By Maakarita Paku
Apr 2017

Nā Maakarita Paku

Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāi Tūhoe, Te Aitanga a Hauiti, Muriwhenua, Lakota Oyate

Active poetry composed to entertain, using verbal and visual features, utilising all the sensories in early childhood education from the womb to birth.

Tokopūhā tī tā e

Tokopūhā tī tā e

Tokopūhā hī hā koe

Whakaatu mai o whatu

Pūkana mai hī hā hī

Korokoro tī tā, katakata mai tō pātero e!

Kōrero mai tō tīnana korikori e

Tokotokomauri hī hā hī

Tokotokomauri roaroa e

Katakata mai tō mauri

ringaringa waewae tī tā e!

Tīhewa mauri ora tī tā!

Te reo Māori – is sophisticated when examined closer. Repetitive formation of sound using pitch and tone to stimulate engagement with pēpi is an amazing gift of reo tuku iho (passing down of knowledge from mouth to mouth, generation to generation). To experience or witness how the improvisation and creativity of our language structure maintains and evolves, demonstrates versatility and enhanced value as a living language that many consider dead already. Simplifying the annunciation of kupu (words) into syllables that sometimes rhyme or sing off the tip of the tongue is often melodic and catchy.

Inia Manawatāwhi Rangiāio

At four weeks old our youngest child of eight had not been officially diagnosed with tongue tie, however I knew in my own observations from the very first time he suckled that something was not working well for him. It took a few weeks too long to get him diagnosed but it didn’t worry me as I self-educated persevering, looking inwards to my own whānau members.

It turned out that I never inquired directly about this matter before some of the last of our elders passed including my mother. It is only now as I reflect that the acknowledgements have come to pass.Our grandfather’s sister Dr Merimeri Penfold was an accomplished linguist and expert remembered fondly for her translations of William Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice. She was a profound native speaker of the Ngāti Kurī dialect in the Far North district known as Muriwhenua.

In 2013 I took our newborn son Inia to visit Dr Penfoldat her home in Pukenui, she was 93 years old. The moment she laid eyes on him, their eyes locked and away they went.

Inia – homebirth photo 2013

Inia and Nanny, 3 weeks old, Mahia 2013

Inia, approximately 8 weeks, at home. Napier 2013

They immersed in an exclusive flurry of mutual conversation. The topic for our listening involved her instruction of how, why, and when he must bring up his wind and how to get rid of the hiccups.  He prescribed to her efforts and explanations with ease.

The uniqueness of this transmission of language is the Ngāti Kurī dialect and whakatauakī (tribal proverbs), often borrowed by another iwi as their own. Our dialect is an archaic language that has evolved from our natural environment, our relationship with our environment, the harsh history, coastal terrain, tidal currents, and rare species that reside in our territories on islands such as Rangitāhua (The Kermedec Sanctuary Bill currently under legislation) and The Three Kings Islands (Manawatāwhi).

Nanny Merimeri was a writer, editor, translator, composer, and poet. Therefore, her lyrical natter and execution of te reo Māori was a delivery of non-stop knowledge transfer and accelerated learning. For two uninterrupted hours, my Uncle Bob and I watched in amazement as she spoke with Inia, engaging with her love words of encouragement.

“We do not do plain and ordinary, our reo must always be spoken everywhere. Be authoritative, be direct and make your point known as a Ngāti Kurī”

So, with the energy of a 20 year old Nanny Merimeri demonstrated rotarota with exhilaration, animation of her whole body using her eyes, arms, legs, lips, false teeth lol, tongue, hips, feet, fingers, nose, and head. Accentuated pronunciation in the right places where double vowels allow expression to be heightened, not only enthralled my little boy but brought his senses alive, igniting with adulation which I noticed in the full openness of his eyes. Nicknamed after that as kanohi pūpū – the cats eye part of a periwinkle and childhood delicacy to many Māori children. Kanohi pūpū is a mutual endearment to Inia for the huge dark black eyes and blue whites he has inherited. Often complimented for his big eyes, it is a reminder to us of how from a newborn baby his first origins of speech came from his ability to talk to us with the flashing of his eyes.

Inia 18 months old.

Inia with big brother Te Ihiroa approx. 2 years old, Napier 2015

The first introduction Inia had with Nanny Merimeri brought about his awareness in a very interactive way which not only benefitted him immensely but also prepared me for the months ahead.

I learnt that language without words develops in many ways. Watching with awe as he kicked his legs prompting his kuia to keep feeding him the information she had for him. Arms motoring like he had just won a marathon punching his victory in the air, muscles fully flexed and contracting, signalling his anticipation for more information and stimulation.

At four weeks it was clear that the action was not tiring him, nor was he overstimulated. Nor was there any doubt about his eye co-ordination being in working order. His kuia ensured eye contact as the indicators or blinkers for a better word to keep his focus and eyes tracking. What better resource is there than to use haka, ngeri and the art of pūkana to get a response from him in some way or shape of movement. Mimicking and getting him to try mimicking back through body gestures or sounds of pleasure and recognition such as squealing, and squeaking confirmed our understanding of his own understanding in those moments.

What an observation, a charismatic approach to unlocking the past as a means for Inia to familiarise with his own body functions, attuning to new sounds such as clicking of the tongue or clacking of dentures (a family antic our elders used to entertain us), eye (pūkana – gyrating of eyeballs and whites of the eyes) and freestyle body co-ordination outside of the womb.  Singing, dancing and acting silly had a role in reactivating some of his practice moves and workouts during gestation.

Inia at Te Kōhanga Reo o Te Pou Herenga Waka o Te Whakapono, 2 yrs old. Napier 2015

Why write about Rotarota?

Rotarota in our whānau is one of the techniques of teaching speech and formulating conversation used to stimulate awareness and learning not just from birth but also from conception, highly recommended during pregnancy. It is a valuable teaching methodology applied throughout early childhood education in ōhanga reo, through to kura kaupapa Māori, whare kura and NCEA Māori across numeracy and literacy standards to name a few.

Since the birth of Inia, it has taken 4 years to identify and connect with traditional learning of osmosis, reminding how the language features of rotarota provide techniques that assist in producing profound outcomes when needed.

Lovingly applied by my mother and her parents’ generation, there are many recollections of using rotarota for a specific purpose such as burping (above example). This was a popular method my mother used when her mokopuna were what we called ‘windy’ or when they were not sleeping very well. She often sang rotarota; to distract from pining, coping with ailments, a way to enjoy bath time or to tell them off in a loving way about – messages of giving māmā a break, letting her sleep, or another classic of taihoa (wait a minute) māmā needs to eat or have a shower, be patient, behave for your māmā and pāpā.

Kaumātua often make up rotarota on the spot, which is half the fun of it choosing kupu that work well together, sooth or direct the situation towards a positive outcome for both pēpi, māmā, pāpa and whānau.

My mother was resourceful in persuading (patipati) her mokopuna speaking te reo to explain what she needed them to do whether it was bringing up wind at either end or settling their hiccups. There are so many benefits to accessing te reo as a resource during pregnancy and birth. There are no limitations for this very intimate and personal memory created between pēpi and caregiver.

To stimulate a response is up to one’s own imagination. It is meant to be fun, entertaining, and exciting. There is meant to be laughter, joy, and smiles from ear to ear. Loving and nurturing words are only one example of what a pēpi requires for his/her growth and development. Ultimately, ability to speak, form, pronounce and project the voice with words drawing from the environment pēpi is exposed to can be so much more rewarding for them long term.  For example, the security and confidence to communicate and express their thoughts and emotions effectively later in life.

Inia with big brother Ngaa Rauuira at Te Matatini, 3 years old. Heretaunga 2017

The most beneficial advice given by Nanny Merimeri and my mother was to always talk to pēpi, they must hear, see, feel, and experience conversation be it te reo Māori and/or English. In fact, the more languages they are immersed in, the greater the benefits. We already know that our pēpi have distinguished the voices of those they hear regularly from the womb. At birth some of the formality is kanohi ki te kanohi – face to face meeting, the matching of voices, contact through touch and skin to skin from loved ones. Spoken fondly by kaumātua directly to the ‘puku’ (pregnant belly), are words of encouragement to birth well and healthy, to work in unison with māmā during labour and delivery.

Baby talk is valued in the process of learning to engage and communicate with their environment. While they may not be able to respond back in words, a newborn initially communicates with eyes, mouth, arms, hands, fingers, legs, feet, and toes, not to forget their crying pitches. There are also the body reflexes that alert us to complaints such as wind, colic, hernia, or an earache. Even though some responses or reflexes may be involuntary, awareness and co-ordination are progressive in their auto-mobility development.

Rotarota can also assist with first recognition of voice and recall due to the use of repetitive sound effects that te reo offers through the expression of one letter, two letter and three letter syllable words. Hearing the short, sometimes sharp sounds or long vowels over time allows for their little or big voices to experiment and play.

I have noticed that the more rotarota was practised using one and two syllable words, the more fluid Inia became in taking on his first language as his own by 12-18 months. Critical words like ‘māmā,’ ‘pāpā,’ ‘koro,’ ‘nanny,’ ‘kao’ and ‘ae’ were his first repertoire of vocab and with the support of kōhanga got him speaking.  By the age of 2 he formed what I described (in our kōhanga ERO report of 2015), a secondary language he adapted on his own using the humming of sounds/tunes and finger/hand language to indicate what, where and when as clues. He did this until he was able to grasp the words that we realised collectively he needed help with in extending his vocab. Consequently, sequencing sentences progressed very quickly and none of us have ever looked back until now.

From his 12-18 month consultation with the specialist, his tongue had grown significantly to become functional. Avoiding intervention by frenotomy, we credit this to the blessings of whānau as first teachers, self-educating and embracing the responsibility with which we are vested.

‘E kore au e ngaro, he kākano i ruia mai i Rangiātea.’


Maakarita is an artist, activist, and mother. She is managing director of Te Ihiroa Designs as well as the Midwifery Standards Reviewer at the New Zealand College of Midwives. Her work in the birth field is enriched by her fierce political activism, describing herself as Hunkpapa Lakota Oyate Māori Grandmother, Mother and Artist in transition she brings her heart to the things that matter in life. Birth, Love, Water. Mni Wiconi!