“I’m lucky, the kids are cool. Every year I think, this is it, I’m hanging up the boots, I’m off somewhere else. But then I see the kids again, and I’m back in. It’s humbling and neat”.
Talking with Pura Kerekere Tangira, the conversation always comes back to the kids that he teaches, and this underlying theme of ‘belonging’. Which is perhaps why, no matter how tired Pura feels by the end of each year, he’s always back in the kura carpark at the beginning of the next year, guitar slung over his shoulder, and one or two of his nieces at his side ready to share te reo Māori, waiata, the stories of this place and a sense of belonging with our Gizzy kids..
Like many other parents and kids in this town, I have only ever known Pura Kerekere Tangira as Papa Pura. To some kids, he’s just Papa. Back in the day when the kids ran up to him in the kindy carpark, he’d notice their parents looking a little unsettled to see them hurtling towards ‘this dreadlocked, moko’ed up guy’. But these days he reckons it’s different,
“Everyone’s used to me now...I’m a long way now from feeling like I am just ticking a box”.
Pura has been teaching te reo Māori, Haka and Tikanga Māori on and off, but mostly on, since he was 18 years old. But while that seems completely natural now in retrospect, it was completely surprising to him and his whanau when it first started heading in that direction.
Pura grew up with his Grandfather, Bill Kerekere, the renowned composer and broadcaster. Bill and his family moved from Gisborne to Wellington in the early 60’s to work in the newly-established New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation’s Māori Programmes section, and all of his moko including Pura, were born in Wellington.
As Bill attended Māori hui of significance around the country, recording mihi, waiata and proceedings to be sent out on the radio waves, Pura was often there with him:
“Every moment we weren’t at kura, we were next to him doing his thing. I had to carry his bags and sit at his feet, and so his reo was and still is, my reo”.
Bill also ran a few Kapa Haka teams so haka was also a big part of Pura’s younger days. But it while it was in his blood and in his bones he didn’t actually “know what it was that I knew”..
Pura was sent by his grandparents to Christ’s College in Christchurch as he puts it ‘to get away from people who look like me’. He had never seen anything like it,
“A castle! All the teachers had black cloaks on, like Dracula. I was crying to my grandmother, you can’t leave me here, look at them - they’re going to kill me!”
There were a total of three kids who looked Māori in the whole school, “It was the first time I found out I was black.” Pura recalls doing the “most terrible haka with the most passion” and remembers not knowing what the words were. Some of his peers at the school were 4th, 5th generation Pākehā, their ancestors had come on the first Pākehā boats and had slept in those same school beds. For Pura it was a real eye opener, “But I got to do things I wouldn’t have got to do, met people I wouldn’t have met”.
When Pura’s Grandfather retired and moved back up to Tūranganui-a-kiwa, Pura thought he would never have to do haka again. Now, ironically, it’s what he does, “And I love it”.
So how did he get from there to here?
At the age of 18, Pura was attending a hui in the Waikato. When a kaumatua asked for the song that Bill Kerekere had written for the Māori King to be sung, Pura couldn’t remember it and thought to himself ‘This can’t happen ever again’.
The Monday following, one of his mates said he was off to do some haka, “Come on then” said Pura, and off he went. The next day he started a reo Māori course and two weeks later he was teaching. The songs started coming back to him and soon he was teaching Haka too.
His grandfather Bill told him to go and get a ‘real job’ - that kind of thing was for doing after work he said. But Pura assured him he was getting paid more to do that than he had been for labouring, and so it began..
Starting out in Wellington, Pura taught in colleges, kindergartens and some of the first Kohanga Reo. He worked with the New Zealand School of Dance, the New Zealand Ballet, “Oh this is different” he thought. Bill was happy. Pura ended up working as a tour guide for a while, “I think I was good on the mike” and held the contract to teach te reo Māori in Parliament, counting Helen Clarke amongst his students. “I was even worse dressed then” he reckons, “there weren’t even any shoes involved in those days”.
He started working at te Wananga o Aotearoa when he moved to the Waikato. Then they asked him to fly the flag for them in the prison, running te reo Māori programmes. It ended up going nationwide with locals running the programmes, which eventually included painting, raranga, carving and haka. For Pura it was all about his students being able to “fill their kete before they left”. He talks of some of his students wanting to stay put - in prison - so that they’d be able to take part in the kapa haka competition.
Pura also ran a Tikanga Marae course at Waihirere for people who were on their way to or from prison for 13 years. But in the end he didn’t want to be an ambulance anymore, wanting to go at it from the other end, see if he could make more progress that way.
So what exactly does that progress look like? Pura Kerekere Tangira describes it as our kids learning through waiata, the stories of this place and its people, of our kids being able to stand up and introduce themselves, giving them their own experience of the customs, beliefs and tikanga of Tangata Whenua. “At the least they’re learning another language” he says, “and at the most, they might want to take it further.” Pura talks about hearing kids telling their parents off for the way they pronounce Makaraka or Te Karaka, which he describes as “huge” because of course when he grew up, he said it the same way.
As one of the parents of two of Pura’s students, and therefore by extension one of his students myself, the overwhelming lesson that I have taken home from Pura and the way he shares te reo and Tikanga Māori in our kura is that of Manaakitanga and his intention and ability to instil a sense of belonging in everyone that he sings alongside.
“I love that - that belonging” he says, “It’s only us that walk like us and talk like us, and play like us”. Pura ends each of his school sessions with “Ka kite, Adios Amigos, Au Revoir, Nanu nanu, Coast with the Most!” and he gets that a lot, walking down the street, from kids he’s sung with, past and present “Coast with the Most Papa!”
“It’s an honour” he says. And so it is. Thank you Pura. We are indeed honoured.
Story by Sarah Cleave Photographs by Tom Teutenberg