Builder and māmā of two, Te Atamairangi Emery-Hughes (Ngāti Pikiao) recently moved her whānau back to her ancestral home in Rotoiti. She’s now making it her mission to help others do the same. She tells Siena Yates why.
When we lived in the city in Rotorua, I wouldn’t let the kids walk or play or ride their bikes outside of the boundary of our property. Whenever they went to the school park or the playground, we’d always be with them.
But, here in Rotoiti, they’re free.
I can let them ride wherever they want to. I can let them go to the lake or walk up to the rugby club because I know they’re safe. There are so many people here and we’re all family, and everyone keeps an eye on everyone. They’ve never known such freedom before.
My whānau has a long history in Rotoiti. Our hapū is Ngāti Te Rangiunuora, and my great- grandparents, Kataraina Katene and Sam Emery, had a hand in creating many of the things here for their community and their descendants, from our local sports club to our marae.
Before I had my kids, coming home was never really in the plan. I grew up here, and I lived here most of my life. I wanted to experience something different and see the world.
Now I can see that I was privileged to have the life I had here. We had so many resources. We had whānau all around us, we had the marae, and we had the lake right there. We walked or biked everywhere. We’d bike all the way from one side of the lake to the other, just to see our cousins on either side.
My first kura was Rotoiti — at one point my grandmother was the principal. Then I moved on to Ruamata, the kura kaupapa by the airport. That was amazing. They didn’t just teach everyday things that you usually learn in a classroom — they taught me the life skills I now use as an adult. Good, basic stuff like how to look after yourself.
When I was 16, I went to Western Heights in Rotorua and got a broader perspective on a different type of education. It was kind of hard for me to get into the groove of it because lessons were mainly in te reo Pākehā and I’d only ever known te reo Māori. I could speak English, but I didn’t know all these new, fancy words like “algebra”.
But I did start doing kapa haka there with Te Roopu Manaaki. While I was at high school, I also took university and polytech reo Māori courses because the reo I had from being at Ruamata was already too advanced for high school levels.
After I left, I tried to give Australia a go. I went to Sydney because my mother lived there with my two younger sisters, but it wasn’t for me. I was there for five months, and I couldn’t handle it. The wairua over there was just not right.
When I came back home, I couldn’t find work. I was fresh out of high school and my only work experience had been in Aussie. So I wound up on the benefit. At that time, they would put youth on a six-week course called LSV (Limited Service Volunteers) with the New Zealand Defence Force.
That worked for me because, originally, my plan was to join the navy so that I could see the world. But when I went to LSV, my plans changed. The army felt familiar. It felt like the people I was around all grew up on the marae — and even though that wasn’t the case, it had a better wairua. It felt more like home. That was also where I met Jason, who’s now my husband.
I wanted to go to the military after LSV, but Jason and I wound up moving to Rotorua because I wanted to be there for my younger brother who was only 15 at the time. Even then, my father wanted me to move back to Rotoiti, but I wasn’t ready to go. I was young and I just wanted to work and have fun with Jason. So we lived in town, in Rotorua. I suppose living how uni students would live, just enjoying life.
It wasn’t until my own kids came along that my thinking started to change. We had our son, Hone-Ray, when I was 19, and our daughter, Te Waiatarangi, two years later. At that point, I was going through a kind of a rough patch in the sense of not knowing who I was, what I wanted to do or what I wanted out of life.
I knew I wanted to do something that I love — something that I would want to wake up to every day and be like: “I love my job.” That something turned out to be building.
The way I figured that out was, because we weren’t the wealthiest people ever, we couldn’t afford to buy big, lavish playgrounds and toys for our children. So I started teaching myself how to make things. And eventually, I realised: “You enjoy doing this, why not do this for a job?”
So I looked up the courses at Toi Ohomai and decided to study construction. And later, my tutor recommended me to his boss who ended up taking me on as a carpenter and builder in Rotorua. Taking that pathway was the best decision I’ve made in my life.
One of the main reasons I finally decided to move our family back to Rotoiti was to help my parents — and my husband’s parents as well. I want to set them up for when they retire, so they don’t have to worry about money or working when they should just be enjoying life.
We’re now living in my family home with my father, but my building work is a big part of what will give us all opportunities here in Rotoiti.
My plan is to invest in properties, and because I can do a lot of the work myself, I’ll be able to buy homes that need a bit of doing up, and that aren’t as expensive. My husband is a painter and can do some of the electrical side of things. So another option for us is to build a smaller bach on my father’s property that he can stay in, and rent his house out as a source of income.
I’m not just thinking about our immediate whānau either. One of my goals is to get into a position where I can work for Ngāti Pikiao, as someone who helps our people to come home. To give them the information and tools they need to get properties on our whenua. Also, on the cultural side of things, to help them discover this whole other way of life.
For me, coming home has been exactly what I thought it would be — and that includes the arguments with my father. But it’s been so much more as well. My children love the culture, and they’ve kind of made a name for themselves here. Like how my son started walking around the rugby club when there was a game or something there, picking up rubbish and clearing tables. No one told him to do it, but he kept doing it because, that first time, he came home with $80. It turned out some of the koros had given him the money to say thank you for the mahi he was doing.
This is how it is here. It’s a community. It’s peaceful. It’s safe. We’ve never cared too much about money, it’s always been about quality of life and whether you’re happy. We’ve always thought that if you’re not happy with your life, then you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing. A lot of people think you’ve just gotta grin and bear it — but for how long?
I know coming home has its own challenges for a lot of our people, because they don’t know their culture or their iwi and some are made to feel whakamā by the arrogance of some of our own. They’re made to feel like “fakes”. But they’re not. It’s like Rawiri Waititi said: You’re as entitled as anyone else to know your culture and where you come from. You just have to be open-minded about learning, and willing to stand up for yourself.
I’ll be honest. Moving home wasn’t something I wanted to do. It was something I needed to do.
I still want to see more of the world, or even just more of New Zealand. But more than that, I want to give back to those who gave to me — the people who helped me grow. My children are learning where they come from and are proud of that. I’ve been able to give them that solid grounding, and the freedom that I had growing up.
Atamairangi (Ata) Emery-Hughes (Ngāti Pikiao) is a senior builder at Exeter Homes in Rotorua and has worked in construction since graduating from her construction trades skills course at Toi Ohomai in 2017. She and her husband Jason live in her ancestral home in Rotoiti with their two children, Hone-Ray, 10, and Te Waiatarangi, 8. Ata’s future goal is to use her own experience and construction skills to help her iwi return home as she did.
As told to Siena Yates and made possible through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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