Miriama Kamo wasn’t the sort of child who seemed bound for a very public career. Much too shy and retiring for that. But, over the last 20 years, after reeling in a BA at the University of Canterbury, she’s become more and more familiar as an outgoing media personality. You may have got to know her through, for instance, Backchat, 20/20, Sunday, Marae or Kiwi Living. And in various roles including reporter, interviewer, presenter, host, and producer. Here she tells Dale about her beginnings.
I grew up on the east side of Christchurch. South Brighton is a working-class suburb. Like you, Dale, I’ve become middle-class Māori, but I wasn’t born that way, despite what people may think. There are probably a few misconceptions about me, although the only one that bothers me is the notion that I don’t know who I am as Māori. It stuns me really. It’s probably because I work in mainstream media and don’t have a Māori accent.
But, when I was growing up, we were taught to never ask somebody: “Ko wai koe?” and I’m amazed by how often I’m asked that question in some way or another. I guess people think they can because of where I work and because I don’t kōrero Māori fluently. But I was born to my marae, have fought for my people and been a student (albeit not a very accomplished one) of the language my entire life. I mostly shrug it off, though, because I know who I am.
What’s been the reaction to the gradual introduction on screen of your reo?
Generally pretty good. I’ve always used it in my work and I’ve never had any great negative reactions to it. There were a couple of mild barbs when I did Te Ataarangi for a year. Because I was speaking te reo every day, I used it more in my broadcasts. It wasn’t a political statement — it just became natural. Most people like it, but not everyone. And I get the odd barb thrown at me. But I don’t see all the comments, and I’m careful not to get too tied up in social media.
It’s neat when we have young Pākehā broadcasters comfortable with te reo. Perhaps the next generation in the media will embrace the language more and more — and do a much better job than what’s been done so far. Do you think so?
Well, I have a lot of hope but not a lot of confidence. There’s more acceptance and there’s more ease with pronouncing te reo. But speaking it functionally isn’t increasing. I’m a proponent for compulsory te reo in schools. We’re forced to learn English, science and maths. Why not be expected to kōrero Māori? To use the language of this country? There are so many good reasons to do it. Not least that it’s an official language.
One valid reason for it not becoming compulsory is that we don’t have the teachers. But we have to create the will and the market demand. And it might be that reo-speaking teachers won’t necessarily all be Māori. Te reo should be something all New Zealanders can own and be proud of. It shouldn’t feel like it’s a foreign language in our own country.
Our newsrooms have often reflected society’s patronising attitude towards Māori stories and Māori kaupapa. But at least that’s starting to change, isn’t it?
It has changed. There’s less resistance now to covering Māori issues. The skill and will is there, but perhaps not the confidence. I’m heartened, though, by the attitude towards Māori issues inside newsrooms. That’s improved a lot since I’ve been in the industry. This is one of the reasons I’d love to see Māori be compulsory in schools. Once both Pākehā and Māori can access what now feels to many like a foreign world, there’ll be better and more confident coverage of all issues.
In your career so far, what stories stand out for you — especially those with a Māori focus?
The biggest story for me was covering the alleged abuses at Porirua Hospital in the 60s and 70s when state wards were sent, all too often, to that institution and others like it. A lot of Māori in prison today say they were part of that state ward system.
I’m involved in Pillars, a charitable organisation which supports children of prison inmates. Both my parents were prison chaplains. My mother has only just retired after 33 years serving at Christchurch Women’s Prison, Paparua Men’s and Rolleston. We used to go up with her on Sunday to do services when we were kids. So I have some understanding of and empathy for justice issues. Fifty percent of our prison population is Māori, yet we make up only 14 percent of the general population. And that’s outrageous. That’s a statistic that the whole nation should be addressing, not just Māori.
When a member of your family is suffering, do you kick them out, or do you try and figure out what happened to cause that situation? Do you support them, and try and ease the pain? A whole functioning family is better than a divided and traumatised one. The same goes for our nation. Many of those affected by their experiences at Porirua would’ve been Māori and a lot will still be suffering in prison. Or on the streets. Still traumatised.
Seeing the devastation in Christchurch after the earthquakes must’ve been tough for you.
Having my family there — and coming from there — and seeing all the devastation was awful. I was 17 weeks pregnant at the time of the first earthquake and trying to hide it because I’d never had any luck holding pregnancies. I remember thinking: “I’m going to tuck this baby in, and we’re gonna go down and look at our home town, because this is important and this is where we’re from.”
It didn’t feel real. It was like going through a film set. It didn’t feel like my city. And I still get little shocks each time I go down, when I realise that I don’t know exactly where I’m standing in the city. All those landmarks are gone.
What was the best thing about growing up in Christchurch?
There were plenty of great things, not least that we were near our marae, Te Wheke, at Rapaki, and Rehua as well. We were hui-hoppers. My nana took us to hui all the time. We had a whānau bach at Poranui (Birdlings Flat) so we were part of the eeling community there. That was always a great adventure.
All five of us Kamo kids were in kapa haka groups. Nana, our dad’s mum, was one of the founders at Rehua marae. From the minute we were born, we were expected to be there every Sunday, front and centre. Nana and Papa’s first language was te reo, and, while they didn’t pass the reo on to their kids, they raised them to be “mindfully Māori” and that was passed down to us. Our Pākehā mother took on that mantle and, with Dad, raised us to be mindfully Māori too.
My nana was known as Kui, but her name was Sarah Thelma Whaitiri. Then she married my papa, Ned Te Koeti Kamo. My dad is Raynol Ward Kamo. My mother always joked that my nana made up the name “Raynol” because we’ve never known one before or since. Dad would be a fairly rare breed these days because he has little Pākehā blood. He had one Portuguese great-grandfather, but otherwise his whakapapa is all Māori. My mother’s name is Mary Catherine Kamo. She was a Hardman from proud Irish-Scottish stock — and she grew up in Dunedin.
As for the career benefits of growing up in Christchurch … well, that was great because I had no idea how competitive the industry was until I was well ensconced in Auckland. There are a lot of Cantabrians in broadcasting here in Auckland. I think we mostly just bowled on in, thinking: “Here we are. Got any work?” We didn’t really know that there were steps we were meant to observe on the way through. That’s what happened to me anyway.
How did your parents meet?
My dad was a musician. He used to own a coffee bar called The Pink Elephant, where jazz musicians would gather to jam after they’d finished their gigs. It was, by all accounts, a pretty iconic hang-out for musos. My mum and my grandma went up there for a coffee. The law in those days meant you weren’t allowed to serve alcohol unless you were a licenced pub. And this was just a “coffee bar”. But, behind the scenes, all sorts of naughtiness went on. So my mum went there for a drink and met my dad, who then invited her and my grandma to a party.
Tell us about Raynol, your old man.
Dad was born on Wharekauri (the Chatham Islands). He came to Christchurch when he was three, because my grandfather, my papa, had lung issues. Papa was expected to die in his 20s. He was sent to Christchurch for a change of climate, met a Chinese herbalist who gave him some concoction and he lived into his 70s.
Music was really big for Dad and his sisters. He took up the double bass and he was well known in musician circles. He played with really interesting visiting musos — Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown from the Oscar Peterson Quartet. Also Johnny Farnham. And he played as a pick-up muso for the Volcanics. When big acts came into town, he tended to end up jamming along with them.
Nana and Papa were movers and shakers in the Māori world in Christchurch, and their daughters, Brenda, Patricia (Patty) and Marlene were big in kapa haka circles. They were fairly formidable teachers as well — well-known for being tough and exacting. My Aunty Patty passed those expectations on to her own daughters and they became magical choral singers. Those daughters have passed similar expectations on to their own kids and so, happily, it goes on. Dad was one of six, and has just one sister left. That’s Aunty Tutu. She’s really Marlene, but she was a tutu when she was growing up so that’s been her name since. She’s the best — funny, tough, sweet.
On my mother’s side, they were all singers. My grandmother was an accomplished opera singer. She never pursued it as a career because she ended up having 10 children. But she raised her kids to have a love for music. Almost all of them sang beautifully.
Were you and your siblings all kapa haka kids?
Yes, we were. But I was painfully shy and I used to try and get out of it. So it’s strange that I chose the career that I did. Thoughout high school I did kapa haka. We were Tihi Puanaki’s students. She demanded that we be strong and passionate about our kapa haka. And she had high expectations of us all. She also insisted that I do the Korimako speech competitions every year.
My brother Ward, who’s the oldest of us kids, really picked up the musical side of things. He was in bands at university and was a very good bass player. My older sister, Michaela, works in health in Tauranga. Then there’s me, then my younger brother, Amos, who works at the New Zealand Transport Agency. And a younger sister, Sian, who’s in sales.
I was so shy that, when I was three or four, my mum took me to a child psychologist. I didn’t know why we went until, years later, my mother finally told me that it was because I wouldn’t speak outside of the house. I remember going. The psychologist got me to look at pictures and put stories to them. That was perfect for me because, as a kid, I loved making up stories. So I made up all sorts of stories to go with these pictures.
I remember she gave me a walnut at the end, as a reward. I was really excited and I wanted to show that I could crack it between my teeth. She said: “No, no, use this nutcracker.” And I was like: “No, no, I’m tough. I can use my teeth.” So, despite the shyness, I was a show-off, too. After the session, she joked to my mother: “There’s nothing wrong with the child. But there might be something wrong with her mother for bringing her here.”
How come you went to Aranui High School?
I grew up in South Brighton and it was the closest high school. And, it was also because my brother went there. He’d been given the option of going to one of the fancier schools, but he wasn’t interested in that. My parents liked to let us choose, but because Ward led the way there, we all followed him. I think we all mostly loved it. I certainly did.
Christchurch has a reputation for being conservative — and a bit redneck. Did that cause you any discomfort?
No. I was an adult before I understood that Christchurch had a reputation for asking people what school they’d been to. But I didn’t grow up in the fancier part of town where the school you went to mattered to some people. I’m proud I went to Aranui because I had a great education there. In fact, my experience of life and my education were enhanced by being at a school with so many of my own people, and with such a diverse student body.
Are you ambitious? Might you end up in the Beehive?
Ha, I don’t see that in my future. I’m happy with what I’m doing now. I feel lucky — privileged really — to be in this industry.
The thing I find scariest (and that I invest a lot of energy in) is writing. My dream is to write screenplays. And, if I can get my act together, a book.
Pillars supports the children of prison inmates. Research shows that they’re seven times more likely than other kids to end up in prison. But one way to change that pattern is to mentor them. Pillars has 50 mentors around the country from all walks of life. You can support by contacting Pillars at pillars.org.nz
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