Hana O’Regan is one of five children of a famous dad, Tipene, and an influential mum, Sandra. The family was Wellington-based, but much of the O’Regan focus has been further south because of Tipene’s commitment to Ngāi Tahu’s Treaty rights and Hana’s mission to revitalise the reo throughout her iwi. Along the way, she has lectured at Otago University, worked with Ngāi Tahu to develop a language strategy, and held senior roles at CPIT (Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology). Now she’s about to join Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu as their General Manager — Oraka. Quite a track record already. And, clearly, more to come.
You’ve been a significant figure for some years now, especially with the work you’ve done to promote te reo Māori — and to help strengthen Kāi Tahu. But I wonder if you could pinpoint the most important issue facing Māori people today.
Wow. That’s a biggie. And my mind shoots off in a hundred different directions. But they’re all things that affect the wellbeing of our families. Te oraka ō tātou whānau. They’re a package of things that have an impact on our cultural, social and economic wellbeing. And, when you get all of them right, you’ve got a healthy whānau — a whānau that feels good about themselves.
When we’re measuring our state of health, in education or health for example, the data is generally all about individuals. But I prefer to take a whānau approach. I think that’s a more powerful way of looking at an issue. The priority for a whānau is to be able to sustain ourselves. And that’s hard if you’re on the poverty line, when you don’t have the kai for your tamariki or when you don’t know whether you’ll be able to pay your power bill.
So, when I talk about whānau wellbeing, I’m not talking about climbing up the salary ladder, but being in position to have choices and being able to realise our potential. And I’m also thinking about our sense of identity. How we feel about ourselves as Māori. How we feel about the way others might perceive us. Reaching the point where we’re strong and confident in ourselves and who we are as a people — and in our values and our tikaka.
It’s a matter of seeing beyond the often negative perceptions that others have of Māori and Māori society. Not letting that affect our personal or cultural self-esteem. And having access to our culture and traditions. So, for me, the whānau oraka is about knowing our culture, understanding our values — and living by our values.
And te reo Māori?
Everyone knows that I’m a passionate language advocate. Te reo Māori has been one of the biggest gifts I’ve ever had. It’s been monumental in shaping my understanding of my world — my understanding of my culture, my whānau, my traditions and my history, and the way I see the future. It has taken me to all parts of the world and all around New Zealand and helped develop me as a person. So I believe it’s another significant part of the whānau oraka — and I want our people to have access to that same gift that I’ve had access to.
In a recent interview, Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu told me of his concern that, in the process of colonisation, despite the relevance and richness of Māori and Pacific history, it has been (and still is) largely ignored in our schools. Do you think that’s been damaging?
Oh, he’s absolutely correct. And the colonisers haven’t even tried to hide that as a tool. It’s used as one of the first tools in subjugating people, as it has been in India, throughout Africa, Ireland and Scotland, and Polynesia. And when colonisers take away a people’s language as well, they make you feel it’s something inferior — and that your culture is of little value. And that you are just second-class citizens. Or worse.
But the truth is that we’re not ethnically or genetically inferior. It’s just that, like so many others peoples, we’ve been colonised. All our lives we’ve been bombarded with misleading messages about our history and our capabilities. So, whenever there’s any suggestion of our “inferiority”, we need to have the confidence to say: “Actually, that’s crap.” The proper story of our people is one of our amazing resilience and tenacity and innovation and adaptability.
Most of us have a mixed heritage. You and I both carry a blend of Māori and European genes. Can you tell me how you’ve come to terms with that?
Well, it’s been a long journey, my friend. I’ve always strongly identified as being Māori. I can’t remember a time that I didn’t consider myself Māori — and, for a very long time, I’ve yearned for other people to see me that way.
The difficulty for me has been that there’s nothing in my physical appearance to indicate that I have a Māori heritage. So that’s always been a challenge for me. My earliest memories include feeling absolutely passionately that I was Māori — and not necessarily being seen that way by other people. And, when I was calling myself Māori, and Kāi Tahu, people would say that I was “belittling” my Pākehā side.
But that’s the way it works with colonisation. The colonised are usually the ones who have to defend their right to be who they are, but those from the power culture aren’t subjected to the same questions. And I can’t recall ever being challenged directly about my right to call myself an O’Regan and about my Irish ancestry. I’ve been questioned only about my right to call myself Ngāi Tahu, or Kāi Tahu.
At first, I used to get really defensive. I’d get angry. I’d try harder than hard to prove people wrong. That was what I call the pubescent phase of identity development where I’d be upset and feel that it was really cruel.
But you have to get to a point where you can stand back from the issue and discuss it dispassionately — and from an informed perspective. Eventually, I arrived at a point where I felt okay about saying that I’m Kāi Tahu. Okay about saying I’m Māori. Okay about standing up in front of a Pasifika group, speaking Māori and introducing myself as Māori — and, all the while, knowing they’re probably thinking: “Who’s that Palagi up front?”
But I’ve arrived at a place where I have this mixed heritage — and I feel okay within myself. I know what I’m doing. I’ve raised Manuhaea and Te Rautāwhiri, my two children, with Māori as their first language. Regularly attending the marae. Knowing what it is to be part of a Māori whānau — but also proud of our Pākehā ancestry. So I celebrate both, although it’s taken me a long time to get to the stage where I can be proud of all the parts that make up the whole.
I tautoko that. I know from my own experience what you’re talking about. Now, let’s turn to the influence of your dad, Tipene O’Regan, who has been a longtime, high-profile advocate for Māori rights. So I suspect that you had an early introduction to stories of injustice towards Māori, Kāi Tahu in particular.
Well, yes. I was aware of politics from a very early age. I grew up in Wellington but already, by the age of five, I had quite a strong sense of who I was — and a love for the language. I didn’t speak te reo. It was spoken only minimally at home. But I was drawn to it. I really had this immediate affinity to it.
My father, as you say, was political. But he’s never been a politician. He was always on the other side, usually protesting on behalf of Māori rights. So, I had a unique upbringing where I had a high level of exposure to the debate and the politics. Not just with Māori and the Crown but also with indigenous people from around the world.
I mean, I think I was about eight when I had met somebody from West Papua who’d come to stay at our home. And he was talking about the injustices of West Papua. I met First Nation Americans and Canadians. Indigenous people, too, from Australia. So, I was aware of a wider world of cultural injustice and indigenous rights from quite an early age.
Then, of course, there was all the New Zealand activity when my father was driving the Ngāi Tahu claim. And I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t proud of that kaupapa. That meant there were always relations turning up in Wellington for hearings and petitions and lobbying and things.
As kids we were caught up in some of the action too. I’m the youngest of five, and I thought I had the best job when I was enlisted to lick the postage stamps. But when I got to the fifteen-hundredth envelope I realised that perhaps I wasn’t so lucky after all. My siblings knew what they were doing when they were allocating the jobs.
I can understand how committed and busy your dad was. But that may have meant quite a burden for your mum, Sandra.
My father has always been incredibly driven, and a workaholic. So our family life was absolutely dominated by the activities supporting the Ngāi Tahu claim and his educational work. So, my mother pretty much raised us. My mother is Pākehā but she was the one facilitating my passion and love for the language. She was my rock.
And she supported me when I decided to go to Queen Victoria School, in Auckland, so that I could pursue the language. But, when I was boarding there, I was afflicted by terrible homesickness. Even now it makes me sad just thinking about it. I absolutely missed my whānau. But my mother’s support never wavered. She must’ve written hundreds of thousands of letters while I was there. She was just tireless in her support for me.
Back home in the holidays, I’d sometimes want to ask Dad about a school assignment. But he was so busy that I’d have to get Mum to book an appointment for me with him. Mum saw the pain — and our resentment towards the tribe that kept on stealing our pāpā. We couldn’t even go out for dinner without people coming over and having arguments and claiming time with him.
As well as supporting us, and also my father so that he was able to deal with his work, Mum worked nights as a nurse. She was just incredible. She’d re-trained when I was five. She’d work nights and then would turn up in the morning and get us ready for school. She’d be asleep when we came home. Then get dinner ready.
And, you know, this was a woman who’d work a 12-hour shift, and then take me to soccer in the morning. My father never came to watch a game of anything I played. My mother, she managed to do it all. She was just … she was a hard woman. An incredibly strong and driven woman. But, I wouldn’t have achieved what I’ve achieved without her support.
As you’re aware, Māori boarding schools have been in the news lately — especially with the closure of Turakina. What are your thoughts about that development?
When I think back to our Queen Vic days, I realise we were the lucky ones. We were a bunch of Māori girls from around the country whose parents valued education. Valued the language and the culture enough to make the commitment — and our education wasn’t cheap you know.
But I don’t credit the schools with developing the leadership roles that Queen Vic girls have played. We were coming from families who had already carved out those aspirations for their children. I think that’s something we shouldn’t forget. Many of those parents worked their butts off, had multiple jobs, to give their children those opportunities.
My experience at Queen Vic wasn’t particularly positive — partly because of my homesickness. But it was also because I was confronted with negative expectations of Māori. I went there as a young Māori girl and immediately was exposed to these negative perceptions of how we see ourselves as young Māori females … of being absolutely whakamā about our body, and having to be rough and tough. It was a completely new thing for me.
And I also found it challenging that, although the language was supported at the kura, it was still seen, in academic terms, as a second-rate language. It seemed, within the education system, to have the same lowly rating as Home Economics and Woodwork. That’s where it was placed in our curriculum. For me that just doesn’t make sense.
There were other aspects as well — some perhaps just a legacy of colonial rule. For instance, in the 1980s, at St Stephen’s, our brother school, the boys had cooks. They had cleaners to do their laundry. And staff to take care of the grounds. They had all those kinds of things so they could concentrate on rugby and their education.
The girls paid exactly the same fees, had the same school board, and yet we had to do much of our washing by hand, and sometimes with washboards and Sunlight soap. There were washing machines but I recall being told that we had to learn how to wash our clothes by hand. Also, we had to do the cooking and the cleaning and take care of the grounds. I remember thinking: “There’s something not right about this picture.”
It’s attitudes and practices like that which have needed to change. But I’m still sad to see the closures because there have been lots of positive elements in those schools. Like being proud of your culture and your identity. And having a space for your language. Remember, we didn’t have wharekura in those days. So the real challenge is to make sure that we have schools where we can be proudly us. And where our tikaka can flourish.
I don’t think those schools have to be boarding schools. Recently, I had a chance to visit Ngā Taiātea, an amazing wharekura in the Waikato and I was blown away by what they were doing for their tamariki. Nurturing their culture and their language.
We’ve been glancing back at the path you’ve been travelling, but you’re young enough to have many productive years ahead of you. What are your priorities now?
I remember, when I was 14, writing in my diary that I wanted to help my tribe become a people who can speak our language again. That commitment was driven by feeling quite hurt by what people were saying about Ngāi Tahu at that time. About us not having a strong language and cultural base. Making jokes about Ngāi Tahu.
Back at that time, I was wanting to do something to build that cultural strength and to have our people using our language. I knew in my heart that I wanted to contribute to something that was bigger than myself — and that would support my people to feel the kind of confidence that I was feeling because of te reo.
So I’ve travelled the language-learning journey. I’m not a fast learner. I have to work really hard to learn. But, I think I’ve inherited some resilience and tenacity. And I keep working with my iwi on language initiatives and wānaka. I go back to my marae and run wānaka for whānau to help develop their self-esteem with te reo. Also, my work in education is about seeing that our people not only have more access to jobs, but also can feel positive about being Māori. I believe they should never have to compromise who they are as a people in order to make progress.
My vision, as I mentioned early on in our conversation, has been the wellbeing of our families. Te oraka ō tātou whānau. And, if I look back at the wānaka I’ve run, the classes I’ve taught, the education initiatives I’ve pushed for, the chapters and books I’ve written, and the waiata I’ve composed, I can map all those pathways leading to that one goal — Te oraka õ te whānau, whānau oraka.
Where I work might change. Who I work for might change. But my goal won’t. I know I’ll still make sure that what I’m doing contributes to that kaupapa.
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