kura Kaupapa, since the awareness of care for the common good and the sense of belonging to a community is developed from an early age with the responsibility for the sharing of work for the maintenance of social welfare in school.

Students clean tables, do dishes and sweep the floor at the school

We go now to the back of the school, where we meet the students of more advanced years. We meet some of them concentrated in a recreation room, in which there are ping-pong and snooker tables and computers. Mari explains that this Friday is the last day before spring break, so the students were released earlier in the morning to pack up their materials and collect their belongings.

High school students

Mari leads us to a room that serves for musical rehearsal or meditation, a regular practice in the Māori schools. In octagonal format, in the center, there are musical instruments such as flutes, rattles, various whistles, as well as objects of symbolic spiritual value in the Māori culture. On the walls, there are students’ artwork and various braided pieces made from the Harekeke fiber, a plant of the Linaceae family, known as flax. With the flax, the Māori make numerous items such as baskets, mats and garments.

Octogonal meditation room

Mari demonstrates a bugle made with a large sea shell

When the tour ends, we realize that the Kura Kaupapa is right next to a Māori cemetery, which, however, does not seem to be a dingy place. It is well taken care of, with a light atmosphere and many flowers. Now in the street, all of us ready to leave, Mari shows us that the Kura Kaupapa, the Kohanga Reo O Tu Roa, the language nest we had visited the previous week, and Te Wãnanga o Raukawa, the Maori University, we had visited the previous day, are practically neighbors. They are all on the same large block of land, including a small mound, in an area granted by the Otaki city government, which, after all, was all Māori ancestral territory, anyway.