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Feathers of identity for WaiCol

For a teenage Nan Walden, being tangata whenua was “disadvantageous” – so, at secondary school, she did everything possible to conceal her identity.

Thirty years later, the now award-winning Māori artist gifted one of her hand-woven pieces to her alma mater – in the hope that other young women won’t have to feel ashamed of who they are.

Walden, an alumna of Wairarapa College, has presented the school with a taonga korowai [a feathered Māori cloak] in honour of its centenary, to be celebrated this weekend.

The contemporary korowai, christened Te Ataahua, was made in WaiCol’s signature colours of blue and gold, and is intended to be worn by the tumuaki [principal] as a symbol of leadership.

Taonga korowai have more recently been embraced by New Zealand secondary schools, and are often worn by student prefects as a mantle of prestige and honour.

Walden [Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki], who teaches design and technology at Wellington East Girls’ College, attended WaiCol from 1992-97 – where she felt disconnected from her culture and unsupported as a Māori learner.

She was unable to attend the centenary celebrations, but wanted to acknowledge the steps WaiCol has made to create an inclusive environment for ākonga Māori [Māori students].

Walden, who has gained national acclaim for her traditional and modern korowai, said one of her passions is helping “decolonising” education in Aoteaoroa: Guiding students to create Māori garments and incorporating them into school culture.

Korowai like Te Ataahua, she said, can help create an empowered physical presence of te ao Māori within schools.

“It’s a purposeful, positive way of representing te ao Māori. I want to help awaken te ao Māori in education – one feather, cloak, and school at a time.

“When students see their principal or head student wearing a korowai, it communicates they accept and value Māori. Which is what I want from my old school.

“Doing this for WaiCol feels good – it’s my way of letting the girl I was know she doesn’t have to be ashamed anymore.”

As a young person, Walden confessed her heritage was a “source of shame”, and in high school, she deduced that being Māori was not in her favour.

“Our classes were streamed – and the top students, with the good teachers, were all white. Whenever I’d look in the window at lunchtime detention, almost all the kids in that classroom were Māori.

“So, I suppressed my identity and hid behind my fair skin. It’s embarrassing to admit now – but it’s part of my journey.”

Walden has a degree in fashion design but, after becoming disillusioned with the fashion industry, retrained as a secondary school teacher, and taught technology and soft materials at Hutt Valley High School [HVHS], and St Catherine’s and St Mary’s Colleges.

While making costumes for HVHS kapa haka rōpū, she developed a passion for contemporary korowai – eventually adopting korowai design and traditional raranga [weaving] into her classes.

Several of her students’ pieces were gifted to the schools and are still worn to this day – in fact, one was draped over former HVHS principal Ross Sinclair’s coffin at his funeral in 2020.

Walden said some of the most rewarding moments of her career have involved teaching young Māori to weave korowai, and seeing their confidence flourish by connecting with their culture.

“It’s crucial for Māori learners to have access to these opportunities. Working with feathers, flax and muka fibres puts te ao Māori, and likewise their identity, into context.

“It becomes more than just an abstract concept. It helps make them whole.”

Walden’s own contemporary korowai have won her multiple accolades at the Hokonui Fashion Design Awards, and one of her traditional garments was a finalist for the 2022 Molly Morpeth Canaday Award.

Walden said she was encouraged by the WaiCol community’s support of Te Ataahua so far, and by the school’s increased commitment to te ao Māori – including its successful kapa haka group and adoption of te reo as a core subject.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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