Joe Harawira

Joe Harawira: “I came to the realisation that my destiny was to help heal the world through story.”

Joe Harawira from Whakatāne (Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Maniapoto, Tūhourangi) has transfixed many a class of Kiwi schoolkids. Overseas audiences, too. Telling and performing our Māori stories in reo Pākehā and reo Māori. And making some of the theatrical moves he’s seen from koroua in the course of their whaikōrero on the marae. Here he tells Dale about his storytelling, his tā moko, his work with the Department of Conservation, and his commitment to kapa haka.


Kia ora, Joe. I know you’re a man of many talents but I wonder which of them has given you the most satisfaction.

That would be my work in storytelling — and that came about somewhat by accident.

When I was at St Stephen’s, in the early 1970s, I was heavily involved in kapa haka, te reo, theatre, and that sort of thing. Later, when I became a teacher, I started using storytelling as a way to motivate Māori children with their maths, social studies, and science. All of our traditional stories have those subjects somewhere within them.

I was storytelling in the classroom one day and, unbeknownst to me, a school inspector happened to be standing in the corridor watching me. At morning tea, she tapped me on the shoulder and said: “I want you to run a storytelling workshop.”

I said: “I’m not a storyteller.”

“Yes, you are,” she said. “I was watching you through the window in your classroom. And those children were just enthralled with you. I want you to come and run a storytelling workshop for some teachers.”

I umm’d and ahh’d and had to really sit down and think about what it was that I was doing. What were the principles of storytelling? I came up with a few ideas and did the workshop.

From that, I got a bit of a reputation, I suppose. Teachers started inviting me to their book weeks just to tell stories to their class. Then I started getting invites to international indigenous festivals, mostly to share our culture, our stories, our ways of knowing and being and understanding.

One of the things I’ve found out in 30-plus years as a storyteller is that there’s something about our language that people from overseas really love hearing. I know, because, wherever I went in the world, people would say: “Don’t tell your story in English. Tell it in your own language.”

So I’d launch into the story in te reo Māori. And then I’d tell exactly the same story in English and I’d have an interpreter telling it in Spanish, Russian, whichever country I happened to be in.

And then the singing. They really love the Māori way of singing. It must have something to do with the wairua of the reo, I’d say. Some of them were in tears when they heard the language.

What makes a good storyteller? Is it inflection, tone, a good memory? I’m assuming you don’t use scripts to read from, so you must have a catalogue of stories in your mind that you can share at any moment. What makes your delivery so special, Joe?

There are many ways of telling a story. I do what’s called performance storytelling. That’s theatrical, dramatic, the monster voices, the fairy voices — or whatever the story needs.

When I was doing education full-time, I had maybe 15 stories that I could tell, depending on the audience. But I have to say that, other than the personal stories of my growing up and some of the stories from home, most of my stories originally came from books.

Basically, what I did was take a story — say, a fairy story such as the Naughty Patupaiarehe, which Merimeri Penfold wrote — I’d read it a number of times, then put the book aside and put my own characters and my own voices to the story without changing the storyline.

All of our stories hold wisdom and knowledge. They have determined our behaviours as Māori people. So there’s lots and lots of learning in those stories.

As well as using drama and voice intonation in storytelling, there are also different moods that help, such as humour. And it’s my contention that Māori kids are visual children, so the more action and body language you can use, the more it makes the story appealing.

It’s interesting that you touch on these things. They’re also the tools of broadcasters. I’m sure you could consider yourself a broadcaster anyway. Was there any particular delivery to an audience where you thought: “Yeah, this is me. This is stuff I’m good at. This is what I might continue with.”

My lightbulb moment was in 2012 at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I was over there with Tessa Duder, Witi Ihimaera, and Alan Duff, because that year New Zealand was the host at the fair. I came to the realisation that my destiny was to help heal the world through story.

And I realised I could tell a story to five- and six-year-olds, and 50- and 60-year-olds would enjoy it too. We’ve all got the child still within us, and story is a way to bring the child to the fore.

You say you’re influenced by hearing stories on the marae from your old people. Can you paint a picture for us of those moments?

When I was growing up, I remember two koroua who did whaikōrero on the marae. Big, booming voices. Very animated. The conventions that they used in their mihi and taupara and the actions with their tokotoko were conventions that could all be used within storytelling.

One interesting thing I’ve found is that I can be very dramatic and all over the place in terms of actions, but I could tell exactly the same story with the same power just sitting on a seat and using my voice and facial features. It’s a powerful medium.

Could we talk about your tā moko journey? Was it something that you felt on the inside that needed to come out? When was that done and what were some of the reactions when you decided to wear the full-face moko?

I had a documentary done on my tā moko — the before process, the during, while I was on the table getting it done, and the after. And, in that documentary, I said that it was written in the stars that one day I’d wear the mataora.

My tā moko was done in 2008, but it took three or four years of pillow talk with my wife to have permission to get it done. Eventually, her response was: “Okay, my dear. You do a lot for Māoridom in the kapa haka, storytelling, education and the like. It’s time for you to have it.”

So I contacted Derek Lardelli. We talked about the kaupapa for more than a year. Then, finally it was time to have it done, and it happened at my marae, Taiwhakaea, in Whakatāne. It took 12 hours.

The reactions were interesting. I’ll give you an example. I was working for the Department of Conservation before I had the mataora done. I walked into the staffroom one day. Everyone was having a cup of tea and biscuit. I poured myself a cup of tea and said I had a big announcement to make.

And people were saying: “Where you going storytelling, Joe? You’re never at work. You’re always overseas.” I said: “No, I’m not going overseas this year. I’m going to have a full-face tā moko.”

Well, the biscuits dropped out of the mouths and the tea spilt everywhere. “No, Joe! You can’t do that!” “Your good looks will be covered up!”

I said: “Hang on. Hang on. Before you go down that track, I’m not going to stand here and justify why I’m getting a moko. If you have any questions, you can ask them after I’ve had it done.”

Well, about a week after I got it done, I walked into the staffroom. The same people were in there. I walked in, and the reaction was: “Wow! That’s beautiful!”

What it came down to was that they thought of tā moko as something gangs do. They were expecting me to walk in with a bulldog or a fist on the side of my face. They’d aligned tā moko with gangs. The questions started to come. “Did it hurt?” “Who can get it done?” “Did you have to get permission?”

All those questions came out. At the end of it, they were really appreciative of what tā moko was, as opposed to tattoo. That was just one example.

I remember interviewing Kingi Taurua, and that gang affiliation stuff weighed heavily on his mind after he had his work done. He spent some time looking at the ground, unnerved by the reactions of passers-by who assumed he was a gangster.

When my dad found out that I was going to get it done, he said to my sister: “You go and tell Joe to wait until I’ve gone, before he gets his tā moko.” I didn’t know that until after I’d had it done. My sister had just held on to that. My father passed away in 2007, and I got it done in 2008 without knowing that he had said that.

So I really struggled with that. I thought it might’ve been something to do with the Rātana church. The conclusion that I came to was that he didn’t want people to look at me as a gang member because he knew that I didn’t display those types of behaviour. He knew who his son was, so it was a protection mechanism for him.

So, people had different reactions. What I can say is the reaction in New Zealand is quite different to the reactions overseas. Before I got the tā moko done in 2008, I’d travelled extensively. People used to walk up to me before I got my tā moko done and say: “Oh, are you Mexican?” And I’d say: “Oh no. I’m from New Zealand. I’m from Aotearoa and I’m Māori.”

Since I’ve had it done, the question now is: “What does that mean?” And it sets in train a different conversation. I use my tā moko as an advocacy tool and I use it as an education tool. I’m part of a generation that’s normalising this, the mark, back into Aotearoa, into New Zealand society. That’s my journey into tā moko.

While we’re talking about storytelling and pūrākau, how important is it for our Māori rangatahi to hear these stories and to reaffirm some of the magic in our history? Because we’ve been exposed to the Pākehā stories for so long?

When I give talks on the power of storytelling, I talk about our stories holding our wisdom and our knowledge and that we need to be telling the stories that fit within te ao Māori.

I’ll give you an example of something that I had to learn to pass School C:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

That was part of a Western curriculum kaupapa that I had to learn as a young Māori boy, even though it had no relevance, whatsoever, to me. The sense of place and the sense of time around Kubla Khan just didn’t connect with me.

I’m not saying it’s the reason I failed English, but there was no connection with my wairua and spirit as a Māori growing up through a Western system.

Today I’m part of a storytellers’ collective called Te Reo Waimene o Tua. We’ve been running for seven years now and we’re a collective who tell stories solely in te reo Māori, mainly to kura kaupapa audiences, wharekura, total immersion classes.

The reason we tell our stories is to connect them to their world. And our stories are heavily stacked with metaphor, just as much of our whaikōrero on the marae is metaphor.

Our role as storytellers is to paint pictures with words. But to tell a story in te reo Pākehā to Māori kids has a different wairua to telling a story in te reo Māori to Māori children. A lot of total immersion students have come from backgrounds of tikanga Māori and Māori experiences.

Ngā mihi, Joe. Now there’s another major element in your career because you’ve spent the last 18 years with the Department of Conservation. Firstly, what drives you to work for DOC, because it seems to have been a tauiwi organisation that’s distanced us from our lands in many ways. They’ve been seen as very Pākehā, very patronising towards Māori interests. But, hopefully, that’s changed.

Well, there have been many changes — a lot of them through Treaty settlements.

When I first got into DOC many Māori thought that DOC actually owned the land that we manage. But it’s the Crown that owns the land. We’re just administrators.

And a big part of the change has been our wanting to enable Māori to be kaitiaki on lands that are administered on behalf of the Crown. There are very good examples of the work that we are doing now, in partnership with a lot of the iwi, to enable them to re-engage with their whenua.

My sense is that we’ve made big strides in that Treaty partner space.

I’m aware that you have another big interest.

Yes, kapa haka has been one of my passions and, recently, I was a judge at the secondary schools competition. And that’s where the standard of kapa haka has just gone through the roof. You can see how proud those rangatahi are when they get on to that stage. And, at times, the standard is better than some of the adult groups at Te Matatini where I’ve been the chief judge at the last five festivals.

Finally, are there important people in your life that you’d like to thank or acknowledge?

My mum and dad, Mate and Mark Harawira, were very strong influences in my life —especially with their decision to send me to St Stephen’s. If they hadn’t sent me to Tipene, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today.

Derek Lardelli has been an influence, too. He’s done all of the tā moko on my tinana. And my boss in the Department of Conservation, Tata Lawton, has also been very supportive of my journey over these last 18 years.

And then there’s probably the mentor of all mentors, Timoti Karetu. I came through Timoti’s class at Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato in the 1970s. And he has been the most significant influence on me in my journey in the world of the language.


This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

© E-Tangata, 2018



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