Flight Lieutenant Donté Kelly has had an enviable Māori upbringing in many ways — growing up in his hometown of Rūātoki, making the most of the Urewera bush on his doorstep, and nurtured by whānau who spoke to him only in te reo. That background has kept him grounded, even as he’s moved further afield to pursue his interest in aerospace engineering. Here he is chatting with Dale about his Tūhoe upbringing, his move into aviation with the Royal New Zealand Air Force, his training in the UK, the research he’s done, and the plans he has in mind.
Kia ora, Donté. I doubt if there are many other Māori called Donté Kelly. But, just in case there are, perhaps you have one or two middle names to distinguish you from them.
Yeah. My full name is Donté Jeffery Patrick Hakaipari Kelly. But my Tūhoe whānau names are Timutimu on my mum’s side and Nuku-Ratana on my dad’s. I grew up with both of those whānau, and they both whakapapa to Tihi and to Tūmatawhero.
Where did you grow up?
I was raised in Rūātoki and was lucky to be raised by both of my koroua. I went to Tawera School, right next to our house. It was one of the first bilingual kura in New Zealand — and it’s the heart of the community on the Tawera side of the river.
There was a brief stint when I went to the Rūātoki kura kaupapa, on the other side of the river. Rūātoki is in a valley with the river running down the middle. We’re on the fringe of the bush — and the village is the heart of Tūhoe. I grew up there.
There are many Māori farming trusts in the valley. They did a lot of work with Apirana Ngata, when he was encouraging Māori to get into farming nearly 100 years ago. He saw a future in that, not just for our community but for Māori right across Aotearoa.
Te Tawa Kaiti Lands Trust was formed by our koroua who returned from World War Two — Koro Hare Nuku-Ratana and another koroua of ours, Koro Moai Tihi. They were a couple of the men who put their lands together for farming to build Te Tawa Kaiti Lands Trust, which still flourishes today.
My brother Tyson, who lives in Rūātoki with his whānau, runs Te Tawa Kaiti Lands Trust.
Tēnā koe. Can I assume that you’re a horseman — and that you can handle yourself as a bushman and a hunter?
Absolutely. That was a big part of growing up. Hunting wasn’t a sport. It was how we put kai on the table. And we needed horses for that. So, we spent time making sure our horses were good to go.
My old man is an expert hunter, and his father was too. But they’ve hunted for the right reason — to support the whānau.
What are the essential traits of a successful hunter?
There’d be a couple. One is being patient. And another is being respectful of the bush. If you respect the bush, you have knowledge of it — and you also have knowledge of those tīpuna who used to do the same thing that you’re doing. When you have that, you have confidence. And that helps you make the right decisions when you’re in there. That’s important because it’s easy to get lost or hurt in the bush.
Hunting skill takes experience — and that means making mistakes. And experience also means looking after yourself and those around you. It includes respecting what that ngahere is, so that you always come home safe from the bush. That’s the key part.
In your visits into the heart of Te Urewera, have you been to a place where you’ve felt deeply at one with the whenua?
Well, I live and work in Auckland, and, in our mahi, we go away quite a lot. So remaining grounded has always been a big part of maintaining who I am, and to do that, I try to get home. And one of the first things I do on my way home is to stop off at the river and go for a swim. A big part of that is just connecting to the land and the water, to Ōhinemataroa again. But it’s also cleansing myself. It feels refreshing to do that.
So that’s place number one. The next place is being at home on the marae. One of our marae is pretty much in the bush, at Ōwhakatoro. That always brings back memories from when I was young. We used to live there with one of our uncles, or great-uncles. And we stayed there for a long time. It was just one of their ways to connect us to the marae — and for it to be a home for us as kids so that we’d always come back to it.
Whenever we return to those places, we’re reminded of how much of a home it is in our hearts and minds. And, because it’s near the bush, the bush is the other place for me to feel grounded and connected.
Let’s turn to te reo Māori, Donté. How has this panned out in your life?
Our koro and kuia spoke to us only in Māori. That’s how we learned the reo. We went to the kura, and that reinforced what that meant for us as Tūhoe, as Ngāti Rongo. But te reo Māori has always been a natural part of our growing up. It was never a big deal. I feel fortunate that we had that upbringing, because I know many others who haven’t had such an opportunity.
Now, what about your career in aviation? I understand you’re a fifth-generation Defence serviceman, going back to a great-great-grandfather who served in the First World War with the First Māori Contingent. And you have koroua on both sides of your whānau who were returned servicemen. But, from what I can gather, one of your koro didn’t want you joining the army. Does that explain why you ended up in the air force?
Both of my koro influenced me in different ways. But Koro Harry (Hare Nuku-Ratana), who was in the 28 Māori Battalion, had an experience in the war that I understand was traumatic — and, like many soldiers, he never wanted any of his moko to go through that.
But we saw the pride and mana in everything he did, and in what he sacrificed for his whānau. So, we wanted to follow in his footsteps, in some way. He did, however, say to me that the army is just for killing people, and “we don’t want that for you”. I was only 10 or so at the time. This was well before I even considered joining the air force, or any service, but that was his experience.
So, when I enlisted, he was super-supportive, in his own quiet way. He was proud of me, I believe. I’d always be the one who’d pick him up and take him to the Anzac dawn services.
My other koro (Awanui Mannie Timutimu) served in Malaya, in Operation Grapple, and several others. He was a navy veteran, and he was outspoken about the benefits of the service. Some of the experiences of those navy fullas were pretty funny, and they have some good yarns to tell. He was an awesome influence in my life. His service experience was after World War Two, but it seemed rich and fulfilling.
Did you leap straight into the air force?
No, I went home for about a year. I helped out the old man and the whānau on the farm. Doing some pest control. Heading up into the bush and trapping possums. That was what I did, as well as the other jobs we had to do on the farm. I did a bit of gas engineering too and played some rugby. Just doing little things to keep busy.
The idea was to go to university in Auckland and study engineering. But I was accepted into the air force before the university thing happened. It was a matter of timing. Only months really. Funny how things work out.
And then you were able to fulfill your tertiary education ambitions (a master’s degree in aerospace design engineering) while you were wearing your air force uniform?
Yes, but I’d been in for maybe five or six years before I realised that there was a tertiary-level study scheme. I studied mechanical engineering in Auckland through the air force, and I graduated in 2016. And then there was an engineering masters’ scheme, which was also available, but for engineering officers, and I wasn’t an officer at that stage.
A big motivator of commissioning was having that opportunity to go and do my master’s. So, once I realised that here was a potential pathway, I pinned it on the wall, and made that a goal.
Tēnā koe. I’m assuming that you’ve worked on Hercules aircraft and had air force appointments around the Pacific and beyond. Was this a stepping stone towards tertiary study?
Yeah. You just needed to be able to commit and be able to perform to a certain level where you’re putting your best foot forward, and it’s recognised enough for the service to want to invest further in you.
From the outside looking in, our perception is that there aren’t many Māori in the air force. We know that our people make up the bulk of those in the army, but how is the taha Māori side of the air force? Has there been some improvement over the 20 or so years that you’ve been in there?
I’ve been a part of an effort to increase te taha Māori and raise the awareness or understanding of it. When I first joined up, I never thought we were lacking in supporting those who were Māori.
But, since then, there’s been more comment around the entire organisation (not just the air force) needing to lift our acknowledgment and awareness of things Māori and Pasifika, and of other ethnicities as well.
I’ve noticed a positive shift from the organisation to commit to that space. I haven’t been longing for it because it never felt like an issue to me. But perhaps other people, or new generations coming through, have wanted to see a bit more of that — and the service has transitioned into that space.
We can always get better at everything we do. But, in recent years, the air force and the other services have committed wholeheartedly to supporting all our people.
I see that you have a role as a Māori liaison officer within the air force. Shall we touch on the tuakana-teina relationships for a minute? I’m assuming that, because you’ve been mentored and guided by tuākana along the way, you’ve quite naturally taken up the role to be a mentor to others. Is this the way it rolls?
I think that’s a part of Māoritanga in general. If you want to speak on the pae, you sit, you listen, you watch, you learn — and, naturally, at some point, you progress into that space. And then there are other tēina behind you, coming through and doing the same thing.
So, you’re naturally within the cycle of tuakana-teina. When it comes to mentoring and bringing up our whānau (our younger troops), we’re in natural leadership positions to mentor and coach.
Tēnā koe, Donté. Our people have almost an embedded interest in how things work. We’ve all had cousins who can fix anything — lawnmowers, motorbikes, cars, you name it. But you’ve delved deeply into the operation of aircraft and you’re now a highly qualified aircraft engineer. What is it about the mechanics of planes that appeals to you?
Well, I started that way too, by fixing things on the farm. My father started me on lawnmowers, and then it was rebuilding quad bikes, and after that it was the farm trucks and tractors.
With aerospace engineering, there’s this high degree of attention to detail associated with making the aircraft safe for flying. It’s not like you can park an aircraft on a cloud and change the tyre. That ethos was drilled into us in the early stages of our training when I joined in 2006. The consequence of mistakes can be catastrophic.
You need elements of expert knowledge, expert training, and expert experience. And you get drawn into that highly detailed technical space. It can be rewarding because successful servicing leads into successful flying operations.
Now that I’m inside that space, there’s an opportunity to explore where aerospace is going, and that’s a cool pathway. There’s new technology out there trying to develop new fuels to support aircraft flight — to move away from fossil fuels, which is a big part of the global commitment towards climate change.
It must be a weighty responsibility when you’re preparing an aircraft for flight.
Oh, 100 per cent. But we give our personnel the training and experience to be able to handle those responsibilities.
I see that, last month, you graduated with your master’s in aerospace vehicle design from Cranfield University in the UK — and not only were you awarded the prize for best overall student for the highest academic results, but, with your thesis, you also won the prize for the best individual research project.
Yeah, the full title of that thesis is a bit of a mouthful. But it was about aircraft jointed repairs and predicting how long they’d last. And I developed a process and a toolset that would help personnel who have engineering backgrounds to conduct analysis but who are still developing their knowledge of aerospace structures and repairs.
The elements of the thesis have a practical application — and that was the whole idea. It was to get something tangible from the research that can be used in the workplace. That was one of my key requirements.
Congratulations. Are you a family man, mate?
Yes, I am. But me and my partner, Rav, don’t have tamariki. That’s a future chapter for us. But we’ve definitely got enough nephews and nieces to keep our hands full. There are whānau and family days on base and there’s a big community within the services life. They’re really supportive here of everybody’s commitments to their whānau.
But you’re not working in lightweight territory, are you? How do you keep yourself fresh? Are you a mountain-biker or a waka ama guy or something like that?
I used to be a footy player. I played rugby at school, and then rugby and league after that. I’ve had the good fortune to represent the air force in rugby, rugby league and softball — and also the Defence Force in touch.
But then a few knee injuries started slowing me down. I’ve been a boxer for some time though. I joined a couple clubs in Auckland, and I fought in corporate and amateur competitions. I try to remain engaged in the sport as much as I can. Apart from getting into the bush and going out for walks, or hunting with the whānau, boxing’s my main outlet. That’s what keeps me active and fit.
Tēnā koe. Do you live at Whenuapai?
We live just off Whenuapai in the West Harbour-Massey area. It’s only a seven-minute drive to work.
What lies ahead for you, personally and professionally, Donté?
I’m now the Deputy Maintenance Flight Commander at Number 6 Squadron. It’s a role I started in the last 12 months. It has me dealing, on a daily basis, with the aircraft directly, and with our personnel who do the maintenance. I want to grow in this role, and make the most of it, before moving into a higher role where I can apply all of what I’ve been learning. That’s short-term.
But long-term, I want to be where I can support not just Māori, but the people of this organisation. I’d like to be able to take the natural knowledge from our Māori and military upbringing and use that to help them get the best out of the opportunities that they have. And I’d like to support them along that pathway. That’s my vision, at least, for my time in the air force.
There’s a whakataukī we had throughout our officer training course. “Ma te mahaki e whakahi”, which means: Serve with humility and pride.
As leaders, we must do what’s best for our people and in a way that’s meaningful. It’s a whakataukī directly related to how I envision my koroua and the way they lead our whānau and community.
Anything you want to add, bro?
Yeah. Ngā mihi kia koutou katoa, E-Tangata, for this opportunity to connect with our people. This is a platform where I can express my gratitude for the support that I’ve had from our tīpuna and kaumātua — even though being in an open forum can be uncomfortable for someone like me who prefers to be reserved.
It’s given me an opportunity to share not only my experience but also my aroha for our whānau and for all our tangata. So, thank you.
All the best — and thanks for sharing your rich kōrero. I appreciate your time, bro. Tēnā koe, Donté. Ngā mihi.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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