2 Dec 2022

Wāhine Māori raise awareness of safe sleeping through wahakura wānanga

5:30 pm on 2 December 2022
Roana Archbold (left) and her colleague Lucy.

Roana Archbold works for Te Puawaitanga ki Ōtautahi Trust, which holds wahakura wānanga. Photo: RNZ / Niva Chittlock

Roana Archbold, of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, was just three when her baby sister died from sudden unexplained death in infancy (SUDI).

It's part of why she's so passionate about wahakura or woven co-sleeping baskets.

"It's nearly 50 years since we lost her, so for me, particularly this kaupapa is really really important because when whānau lose one of their whānau members, it's absolutely devastating. And that mamae, that pain, is there forever - it never goes away," she said.

The wahakura allow the traditional cultural practice of co-sleeping to be observed, while keeping the baby or pēpi safe, Archbold explained.

Rates of sudden unexplained death in infancy, or SUDI, have dropped since the 1980s.

But in recent years figures have begun to plateau, with 40 to 60 deaths attributed to SUDI annually.

"Our Māori whānau have about a seven percent higher chance of experiencing SUDI than our non-Māori pēpi. So there's a real cultural significance here," she said.

Finished wahakura.

A completed wahakura. Photo: RNZ / Niva Chittlock

Archbold works for Te Puawaitanga ki Ōtautahi Trust, which began the wahakura workshops in 2011.

They've been on hold for the past two years during the pandemic.

"Our whānau have been telling us for years, over this Covid time, that they're so excited to get back into making these wahakura for their pēpi," she grinned.

Midwives, students and teachers were among those invited to mark the restart.

Kōrero and the pungent smell of harakeke enveloped the wāhine as they bustled about amongst hundreds of flax pieces.

Carabelle Summerton weaving.

Caravelle Summerton is the trust's kairaranga. Photo: RNZ / Niva Chittlock

Caravelle Summerton of Ngāti Tahu, Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāti Hako, was recently appointed as the trust's kairaranga (weaver).

She recalled being surprised by the number of wahakura the trust makes.

"They give over 50 per month out to whānaus, so hopefully with having the wānangas, plus the ladies constantly making them for [the trust], we're going to reach more and more people," she said.

Summerton believed wahakura will become a household item.

"Eventually, it's going to be a regular thing, not 'oh, what is that?'...It's going to be a normal thing for people."

It had many benefits, she noted, including providing pēpi with a connection to Papatuanuku, the earth and a spiritual link to their whānau too if passed down through the family.

Tanya Mielnik and Nicole Keogh both teach in kōhanga reo.

Tanya Mielnik and Nicole Keogh believe it's important to share information about safe sleeping and support young whānau. Photo: RNZ / Niva Chittlock

Pregnant sisters Tanya Mielnik and Nicole Keogh were among the women busy weaving.

Both teach in kōhanga reo and Mielnik said they'll support others with their new knowledge.

"We're very high in statistics so I think just sharing the information, about safe sleeping for our whānau, just to make them more aware - especially with our young whānau as well, to help tautoko (support) them."

Arianna Walker was about to finish her midwifery degree.

Wahakura had become a tradition, with at least one made every year of her studies.

"It's definitely sparked my love for all things matauranga (Māori knowledge) in general. I've been able to develop this so I've been doing the wahakura now not just in these wānanga but also out in the community, I'm able to give these wahakura out to families I'm working with as well," she explained.

Arianna Walker has made wahakura every year of her degree Photo: RNZ / Niva Chittlock

It had also led Walker to explore other practices such as cutting the umbilical cord with pounamu and using muka, a flax fibre tie, instead of a peg.

Daphne O'Connell of Kai Tahu teaches the wānanga.

She created the trust's wahakura pattern with the late Dame Aroha Reriti-Crofts and said it was a joy to be back after two years off.

"To sit here and look around...it's just incredible. It's really really incredible...I'm in tears when all the baskets are sitting out there and we're taking a photo of them. All of them have got a basket, and that's my intention," she said.

"Nobody goes home without a basket."

Daphne O Connell created the wahakura pattern used by Te Puawaitanga ki Ōtautahi Trust.

Daphne O'Connell created the wahakura pattern used by the trust Photo: RNZ / Niva Chittlock

Everyone was welcome at the eight workshops planned next year - no weaving experience or pēpi required - with baskets able to be gifted back to the trust, O'Connell said.

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