In this kōrero with Dale Husband, Dr Ella Henry acknowledges that there was a big slice of her life when she wasn’t all that productive. She bummed around, she says. For a good many years. But then she began serious study at Auckland University, picked off a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, and finished off with a PhD.
Along the way, she’s had a hand in a heap of demanding mahi, including tribal politics, Treaty settlements, a popular TV show, lecturing at a tertiary level — and now, potentially most valuable of all, heading a media advisory group that could reshape Māori journalism.
Kia ora, Ella. Many of us are aware that you’ve already had a colourful life. But where did that start?
My dad was Ngātikahu ki Whangaroa, from the East Coast of Muriwhenua, and my mum was Ngāti Kuri, the guardians of Te Rerenga Wairua, so all from the Far North.
Actually, my surname is made up! My dad’s name was Haimona Paora Henare Mihipo. Haimona meaning Simon, Paora meaning Paul, and Henare being Henry. And Mihipo was his dad’s first name. He was given those names because he was raised in a Catholic kāinga — Simon, Paul and Henry are all Catholic saints. Then he went off to war, and he came back called Sam Henry.
I assume that was because it was easier to fit on a dog tag, but I don’t know. He passed in 1975 and we never had that conversation. Anyway, somewhere in the transition of a name in the Māori world to a name in the Pākehā world, my dad ended up being called Sam Paul Henry.
Interestingly, all my brothers and sisters born before the war had Paul as their surname. Ada Paul, Thelma Paul. And all the kids born after the war were called Henry.
So, the short answer to your question is that my name is Ella Henry. The long answer is that I am, like many Māori, the descendant of a colonised people whose identities have been transformed by that process.
If my dad was still alive, I’d go back to, and revert to, the name of his tupuna, Mihipo. But because my dad died poor, the only thing he left me was his name, and I’m proud to carry that for the rest of my life.
Ka pai, Ella. Have you got middle names, too?
Yes. Two ancient Māori names. Ella and Yvette. I’m named Ella because I was small and black and noisy, and that was how my mother thought of Ella Fitzgerald. And I was born on the same day two years after Yvette Williams won a gold medal at the 1952 Olympic games. That’s why I got Yvette.
Where did your mum and dad meet? How did they come to be a couple?
They met in the gum fields in the 1930s. My father was a handsome, young, dashing man who had a motorcycle, an Indian chopper, which of course was a woman-magnet in the gum fields.
One of the stories my mother told is how he brought her down to Auckland on his bike in 1936. She had never been south of Kaitaia. There was nowhere for them to stay except the Waipapa Marae on the waterfront, on what is now Beach Road.
She spoke of how she woke up on the first day and went down to the beach. There was fog over the harbour and she could hear chanting and there were waka coming in. They were from the Coromandel, coming to the growers’ markets. All these Māori waka full of potatoes and kumara. And that was her introduction to big city living. My dad won her heart because he showed her a whole new world.
Tell us about your early days, Ella.
I was born in Kaitaia Hospital. I was the only one of us kids who was born in hospital. All the rest were born at home, so I was the flash towny kid. I started my education at Ahipara Native School in 1959.
That was where I found out, among other things, what white people looked like. There was nobody white in our little kāinga. The principal and his two little boys who went to school with me were the first white people I ever met. That was kind of scary.
But then the next year, 1960, just after I turned six, Mum and Dad moved to the city for work. All my other brothers and sisters were much older, and they’d all married and gone off, and Mum and Dad realised if they ever wanted to know their mokopuna, they were going to have to come to town. So we loaded up the old truck, like the Beverly Hillbillies, and came to the city. And I went from Ahipara Native School to New Lynn Primary.
After that I went to Blockhouse Bay Intermediate, then Kelston Girls’ College until they kicked me out in 1969. So, I had quite a short formal education, but I live in Avondale now, and I like to say that, after 60 years in Auckland, I’ve made it across the Whau River from New Lynn to Avondale.
Okay. Kelston Girls’. How did that go?
Well, I never made it through form four. They kicked me out when I was 15. There was a little gang of us who were just bad. We were rotten eggs. And I remember the principal saying: “You, Ella Henry, are ineducable.” It took me 30 years to figure out what that meant.
What did you do when you left school as a 15-year-old? You didn’t go to varsity until you were 31, so that’s a big chunk of your life in between. What sort of things kept you going?
I spent the next five years bumming around New Zealand. I call them the lost years. Then I went overseas.
I’m of the view that, if you remember the 1970s, you missed the point. There was a lot of drugs and sex and rock‘n’roll. I mean a lot of drugs, a lot of sex, and a lot of rock‘n’roll.
I got to spend some time up Whanganui River at Hemi Baxter’s commune at Jerusalem. But I wasn’t political. My family weren’t activists or protesters, or political in any way. They were just hardworking, working-class Māori.
What memories do you have of those times? The gum-field workers, the relationships, the honest hard work. What sticks in your mind about those people and that work?
It’s taken me a long time be able to reflect, but I do believe that my parents were the last generation of Māori who still had a toehold in the old world. But, in many ways, they were also the most colonised. A white man would enter the room and they’d bend their heads and look downwards. They gave their children Pākehā names. They didn’t speak Māori at home because they believed that was going to save us, because their lives had been so awful and so full of poverty and so full of loss.
And my generation, now in our 60s and 70s, especially those of us who came to town, had the benefit of more education opportunities, and a more global perspective. This generation began the protest movement, many going on to become academics and politicians, and successful in business, sports, media, the arts.
So, in many ways, what my parents’ generation had dreamed of for us has started to come to fruition. But they paid the most terrible price in terms of their lack of self-belief in that ancient world.
Colonisation really did a number on that generation, and I think there was a lot of brokenness, even though the vast majority of them still spoke the reo as their first language.
It’s almost like they had acquiesced to Pākehā privilege and power and control over their world — and I’m glad that my mum lived to see the activism and the protest come to change the world in a way that she never believed was possible when she was a young woman standing on the shore at Waipapa Marae in 1936.
And you, after the bumming around New Zealand in the early 1970s, went off to Australia?
I was trying to change some of the unhealthy habits that were dominating my life, and I thought that Australia would help. But Australia was even more of a quagmire than New Zealand was. So, I didn’t actually manage to change — I just managed to be a crazy person in other places.
But I did have some interesting experiences while I was in Australia. I lived in North Queensland. Actually, I lived up a tree in the Kuranda rainforest. After that there were some years in Melbourne, and in 1979, I did a couple of seasons working on prawn trawlers in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
I have to say, I am going to hell for working on a prawn trawler because those double-boom trawlers are an instrument of the Devil. They’re destroying the ecosystem at the bottom of the ocean, and I did that for two years!
But it gave me a great love for living on the ocean, and eventually I came to understand how my people, as seafarers, lived on the ocean and lived as one with the ocean. That was transformative for me.
Towards the end of the ’70s and the early ’80s, I started to change my life radically and ended up sailing around the world and doing yacht deliveries, being a bum in South Africa, and living and working in Greece, France, Corsica, and England. It really gave me a taste of the world.
I finally came home in 1984 — which meant I missed all of the protest movements of the ’70s that I now teach in my classroom.
Then there was your time with Greenpeace. How did that come about?
When I came back in ’84, I linked up with an old friend who was part of the Greenpeace movement. I spent some time as a volunteer in 1985, and there was the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in July that year.
Then, in the late ’80s, I did some work as one of those people who turn up at your door and harangue you to become a donor. So, I’d been caught up in green issues for a number of years.
Actually, I followed Cindy Kiro, who was the first Māori executive director of Greenpeace. The chair of the board at the time was a colleague at Auckland University, and he invited me to apply for the role.
But I’m jumping ahead. When I came back to New Zealand in 1984, I realised I had no formal education. I was smart, but I had no formal qualifications. So, I began at Auckland University in 1986 as a solo mum, graduated with my bachelor’s degree in 1990, and started a master’s the following year.
I was just finishing off my master’s when that role turned up at Greenpeace, and I was really happy to take it. I loved working at Greenpeace. I would’ve kept on working there for years and years except that I got pregnant with my last child in 1995, and I knew that it’d be too hard to be both a good mother and a good executive director of Greenpeace.
I know there’ve been women who’ve been able to combine their passion for environmentalism and work and have children, but I’m not one of them. I had to make a choice. So, I left Greenpeace and went back to academia, because academia is a good place to be with a wee baby.
What’s changed in academia since that time? That’s getting on for 30 years or more now.
Well, back then, we were almost invisible on campus. But Ngā Tamatoa was going strong, the Aotearoa movement was happening and, of course, the Waitangi Tribunal had just been given the power to work retrospectively.
So, the ’80s, and even the ‘70s, were a powerful period in Māori history where Māori started waking up and saying: “We have a voice. We’re gonna make demands. We’re not gonna shut up. We’re not gonna take this any more.”
It was an exciting time to be a student and learn the true history of our country. I hadn’t known the stuff that I then learned as a student, and it just outraged me that our history had been extinguished and that we’d been sold this story that we lived in a place of racial harmony. That was a crock of absolute shit.
I started learning alongside a group of other passionate, zealous Māori going through the system at the time. We knew that we were committed to making change for our people — and I’m proud to have been a small part of the growing number of Māori who’ve chosen to use either politics or academia or business or activism or some mix of all four of those to make changes in our world.
There are still Māori out there who look at Māori academics and say we’re all sellouts, we’re all colonised. And that’s their right to say that. But I’ve been inside the system for 30 years, and I know how much we’re capable of influencing knowledge and education and research and policy.
You need us in the system, just like you need us in parliament, just like you need us at the top tables of business, in sports and entertainment, and all those other places where our faces, our identity, our whakapapa, can transform the way people look at us as a people.
Perhaps the academic stimulus that our people have provided has been the catalyst for change we’re witnessing now.
Here’s the thing: our history as a people predates this whenua. We are part of a people who, over thousands of years, discovered and populated the South Pacific.
We were the first humans on every landmass in the South Pacific. Some races have a landmass they call home. But our people of Polynesia have an ocean that we call home.
From Aotearoa all the way across to Rapa Nui, all the way up to Hawai’i, all the way over to Guam, all the way back down to here, our continent is made up of ocean.
And I think people who live on the ocean and who make their home on the ocean learn to live with change. They have to be really responsive to their environment. They have to be extraordinarily curious and intelligent.
And I think those words describe Māori people. We may have moved away from our traditional waka homes, but I think we’ve still inherited all of those qualities and those characteristics.
And that meant that when we were supposed to die out in the middle of the 19th century, we didn’t. When we were supposed to be slaughtered by the warfare and the massacres of the late 19th century, we didn’t die. When the poverty and the disease of the early 20th century came along, we didn’t die. We have this innate capacity to survive.
I want to take the best of those qualities and transfer them into things that I try to teach in a way that I think will empower others. Because, for me, one of the biggest and most catastrophic problems that our people face, alongside the poverty, alongside the loss of land, is our loss of belief in ourselves.
And you know, when you’re around those whānau and individuals who’ve been broken, at the heart of that brokenness is a lack of belief in how extraordinary we are as a people.
When you see that spark being rekindled, it is an incredibly joyous event, and you know you’ve been part of something transformative not just for that person but for all of their future generations.
We are extraordinary. We rock! I mean, some 5000 years before white men made it across the Atlantic Ocean, we were striding across our Pacific. We need to keep being reminded of that to help us to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
Education was seen as the main tool for us to lift ourselves out of the mire, but you’ve also focused on business and entrepreneurship. What are we teaching at AUT’s Business School about the dynamics and dimensions that you’ve just touched on there, about our capability? Does the Māori attitude at the business school mirror what we’ve just spoken of? Is it developing in a way that has us believing in ourselves and our capabilities as business people?
I think that’s happening. There’s this extraordinary movement that I’m a part of around decolonising. The first thing you have to do is decolonise your own mind. Just figure out what is real in the world and what we need to hold on to.
Those of us in academia are working on decolonising the university, and that means, in this country, promoting and working with people who understand the importance of partnership or recognise the value of Te Tiriti. Not the Treaty, because that’s the English version which told lies. But Te Tiriti, which upheld our sovereignty and rangatiratanga.
What does that look like in the 21st century, and how do we teach that? And how do we work together under those systems?
This is not just a Māori kaupapa. There are many non-Māori, not just Pākehā, from all sorts of other ethnicities, who want to be allies and collaborators with us, who are taking the reo journey, who are learning the tikanga. It’s that openness to creating and working together that I think is forming a new New Zealand.
We’re forming an Aotearoa that’s founded on both the ancient and the modern. We’ve found a new way to create a new world. I am very optimistic about my country, Dale.
Kia ora, Ella. But here’s a switch of topics. Let’s turn to your days as Aunty Ella on the telly.
We’d done around 500 shows over the course of three years by the time we finished at the end of 2007 — and I’m proud of every single one of them. What I loved about the show was that it celebrated Māori women as smart, sassy, sexy, outspoken. And that collection of women was an extraordinary group.
Of course, some of the advice we gave was slightly nebulous, but a lot of it was good practical stuff for Māori women who, like us on the panel, had come through hard times.
When the show got cancelled, I had to go and get a proper job, and so I came back to academia, and I’ve been here ever since.
You’re into some tribal issues as well. Would you like to comment on that?
My mother was more politically astute than I was. She was the one who got me into activism and protests and politics. She made me go to all the hui. Ultimately, I became involved in the Treaty settlement for Ngātikahu ki Whangaroa, but I found the whole process gruelling.
When you break it down to its constituent parts, there is no other area of social living which parallels the colonisation process. It’s the equivalent of someone coming into your home, stealing your house and all your furniture, and then setting up a court and making all the rules. And if you want to get your furniture back, you have to abide by the thief’s rules.
Yet, somehow, many New Zealanders seem to think that’s an acceptable Treaty settlement process.
Our claim was submitted in 1987, and it took 30 years to be settled in 2017. I’m just grateful the original claimant, my cousin, Pita Pangari, was able to live long enough so that he saw the settlement. There are so many other iwi where the people who put those claims in passed away decades before settlement. So, I’m glad I was able to be what help I could.
But, truth be told, I was more happy to come back to academia than to stay in tribal politics. Because tribal politics and Treaty settlements will kill ya. I’m sure of it.
And now to the media where you and half a dozen other media folk now form an advisory panel to help Willie Jackson, as the Minister for Māori Development, to shape the Māori media into a force that won’t have to keep depending on crumbs. How do you feel about that challenge?
It should be no surprise that Māori have done extremely well in the media because storytelling is in our DNA.
But we’re still working in a system that‘s deeply colonialist and racist. We get crumbs. Whether it’s in Māori radio, Māori print, Māori television or Māori film, we get crumbs compared to what has been delivered to “mainstream” organisations for generations.
But we’ve managed to take those crumbs and turn them into gold because storytelling is such an art form for us.
I was fortunate to be around 30 years ago and meet the movers and shakers of the past, such as Barry Barclay, Merata Mita, Don Selwyn. They were part of an array of Māori who had the attitude that we deserve to be here, and who kicked doors open, or talked their way into important rooms and created spaces for us.
Now I have the privilege of seeing the generation after me who are strong and confident in their identity, highly skilled technically, and proficient in their language in multiple languages. And this is the start of the future that we envisaged.
What else would you pursue if given the chance? And what does being a nana mean to you?
I’ve been saying to my kids for the last five years that my biological clock is ticking. Please pop me out a moko because I come from a family where all of my sisters were grandmothers at 36 and great-grandmothers at 55.
And I’m barking at 70 and I haven’t managed to squeeze one moko out of my girls. So I’m quite looking forward to the idea that I might be able to spend some of my life being a nanny. That’s top of my bucket list.
I’ve done my travels, I’ve done academia. No more degrees to get. I’ve been fortunate to have had a life that’s had some dark moments and some very light ones, too — and I’m glad I’ve had that balance.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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