Waihoroi Shortland tells Dale Husband about the paths he has travelled in a working life as a community officer, journalist, actor, politician and reo Māori advocate.
Would you please start by telling us something about the good people in your background — those who’ve helped shaped you into the person you are?
I was one of those kids who could’ve gone a thousand different ways, mainly because I was adopted.
In Matawaia, Katarina, who was soon to adopt me, was already bringing up a child when the district nurse visited one day. And she found her crying. Katarina told the nurse that the birth mother had decided to reclaim him — and that she’d come and picked the kid up. That’s what had prompted all the tears.
The nurse said: “Look. We’ve got this young boy in Kawakawa who’s just been born and he’s up for adoption.”
As Katarina used to tell the story, she was on the train that afternoon and picked me up that same day. So it was done and dusted right away. And everything that I am is down to my new mother and father. The reo that I have. The person that I grew up to be. Cheeky. On the verge of trouble. All the things that made me who I am. That’s thanks to Katarina and Moriki Shortland.
Originally, there were eight of us children, three of whom died in childhood, and I now have just two sisters. But there were a whole host of other children fostered by our mother. We did a count in 1999 of those who had been in her care — and we got to 43. And, even when she died at 88, there were still two moko who she was looking after.
Now that name . . . Waihoroi. What is the story there?
You may remember that Johnny Cash song A Boy Named Sue? It was something the same for me with a handle like Waihoroi. Like the song says, you can either grow up tough or die.
I grew up a little bit tough. I was inclined to lash out if anyone made fun of my name. But my mother took me to see my grandmother who’d named me. And she told me that my name was taken from the most humble act about Christ in the Bible — about him washing the feet of his disciples. She said: “You’re named after that water.”
From then on, I was comfortable with that name, including Wassie, the Pākehā version. Those who know me from my school years still call me Wassie, and those who know me from after that time call me Waihoroi.
I imagine that your reo Māori was with you virtually from Day One.
It sat naturally with me. My reo was my reo. It was the quickest way of communicating at Matawaia. And people will tell you that I would burst into the reo at the drop of a hat. But I would quickly figure out who understood me and who didn’t, so I’d sway between reo Māori and reo Pākehā without batting an eye.
In the main, though, Māori was my everyday, everything language. But then, at boarding school, there were English essays to write and I developed a routine of thinking in Māori and writing in English. For a while I came up short, but then the penny dropped and everything fell into place.
That boarding school was Tipene, wasn’t it? Where I understand you made your mark. And I’m sure, like many of your schoolmates, you’re saddened by its demise.
You could look at St Stephen’s as a jail sentence or a life-changing experience. I loved it from Day One. In those pre-motorway days, you’d come along Ramarama Rd on the bus and I remember seeing Ravensthorpe Hospital and thinking that was the school and saying: “Ooh, that’s a flash place.” And then spotting St Stephen’s, a big white stone building up the hill and thinking: “Great. I’m gonna live in a castle.”
They really were formative years for me — and I spent six years there. Learning the disciplines of study, even if you didn’t like it. Then, when you were a senior, learning how to dodge it, too. And learning all sorts of stuff that boarding school teaches you.
It gave us the chance of experiences that we would never have had otherwise at that time. Like kapa haka. Not many schools did kapa haka then. But, with our concert party, we travelled around seeing the country and having some good feeds at other people’s expense. Travelling each year down to the South Island — and even, in 1969, over to Australia. So St Stephen’s absolutely had a marked effect on my life.
And yes, the closing of the school has saddened a lot of us — and not just for the selfish reason that we’d been there. But, if you look around, you’ll see that many Tipene old boys have been leaders and at the helm of important organisations. And now there’ll be a gap because the Tipene production line hasn’t been operating for some years.
That’s why we’ve been battling to have it opened again — not in the form that we knew. Instead, a far different school but with some of the principles that moulded us. And, as a bonus, once again we’d have a 1st XV that could frighten the hell out of every other school team in the country.
A lot of people who’ve been adopted seek out their birth parents. Was that what you did?
My birth dad died before I was born. I think he was only 22. My birth mother was a nurse at Kawakawa Hospital and, although I became fairly well connected with her family by the time I went to St Stephen’s, I didn’t meet her until I was 28. That was at a tangi for one of her sisters.
And I remember her saying to me: “You must have a thousand questions for me.” And I said: “I don’t even have one.” We built a solid relationship from that point. But I had no regrets about the family who brought me up. If you had to go out and find a set of parents, you couldn’t have done better than those I had.
I understand that, after Tipene, you did some university study, worked as a Māori Affairs community officer, and then got to know Rahera Wharerau.
Well, she trapped me. There I was a nubile young man in my prime — and I was gone once she got her claws into me. She has been a huge influence on my life. Soon we will have been together for 40 years. We’ve had a great life together.
I met her when I came down from Whangarei as a community officer to work in the Pukekohe to Ōtara area. Rahera lived in Papakura and she was part of many of the Māori organisations around there including the Māori Women’s Welfare League and the group setting up the Papakura marae.
At that time she was a young mother on her own starting out at teachers’ training college — and I was a young man on my own. So we got together and brought up her family. Her children became my children and we grew our family. Now we’re grandparents to 24 children. We also have 11 great grandchildren and one “great-great”. . . and another one on the way.
From Māori Affairs you veered off into the journalism — working as a reporter for Mana Māori Media and Te Karere. But you may have become even more widely known because of your venture into acting.
I’ve been fortunate in having influential people coming into my life. Don Selwyn in particular. And seeing Jane Campion at work. But I was also fortunate in having, in a sense, done an apprenticeship in stage performance at St Stephen’s because of the years with their concert party.
And, anyway, theatre is really just a drawn-out version of whaikõrero. So if, like me, you’ve grown up playing that role almost every time you’ve stepped on to the forecourt of the marae, you have a lot to draw on.
Then there are the emotional wells, deep pools, you also have to draw on. And, as my children will tell you, I can cry at the drop of a hat. So theatrical roles haven’t been a big step for me. And I had the good fortune to have a part in the Māori Merchant of Venice, and then to be invited to have a role in Troilus and Cressida at The Globe theatre in London.
Politics has been another interest, or diversion, for you.
Well, national politics was just a dalliance, I suppose. If I’d been serious about it, I should’ve gone down that path 20 or 30 years ago — and done so with some vim and vigour.
But iwi politics has taken its place for me. It’s come with a vengeance, too. And now it’s the pathway ahead for me. Ngāti Hine politics. I have other iwi affiliations, especially with Aupōuri – and even Ngāti Maru.
It’s Ngāti Hine, though, who have shaped me and given me life, so I owe Ngāti Hine a great debt. But, with that debt comes a great sense of satisfaction that I’m now in a position to help repay it.
Sadly, advancing years don’t give you all the great wisdoms that you think should arrive with age. There are constant challenges, too. So, if nothing else, these are interesting times.
All through these times, though, you’ve been a reo speaker and a reo advocate. What particular line are you taking on the questions about the future of te reo Māori?
That’s a task that Māori have to come to terms with — and have to lead. One of the troubles is that, in the course of the attempts to revitalise the language, everything is being geared for those who already have the reo. But 75 to 80 percent of Māori are outside that realm.
So, if we want to change the reo landscape in this country, the challenge is to come up with a solution that provides for those Māori who don’t have any Māori language at all.
If you keep feeding only the ones who know where the pot is, you’re going to end up with an obesity problem at one end of the scale, and some people starving to death at the other.
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