Kohanga Reo Movement Founder Dies: Sadly, Jean Puketapu has died. She was 81 years old. This will be a big loss to her Whanau, to the community at Arohanui-ki-te-Tanga-ta meeting house at Waiwhetu in Lower Hutt, to the community in Waikaremoana where she grew up, and to the whole Kohanga Reo movement in New Zealand.
Jean Puketapu is a much-celebrated pioneer of the movement to revitalize the Maori Language in New Zealand and prevent it from dying out. In 1982, she co-founded the very first Kohanga Reo in New Zealand. The Kohanga Reo is a school where the Maori language is spoken as the primary language.
In 1982, in an old factory building at Pukeatua, in Wainuiomata, she had her dream come true, when the first Kohanga Reo for the country was opened up. This school celebrated its 30th anniversary this year, in 2012.
In an interview with Radio NZ in 2010, she said “‘There is only one way to prevent the Maori language from dying out, and that is to speak it.”
The Maori language has been suffering as a result of it not having been used in schools for around a century or more. When I was at Primary School from 1955 onward, people were punished if they spoke Maori at school. Ironically though, and just as well, the whole school, Maori and European alike, did Kapa Haka and sang Maori songs as part of our cultural programme.
Because of the banning of the language in the schools, Maori language was not being learnt by the young. By the 1980’s, with only older people speaking it, it was in serious danger of dying out altogether.
It is due to Jean Puketapu and other devoted proponents of the Maori language who got these Kohanga Reo schools up and running, that we have Maori being spoken fluently by young people today. But there is still work to be done, and the Kohanga Reo schools must be protected so that the heritage of the Maori people – their language – may continue to be spoken and thrive.
Jean comes from a family of academics and artisans who have always had the welfare of the Maori people at the forefront of their ambitions. Her husband Kara Puketapu, who was another co-founder of the first Kohanga Reo in Wainuiomata, studied at the University of Chicago in 1967, after having been awarded a Harkness Scholarship by the Commonwealth Fund of New York. His research was studying minority groups and their economic, educational, social and cultural development, using material gained from field studies in New Mexico.
Jean accompanied her husband to America when he went over to do his research. The National Library of New Zealand have material on their trip in their archives. According to these archives, Jean Puketapu busied herself with the poorer communities whilst she was there, and involved herself in trying to help them by improving their literacy skills. She joined forces with other university wives there, to make twice-weekly visits to Negro ghettos where they taught women how to read and write.
There is a beautiful picture of Jean Puketapu in yesterday’s Dominion, 1st August, 2012, where she is pictured with her nephew Pou Temara. This photo comes from 2004, when Jean was just about to receive at age 73, her Diploma in Early Childhood Education.