Kingi Taurua has a voice and a face that many New Zealanders know well, especially those in the north. Much of that familiarity comes from his work as a radio broadcaster and from his role as an influential Ngāpuhi leader. But it’s also a result of a colourful career which has included making an impact as a Northland College flanker in the days when they were holding the Moascar Cup (the high school equivalent of the Ranfurly Shield). And then there were his army days which had him in action not only in Vietnam but also in the UK on duty guarding the inmates of Buckingham Palace. There was more duty later on as a prison guard at Paremoremo – and as a political adviser at the Beehive in Wellington. So it hasn’t been a routine, predictable career path – as he explains to Dale in an interview at Radio Waatea.
Those of us in broadcasting, and many others, too, know you as Kingi Taurua. But I understand there are others who know you by another name. How did that come about?
Well, when I started school at Oromahoe Native School, the head teacher asked me my name. I told him it was Kingi. He said: “Now, you go home and you find a Pākehā name — and come back when you find one.”
When I got home, my parents (speaking in Māori, because they didn’t speak English) asked me what I was doing home. I told them, I needed a Pākehā name. Then a rooster went past — a rooster that one of my brothers had named Albert. So that’s what my father named me. And back I went to school the next day and told my teacher my name was Albert. That’s what I was called. Named after a damned rooster. So I grew up with that name. In fact, for years and years, I forgot about my real name being Kingi.
When I joined the army, I was selected to go to Salisbury Plains in England for training. I applied for a passport using Albert as my name. Back came Internal Affairs saying there’s no one by that name. So I wrote back and said: “Yes there is. Albert is my name.”
The trouble was that I didn’t have a birth certificate, so they asked for my mother and father’s name. My father is Te Huhu of Ngāti Whātua and my mother is Arihia, a descendant of Tareha, a chief of Ngāti Rehia. So the officials checked their records and then said: “We have a guy here, born on September 3, 1937, and his name is Kingi Taurua. And I went: “Hey. That’s me. That’s my real name.”
And so I chucked that bloody rooster name right out the window, and I went back to my tūturu name, Kingi.
Okay. But let’s go back to the start. Back to 1937. Where did you first see the light of day?
I was born in Oromahoe, a little village in the Bay of Islands. I caught just the tail-end of the Depression. There wasn’t much kai at that time, and we were dependent on acres and acres of kumara, potato, watermelon, and corn. And we had coupons for butter, sugar, and flour. They were rationed in those days.
My mum would ride into Kerikeri on horseback for those rations each month. That was about a six-hour round trip. Sometimes they wouldn’t last until the next lot and we’d be eating rotten corn with our milk — and taking rotten corn for our school lunch. I swore at the time that, when I grew up, I wouldn’t ever touch that rotten corn again.
There were 10 of us and another 10 whangai stuck in a two-bedroom house. But, although we were short on kai at times, we weren’t short on aroha. We had a little farm with five cows. So we milked them, separated the cream and sent it to the factory to generate some income.
We worked hard on the farm, ploughing and planting. We had bullocks pulling the plough – and later we replaced them with draught horses. There was a very whanaungatanga relationship in the community. My father used to say whanaungatanga meant, “I am we, not I am I.”
My dad was a veteran of the Māori Pioneers from World War One. But his lungs were gone when he came home, so he spent most of his time in bed. And he died at 52.
Were you one of the rural Māori kids that moved into town?
Yes. I moved down into Auckland, into the city to look for work. Times were tough because there was a lot of unemployment. My first job was on the wharf and we had to start queueing about three o’clock in the morning. There’d be long lines of men hoping to get a job. The boss would walk around and say: “Yes. We want you … want you … want you.” And so on. It was hit or miss. One time, I missed out by one. They just got to me but then didn’t need any more workers. So next morning I got there really early to make sure I was in the front of the line.
I used to look forward to the Tofua and Matua ships coming in from the Pacific Islands, because they brought in bananas. When I got on those boats I ate a hell of a lot of bananas.
Next, I decided to join the navy but, before I got called up, I saw a sign saying join the army. So I applied there too. And I stuck with the army even though I was also selected by the navy. I was very happy to serve in the armed forces – which I did for about nine years. Most of the boys I served with are dead now. I served in Singapore and Vietnam and other areas I don’t want to talk about. I came home as a casualty of the Vietnam War and was discharged in 1967.
And after that? What did you do next?
I became one of the first prison officers at the maximum security prison, Paremoremo. Mr Buckley was the superintendent at the time. Prisoners were allowed only one book a week. There was no television or radio. Just the bare necessities. Mr Buckley was very supportive of D Block where Jorgensen and Gillies and all those kind of inmates were held. I worked in that area. And, while I was there, I did the exams in English, psychology, phrenology and public administration — and I became a senior prison officer.
Eventually, I was sent down to Taupo where I was in charge of first offenders at the prison there. After some time in that job, I was shoulder tapped by a guy called John Te Rangihau. He said he’d like me to come to Wellington and help him implement a report called Puao-te-Ata-tu which was aiming to reform the social welfare system. There was a group of us working on that, including Apirana Mahuika.
From there I became an adviser on Māori kaupapa to Helen Clark, Michael Cullen, Annette King and other ministers. Then, when Labour lost the election and Jenny Shipley became the Minister of Social Welfare, I became her adviser for several years. Eventually, she became the Prime Minister and I left there and came back home.
I’d been phoned by the kaumātua and told to come home. At that time, some of the Ngāpuhi had signed the Sealord deal without the authority of the old people. I was asked to come back and establish the Council of Elders to make sure that the Treaty of Waitangi will never again be torn asunder. So I established Te Taumata Kaumātua, which operated for many years. Most have passed away now. The only guys left are Raumoa Kawiti and me.
One of the many things that make you notable, Kingi, is that you brought the age-old practice of tā moko back to the North. Can you tell us about that journey?
I was working for Ruia Mai in Auckland at that time as a broadcaster when I got a call from Ranga Hohepa, a 90-year-old lady, saying we need to see you. I was still the rangatira for the Council of Elders and they wanted me to come to the hui at Kawiti marae. The place was full. I was shocked when the elders said we would like you to take the tā moko. And I was reluctant to do it because I was a bit whakamā, mainly because I thought people would look at me as part of a gang. So I was very, very reluctant.
Then they had another hui and they brought Eru Morgan and his TV cameras. They were taking pictures of the hui and so I felt I had to agree. The whole process was filmed. The kaumātua designed the moko, and asked Gordon Hatfield to do it. He and another guy started at five o’clock in the morning and didn’t finish until about nine at night. They not only did the moko on my face but also on my backside and legs. That was a long process. They blessed me, and eventually I went home. From then on, I was considered the leader of Ngāpuhi.
It must’ve been awkward to start. And I imagine you took some time to become comfortable with the moko.
It took quite a while, maybe over a year. Every time I walked past Pākehā people, I looked down towards my feet. I didn’t want to see the reaction on their faces. I was whakamā and afraid at the same time of what they might think of me. I had a kōrero with Reverend Māori Marsden about my problem with the moko and he said to me: “Keep looking up. Don’t you look down.” And so I did what he told me — and suddenly my whakamā disappeared and I felt okay.
You’ve been a very strong advocate for te reo Māori and tikanga Māori, and you’ve been renowned as a broadcaster for the last 20 or so years. So you must’ve done some thinking about the role of the reo and the media.
I think a lot of people say that the use of te reo on Māori media is the avenue to identify us as Māori. I recall one time at a hui where a person stood up and spoke in English. And this fulla stood up and said: “Don’t you ever speak English in this marae.”
So I stood up and said: “Don’t YOU blame that person for speaking English. Blame yourself. And me. You and me are to blame because we never, never, never taught them how to speak Māori. It is our fault. I want that person to speak.”
For me, Māori media doesn’t only mean the Māori language. For me, it means speaking in both languages. What excites me is that it is sending out Māori messages in both languages. I have aroha for those who can’t understand Māori. They are missing out. But you can’t wipe their Māoriness away from them. They are Māori. Māori media in both languages is a step forward for those who can’t speak Māori.
I wanted Ruia Mai to broadcast in Māori and English and I suggested that. I got told off and I was reminded that it was a Māori radio station and would always only use Māori. When Willie Jackson rang me and said I should come to Waatea, I was so excited I hardly let him finish talking. I came because Waatea was doing both languages.
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