There’s a photo of my great-grandparents, Erueti Bidois and Ataraira Edwards, on the day they got married, in 1917. They sit uncomfortably: Erueti is in his best suit and Ataraira is wearing what I’ve been told is her senior school uniform, probably from St Joseph’s Māori Girls’ College.
She was 16. Erueti was 18.
As the eldest of 14, Erueti took over the family farm on the western foothills of the Kaimai. It was on his maternal grandmother’s land. Erueti’s dad, Purutene, was Pirirākau from Te Puna, Tauranga Moana. But he had moved there, to his wife Te Aopare’s whānau, because so little land remained for Pirirākau after the confiscations in 1864.
It’s a little farm, and it would have been a basic life. No running water. No electricity. And, eventually, nine tamariki.
But Ataraira and Erueti were steeped in their reo Māori, they were known and connected by whakapapa, and they had responsibilities and a place at their various marae on both sides of the Kaimai.
I don’t know if it was a good life, but it was a life on the land of their ancestors.
At least one of their nine tamariki, Alfred, died young. Ataraira’s pregnancies were within a year or two of each other — and the records hint at difficult births and little postnatal care.
Ataraira passed away at the age of 34.
What happened next is painful and contested. What’s clear is that, within a few years, Erueti was no longer farming, and all the children, except for my grandfather, Eddie Sunny Bidois, the oldest surviving son, had been moved away to live with the wider whānau.
Erueti went from land, marae, whānau and reo, to an array of work and houses. He moved around the upper North Island with his eldest son for much of the rest of his working life.
The sad death of Ataraira rolled down through the next few generations. Few of us in our immediate whānau speak te reo Māori, few have had the privilege of growing up near one of our ancestral marae, few of us are well-known by our whanaunga in our wider whakapapa.
On top of the personal tragedy, there was the ongoing removal of Māori land by the Crown and the drive to assimilate tāngata whenua into white New Zealand.
From the mid-1940s, there was a programme of government land purchases for returned servicemen — and “unproductive” Māori land was a focus.
Erueti’s farm could have been seen as unproductive. Grieving, and on his own with eight children to look after, the upkeep of the farm would have been a hard ask. His siblings may well have been concerned the roving eyes of Crown surveyors might fall upon the little land holding.
In 1967, the Māori Affairs Amendment Act was introduced, making it compulsory for Māori freehold land with four or fewer owners to be converted to general land, which meant it was then able to be sold. It’s been called the single largest land grab in New Zealand history. As a result, all that remained of our whānau land in Tauranga Moana, now general land, was sold off.
I’ve heard the price was a little over $100,000. Today, it’s in three titles, each valued at over $1.2 million.
When my whānau and I moved to Tauranga Moana in 2006, we optimistically said we were coming home. We’d spent a decade in Wellington — growing up, university, marriage, jobs in the public service.
My wife Jo and I were already speaking Māori to our pēpi, but it was without an anchor. The land was a concept, iwi was a concept. We wanted our tamariki to truly know their ancestors’ whenua as “home” and not just a concept.
But it was a home my immediate whānau hadn’t lived in for many generations. It was a home where no one knew us. Where we had no role, and no place.
With no land to come back to, we bought an old state house in Tutarawānanga (a suburb known as Merivale). I started going back to my marae in Te Puna. I got into the rhythm of tangihanga, unveilings, and hui.
And I got used to the question: “Who is that boy?”
Over time, the answer became: “He’s the one who came home.”
We’ve found our place and our roles. I’ve sat on our paepae tapu for over a decade now. I’ve also been on various committees for marae, hapū and iwi. I suspect I’ll never be allowed to leave the committees.
With our tamariki at school age, our closest community among my whanaunga has been the reo speaking whānau at Māori medium education. Jo, who’s Pākehā, has led the charge. She went from kaiawhina at kōhanga reo, to kaiwhakahaere at kura kaupapa Māori, to pouako at our kura-a-iwi.
It’s been a deliberate strategy of reconnection for our whānau. The ties to land, marae, whānau, and reo unravelled for my great-grandfather, leading him away. But we’ve returned along the same path. Through reo, whānau, marae — and, this year, land.
All of our whānau land is years gone. There’s some part shares on a couple of our islands, but no blocks. So moving back out to Te Puna was on the 10-year plan.
Te Puna is 15 kilometres north of Tauranga city. It’s a rural area with an increasing number of lifestyle properties. There are about 150 Pirirākau whānau scattered through Te Puna, living on small blocks of Māori freehold land.
Over the years, we’ve tried a few ideas. We thought we could potentially lease land off another group of whānau for 20 or 30 years, and move a portable dwelling on to the land. But there are so many owners and/or trustees on any one block — sometimes between 200 to 400 — that it becomes impossible. The ahi kaa who know us were willing to consider the idea, but so many of the owners are overseas or in other parts of New Zealand, that even contacting them is a mission.
We considered blocks that have only a few owners, but, more often than not, they’re thick with bush, in gullies, and far from roads and services. The cost of clearing land and getting a dwelling on it was prohibitive.
So we let it lie. Our experience is that there is a time for everything.
Over the last 13 years, more and more of our life has moved out to Te Puna. I’m at the marae most weeks for a kaupapa, and out at a hui most months. Our tamariki play for Te Puna Rugby Club — where the seniors are having an outstanding season this year. Our eldest daughter is a student at the wharekura near Te Puna, where Jo is pouako.
But, at the beginning of this year, after an exhausting week and a half of tangihanga at our marae, I was driving home and saw a real estate sign on a lifestyle block. When I got home, I mentioned it to Jo and we agreed to go and have a look.
We went to the open home: four bedrooms in a quirky barn style house with five acres. We came away thinking: What a dream! We had little hope given we owned a three-bedroom state house in Tutarawānanga, but enough hope to go to the bank. You could’ve knocked us over with a feather when the bank manager Megan said that if we sold our house in Tutarawānanga, they’d loan us enough money to make an offer.
That house didn’t work out, but we found another property on Te Rangituanehu (which is called Minden now). We made a conditional offer, and it was accepted.
We sold our whare, and now we’re a week away from moving. It’s unsettling and emotional.
Tutarawānanga has been a safe port to build the relationships and connections to call Tauranga Moana home again. Our eldest son is named for the rangatira of our local pā.
We don’t want to leave. We are longing to leave.
The same courage that saw us move back to Tauranga Moana after an absence of many generations is needed again to take this next step. To finally be invested completely in the whenua of our ancestors. Our branch of the Bidois whānau will have a foothold again.
And, in 20 or 30 years, once we’ve paid the bank, perhaps we can change the status of our whenua to Māori freehold. So, just half a hectare, of the 90,000 acres taken under the Te Puna-Katikati purchase, returned to Pirirākau ownership.