Years ago, Ngahiwi Tomoana could see that the future for his iwi didn’t lie in cozying up to the government. The Ngāti Kahungunu chair (since 1996) saw other more satisfying and productive ways for the iwi to chart their course. Embracing mana motuhake has been one ingredient. Being commercially savvy another. And then there’s “romancing” the world, as he tells Dale in this kōrero.
Kia ora, Ngahiwi. You’ve been on the public stage often enough, generally putting forward the views of Kahungunu. But we don’t know too much about your background. I wonder if you might help us out.
Well, we come from the Takitimu waka. But we also whakapapa to the previous inhabitants of this area, right through to Rangitane and Te Kupe and to others that were here. We have successive layers of whakapapa and we taper right back into the earliest people in this part of the country.
That’s on Dad’s side. We get our name because, in 1857, a waka full of people from one of our hapū was travelling to Napier and it capsized. And they all drowned. Over 40 of them. There were four brothers. The first was Takamoana, which is “fall into the sea”. The second brother was Tākihi. That means a kidney, a bashed kidney — people wept so hard, their kidneys were bursting.
But my tipuna was named after Tomoana, the third brother. That means to drag the sea for tūpāpaku. And his younger brother was called Uamairangi. When they brought the bodies back to the coast, the heavens opened up and the tears flowed like rain. So, that’s our history and our connection to this area.
My father is Tamangarotengahurumairangi Tomoana. He was a harvester of the land and of the people. And his mother is from Ngāti Porou, from Tokomaru Bay, whānau Ruataupare, Te Aotāwarirangi. This was in the time when there were arranged marriages between Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Porou to cement the Tairawhiti connection.
My mother is June Amelia Tomoana (nee Southon). On her side, she’s Sāmoan. She’s Sataio, from Tufuiopa in Apia. We talk about seasonal workers coming over these days, but well before World War One, there were seasonal workers coming over from Sāmoa.
So that’s my whakapapa. Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou, and Sāmoa.
Thank you. And you’re the eldest of the kids?
I’m in middle of five.
Your schooling, Ngahiwi?
We grew up on our marae at Waipatu and we didn’t know there were Pākehā. We only saw and breathed Māori until Sunday school, or until we had to go to the dentist or the doctor. They were the only Pākehā we saw. We went to Mangateretere School where there were about 70 percent Māori. But we were all one big whānau.
Then we went to Karamu High School — and we were just 40 percent. Suddenly there were a whole lot of other people in our world. After that, I went to Massey University for a year.
But, in the whole intake of 7,000 students, only 12 were Māori. There were more Colombo Plan students from overseas than there were Māori. It was a bit of a culture shock. And I flunked out.
Came back and worked at the freezing works, shearing sheds, forestry, picking apples, fencing. I was doing all that — and then ended up contracting in all those areas for about 20 years.
You got into tribal politics early. I wonder what steered you in that direction.
Well, my uncles and aunties lived and breathed politics. Every time they’d sit at the table, they’d talk politics. But they were in the generation when they thought our Māori values wouldn’t get us anywhere. Forget all that Māori stuff.
Yet, at the table, they’d carry on cursing and swearing about what was happening to all our whānau land which had shrunk from 2000 acres to about 10 acres in their time — in my father’s time and his father’s time. So they’d swear and curse.
But, in public, they were the ideal manaaki people — and any Pākehā with a tie, they’d call “sir”. But they never stopped being passionate about who they were and about their land. They were all fluent, too, but they didn’t pass that on to us.
And their enduring tikanga never faltered. Not to this day. They would take their shirt off their back for anybody: Māori, Pākehā, Chinese. And foremost for them was protecting our land and our rivers, even though they were on the back foot all the time.
They were doing all that while they were working as labourers. And, because they spent a lot of time on the marae at tangi and so on, they had the worst jobs, because you couldn’t keep a full-time job if you kept knocking off to go and support your marae, or if your whānau were in trouble in the courts.
I grew up in that era where whānau would just take people off the street and help them, even though they themselves were living not much more than a subsistence life. When I started at the freezing works in the fifth form, I was making more money than my father, who was a qualified carpenter.
But they got by. They never moaned and we never knew we were poor. I remember having rheumatic fever and being hospitalised for a few months. I didn’t hear until recently that it’s a poor person’s disease. Me and my mates were in hospital for months and we never ever thought we were poor.
So how come it was you that was drawn into that world of tribal politics?
At our marae, they’d sing all day, all night. People would be walking up the drive and they’d be singing them in. So, we’d learn how to sing and we had a great choir called the Heretaunga Choir. It was seven of the marae coming together once a month. And I used to go to the marae and listen to them sing — and join in.
Well, once when I was still in the fifth form, I thought I was going to choir practice, but actually, it was a marae committee. They looked around and said: “Boy. You got a pen. You can be the secretary.”
So I became the marae secretary. For 10 years. I’d write all the minutes — although my aunties and uncles usually wouldn’t agree with them. So they’d rip them up and start again.
My uncle, Boy Tomoana, would say: “Here’s the minutes.” And he’d quote verbatim what people had been saying. But, still, I was encouraged by everybody. And my siblings, especially my older siblings, were going: “Oh, good. You got the job! We don’t have to do it.”
So I had everyone’s support. Then, when I was still only 18, I started speaking on the marae because my uncles would stand and say: “We’re passing our speaking rights over to our nephew here who is going to speak for our marae from now on.”
And then it became for more marae. And then for the iwi. Now, it’s escalated, and I’m speaking on behalf of a lot of pan-iwi stuff these days. It seemed like a natural progression, but it’s pretty torturous all the way. I saw people dying in the saddle, still holding on to what they believed in — and I thought I better keep going.
Also, I’ve been bringing in the kids. I’d chased all my kids away so they wouldn’t get into it, but they’ve been gradually creeping back and saying: “We want to do this stuff, Dad.” Just like I did with my mum and dad.
That’s an awesome kōrero, Ngahiwi. What about the reo? The old people had it, but they didn’t encourage your generation to grasp it. How did you find it?
My grandmother from Tokomaru Bay, she had seven sisters. They all looked like Pākehā. Very fair, very blonde. But they only spoke Māori, except when I walked into the room and then they’d start speaking English.
I think they were trying to protect me from all the losses and the abuse and the beatings they’d suffered around their own tikanga. All their conversations on the telephone were in te reo — until I came in, and then they’d break into English again.
That’s my grandmother, who lived with us for 10 to 15 years. And all her sisters. And our parents, as well.
And how was it growing up there and having Sāmoan as well as Māori whakapapa? It’s been a testy relationship between Pasifika and Māori over the years, hasn’t it? Although I sense there’s a coming together in closer ways than ever before.
When I was growing up and started taking these leadership roles, if I upset my aunties and uncles, they’d call me a coconut. And if I’d done something good, I was a Māori.
And with my Samoan family, if I did something wrong, I was a kūmara.
So we were having these cross-cultural things within the whānau, let alone outside.
We had an iwi chairs meeting in parliament one day. Phillip Field, who was the MP for Māngere, came in and got me. He said: “Come brother, we got all your whānau down here in the Pacific Island room.” So, I got up and walked out, and you could hear a pin drop as all my iwi chair colleagues looked at me, as if to say: “He’s a bloody coconut!”
So, here we are, walking down to the Pacific Island room, and then all the Pacific Island leaders looking at me, as if to say: “What the bloody hell is that kūmara doing here? Get him out.”
You’ve involved yourself heavily in tribal issues for more than 20 years, and been on umpteen boards — and you’ve chaired many of them, too. But what has stood out for you in that time?
I think the highlight has been seeing our people emerge from some of the darkest moments, and emerge stronger. And seeing that we now have a whole generation of native speakers who’ve come through kōhanga, kura kaupapa, and wānanga.
All of my reo, I’ve picked up off the paepae. So it’s all formal, disjointed, symbolic reo that no one understands these days. And hearing our kids talk is just music to my ears, to my soul, and to my heart. It’s really uplifting.
And it’s encouraging to see more people getting into the reo because it’s not just a matter of culture. It’s the language of business as well. Business and trading was always part of our culture. When we came through the Pacific, we came as a trading nation back and forth.
But then, with all the loss of all of our resources in the wake of the Treaty, we became a spiritual nation without the trading bit. So, hearing our kids speaking in te reo, confident, taking on commerce, law, and everything else — that’s the biggest joy unfolding before us.
In dealing with the Crown, you’ve had to cope with changing governments. It’s been Labour, then National, and now Labour again. And all the time you’ve been trying to advance Māori kaupapa. How challenging has that been?
Well, it’s hōhā really. What I’m trying to do is get our people to take our future into our own hands, whoever the government is. For the last 10 to 20 years, I’ve been telling the government that, if they’re not going to help us, they should get out of our way. Because we’re coming through.
And, if they threaten us, they should be aware that we now have the institutional capacity to sue them. We can say: “We’re not frightened of you anymore.” We’re just putting mana motuhake and tino rangatiratanga into action.
About 15 or 16 years ago, our board decided that we wouldn’t do any more government contracts so that we could do and say what we wanted without being compromised by any contractual obligations to the Crown. And that’s served us well. We’re not a social delivery iwi. We don’t do that. We try and influence strategy and legislation that enables our iwi to make progress.
That’s a nice distinction. Well put. I’m conscious of your keen interest in looking beyond Aotearoa to the whole of Pasifika — and to the potential for international indigenous trade.
I was brought up in a very strong community, Waipatu, and I thought that was the limit of our estate. Then we found out that we’re part of this Whatu i Apiti group that stretches from Napier through to Takapau.
Next we learned that we’re from Kahungunu — that goes from Wairoa to Wairarapa — and that we owned half the North Island. Then we found that we belong to Takitimu, which goes from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island. And suddenly, we own the whole country.
Then, in the course of our business relationships with the Cook Islands, Tom Davis, the Rarotongan prime minister at the time, pointed out another perspective. He said: “Takitimu? You’re just boys down there in Aotearoa. Takitimu started in Sāmoa, went to Fiji, Tonga, Tahiti, and back here to Rarotonga before you babies were ever heard of.”
So now we were learning, as Takitimu, that we own half the Southern Hemisphere.
And our whakapapa goes into Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, with Polynesian dialects all the way through there. And then heading up into Malaysia, into Sabah and all those places. As well as the Philippines, Taiwan, and into China.
So now I want to document all that, so that our kids have a sense of history and understand that this wasn’t the end point. Our beginning was halfway around the world. This is a midpoint. Now we’ve got to complete the circle. We came down here trading. And now we need to trade and culturalise our way back around the rest of the world. I think that’s the next wave for us — romancing the world.
That’ll be no pushover, will it? There are so many challenges confronting Māori.
Unfortunately, the further we go forward, the more we face people trying to hold us back. It’s a real hōhā.
Like Te Mata Peak track. There’s an enormous amount of energy going into that issue when we should be concentrating on our reo and our tikanga — and on romancing the country and the world. But we have to spend an inordinate amount of time on the back foot fighting against kūare people and their kūare ideas.
That’s the most frustrating part for me. The good thing, though, is that we now have a power base. We have resources, we have assets and cash. We now have the wherewithal as Māori, to come together, bring these issues to a head, attack them and move on.
As well as heading Ngāti Kahungunu since 1996, Ngahiwi has sat on many boards and iwi and hapū committees, leading many of them. He’s chaired Te Ohu Kaimoana Trust, the Māori Economic Development Advisory Board, and the primary sector group of the Minister of Māori Affairs’ Māori Economic Taskforce, among many others. He’s also a director of Hawke’s Bay Seafoods Limited, deputy commissioner of the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board, and a member of the Pacific Cooperation Forum.