Ebony Duff has the whakapapa and the experience — in Kaitaia where she grew up, and as a lawyer and Te Aupōuri Treaty negotiator — to more than hold her own, now that she has the job of going to bat for iwi radio as general manager of Te Whakaruruhau o Ngā Irirangi Māori. It’s not a task for the faint-hearted. But then, as you can gather from her chat with Dale, that’s not her, anyway.


Kia ora, Ebony. I understand that your whakapapa links you all the way from Te Kao in the north to Otago, and includes Te Arawa and Tūwharetoa. But you have especially strong connections to Te Aupōuri through your mum’s whānau, don’t you?

Yes, my mum Mēhina (or Messina) is a Harawira. She’s a cousin to Uncle Hone Harawira. His late father and hers were first cousins. Papa (Waiari Takimoana, also known as Laddie Hadfield) is Te Aupōuri from Te Kao and he also connects to Ngāti Kurī through his dad, who was a Murupaenga.

Nana, Katie Botica (also known as Katie Black), is Ngāti Te Ata from Tuakau, on her mum’s side, and is Tarara as well, from her dad. She met Papa in Auckland but they settled back in Kaitaia — and they’re buried in Te Kao at our urupā, Te Toko o Te Arawa. Although my own parents met in Wellington, where I was born, I lived in Kaitaia from an early age.

And you went to school there?

Yes. Kaitaia Primary and Kaitaia Intermediate. Just like my mother and most of her siblings did. My mum was one of 10 kids, and my dad was from a family of 11. But I was raised as an only child by my mother, her parents, and Mum’s older sister Aunty Wishy (Lois).

I used to travel everywhere with Papa in his orange Chrysler Valiant visiting relations and other families after church, while Nana was working at the hospital. He’d lost an eye in an accident, so when people saw him coming, they knew they’d better give way, even if they had the right of way!

Ebony and her children Bowen Waiari and Kendyl Meihina outside the store at Te Kao.

Riding bikes, playing on the street, swimming and the beach — those were great times, growing up in Kaitaia. All the kids played together, including those like me from state houses, or others from two-storey homes. I try to emulate some of those experiences for my own children, Kendyl Meihina and Bowen Waiari, even though we live in Auckland. But we try to get to Kaitaia and Te Kao as often as possible.

And what about your time at high school?

When I was ready for college, my mother bravely decided we should move to Auckland, and she got me into Westlake Girls’’ High School on the North Shore. I had three other older Duff cousins already at the school.

As far as I know, that hasn’t had such a great reputation for taha Māori. So, as a kid from Kaitaia, you may have felt out of place there.

I’m not sure whether it was more of a culture shock for me, or for the other girls. I was very proudly from Kaitaia. I knew that there was something about coming from up north that made me different in some way.

But, interestingly, it wasn’t until I went to Westlake that I realised I was Māori. In Kaitaia, everybody’s Māori to some extent. Even the Pākehā or the Dallies. I think we called ourselves Kaitaiarian. Who we were, the way we identified ourselves, was just normal.

By the way, there’s an easy way to tell if someone is from home — they’ll shorten the name Kaitaia and pronounce it “Ki-raia”.

Westlake was another world, though. It had no less than 47 ethnicities, and the girls saw me as different. They’d say: “Oh, you’re Māori.” I couldn’t tell whether that was complimentary or negative.

But you’re right. It wasn’t a school known for its taha Māori — although, in saying that, the kapa haka group was tutored by one of my early mentors, Aroha Cassidy from Waka Huia, and it had won many accolades under her teaching. Those girls are still some of my best friends today.

But the school didn’t offer te reo Māori. Mum was determined, though, that I should study the language, so I had to do that through the Correspondence School despite being terrified at having to study on my own. Still, I did get a taste of other languages because German and French were compulsory in our first year. And, later on, they offered Japanese and Spanish as well. After School C, I found it too difficult to keep learning te reo by correspondence, so I continued with Spanish and French instead.

Back in the 1990s, when you were at high school, there were all sorts of Māori initiatives — some of them to do with the reo and broadcasting and fishing rights and so on. So I wonder what influences you were subjected to in that time, and then later at university.

I’m 39, so when I arrived at Westlake for the third form in 1993, there was a great deal of discussion about the women’s suffrage movement 100 years earlier. And all I heard about was this one wāhine, Kate Shepherd. Of course, there was no mention of Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia, who had also campaigned for women’s suffrage, or the other significant wāhine I’d grown up knowing about — like Dame Mira Szaszy and Dame Whina Cooper.

Mum became a member of the Waiatarau Māori Women’s Welfare League with Dame Georgina Kirby and others, so they helped me start a junior branch at the school. It was probably just to have some dedicated time with my few Māori, Sāmoan, Tongan and Indian mates by calling meetings. But later on at school, my involvement became more political and I was booked to go on the Women’s Peace Flight to Tahiti to protest against the nuclear testing, although that fell through because we were denied visas.

Some of the other influences simply came from what was going on in Westlake. Not just what we were taught in class, but also from the multitude of sports and extra-curricular activities that were on offer. In that world, girls really could do anything.

However, undoubtedly the strongest influence of all was that of my mother who, when I was five, went back to college as an adult student and began her own journey into tertiary education.

She’d started at AIT (as AUT was known then) and then gone on to do a New Start course at the University of Auckland. And, by 1994, she was doing a BA there — and studying under lecturers like Ranginui Walker, Graham and Linda Smith, Witi Ihimaera, Hineira Woodard and Ngahuia Te Awekotuku.

And I used to read some of Mum’s textbooks, like Ka Whawhai Tonu Mātou (Struggle Without End, by Ranginui Walker). By the time I hit university myself, Mum had just graduated. And I was looking forward to seeing and hearing, for myself, all the lecturers that she’d always talked about.

There’s one more thing, though, that I should probably say about my time at high school. I had pushed myself academically and in other areas of school life, and in my final year, I became one of two deputy head girls.

My uncle had told me not to be surprised if I didn’t become head girl because “these decisions are made on a golf course”. I had no idea, at the time, what he meant. I don’t think there’d been many prefects of Māori descent at that school, but perhaps things were changing.

Looking back, I feel quite proud that I’d come from Kaitaia and represented the richness from our community at such a large school in Auckland, although Mum and I shared a deep sadness that my beloved Nana Kate had passed away about six months before.

A few moments ago, you mentioned your Duff cousins at Westlake. But I understand that another relative of yours is Alan Duff who made his name some years ago as a novelist, a newspaper columnist, and then as the guy who came up with the Duffy Books in Homes project. What is your connection with him?

He’s one of Dad’s older brothers. Neil, my dad, was once a penny diver in Rotorua. And his father was born in Central Otago and became a long-serving scientist at the Forestry Research Institute in Rotorua. Grandad served in World War Two and his name is listed on the Whakarewarewa war memorial. His father was Oliver Duff, a Pākehā journalist who became the first editor of The Listener.

Uncle Alan now lives just down the road from me. Our views may be different on some issues, but then we’ve had very different upbringings and experiences. And I’m proud of having a family link to his Duffy Books in Homes project, which has been having a profound impact on the lives of many of our tamariki.

Ebony and mum Mēhina at her graduation in 2003.

Let’s turn now to your university days in Auckland. That’s where you opted for law school, isn’t it?

Well, I had thought about joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and becoming a diplomat. So that took me to law school, and one of my lecturers was the late Nin Tomas, a very strong woman from the north. Khylee Quince, Andrea Tunks, Shane Heremaia and Kerensa Johnston were some of the others. I did a conjoint law and arts degree in Māori Studies, while still enjoying Spanish. I had two other mates from Kaitaia College studying the same programme.

Westlake had actually done well to prepare me for some of the social and cultural differences that I was to encounter at law school. For instance, I remember the Westlake head boy, a Pākehā, telling me: “You’re only here because you got in on the quota.” It was like it was something to be ashamed of. When we compared GPAs, he shut his mouth.

But at law school we had a tight support network that has remained beyond university and into our various career paths. As a result, I’d say we had it a lot easier than those who’d gone before us and who had formed groups like the Māori Law Students’ Association and the Māori Students’ Association.

We also had wonderful Pākehā lecturers like David Williams and Jane Kelsey who were there flying the flag for our kaupapa and for Māori students at the law school.

You’ve mentioned some very influential and supportive people, who’ve been validating our Māori worldview and encouraging us to respect our mātauranga. How do you feel now about the knowledge base that Māori have created?

One thing that Nin Tomas and the other Māori academic staff from the Auckland law school taught us is that there’s no such thing as lore, when you’re talking about our tikanga. That is our law. It is parallel and equal in value to Pākehā law. Using the term lore was a weapon to demean our systems, our principles, and our ways of being. That still resonates with me to this day as a very Nin thing.

Of the many Māori developments in the course of your studies and your working life, is there any particular one that’s had your heart swelling with pride?

Ko te Atua ki te rangi, Ko te Aupōuri ki te whenua. That would have to be the day of the signing of our Te Aupōuri deed of settlement in 2012. That was for our historical claims and grievances against the Crown in Te Kao, some 20 years after the Muriwhenua claim was first lodged. The nannies told us that we should acknowledge the Crown’s apology but not accept it — but then some of them told (Minister of Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations) Chris Finlayson they wanted to make him a Sir.

I was on the Rūnanga Nui and had been brought into the final stages of those negotiations, along with Peter Lucas-Jones. We were in our early 30s at the time and considered to be quite young to be negotiators. Whether you‘re an advocate or negotiator, it’s always the last couple of years that are the hardest. That’s because the most difficult issues to resolve have been left for that time.

So, yeah, the day of the signing, in Te Kao, with all of our people, ministers and invited guests, was special.

My son, Bowen Waiari, had been to all the meetings since he was six weeks old. As Papa’s namesake, I made sure he, too, was there with me on that day, when he was about eight months old.

Te Aupouri Deed of Settlement signing Pōtahi Marae, Te Kao January 2012

Te Aupouri Deed of Settlement signing at Pōtahi Marae, Te Kao January 2012.

You’re now the general manager of Te Whakaruruhau, the network of iwi radio stations. So you’re wrestling with the realities of Māori broadcasting. But you’ve spent some time as a lawyer, haven’t you?

That’s true. I didn’t become a diplomat. Along with a mate of mine from varsity and another girl from Kaitaia, we were all fortunate to get scholarships under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, while we were studying. Two of us realised that the foreign service wasn’t for us, but Tredene Dobson is now the Ambassador to Iraq. I went to a law firm, though. That was in Wellington, a boutique Māori law firm now known as Kahui Legal. But for the first three months that I was there, it was Walters, Williams & Co.

I worked there for about five years under Jamie Ferguson and Matanuku Mahuika, mainly on Waitangi Tribunal inquiries and settlements, among other things.

Your clients’ history, stories, and practices, the sheer injustices that you spend hours reading, researching about and listening to — all that has a profound effect on a young lawyer. It never leaves you. I’m very grateful to those two for my time in practice and for the opportunities to represent my own people and others.

Te Whakaruruhau was actually one of my clients for a brief time when I was at Kahui Legal. Uncle Hone wanted to know why we should have to pay for transmitters on our own whenua, or on our own maunga, so I gave advice on that. That was the first time I’d encountered Te Whakaruruhau as an organisation, although I’d grown up listening to our local station in Kaitaia, Te Reo Irirangi o Te Hiku o Te Ika. We used to ring up asking to dedicate songs. “Kiaora-cations” they called it, trying to play Cupid and set kids up with each other.

The other claim I’d worked on, under the late Gina Rudland, was Wai 262, the flora, fauna and cultural intellectual property claim. Part of that claim, and part of the report, was a specific section on te reo and how far we’d come, or hadn’t come, since the 1987 Māori Language Act.

So, through my career, including other stints in central and local government, I’ve always had a role as an advocate.

In Māori broadcasting, as we know, there are changes afoot. As the head of the umbrella group that represents iwi radio interests, what do you see as the challenges that you’re now having to deal with — and what do you see as the role of iwi radio?

What I’ve put forward to the review which Te Puni Kokiri is now doing is that, if we focus on a healthy flourishing Māori radio industry, it will feed all the other parts of the media. It’s the beginning of the Māori media ecosystem, if you will.

Proper funding for Māori radio can only have a positive flow-on effect for the rest of the media. I’ve talked with people all through the Māori media, and it’s struck me how much aroha there is for Māori radio. And I’ve realised that’s because so many of our people in film and screen productions and in Māori television or print media have cut their teeth in Māori radio, which is this unifying thread.

So we now have a situation where some people who’ve gone out and worked in all those related sectors — and done what I call the sexy stuff — are coming back home to work and contribute. And it’s Māori radio that set them off on that path.

There’s Matai Smith, for example. He’s back in Gisborne, managing Turanga FM. He’s one of those who’ve been out in the big, wide world and is now sharing his multitude of skills with the new little fish starting out in Māori radio.

Our broadcasting efforts have a responsibility for helping to revitalise te reo Māori. But it also is responsible for running stories that celebrate Māori success, because the mainstream media hasn’t done a great job of that through the years. It’s a way of lifting Māori spirits, lifting Māori confidence and self-esteem as a people. Do you see that as an important element in the overall kaupapa of Māori development?

This is the space occupied by Māori media that’s completely undervalued when we talk about lifting wellbeing, because this is our cultural barometer. We’re all pretty nosy. We all like to know what somebody else is doing, and how they’re doing it, because we might like to do it, too. And, for our kids, it’s really important that they know about our Māori superstars, whether it’s superstars in the kitchen, courtroom, or classroom, or on the stage or field, or any other pathway you can think of.

Is there any particular difficulty for you, as the main advocate for iwi radio, in getting a good hearing for the needs of the iwi stations?

Well, the stations all have their rangatiratanga. It certainly isn’t my role to give them any industry or technical advice on how they should be running their stations. But, in various discussions with government officials, I hear the word collaboration. In the mahi that I’ve done previously, collaboration and collectivisation are things that are discussed constantly. And so I’m always thinking about ways to connect people and things.

But, if you’re running a radio station, you may be two hours from the nearest larger town or airport — and you have more pressing daily concerns than linking up with other stations. You’re thinking about the money you need to pay your people what they’re worth. Or whether there’s a tangi today and who you’ll have at work. Or whether you need to deploy resources to support the grieving whānau, or to cover or broadcast from the tangihanga itself. You may be worrying about the weather and what impact it can have on your community. Or about whether the technology is going to fail.

Because of those priorities, collaborating may be a nice idea, but it’s mostly unrealistic and quite unfair to expect our stations to be thinking about that stuff. So that’s where I see my job. It’s to do a bit of the big picture thinking, and to travel to Wellington to advocate, talk to the policy people and politicians, present the issues we’re facing at select committee — and to tell them loudly and frequently so that they can understand what really is happening in Māori radio.

It’s my role to tell that story.


© E-Tangata, 2019

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