Bernie O’Donnell has taken a step back after more than 20 years at, or near, the helm of Radio Waatea which, along with 20 iwi stations, has been the core of Māori radio. Perhaps, in an Aotearoa where, right from the birth of broadcasting, the Māori voice was always welcome, that might’ve been a cruisey role.
But Bernie, in the course of his lengthy stint, like others in that line of work, hasn’t had the resources for the work to be anything other than hard going. It was a battle every day — and, as he tells Dale in this chat, it was a battle that helped him to heal.
Tēnā koe, Bernie. I know you were one of those who gave evidence to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State Care — and that you went through some grim times growing up. Can you start by telling us something about your early life, please, mate?
Well, I was born in Taranaki, but then I was given up for adoption by my mum and whānau when I was three months old. And my name, Bernie O’Donnell, was given to me by my foster parents.
My stepfather’s family had come from Ireland. I had two stepbrothers who were adopted around the same time in the early 1960s. We were known as the O’Donnell boys, and I lived under the state ward system until I was 16.
I never met my birth father who died in 1970. But I finally met my real mother when I was 20 or 21.
Did your foster parents whāngai you three boys from three different families?
I don’t like using the word whāngai, bro, because, for me anyway, that word has a different connotation. But this O’Donnell family adopted three of us from separate whānau. We’re all Māori, all about the same age, and we were all infants when we were adopted.
We grew up as brothers, as best we could — and we all had a similar journey trying to reconnect with our real whānau later on in life.
Were there some barriers to that, Bernie? I know that sometimes closed adoptions have made it really difficult for kids to find their way back to their birth parents?
For adopted teenagers, it’s extremely hard to find out who you are and where you come from. Because, when you’re still a kid, you don’t know your way around the system.
I didn’t know how to start the conversation. I didn’t know who could help me. It wasn’t until I had the gall to ask Social Welfare if I could meet my real parents that I made progress. And they said: “Yes, you can. Because you’re now old enough.”
There were no barriers after that. But it still wasn’t a walk in the park.
It’s also very difficult for adopted children to be able to have the “Who am I, really?” conversation with their adoptive parents. But it’s just fundamental that we should know who we are, and where we’re from.
Did you stay with the same foster family throughout that time?
There are two stages of my life as a foster child. From three months until I was 11, I was passed around within the same wider family. But they had their own kids, and no one wanted to take care of me and my two brothers.
Looking back, I’ve realised they treated us poorly. But that was the only life I knew, so I thought things there were fine.
But then, because they ran out of people to look after me, they handed me back to Social Welfare.
And that’s when the horror started. I got placed on a farm at Bell Block which is between New Plymouth and Waitara. And that was weird because, as I found out later, my hapū is Puketapu and my marae Muru Raupatu is just across the road. But we didn’t know each other then.
On that Bell Block farm, I was slave labour. What I was forced to do as an 11-year-old boy, I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I won’t get too explicit. But it was horrible. Regular beatings. Torture. Mental abuse. Fear that I was going to die. And it was a time when I thought about suicide.
Then, when I was 12 or 13, my original foster family who’d given me back to Social Welfare, took me in again. And we moved to Ōtara. And by that time, I was too big for them to do anything to, and they stopped beating me.
As I’ve mentioned, I’d thought that the life I knew before I was 11 was fine. But I changed my thinking after I’d spoken to the Abuse in Care inquiry last year.
I told them about the farm, and then I told my brothers that I’d talked to them. And one of them asked me why I didn’t tell them about how it was during my first 11 years. I said: “Well, because there was nothing wrong with it.”
And he said: “Are you for real? Can’t you remember what we were put through when we were babies?”
We started to talk. And I realised that what I’d just assumed to be “normal life” was anything but normal. Beatings, abuse, being passed around the family because we were inconvenient. I’d just thought that’s what every child went through.
The learning I took from that is that if you’re abused from when you’re a baby until you’re old enough to make that rubbish stop, you just don’t know any better.
I look back on all this and I believe the key thing that was missing from my life until I was 16 — which is when I left the state ward system — was love. Love wasn’t there. It just wasn’t there.
And my two brothers went through that as well. My oldest brother — no one loved him, apart from us two brothers — joined a gang. He found love there. He found brothers and families who loved him. As best they could.
My other brother gravitated towards the gangs, too. They both were in and out of borstals, and my oldest brother was in and out of prison as well. And because of his upbringing, he’s struggled all his life. We all had our horror stories to tell.
Then, when I was 18 — I’m talking the late 1970s — I got a job in the freezing works in Ōtahuhu, and that’s where I met Willie Jackson who became a good mate.
And the works was where I was introduced to the Māori world.
Thank you, Bernie. That’s a tough story you’ve shared, and we’re privileged to hear it. Now the freezing works at that time wouldn’t have been easy going. What were you doing there?
I was a labourer, and I never got past that. The old blokes, our kaumātua, were the veterans, and some of them had been there for 30 or 40 years. They were the top-grade butchers — and what they said went.
And to me, their knowledge of te ao Māori was so vast. And it was them who gave me my first insight into the Māori world and what my people are like.
When I was 21, I left the works and I went home to Taranaki with the mission to reconnect with my whānau. And I met up with my real mother and my real whānau as well — and I discovered there were 13 of us siblings. They’d been brought up by our mother and our grandmother.
But it was very hard for me to connect with them. I was a complete stranger. And, after a while, I struggled to find anything to say to them.
And it got worse, before it got better. For instance, when an uncle or aunty died, I’d be expected to go to the tangi. But I was terrified of the marae — terrified of anyone there coming up to talk to me. So, I just stopped going.
The good thing that happened in Taranaki, though, was that I met my wife, Kura. And she was connected to the Māori world. She knew where her mum and dad were from — and, more importantly, her parents’ families knew who she was because she’d been with them all her life.
Anyway, as my uncles and aunties passed away, I’d read that in the paper, and Kura would be sad. And I’d try to be sad too — but I didn’t know how that worked.
Then the matriarch of the family, my grandmother, died. That led to Kura and me having a big argument because I wasn’t going to go to her tangi.
She was saying I should. And we stood out at the gate of the marae and argued for half an hour. Finally, she dragged me on.
And there I was trying to hide in the back so no one would see me. But my oldest sister tried to drag me up to the coffin. I was already petrified, so I just stayed at the back.
I’m almost 60 and it’s taken me most of my life to come to grips with all this stuff.
But I say to myself: “Well, if the people in my life failed me, I’d better make sure I don’t fail my kids or grandchildren.”
Kia ora, Bernie. That’s beautiful. And being comfortable in your taha Māori has now become really important to you, hasn’t it?
It’s everything. Because, without that, you feel worthless. You don’t belong anywhere.
When I went back to redneck New Plymouth as a young man, it was horrible. My generation had to constantly defend ourselves against all the negative stuff about Māori in the media.
And you dreaded going to work, because you knew that every day you were going to be abused by your Pākehā workmates, your so-called mates.
Tell us about when you came to embrace our reo? How life-changing was that for you?
Māori like me who didn’t have the reo had nothing to fall back on, so we felt battered and bashed.
Having to put up with that was just painful. And, because I’d lived in Ōtara, I knew that not everyone behaved that way. I could see that this was rubbish.
That was why I wanted to seek something different. Then an opportunity for that came for me to learn te reo Māori at the Rangiātea Māori campus at Taranaki Polytechnic.
In those days, the head of that department was Te Ururoa Flavell — and Wharehoka Wano and his late brother Te Kauhoe were two of our kaiako.
What I saw were these cool Māori twins, being loving to their whānau, being accountable to their women, and being totally together in their brown skin.
I wanted to be that way as well. So, I enrolled in a weekly class, and that became a highlight of my week. I liked that so much, I signed on for a full-time one-year te reo Māori course at Rangiātea.
And the kind of Pākehā commentary that I was so used to hearing — about Māori being dumb and hopeless and violent and worthless; all those garbage narratives — well, they just vanished.
That’s because I was in a different community. A different, loving whānau. And I learned about aroha through that course. About whānau. And the value of connection.
After my first year of te reo, I did a fulltime media course for another year at the polytech — and then I got a job at Te Korimako, the Māori radio station in Taranaki.
I was a volunteer for six months and then became a programme director. And, next thing, because I’d done that media training, I became the station manager.
I enjoyed my time at Korimako. But, after five years, in 2000, I went to Wellington to help Ngahiwi Apanui, who was running the Māori media advertising agency Māori Media Network.
A year later, I rang Radio Waatea and I found out that they were looking for a station manager. So I drove up to Māngere for an interview with June Jackson — Willie’s mum. That experience scared the bejesus out of me. But she offered me the job.
And although she offered me bugger-all pay, I said I’d give it a go for three months — and that’s what I did for the next 20 years.
At the time I started, of course, the mainstream media was still treating our people badly. As it has continued to do. But, in 2002, Willie finished his first stint in parliament, and he was back at Waatea.
And he was saying we had the opportunity to do something special at Waatea. He believed we could build a station where our listeners knew they could hear an alternative view. A Māori view. A station where, as indigenous people, we weren’t copping the rubbish that the mainstream media kept dishing out.
What we tried to do at Waatea was to be the vehicle to encourage Māori pride. It was a battle every day. And I had to galvanise all the taha Māori I had. But being in the battle helped to heal me — and I needed healing. And running the station helped shape me into a better person.
That’s great, mate. But you didn’t stop there, did you?
In the latter stages of my Waatea years, our mokopuna were growing up. Naturally, I didn’t want to let them down. And I wanted to show them that higher education was achievable by anybody — especially by them.
I felt I needed to model what could be done, so I had a go at some university study. I enrolled in a postgraduate diploma in Māori development, which was run out of the business school at Auckland University.
I didn’t find that too difficult. The logical pathway from there was a Masters of Indigenous studies. But they couldn’t get enough students to justify running the course.
So, I got to thinking about an MBA even though I feared that it might be beyond me because of my age — I was heading into my late 50s — and my ethnicity. I was worried about having to deal with the kind of racism I’d experienced in New Plymouth.
It took me a year to mull that over. But then I thought: “Bugger it. I might as well just do it.” Which I did. And it was challenging, I can tell you.
I shouldn’t have worried about my ethnicity because the students — who were in their 30s and 40s and mostly non-Māori — were absolute liberals, with this innate sense of justice.
My age was a different story. I found it hard to keep up with people 20 years my junior, and with the technology. It got to the point where I was ready to chuck it.
But then I turned to my daughter, Chez, and asked her for help. She loves her dad, and she has always helped. But this time she had no sympathy. “No, Dad,” she said. “You got yourself into this. Now you get yourself out of it.”
So, I persevered. And, somehow, I made it through, and graduated with that master’s degree.
That success led me to make two big changes. First, I decided to pull out of Waatea. I told Willie: “I don’t think I’m cut out to be a station manager anymore.”
“Yeah, I agree,” he said. Thanks for the compliment, Willie.
But he’s always been in my corner ever since I joined Waatea more than 20 years ago. He’s kept an eye out for my welfare and the wellbeing of my whānau.
And he talked about a new career path for me.
I’ll always be indebted to Willie, because from the time I moved back from Taranaki back in 2001, he’s always looked after me and my whānau. He doesn’t do mollycoddling. But he’ll organise opportunities, and it’s up to you to make what you can out of them.
And he suggested a new career path for me, leaving radio but accepting community-based directorships and getting into governance where another Māori voice would be helpful.
Well, now you’re an urban Māori advocate on the Auckland District Health Board. And you’re our advocate on Te Mātāwai and also on Andrew Little’s advisory group on the Christchurch terrorist attacks. What are some of your observations about getting Māori whakaaro and needs prioritised at outfits like the ADHB?
We don’t need to be told by institutions like the DHB what’s good for us as Māori. We need to tell them. We need to tell them what’s good for them. And to make sure they service our people properly rather than continue to fail us.
This is not a criticism against the board. This is a criticism about structures and the institutionalised thinking that, for well over a hundred years, has made sure that westernised culture dominates decision making in Aotearoa.
If we stick to a Māori script and take that to the table, that has huge value, Dale. You’re there not just to be a brown face. You’re there to provide a Māori narrative, to help them find Māori pathways forward.
There’s that saying: “Nothing about us, without us.” And that’s the challenge if we’re to build a better world for our mokopuna. So, I enjoy lending my weight to that mahi. I really do.
Bernie, it’s been a wonderful kōrero, thank you. But, finally, your wife Kura has been a constant ally. What’s that meant to you?
Everything. Kura’s been with me throughout the whole journey, from the time I began the struggle to reconnect myself to the Māori world and all the way through until now.
She’s been there to remind me what’s important, and she’s there for me when I’m at my most vulnerable. She’s my rock.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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