Kevin Prime, who already has an ONZM and MBE, was this year awarded one of New Zealand’s highest honours when he was made a Companion of the NZ Order of Merit for services to Māori, the environment and health. He’s pictured here at his home in Motatau, south of Kawakawa, in the Far North. (Photo: Screenshot from Te Karere.)

Kevin Prime has a host of admirers for what he’s done for the environment on whānau land in the north, and for the positive, well-informed, level-headed advice that he keeps passing on from his tūpuna and from his own observations and sweat-soaked experience. That’s seen him in a number of leading roles, including as a commissioner of the Environment Court since 2003, as a former chairman of the ASB Community Trust (now Foundation North), and chairman of Te Kāhui Māori Advisory Bio Heritage National Science Challenge.

Kevin’s an articulate speaker in both Māori and Pākehā, but he’s not inclined to settle for kōrero. His actions have been speaking loud and clear for generations. And now in this chat with Dale, he outlines the relationship that he, like other farming pioneers, have with Papatūānuku.


A rare photo of Kevin’s parents, Erana and Samuel Prime. (Photo supplied)

Kevin’s grandmother, Anapera (Pera) Paraima, “firmly believed in taking care of the environment, and she knew, for instance, not to cut down trees along the waterways — kaue turaki i ngā rākau i ngā tahataha wai.” (Photo supplied)

Ngā mihi, Kevin. And thanks for being a guest on E-Tangata. What say we start with names?

Well, I’m Samuel Kevin Prime. Samuel is a sort of a tupuna name on the Prime side. There are quite a few Samuel Primes in our whakapapa. The original tupuna was Samuel Prime who married Ani Paki Konīria back in the days of the Hongi Hika wars.

I was given the name Kevin, I think, because our parents thought you got more in life with Pākehā names. Our father even made it a rule that we all had to speak Pākehā to him, even though he only spoke Māori.

Mum couldn’t speak Pākehā that well, but she taught us, with her limited English, to speak Pākehā. So I grew up speaking Pākehā. But, all around us, te reo Māori was being spoken. It was only in our home that we spoke English to each other.

But, when we went to school, we were the cleverest kids there because we knew what the teacher was saying. And I attribute a lot of my success to being reasonably fluent in English, although my first reo is Māori, and I often struggle speaking English, especially with a Pākehā audience.

I understand that you’ve got Welsh and Tainui connections as well as being proudly from Ngāti Hine. Tell us a little bit about your mum and dad — because the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it, Kevin?

Even though I’m known more as Ngāti Hine, I’m probably more Ngāti Whātua because Mum was Ngāti Whātua and Dad was also Ngāti Whātua but his father married into Ngāti Hine. And our tūpuna on our grandfather’s side were Tainui. Our tupuna Ani Paki was from Tainui. So, Mum and Dad were related.

They had 12 children of their own. But there were lots of whāngai brought up at our place as well. It was quite common in those days that, when some parents couldn’t look after their children, someone else took over. Then, when the children got older, they were taken back by their parents, when they were in a better position to look after them.

Some, I didn’t really know. For example, when my mother died, there was one person who turned up to the tangi and said he was brought up by my mum and dad — but, naturally, I didn’t know the full extent of their looking after others and their manaakitangata.

But I do remember some of Dad’s sayings. Like, “Ki te mea koe e kore oti i a koe a tahi mahi ka mana tūturu tēnā kōrero.” Which means never ever say you can’t do something. Instead, he said, you should believe that there’s nothing you can’t do if you believe you can do it. That’s something that has always stayed with me.

Whereas Mum saw prayer as the answer to everything. And I believe it worked for her. She was someone who didn’t have much education, but she had a lot of experience and could see different values.

Like, I can remember when one of my six sisters died on the operating table, and my other five sisters, all of them nurses, were saying we should sue the Canterbury Area Health Board. But our mother hardly spoke. And then she pointed out that it says in the Scriptures that you should forgive others.

She suggested that we should forgive the doctors, forgive the hospital board, and forgive the area health board. And straight away that pain, te mamae, was lifted because we let it go. That was one of the values she carried.

We’ve got our own whānau marae at home on our farm. It was a brand new, half-round hay barn that I’d just built. We didn’t put any hay in it, and that became our marae — and all our kuia did to get it built was inoi. Pray. That’s one of her values. Never ever prayed for the money. But we built it. And it’s there now.

And that’s because we had a belief that you shouldn’t hold out your hand for handouts from the government and all that. Instead, you should depend on the sweat of your forehead — mā te werawera a tō rae. That’s what the whānau believe is how you should get things done. You don’t hold your hand out. You work for what you need.

That’s one of the values that I’ve lived by as well. Do everything within your own means. And that was an irony with me because I was on so many of the boards that gave out money and yet I never sought anything for our own whānau. I was never ever tempted to do that.

Samuel Prime, Kevin’s father. “He was before his time.” (Photo supplied)

Tēnā koe, Kevin. You say you’re from a whānau of 12 kids and many whāngai. Your pāpā must’ve been a hardworking man to feed so many tamariki.

He was a bit more than that, I think, Dale. He was before his time, because he did things like rearing what were then called dairy beef cattle. He was already doing that when we were kids. Feeding up dairy cattle so they could be sold to the works as beef — which later became a fad among farmers.

And we were planting pine trees for timber long before anyone else. We were already harvesting our pines by the time Ngāti Hine started planting theirs. We were a good 30 years ahead of everyone else because he was planting trees and trying to get others to do it. We had our own nursery at home and, we used to buy the seeds and plant our own seedlings in the nursery so only the best seedlings were selected.

Likewise, with crossbreeding cattle, he learned very early that you get healthier cattle only on the first cross — and that you got really good cattle when you crossed a Hereford with a black polled Angus. So those are some of the things that we learned. Then there was market gardening where he’d planted crops like potatoes.

And, although he had no training in mechanics, he had the skills to keep the tractor and chainsaw operating. That came from observing Pākehā in their workshops. Observing, and then doing what they were doing.

Erana Prime, Kevin’s mother, believed in prayer and forgiveness and raised 12 children and many whāngai. (Photo supplied)

Kevin, you have a national reputation as a switched-on environmentalist. Someone who is well aware of the impact that humans are having on the land. Was your dad conscious of this too in the way that he ran the farm? And in the way he considered the future and the effect on Papatūānuku?

I think he was aware of it, but I don’t think he practised it that effectively because he had a business sense as well. Whereas our tupuna, Pera, firmly believed in taking care of the environment, and she knew, for instance, not to cut down trees along the waterways — kaue turaki i ngā rākau i ngā tahataha wai.

It’s been the succeeding generations who’ve cut down trees right to the waterways. We’ve realised this mistake now after planting our fourth generation of pine trees on our place. We’re creating 50-metre buffers along all our waterways. Normally that’s tea tree or what we call kahikātoa. I think others call it mānuka.

We have a 700-year plan to have the entire farm in natives and to be able to sustainably fell native trees as a form of income — and we think that’s far better for the land, far better for the environment.

But I don’t think they consciously had a conservation or environmental ethic. They did it unconsciously. And I never ever heard that word “kaitiakitanga” as a kid even though our parents practised it. It was like a daily routine.

I became more aware of it in later years when I was appointed to the Conservation Board, I think in 1990, and I used to read a lot. They issued sheafs of papers, including science reports. I’ve always been an avid reader although, in our home, we didn’t have many books. Just Te Paipara Tapu and the Dairy Exporter.

Once I was able to read, I’d tell my parents and some of my uncles and aunties what was in the New Zealand Herald. But, of course, that was in English so when they said, “Me pānui mai koe”, I’d have to explain the news in Māori.

On the question of my father and sustainability, one of my strong memories is that there was no waste. Not with food or wood. If they cut a tree down, say for firewood, they’d chop it down and then, with a perepere, they’d attack the whole stump, the roots and all. Cut up everything. Cut up all the twigs and leave them to dry for starting the fire. There was no waste when they cut up a tree for firewood.

It was the same if they killed a cow. They didn’t waste anything. They’d use the skin to make saddles and bridles and belts and leather jackets and all sorts of things. They used the paunch. They put the innards in the garden. They’d cook it up for the dogs. Even the shins and that which nobody normally ate. They’d cook those up as well. The only thing they didn’t eat, or make use of, was probably the hair and the hooves — and they even made a sort of a glue out of them.

You know how they used to preserve pigeons and other birds in their own fat? Well, they used to do a similar thing with beef. Sort of roast it to get all the hinu out, and break it up, shred it, stuff it into jars, and then cover it with hinu, with melted dripping, to seal it to stop any bugs getting in.

“We have a 700-year plan to have the entire farm in natives and to be able to sustainably fell native trees as a form of income — and we think that’s far better for the land, far better for the environment.” (Screenshot from Te Karere interview last month.)

It’s great that you have these memories. And they help explain your love of the land. Then, along with this love is your humility. What do you make of humility as a trait to carry in life?

I suppose I’ve always believed in walking the talk. Don’t just talk about something. Do it. If you can lead by example and achieve something, that’s a far better way of taking people with you. I could remember some of the kaumātua at Ngāti Hine saying: “Kevin, you’re way ahead of us. You gotta slow down a bit and let us catch up.“

That was quite sobering to me. I realised that you’ve got to take people with you if you want to get people on board. Probably the reason I’ve been appointed to these boards and things is that observers from outside have thought that I must know a bit about it. And I’ve had first-hand experience of taking care of the poisons, drawing up the plans for pest control, making it happen by getting the stuff out and organising the staff.

And it’s not only staff but also the family and kids still in primary school. And I’ve been walking the lines carrying knapsacks and the poisons. I’ve had adults get lost in the bush and have had to send my primary school kids to find them and get them out. Those sorts of things.

If you can instil that into family — and I believe that I’ve now got the next generation keen on carrying on some of the work — there’s probably no problem putting their hand out for grants and that sort of thing.

There’s lots of things I think that still need to be done. But we now have lots of people, including Pākehā organisations, with the same sort of moemoeā or vision to make things happen. I support them and they support me.

Kevin, top, and his wife Margaret (third row from the front) with their 13 children, taken about 27 years ago. (Photo supplied)

We know that there’ve been many injustices foisted upon our people over the generations, Kevin, and that can cause angst and anger and frustration. But also we know that we’re moving forward. Some people are still infuriated by what has occurred. Others may have learned, as your māmā suggested, that we need to also harbour forgiveness and move on. But what do you see ahead of us as a country? What do you hope for?

When I was in charge of the rūnanga, I still believed a lot of what my mother said about forgiving our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us. And my stance was that we don’t want the Crown’s money. If it admits it’s done wrong, then I’m happy for us to write it off. And let’s start from the beginning. I don’t want your money. I just want to carry on with life, and I personally think that’s still the best way forward.

But I know of lots of people who disagree with me and I’m comfortable with that. I mean, we can agree to disagree, but I think our mother’s view that we should forgive others is the best way forward.

If you clearly forgive someone for their wrongdoing, you won’t carry that mamae anymore. You’re clear. You don’t have to worry about it. You don’t have to relive it.

Thank you, Kevin. Thanks for pausing and taking the time to have this kōrero today. I really appreciate it.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2023

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