Prue Kapua has been “stepping up” for a good many years now — opting for law as a career, taking on some difficult opponents in the Environment Court, and, late last year, becoming the president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League. She has had frustrations along the way, but there have been heartening signs, too, especially with the tireless, voluntary community work being done by so many league women. She tells Dale about the path she’s taken so far.
Okay, Prue. What can you tell me about that Kapua name? And then there’s “Prue” which isn’t that common either, is it?
No, it’s not. I have no idea where Prudence came from. My mother obviously had a moment. There’s no family connection, and there’s nobody I know even vaguely who has that name. And I don’t know what I ever did to deserve that. Then there’s my middle name, Jane. Hmmm. I don’t know where that came from, either.
Kapua is another story though. It’s an abbreviation of Tama Te Kapua. My koro decided on that short version for whatever reasons he had in mind. Maybe he just didn’t like signing the full name. So, my actual full surname is Tama Te Kapua. But Kapua became the name we used as a family. So that’s where it comes from. Pretty embedded in Te Arawa. And a name I’m very proud of.
And what about your folks and where you grew up?
That was Rotorua. I was born there, adopted there, and grew up there. My birth mother was from Kahungunu, but I was adopted as a baby by a Māori father and a Pakeha mother. I have a brother and a sister who, too, were adopted. One was born in Tamaki and the other in Palmerston North.
We grew up in a Māori Affairs house and I went to school at Sunset Primary and Sunset Intermediate in Rotorua — then to Girls’ High. And, you know, it was a good life. We enjoyed growing up. We had all the relations around about. I played a bit of sport — a lot of tennis at school.
At Girls’ High we had about 45 percent Māori students. By the time I was in the seventh form there were only two of us in a class of about 32. So there were real issues about bringing Māori through. It wasn’t until my last year at school that they introduced Māori language. It seems remarkable that it took so long. We had all the other languages — French, German, whatever.
It came in when I was in the seventh form so I did Māori language in my last year through to School C level. It’s changed over the years though. There’s much more emphasis now on Māori issues. We did have a reasonably strong kapa haka at the time but, apart from that, there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on Māori culture.
Prue, given your background, could we talk for a few moments about whangai and adoption?
Back when I was born, the ability to adopt was a lot easier than it is today, particularly where the people who were adopting were of mixed race. So being Māori and having a Māori parent was probably an easier match at that time. But I guess, as an adopted child, you’ll always wonder. No matter what your relationship is with your adoptive or whangai parents, you always have that question in the back of your mind.
And they were closed adoptions in my day. So you grow up thinking and wondering about your background — especially when you’re Māori. I didn’t have any contact with my birth mother until I was about 29, and that was a good thing to do. And it was good to find out about where I’d come from, about how she grew up and all of that stuff. That’s a part of you, I guess. So I’ve been lucky because she’s now passed and that was a difficult thing to go through, but, it completed the picture.
I have friends who’ve been adopted into Pakeha families and they’ve had real difficulties. So that’s one of the issues that we have to look at, whether we’re talking about whangai adoption or foster care, or state care, or whatever. We all have that need to find out about ourselves and our whakapapa.
Just out of curiosity, did you seek out your birth mother or was it the other way around?
I sought her out. And she was quite accepting of my approach, although there was a bit of trepidation on both sides seeing that there’d been almost 30 years of us not knowing what had been going on in each other’s lives.
She was 23 when she had me — and I discovered that I was the only child she’d had. She was unable to have any children after that, although she had two adoptive daughters. What was pleasing was that, when we got to know each other, we had a good relationship. I met her before I had my own children and they got to know her as well. So, it was positive.
Was there a difficulty for your mum, as a Pakeha, coping with your strong interest in taha Māori, because that’s dominated much of your working career, hasn’t it?
Well, that’s an interesting question. Actually, when I was younger, my mother, Laurel, was quite involved in things Māori, like managing our kapa haka group at school. And she maintained that interest as I got older and became more and more committed to my views.
Interestingly, when I was younger, it was my father, Tuhaka (or Basil), who would be asking: “Why are you bothering with all this?”
My father had been of that generation where they’d spoken only Māori as children and then didn’t speak it beyond that because they’d been told it was wrong. He left school as a 12-year-old, and was a very good sportsman.
As I look back on it now, I can see that he suppressed a lot of that part of his upbringing. He was brought up on the pa with his grandparents, so he was pretty entrenched, but he put that Māoriness to one side and really immersed himself in his sports and work. He worked for the same plumbing firm for about 40 years.
But, when I began to take an interest in things Māori, Dad came out of himself and lent a hand, especially with the reo. We would often talk about things as I was trying to build up my skills in that area. And, when he started to become more involved, the reaction of my mother was to pull away — and become a bit critical of it.
So there was an unusual swing through my early and teenage years, where Mum was interested and involved, partly because she was a guidance teacher at school dealing with a lot of Māori kids. But then, as Dad and I got closer and as he talked a lot more about his grandparents and about his past, I think she found that a little bit threatening. And she wasn’t particularly supportive of me finding my birth mother. So, we’ve had a few issues.
I don’t know how she feels about the work and things that I do, but I can’t change that now. I can’t change her view about it. I’d hope that she thinks it’s right. But who knows?
Following on from your high school years, there were your university days — and, in due course, a law degree. When did you become concerned about injustice, and become politicised?
I think, probably, around the time of coming up to Auckland University, from Rotorua. I didn’t do law until a couple of years in. I was doing, as it was called then, Māori Studies. We had a fairly active group of friends and flatmates. We all flatted together at different times. People like Hone Harawira, Riki Gage, Tony Andrews, a lot of boys from Tipene. Also Ipi Bedggood, who was Pat Hohepa’s niece, and Huia Ngata. And we’d travel around together to various hui.
There were students a couple of years ahead of us who were actively involved in issues around Bastion Point. Like Donna Awatere and Ripeka Evans. It was a time when we were working together a lot. And, of course, that was the time of the Engineers haka incident —which we knew that morning was about to happen.
Then there was a transition when I was going to go teaching — but, at the last minute, I decided I’d go into law instead. That was a culture shock for me because the law students seemed to be a privileged, cloistered, unusual group, wandering around with their briefcases.
After mixing with the actively involved Māori Studies students, these law people didn’t seem to be in touch with reality. There was such a contrast between the two faculties — and I wasn’t comfortable there. In fact, for a year I went into a “I don’t want to be here” state of mind. Partly because we didn’t have many Māori law students. Only three of us in the year I started, although, by the time I left law school, there was a big Māori intake. And it was good to see an increase in the numbers and the support.
Then, you hadn’t been working all that long as a lawyer when you opted to set up your own practice. Tamatekapua Law. That must’ve meant taking a few deep breaths.
I’d been a partner at Walters Williams, and I went there because it was a Māori focused firm. But, when Joe Williams left to go on to the bench, the focus changed — and that didn’t sit right with me. So I decided that, if I wanted to continue doing the work for the client base that I was most comfortable with, I had to do something myself, even though it’s a challenge to run your own business.
It’s been a frustrating period for me dealing with a number of cases, particularly to do with environmental issues. Actually, the legislation gives Māori a really strong base, but there’s resistance at every level. The legislation was always meant to acknowledge our tangata whenua values. But, whether it’s councils or applicants or judges, they’ve always found ways around that and to prioritise other matters.
You do get little wins here and there, but it’s a slow, slow process. And, in my view, it should never have been that slow. We should be in a situation where we have Māori consent authorities. But that would mean delegating power — and councils don’t give up their power.
You can put all the pretty words in the world into the legislation but, if you don’t actually carry it through, or, if the people who are carrying it through don’t come from a background where they understand that, then it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.
Over the years, we’ve had some quite good decisions out of the Environment Court. And there were big changes after Kevin Prime became a commissioner. With him you didn’t have to spend all your time explaining things because he actually got it. But we have to keep pushing for people to acknowledge their own shortcomings and to take advice from people who know. But that’s the hardest battle we have.
If you were running the show, as Prime Minister or whatever, what would you focus on as the most important issues?
We have to look at the statistics for Māori — and we have to look at Māori-led solutions. We’ve got a real problem with government departments and their emphasis on outputs and outcomes — and money-driven solutions.
But we have to step up as well, as Māori. Not as chosen people. And not just with people the Government feels comfortable with. But with us being careful who we put forward — and then with us taking a very active part and getting down to a dialogue about how we can address inequities that have gone on, mai ra ano.
These days, of course, you have a role that’s quite different from your legal work. It’s as the president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League. What’s the most satisfying part of that mahi?
It’s seeing the absolute commitment from our women in the branches. They’re under the radar but, day in and day out, they’re just getting on with the job. Keeping an eye on what’s happening with our kids. Seeing that the mums are taking their babies to be immunised. Seeing that those kids listed with CYFS have a safe house to go to. Working in suicide prevention. Going into the schools and reading to the kids. And so on.
The work is huge and they all do whatever their communities are needing at the time. And they do it tirelessly. Voluntarily. They seem to have an invisible roster where one leads to another. They’re out there supporting the people in the communities — and it’s huge.
Perhaps the League has a profile with its national office and its exec and its president. But the force of the organisation is in all of those women who are doing incredible work. They’re absolutely fabulous.
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