Catherine Murupaenga-Ikenn: “Indigenous peoples are carrying the lion’s share of being the moral compass for humanity. But we’re being ignored even though our values are predominantly life-nurturing, not life-destroying.” (Photo supplied)

When you develop a radar and a revulsion for injustice, as many young folk do, it’s not a big move to focus on law as a career. That was the experience of Catherine Murupaenga, an Ahipara girl, who did a law degree thanks largely to the commitment of a nana and to the support of others.  

In Catherine’s case, that’s led on to battles on major issues including Treaty settlements for Ngāti Kuri and Te Rarawa — and to her providing her negotiating expertise and debating ability elsewhere too, such as the UN.

Her style hasn’t been to leave underdogs to face unequal odds. And her career so far has been a remarkable one, as Dale comes to realise in the course of this interview.


Tēnā koe, Catherine. I wonder if we might start this kōrero with you telling us a bit about your whānau and what your life was like when you were growing up.

Sure. I’m from the north, from the iwi of Ngāti Kuri and Te Rarawa. And, among my connections, there are the Kerehoma whānau and the Grahams. Of course, the Murupaenga and the Ngauma whānau are other names of ours. Romana as well.

Ngāti Muri Kahara is my dominant hapū but there’s Te Rokeka as well. Te Rokeka is based around Ahipara, although I grew up in Papakura. I went to primary school there. Then Dad, Keith Munro Davis, took us north when I was starting intermediate, and he got a music teacher job at Kaitaia College.

That was in the early ‘80s. And, for the rest of my schooling years, we lived in Ahipara on whānau land. So I went to Kaitaia Intermediate, then Kaitaia College. Dad was very strong on education, and he had a big influence on my life. I’ve got one sister, Jolie-Anne, and a stepsister, Jackie. We come from what some call a blended whānau.

When I was very young, Mum (Isa, who’s of Murray Scottish and sub-continent of India heritage) and Dad split up, and he met another lady, Heather Finlay, who became our stepmum. She had two kids and so we became a whānau in Papakura — and she stayed with us in Ahipara, right up until my father passed away in 1988, while he was still a teacher at the college.

Keith Munro Davis, Catherine’s father. (Photo supplied)

It’s sad to lose your pāpā so early, sis. But perhaps he had time to share his musical skills with you. Like one or two instruments?

Oh, I wish. No, no. Just singing. He offered to teach me musical instruments and I regret that I didn’t take it up. But I was into other things, like going to the beach after school. We’d get off the school bus in the summer and just walk up the road in our beach towel and jandals.

And you’d pick up other kids on the road as you went along to the beach and hang there. Or you’d go eeling at night. I’ve got good memories of living at home, spending time outdoors, going eeling with mates, and jumping in a car when we were old enough to have our driver’s licence.

We’d go to the big smoke in Kaitaia on a Friday night, hang out at the pool hall and play spacies and stuff. All very innocent fun. I’m not sure if it’s as safe to do that now, as it used to be. But, yeah. Good memories.

What about recognising disadvantage and injustice? I know that much of your work has been in trying to draw attention to the realities that we as Indigenous people face. Fighting for human rights and trying to save the planet in the face of climate change.

Apparently, there’s a pattern that some psychologists are aware of. They say that, as you go through your life, every seven years or so, there’s an event that might affect and shape you. I shared this once in a talk I gave at the prizegiving as an old girl returning to Kaitaia College. I spoke about the time when, at primary school, this boy gave me a necklace to wear as a show of affection.

I didn’t realise he’d stolen it — and I got implicated in the theft. It seemed that everyone thought I was guilty like this boy. So I was alone in knowing I was innocent, but also knowing that everyone else thought I was guilty. Or they didn’t know either way. Even my father was disappointed in me at the time.

I was shaped by that event, and I decided that I had to have a conversation with myself and tell myself that I was good. I thought that I had to show everyone else how good I was. I had to go off and be the best and show them I wasn’t guilty, that I was a stand-up kind of person.

And that’s why I’ve always supported the underdog. I’ve always had my radar switched on when it comes to injustice, because I find it very triggering.

I remember too that, at college, I felt like the careers advisor service for the students wasn’t much help. Not for me, anyway. So, I took it upon myself to do an analysis of what my interests were, what my skill set was, and what was on offer at universities. And I did a list of vocations that I reckoned I’d be good at.

There was also this TV programme, called LA Law, which I used to watch. It romanticised the legal fraternity. Anyway, I picked law as the career that I thought I’d be best at, because I was good at debating. I liked standing up for people who, in my mind, were being hard-done-by and who needed defending.

So, law was my first choice. My second choice was investigative journalism. Again, it was attached to justice. Everything had something to do with justice, because I wanted to sniff out all the injustices and then expose them.

Catherine’s nana Emily Davis, mum Isa, and eldest nephew Joshua, at the Kaitaia flea market, in 1991. (Photo supplied)

It’s interesting, though, that you chose law, and congrats because you got your degree there. And, no doubt, you met others there at law school who shared your passion for righting wrongs.

I was particularly impressed by several mature students in my cohort who were juggling family life as well as meeting all the academic requirements. And, also, I was especially grateful for my grandmother, Emily Davis (nee Murupaenga), because she’d go to the flea market every Saturday in Kaitaia to sell her homemade pickles and jams and paraoa and stuff.

And whatever money she made, she’d send me some, every week. Without fail. I wouldn’t have made it through university but for her. I did get a couple of scholarships, which also helped. But when you have someone close, who you love and admire, and they’re supporting you, you can’t let them down.

I was already a bit nerdy, I guess, and I wanted to please people and succeed. But the grandma gifts were the clincher for me. I had to do this because she was putting in such an effort — and she had such expectations of me, just as my dad had.

I also had a couple of teachers who’d tell me they thought I’d go a long way. And because we’re all human, we need and relish tautoko from people who we respect and admire. You don’t need many. Just a few.

I should also mention that when I got to university, I became angry because, especially when you do Māori land law, you find out about the historical atrocities in Aotearoa.

And not just issues affecting Māori. There were also gender issues and discrimination against women. We learned about that in family law. Oh, man. I remember feeling upset about that. Why wasn’t this taught to me in school? Why did I have to come to university to find out about this?

Everyone should know about this because it was a privilege to be at uni. I recall coming home one holiday, and I was driving between Kaitaia and home in Ahipara. And I picked up a hitchhiker. We got talking and I mentioned that I was a law student at Kirikiriroa, Hamilton.

And he scoffed at me, like he didn’t believe me. I thought: “Okay. He doesn’t think that, in the real world, a Māori girl could go off to law school. Not a Māori girl from Ahipara anyway.”

I felt sad for him because he was projecting a low expectation of himself onto me, and it made me think how prevalent that low expectation was among other people in my community.

I want to pay tribute to your nana for being in your corner. Was she aware of these political situations that saw our people disadvantaged? Or was she just a kindly nana who had your back? I mean, did she recognise something in you that she was proud to see you studying?

I was the first in my generation of mokos to go to university. So I’d say she was super proud. And so was my mum, Isa, before she passed away. After Dad died and our stepmother had moved on, our real mother came to stay on our whenua in Ahipara with Jolie-Anne and me.

Mum was so proud of her daughter who’d gone off to university. And she’d show off about that from time to time. She was totally supportive of me and what I was doing.

With sister Jolie-Anne, on Catherine’s wedding day in 2013. (Photo supplied)

Kia ora, Catherine. What’s been your path since you graduated from law school — and what’s led you to the work you’re doing now?

After graduating, I started as a policy analyst at Te Puni Kōkiri (the Ministry of Māori Development) in the head office in Pōneke, under the leadership of Wira Gardiner.

Five years later, Gina Rudland shoulder-tapped me to join her Māori legal unit at the law firm Rudd Watts and Stone. Sadly, the unit disbanded almost a year to the day after I joined.

The short story: Our unit had invested goodwill, time and effort in building relationships with a potential iwi client but, in the end, the firm chose to represent the Crown in the same legal matter that our unit was representing the iwi. And, of course, a legal firm can’t represent both sides, so that forced us to end our relationship with the iwi.

It was such a betrayal. Gina was gutted and resigned over it. Eventually, all of our team left too. None of us wanted to stay after that. That was in 2000. When the kumara vine kicked in, word got back to my iwi, Te Rarawa, and they asked me to come home to manage their historical Treaty claims settlement negotiations.

I did that for a decade under Haki Campbell, and later Gloria Herbert, while also representing Roma marae as their delegate to the rūnanga governing board. Then, in 2005, I became the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Indigenous Fellow (representing the Pacific). And this led to me representing my iwi in a number of UN forums.

In 2008, I was elected as one of five negotiators for the Ngāti Kurī Treaty settlement. That’s a position I held until Te Hiku’s iwi settlements were legislated in 2015. And I did a term as a rūnanga executive committee member from 2012 to 2015.

Of course, I also played a part in various civic campaigns. Like the foreshore and seabed hikoi, the Trans-Pacific Partnership protests, and community-based action to protect local water and takutai moana rights.

And I joined the efforts to eject Statoil and other fossil fuel energy companies from engaging in extractive activity in our rohe. From time to time, these and other campaigns had aims that conflicted with iwi economic development agendas.

Ultimately, this was a consideration — but not the only factor — in my decision to leave that iwi authority space. And I’ve since worked as a business tutor at NorthTec, as a senior Indigenous fellow with the UN OHCHR’s Pacific Regional Office, as a research consultant for different UN agencies and human rights mechanisms, and as an Indigenous advisor for international NGOs and campaigns.

I’ve continued activism work too. For example, with Te Waka Hourua (Māori climate justice activists and Te Tiriti allies) and the Pacific Indigenous Women’s Network.

Catherine (in red) with Greenpeace, protesting outside an oil industry conference in 2016.

You could’ve landed some high falutin’ job as a lawyer, bought a flash home and wore business suits. But it seems to me, Catherine, that important causes rather than dollars have meant most to you.

Oh yeah. I’m driven by kaupapa. So much so, that I’ve even declared it permanently on my face, as my moko kauae. I believe in wairua. I believe in the tūpuna. I believe in the atua, and I believe in something beyond, like there’s a superstructure. And I think of it in terms of kawa. A kawa beyond our control that just exists. That’s eternal. And that we exist within it.

At the same time, I don’t like the idea that it’s all 100 percent destiny. I reject that because I like to think I have some measure of control over my life. I don’t want it to be totally out of my control. But I do believe there’s a superstructure and it’s like kawa, and there’s a level of tikanga: my values, my effort, my protocols, and my practices. So, within the kawa, I can play that out my way. But there’s been this driving force beyond me that propels me.

When I see environmental destruction, ecological destruction, I’m compelled to do something. When I see human rights violations, I just feel aroha for people because, what’s that saying? “There but for the grace of God go I.”

I mentioned the childhood incident that set me on a path of being in service on a justice kaupapa. So, deep down, I had a sense of inevitability and certainty about that path. For example, during a Kaitāia Intermediate speech contest, I commented about downtrodden students.

I remember feeling confused that this remark got a laugh from the audience, as I meant it to be serious rather than entertaining. (Ironically, I won the contest.) Over time, my awareness of violations committed against Indigenous peoples, women, children, the lower socio-economic and poorer classes, and so on, fuelled my commitment to that kaupapa.

My belief in wairuatanga, the standards of the atua (Māori supernatural ancestors), and metaphysics, has also evolved, drawn from an increased understanding of tikanga Māori, but also other Indigenous spiritual beliefs and human rights campaigns which I’ve had the privilege of being exposed to through my international work.

In doing so, it’s clarified and raised my own personal standards, values, and commitments. At the same time, my trust in institutions, whether governance, corporate, educational, media or otherwise, to “fix things” has steeply declined.

The result has been that my mahi journey has been all over the map, with many twists and turns, positive and negative, including confronting certain Māori leaders about their dubious conduct from time to time.

At the signing of Te Hiku Iwi Agreement in Principle, Roma Marae, in 2010.

Who were the people who guided you, Catherine?

It’s always a risk to name names in case one offends by missing someone out. However, I have many treasured memories of my time spent with kaumātua during my iwi Treaty settlement work.

I’m very aware of what a privilege it was to work with them and learn from them. They definitely shaped who I am. Gloria Herbert, the chair of Te Rūnanga o Te Rarawa, had such natural manaaki and poise as a diplomat that I doubt that I’ll ever match her standard.

Then, although Joseph Cooper (Whina’s son) commanded such respect from Crown officials in the negotiations room, he also had a cheeky sense of humour that could put everyone at ease and diffuse tension.

But probably the most influential was Malcolm Peri. Among other deep metaphysical insights that he provided, he reinforced in me the value, from a tikanga Māori perspective, of being kaiwhakatara — the outspoken provocateur, outlier, devil’s advocate, and one who challenges establishment narratives.

As you might expect, embracing this kaiwhakatara role can prompt resistance and hostility in others — and that response ultimately confirmed for me that a break from the iwi sector was also in my best interests.

Catherine, you’ve championed many worthy causes. I know you’ve been filmmaking and that you’ve been acknowledged for that mahi. But, when you look back at the work that you’ve done over the years, what gives you most satisfaction?

One page-turner in my life was when I got a United Nations fellowship in 2005. That was a team effort by a whole lot of people who supported me, so I could leave Aotearoa, leave my infant son, Kahutotara, and do a five-month stint in Geneva, Switzerland, learning about human rights and Indigenous human rights and issues like that.

I continue to engage with the United Nations. I’ve gotta say that, over the years, I’ve become a bit jaded with the United Nations because I’m seeing some of the corporate influence getting a strong foothold in the UN — and that scares me. So I’m doing my best to let everyone know about it. It’s not like things are black and white. You can’t say the UN is a great system or corrupt one. It’s somewhere in between.

Back home here, I’ve been a governor on two tribal councils, my Ngāti Kuri Trust board and Te Rūnanga Rarawa board. I guess the most important thing that we achieved during that time was the settlement of the historical land claims negotiations. I’ve been home a couple of times and just asked around how people are feeling about the outcomes? Not about the legislated settlement — it’s about outcomes on the ground. What difference have they made?

Some people think that things haven’t changed all that much, which is a big red flag for me. And I’d like to see the changes coming. But you’ve got to have people on the ground who stand up and fight.

When I watch France, I sometimes think: “Man, I wish New Zealand was like France.” You know how the citizens get out on the streets there. They just lock down the city with protests and stuff and they force their politicians to take back bad decisions. Yeah, sometimes I wish Aotearoa was more like that. We used to be bolshy, and now we’ve kind of gotten soft.

Speaking at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, New York, in 2015. (Photo supplied)

But we’re fighting on many fronts, aren’t we? What would you say have been the most satisfying wins for you?

Obviously, the Treaty settlements that I was involved in are bittersweet. On the one hand, I’m proud to have had a hand in moving our people towards some level of resolution — and the redress gave us a kakano (seed) to help accelerate our whānau, hapū and iwi reconstruction.

On the other hand, those settlements aren’t justice, because they average about 1 to 3 percent of the value of our loss and prejudice against us, even if that could be valued.

It’s hard to imagine any fair-minded Pākehā accepting such minimal compensation if their rights were violated. And folks (both within and outside of the iwi) have major and often unrealistic expectations about the pace and extent to which iwi authorities can translate that settlement value into wellbeing outcomes.

So it’s understandable that, if generations coming through agree that the settlements don’t meet a justice threshold, then they’ll re-litigate them. In fact, as a Ngāti Kurī negotiator in that space, I’m on the record for having agitated new generations to do exactly that.

I felt that achieving the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 was a milestone, although I entered that advocacy scene only at the tail end after 20-plus years of the UN negotiations had already elapsed. And I knew that would just be another point in the journey of the ongoing struggle for Indigenous Peoples’ human rights.

Ejecting Statoil from Te Hiku iwi ocean territories in 2016 felt very satisfying after a hard local campaign. And the 2014 court case, in which I played a part, was constitutionally significant as the first district court hearing to be held on a marae. But it was also very vindicating for one of our kāinga’s much-respected environmental defenders.

Catherine with her son Kahutotara in 2022. (Photo supplied)

What role do you think we have, as First Nations people, Catherine? And what can we do in our advocacy for human rights and Indigenous rights?

As far as I can figure, Indigenous peoples have been ignored and that’s to the detriment of the world. I don’t want to romanticise everything about Indigeneity but, compared to the western value system and civilisation, I think we’ve done a darn sight better at caring for the environment and caring for each other.

The fact that the world is now facing multiple converging crises, I believe, is largely because too many people on the planet have lost their connection to their wairua side. Or, if you don’t believe in wairua, you could talk science, metaphysics.

We’ve lost our connection to our true metaphysical, consciousness selves. And, in the Pacific region, we need to connect more with our brothers and sisters throughout Oceania, Te Moana-nui-ā-Kiwa.

Do you think that, if we were to reach deep into our Māori being, we couldn’t help but care for Papatūānuku, and be mindful of the damaging impact that western culture has had on our environment? I mean it’s almost a given that, if we respect the creatures that share our domain, then we’ll care for them more — then maybe we wouldn’t have this desecration and destruction in our environment and climate.

Absolutely. Indigenous peoples are carrying the lion’s share of being the moral compass for humanity. We definitely are. But we’re being ignored even though our values are predominantly life-nurturing, not life-destroying. But, depending on which nation state you’re living in, you’re consuming multiple Earths worth of natural resources. It’s not sustainable. The current level of consumption, materialism, just can’t last.

It’s important to make the point, though, that certain people consume more than others. The rich elite class consumes disproportionately more, and has a larger destructive footprint, than poorer folks. So there must be equity in how humanity “draws down” its consumption and materialism — at the individual level, and at the level of nation states.

How do you feel about where this is heading now that our young people are looking at injustices and being more mindful of global threats and environmental decline? Will our next generation be better at this than us?

Our young people have a lot of energy. And they deserve a voice, especially a voice weighted more towards policy design and political decision-making, because they’re going to inherit what’s coming. This is why I support reducing the voting age to 16 years. But it’s quite sad that they’re carrying this burden at a time in their lives when they should be enjoying their teenage years.

Then, at another level, the stress can have an impact on their brain development. I’m not an expert, but I know enough to be aware that, if you have chronic stress on the body, the brain develops differently. And not in a good way.

With Kahutotara and husband Jef, in the US in 2022.

How do you keep yourself up for the battles of life? What else do you do to draw strength?

I have my networks of activists and we recognise the importance of making time for regeneration. We support each other if we’re feeling the pressure. We’ve got people we can talk to — and we can have a rant, a cathartic vent, from time to time. We’ll get together and celebrate what we’ve achieved for our dreams and aspirations for a more just world.

I also have a metaphysical network of Indigenous people all over the world, many of them elders and community leaders. I’m with a group called Wombs of Peace, and they’re Indigenous women around the world doing full-moon talking circles as webinars — and there’s brilliant wisdom coming out of them, giving us faith, hope and optimism.

I believe everything happens for a reason. That’s one of my mantras. So, even when things seem dark, I do my best to focus on the principle that everything goes through cycles, so there’s got to be something in here that’s good. And I meditate. I have my own meditation practices. I have a whole basket of them, and I’ll pull one out of the basket and go do a meditation that helps keep me stable and centred.

And, of course, I have my close family who I can turn to and just bounce ideas off — and they help support me.

I want to mention my husband, Jef Ikenn. He’s not Māori but I consider him to be tangata whenua because his blood goes back to Norway and the Vikings. And he’s a very important part of my toolkit and support network. He’s part of the Pacific voyaging waka fraternity, he’s done many voyages across Moana-nui-ā-Kiwa — and he’s done environmental work with Greenpeace.

There’s also my sister Jolie-Anne who I want to thank for all her support over the years. And there’s my son, Kahutotara. Now that he’s grown, I can share with him about some things. To have a strong relationship with one’s children is a blessing.

Kia ora, Catherine. It’s been lovely talking with you.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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