In many whānau Māori, there are painful stories of loss and disconnection — the consequences of which continue to be felt, generations later. In this piece, Cornell Tukiri looks at the impact of a family tragedy that took place more than 70 years ago, and his efforts to reclaim what was lost.
If you know Raglan, you’ll know it’s surrounded by water.
There are the beaches, of course. The cranking waves at Manu and Whale Bay, which draw surfers from all over the motu.
And generations of kids have loved bombing off the footbridge that spans the Opotoro inlet, which flows between the town centre and the main reserve.
In fact, you can’t drive from one side of the town to the other without crossing that waterway.
But, for me, every time I drive over the bridge that crosses that inlet, I get a lump in my throat.
Because I’m thinking at that moment about my grandad, Tuwhai (Ben) Tukiri, who was just a 16-year-old boy at Te Aute College when he heard that his mum, dad and little sister had died in a car accident in Raglan.
They were in the back of an old taxi with one of their whanaunga, jammed together like sardines, as it headed across that bridge which, back then, was one-way.
It was a winter evening. It was raining. And, halfway across, the taxi skidded, veered to one side, broke through the wooden railing and plunged into the tide.
Our four whanaunga in the back seat didn’t have a chance. They all drowned.
I never got the chance to ask Grandad how he handled all that mamae. He was gone before I knew how to frame questions like that.
Grandad was born in Whāingaroa (Raglan) in 1930. He was one of nine kids, and his mum and dad farmed at Manu Bay.
The Tukiri name is well known in Whāingaroa. Our whānau urupā, holding the names of so many of my tūpuna, is on the slopes of Karioi maunga.
As a kid, Grandad rode horses bareback and went to Raglan Area School. He was bright, my Aunty Trish told me, and he had wanted to be a doctor, which is why his parents had sent him to Te Aute.
He was on course, too, for university — a prefect, good marks — but that future crumpled after he got the news about his parents and sister.
I don’t recall the knock-on effects of that tragedy being spoken about in our whānau. It wasn’t a topic our parents or grandparents ever brought up with us.
But I don’t doubt that this news would have shaken my grandad to his core. He would’ve been reeling, his anchors in life gone. He’d become an orphan, overnight. At 16, he had to begin to make his way in “a white man’s world”.
In many ways, that bridge tragedy in 1947 severed my links to my taha Māori.
And only now, in my early 40s, am I reclaiming what was lost.
My whānau, the seven of us, grew up on Hooper Avenue in Pukekohe. Mum (Kathy) and Dad (Martin, Grandad’s son) bought an empty section there in the early 1980s. They built our home on that, with friends and whānau all pitching in.
Hooper Ave was in a new subdivision, and the territory round our place was raw.
Our house wasn’t flash, either.
When we moved in — I was six or seven at the time — we didn’t have any carpet, or wallpaper. But I didn’t care. It was our home and we were there together.
I remember the long summer evenings, when my brothers, Jemall and Logan, and my sister, Soraya, and I would build forts out of cardboard boxes in the long grass which grew in the empty sections beside ours. (Kelsey, my youngest sister, was born later, in 1988.) We’d stay out playing until we were called for dinner. And after we’d eaten, we’d head outside again until the sun went down.
If you look at a map of Puke, you’ll see that Hooper Ave is close to, but not in, Pukekohe North. So, if Jemall (my older brother) and I were lucky enough to scrounge a couple of coins, we had a short walk to the “Puke North” dairy to get some lollies or an ice cream. Or to the “Bonanza Bar” fish ‘n chip shop, which was right next to the dairy.
But when I was growing up, we’d also hear Pukekohe North being sneered at, and called names like “Brown Town”, or “The Dark Side”, or “The Reservation”.
Us kids never talked about this with our parents. But we understood that Puke North had been branded with those names because it was where “the Maoris” lived. That was a legacy of the Waikato War and the land confiscations, and the number of Māori who provided cheap labour for the market gardens on the northern side of the town.
It was easy to be affected by the racism behind those names, to buy into what those names implied about the people living in Pukekohe North, without even knowing it. Especially if you weren’t that connected to your taha Māori.
So, we’d always be told by Mum and Dad to hurry to and from the dairy.
And that reputation may have been behind their decision to send us to Pukekohe Hill School, a 30-minute walk away, even though we lived closer to Puke North school.
Hill School was good, though. I met some mates there that I have to this day — like Casey Shearer, Chad Shepherd, and Raman Forbes. We all played cricket and rugby together, and we were into athletics together.
Chad lived on Helvetia Road, just a block away from us. We’d often hang out together. I remember us trying to smoke cardboard cigarettes in the bushes. We rolled those ourselves, and stuck them together with insulation tape. They weren’t great at all. Not the healthiest option either, I suppose.
How much more did Grandad know?
I remember when I had my first real inklings about my taha Māori.
I was still at primary school at the time. We had to do a project about our town, and I had to find out the meaning of “Pukekohe”.
I asked Dad, but he didn’t know.
“Call Grandad,” he suggested. “He’ll know.”
So I rang him. And, sure enough, he had the answer.
“Puke” means “hill”, he said. And kohekohe is a type of tree. So, Pukekohe means “hill with the kohekohe tree”.
It felt pretty cool at the time to know that Grandad could understand a whole other language. And in some small way it began to dawn on me: “I am Māori.”
I also found myself wondering: “How much more did Grandad know?”
I learned then that Grandad had spoken Māori when he was a boy. But, at some point, as he grew up, he’d decided to stop speaking Māori. Dad told me Grandad did that because he wanted to “get ahead in the world”.
And, of course, because he wasn’t speaking the reo anymore, his kids, including my dad, weren’t exposed to it.
I am Māori
But, as I think back to my younger days, I realise that te reo Māori and tikanga Māori were always with me. Hidden in plain sight, mostly. But visible, sometimes, too.
I remember staying with Grandad and Nana (Pat) at their Pakuranga whare during school holidays. All us cuzzies — there were about 15 of us — would take turns to stay with them. We loved that, because they always spoiled us.
We were a close-knit bunch. We’d get together at the drop of a hat. We’d celebrate family birthdays together. And every Christmas, too.
Grandad and Nana had a huge, flat, grassed back lawn that was the base for all the sports we played. League, rugby, lawn bowls, golf, tennis, softball — and bullrush. We’d play into the late hours while the adults were talking, laughing, and sometimes drinking.
If you’d said the word “Māoritanga” to me back then, I wouldn’t have known what you were on about. But as I look back now, I can see that our gatherings were laced with Māoritanga.
We had that instinct, that yearning for togetherness. We just seemed to know that we could make better sense of life, if we did it together.
And sometimes, the Māoritanga would break the surface. Like when Grandad would direct my dad and my uncles in putting down a hāngi in the backyard. And, every now and then, later in the evening, we’d hear a waiata or two.
I realise now we were actually practising our own tikanga, without knowing it. I never knew words like “whanaungatanga”, “manaakitanga” and “tautoko” back then. But we were practising them, nevertheless.
That Pakuranga whare was our tūrangawaewae, our āhuru mōwai. And Grandad was the kaiurungi of our waka — our helmsman, our poutokomanawa. The centre pole of our meeting house.
Grandad must have been a flash guy
But, on May 26, 1991, that poutokomanawa came crashing down.
Grandad died when I was 13.
And when he died, it was as though somebody had thrown the bolt on a trapdoor. The trapdoor opened — and us kids fell into another world.
We were lucky to have a guide in the ways of that other world — a kaumātua from Whāingaroa. He was John Manihera, our pastor, our kaiwhakahaere, a kind, soft-spoken man who made sure our whānau whānui knew what to do, and what steps to take.
He gently told us that Grandad would lie in state in the lounge of Grandad and Nana’s Pakuranga house, in an open coffin, on top of mattresses.
We all sat on the floor, and we were told never to leave the body, the tūpāpaku, because to do so would not be good for Grandad as he was still with us in spirit.
Here we were in this much loved, familiar space where our whānau were used to crowding around the television to watch cricket, league or rugby. And now our grandfather, who was always at the centre of that warmth, and that action, was laying in the lounge in an open coffin, with mattresses all around.
It was a lot to take on board.
I remember we were asked if anyone wanted to stand and say anything about Grandad. I decided I wanted to speak, and I stood up and tried to compose myself. But I just couldn’t get any words out. I cried, and cried. I couldn’t stop myself.
We took Grandad home to Poihākena Marae in Whāingaroa for his tangihanga. We went in convoy from Auckland.
As we arrived at Poihākena, we were welcomed on. We carried Grandad onto the mahau, the porch, of the wharenui, where he lay in state. In the evenings, he’d be taken inside.
There was whaikōrero, waiata and karakia, 7am and 7pm services, and cups of tea. There were aunties everywhere. I’d never known I had so many aunties and uncles. Each one of them had a story and a connection to Grandad, from a life that I never knew of.
I remember the former Minister of Māori Affairs showing up — and my cousin whispering urgently to me: “That’s Koro Wētere!”
Gee, I thought to myself: “Grandad must have been a flash guy!”
I now know, of course, that Koro coming wasn’t about status. It was about family respect — because he and my grandad were related through marriage. They were connected through our Ngāti Hikairo ki Kāwhia side.
I also remember, vividly, Aunty Tuaiwa “Eva” Rickard telling stories in the wharenui.
Aunty Eva had a commanding voice. She radiated mana and authority, but also kindness. She had the ability to hold a room — either in complete silence as she recalled stories of her and Grandad growing up together. Or in hoots of laughter, as she told some crack-up tales.
For all of us mokopuna, sleeping next to Grandad inside the wharenui at Poihākena was an amazing experience. The love and whanaungatanga was just so beautiful. We felt a warmth inside that’s hard to put into words — you have to experience it to understand it.
Maybe my senses got overloaded by all the goings-on at the house, and at the marae. Because I can’t remember anything about the burial up at our urupā.
My whāinga roa — my long pursuit
Looking back, 30 years later, I see how all these parts of tikanga, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, underlined the truth for me: that “I am Māori.”
I didn’t know how to access my taha Māori back then. But I’m learning how to now, as I listen and learn the language of my tūpuna.
These tohu — beginning with the project at Pukekohe Hill School, through those family times in Pakuranga, to Grandad’s tangihanga — put me on a path to the reo.
That, and the decision my wife Tania and I made to send our boys, Awa and Winiata, to Māori immersion schooling. So they could learn our language. So they could have what we didn’t have.
At the beginning of 2019, I enrolled myself in the rūmaki reo course at Te Wānanga Takiura. Before the course started, I wanted to believe that I knew a bit about our reo. But, in reality, when it was all stripped back, I didn’t have anything.
When I applied for the course, we had to write a short piece about what had inspired us to learn te reo Māori. I wrote about listening to Aunty Eva speaking at Grandad’s tangihanga in 1991. I can see her standing there now.
Before I enrolled at Takiura, I didn’t have the tools to access my whakaaro Māori. But as I learn karakia Māori, waiata Māori, reo Māori, kōrero paki, and the many other subtle aspects of the reo, I find I’m able to slowly reveal my taha Māori to myself.
It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But the rewards are just out of this world.
It’s still heavy, though. I can feel the weight of my tūpuna on my shoulders as I unlock feelings and whakaaro I’ve never experienced before.
My mamae is never far away.
About halfway through the course at Takiura, we had to write a three-line poem. Our kaiako, Jamal Peeni, said we could choose any topic we liked.
I immediately thought of Grandad.
When it was my turn to share my poem, I stood up to speak — and it was like Groundhog Day. As though I was back in Grandad’s lounge as a 13-year-old. I was having a huge tangi in front of my classmates.
Here’s what I was trying to say to them:
Te reo o tōku koroua
I mate, i tahanga tōku wairua
Harikoa! E ako tonu au
The language of my Grandad
Died, my spirit bereft
Happiness! I will continue to learn
As I get on with trying to absorb everything I can about te reo Māori from my mates and my boys, I find I’m always keen to understand kupu Māori.
Take Whāingaroa, for instance — a place close to my heart.
That’s a word built from two component parts. Whāinga, which means “goal” or “pursuit”. And roa, which means “long”.
So, you could say me going after te reo Māori is my whāinga roa.
My long pursuit.
Papaki kau ana ngā ngaru o mihi ki a koe e taku Grandad, moe mai rā.
Cornell Tukiri (Ngaati Hikairo, Ngaati Whaawhaakia, Kāi Tahu, Sāmoa, Pākehā) is a photojournalist, documentary photographer and writer. He is based in Auckland with his wife Tania and their two young boys. They recently returned from Johannesburg, South Africa, where they lived for six years. Cornell studied at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg where he completed the Photojournalism and Documentary Programme (PDP) in 2013.
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