There are now three Whānau Councils: two in the US (based on the East and West Coasts respectively) and one in Europe.
Launched in 1999, AUT’s mini-course for international students covers basic Te Reo Māori, Māori mythology, waiata (songs) and cultural customs. It’s capped off with a weekend-long stay on a marae, which students report as one of the highlights of their time in New Zealand. AUT Senior Lecturer in Māori and Indigeous Development, Jason King, describes the course as “the base of a tree, from which branches and leaves grow”.
“The course puts indigenous goggles on students,” he says. “It opens them up to areas of discussion with their own indigenous people.”
The very first Whānau Council was set up in 2010 by international alumni based in Europe. Co-organiser Anne Heimbeig joined up in 2015 after studying at AUT the year prior.
Every year, the European Whānau Council meet up for a long weekend in a different city in Europe.
“Depending on where we go, we usually do something to experience the country we visit. We learn about the culture, food, music – its characteristics and special features,” she says. “Most of the time there are also quite a few decisions we have to make through a vote.”
Heimberg says it’s difficult to explain how important the Whānau Council is to her “without sounding crazy”.
“Being part of the Whānau Council is a very emotional thing... It is a reminder of our time at AUT, experiencing the noho marae and spending time at the wharenui.
“I met lots of great people from different countries. Together, we’ve overcome lots of stereotypes and wrong assumptions, and brought the Māori culture out into the world.”
Co-founder of the East Coast Whānau Council, Jessica Cohen, says the group has had an incredible impact on her life.
“When I first spent time at the marae, I was struggling with my mental and physical health while far from home. The whānau taught me that family does not necessarily mean your blood relatives, but those who love and support you,” she says. “There was a sense of home, belonging, warmth, and love. Being in the whānau council allows us to keep that spirit alive, and remember the value of our whānau even when we are far away from our beloved Aotearoa.”