Tamāki Makaurau MP Peeni Henare is proud to have been the “first Te Kōhanga Reo baby” elected to Parliament. All who follow in his footsteps and all Kōhanga Reo students and their families, past and present owe a debt of gratitude to Peeni’s father Erima Henare and grandfather Sir James Henare who were pivotal in developing and championing the movement.
The Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust Board was launched in 1982 with Sir James and the then Māori Queen Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu instrumental in its founding. Erima Henare took up the torch of Te Reo and carried it proudly and with great distinction until his death in May this year.
“My father was a teacher but was working for Māori Affairs when Te Kōhanga Reo began and one of his roles was to register people for it,” said Peeni. “I was three years old when it started so I was among the first pupils and I understand I am the first Te Kōhanga Reo baby in Parliament.
“I still remember those early language and kapa haka lessons with Ngamotu Te Kōhanga Reo in Taranaki. Then my father joined Foreign Affairs and we moved to Los Angeles for several years. I was very fortunate that my parents spoke Māori. I went to 14 schools as a child due to moving with my father’s career but the Māori language was a constant in my life. Wherever we lived we spoke Te Reo at home. If my parents had not done that then it is unlikely that I would be able to speak Te Reo today.
“That is one of the wonderful and valuable aspects of the process and the theme of this year’s Māori Language Week - parents learning Te Reo to support their children’s learning.”
Returning to New Zealand, Erima became the first Chief Executive Officer of the Māori language Commission before returning ‘home’ to Northland to become head of Māori Studies at Whangarei Boys High School. Ultimately he took the role of Chairman of the Māori Language Commission Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, a position he held until his sudden death in May this year.
Among other public, advisory and educational sector posts, Erima was executive director of Māori at Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, a member of the Waitangi National Trust Board and a Māori cultural adviser to Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.
He had also been a member of Creative New Zealand, New Zealand Arts Council, Northland District Health Board and other regional and national boards and committees.
Erima Henare’s great contribution to the Māori Language was celebrated at a moving event to honour his memory at the launch of this year’s Māori Language Week.
“It was a very emotional day for me and for many of my family who had come up from Northland,” said Peeni. “We are still grieving, as are the Māori Language Commission and many of the tribes who shared in the ceremony.
“Many people spoke about my father’s ability to bring many diverse people together in a common cause – and that was Te Kōhanga Reo. All tribal, social and economic differences were put aside to focus on the language.
“One speaker talked of how he was an excellent conduit for Māori people and the cause of Te Reo in relation to government. He was able to navigate some rough seas for Reo in the framework of central government as well as forwarding the aspirations all Māori have for Te Reo Māori.”
In turn, Peeni has ensured his own children have been immersed in Māori language and culture from birth.
“Just as important as the language is teaching our children to think with the Māori pedagogy. There is no point in just translating standard English education. The language must come with the customs and way of thinking. My grandfather used to say: “We have to walk in both worlds.” I raise my children to walk in Māori and Pakeha worlds.
“The advice I would give to parents is to take heed of what sound research tells us - that the more languages a child learns, the better it is for them in all areas of their education. What better place is there to start with two of the three official languages of this country, Māori and English? Don’t be shy and don’t be afraid, there are a lot of resources and a lot of support out there to help you.
“Kia kaha – let us all stay strong for Te Reo Māori.”