27 November 2006
Victoria to honour kōhanga reo pioneer
A Māori leader who played a key role in establishing the kōhanga reo movement and reversing the decline in the Māori
language is to receive an honorary doctorate from Victoria University.
Iritana Te Rangi Tawhiwhirangi (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāpuhi, Canadian, English) will receive an honorary
Doctor of Literature degree at the University’s marae-based graduation ceremony, Te Hui Whakapūmau, on 8 December.
After graduating from the then Wellington Teachers’ Training College in 1948, Mrs Tawhiwhirangi began teaching on the
East Coast before joining the Department of Māori Affairs as a Welfare Officer in Ruatoria. It was in this role that she
worked to develop a network of playcentres on the East Coast, the first network of early childhood education for Māori
in the regions.
Her involvement with early childhood education continued when she moved to Lower Hutt in 1972 and in 1980 she became the
first Māori woman to be appointed as one of the Department’s District Officers, rising to be Chief Executive of the
Department’s Community Services section the following year.
Following on from policy work she undertook on the establishment of language nests, in 1982 she was appointed as an
inaugural trustee and first General Manager of the Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust Board, a position she held for two
years. The first kōhanga reo, Pukeatua, was opened in Wainuiomata, one of about 100 established in 1982 and, by 1994,
there were more than 800 catering for about 14,000 children.
She returned to work for the Department full-time in 1984 as National Director of Community Services, and was appointed
Assistant Secretary of Māori Affairs in 1986. Retiring from the Department in 1989, in 1990 she returned to the Trust
Board, where she served as Chief Executive Officer till 2003. She remains a trustee of the Board.
In a long and varied public career, Mrs Tawhiwhirangi has served on a host of government or official committees and
working parties involved in the development of education policy. Her significance as an educational leader was
recognised when she was a member of the Ministerial Working Group for the development of a strategic plan for early
childhood education in 2001 and facilitated the collaborative bicultural project that resulted in the development of Te
Whariki, the Ministry of Education early childhood curriculum for all New Zealanders.
She has also been involved with a wide variety of community organisations, including the Māori Women’s Welfare League,
of which she is a life member, and the Māori Education Trust. She has been a guest lecturer at the former Wellington
College of Education, Victoria University, University of Alaska at Fairbanks, the University of British Columbia and the
University of Utah. She received an MBE in 1992, a Women’s Suffrage Medal in 1993 and was made a Companion of the New
Zealand Order of Merit in 2001.
Vice-Chancellor, Professor Pat Walsh, said Mrs Tawhiwhirangi was one of the cornerstones of the Kōhanga Reo movement.
“While initially designed as a means to revitalise the Maōri language, kōhanga reo achieved much, much more by
mobilising thousands of Māori parents to become involved in the education of their children.
“Picking up on the playcentre philosophy of community ownership and management, she helped create a whānau development
model that is not only underpinned by cultural and administrative sovereignty, but has also created new opportunities in
education and employment for Māori women. Internationally, the Kōhanga Reo model is now the established benchmark for
the regeneration of indigenous languages. The excellence seen today in the annual national Te Korimako oratory
competitions, for Māori secondary students, is derived from the foundations laid by Kohanga Reo.
“While she works from a Māori kaupapa or philosophy, she is one of those rare people who can move effectively in both
the Māori and Pākehā worlds and be respected in both. She is politically astute and has shown outstanding leadership in
lobbying members of Parliament of all political hues to provide funding for the kōhanga reo movement, without which it
probably would not have survived.”