NUKU, a multimedia project to amplify the stories of Indigenous women, is the latest of a series of achievements that are the products of the talents and tenacity of Qiane Matata-Sipu, a Māngere writer and photographer.
Qiane has had apprenticeships in communications, magazine journalism and photography — and she and her Ihumātao whānau are also battle-scarred from years of tangling with an array of high-powered opponents slow to have much concern about the generations of injustice on their whenua.
But things are looking up there. And NUKU, the just-released book, with its stories and images of 100 Indigenous women, is another positive step, as Dale learns in this chat with Qiane.
Tēnā koe, Qiane. From time to time, you’re in the spotlight as you are once again with your book. But let’s go back and hear about the young Qiane.
Kia ora, Dale. Well, my first name is one that my mum made up — and all through my 36 years of life, just about everybody has been saying it wrong.
And it keeps confusing people. Back in my schooldays, it really disappointed my English teachers who’d tell me that there should be a “u” after the “Q” and that I’m disobeying the laws of English by spelling Qiane this way.
So, I started my life as a rebel, bending the western system of spelling right from birth. And I’ve been quite happy about that.
In a way, Māmā was well before her time, because there are now lots of people with unique names. She wanted a name that you couldn’t twist into a nickname, but I have heaps of nicknames, so she didn’t quite win that one.
But I love my name and how different it is. It’s also been handy because I’ve been able to name my business after my name, and I don’t have to worry about anybody else using the same word.
Matata-Sipu is a combination of the names from my grandfather and my husband, Willie. My whakapapa is Māori and Cook Islands. My iwi are Te Wai o Hua ki Te Ahiwaru me Te Ākitai, Waikato, Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Pikiao, and we’re also from Arorangi in Rarotonga and from Mangaia.
But I was born and raised in Māngere and Ihumātao, and I’m staunchly proud to whakapapa here and to live in the Ihumātao papakāinga.
Were you a marae kid?
Yes! Most definitely a marae kid. I had the privilege of being raised with my grandparents. I was the eldest mokopuna, and my grandfather was one of the few kaumātua who’d sit on the pae at the marae. He was our marae custodian and also the maintenance guy, and I’d follow him around everywhere. I’ve had a few electric shocks changing lightbulbs with him, holding on to the ladder under the mahau.
I had a beautiful upbringing at the feet of my grandparents and I’d attend marae meetings from the age of eight. So, I learned a lot about governance and whānaungatanga and tikanga and all that stuff, right at the best place that you can learn it — at your marae with your kuia and koroua.
My nan was a teacher, and she was also a creative, a weaver and artist. She helped to weave the tukutuku panels in our wharenui. My grandfather, along with a lot of our uncles and koroua, built our wharenui, so I was lucky to get a strong foundation in te ao Māori from them.
What was your koro’s name?
His name was Jones Matata, but he hated being called Jones. He preferred being called Joe, but everybody knew him as Jumby. My nan’s name was Dawn, but she was known as Ginger because of her ginger-coloured hair.
Both my grandparents have passed on. I spent most of my life at Nan’s house, and, whenever there was anything wrong, she’d cook a kai. But not just any kai.
She’d cook the most interesting concoctions and then she’d write the menu and recipes on a little piece of paper and roll it up into a scroll and put that in a jar. That made dinner an experience and not just a matter of putting kai on the table.
I think I got a lot of my storytelling ability from her. She loved to write. She’d write in her diary about what was happening in her life, and she’d often threaten that, if we did something mean or wrong, she’d write about it in her diary and then, when she died, we’d all have to read about it, feel guilty and cry.
You went to school in Māngere, didn’t you? Many people have a clouded view of Māngere as a community. But what’s your feeling about it?
Oh, a clouded view of Māngere, Ihumātao, South Auckland. It’s an incredible area with an immense pool of talent. The Ihumātao papakāinga on its own is a beautiful hub of life. All our whānau live next to each other, our tamariki play in the street together, we share kai.
If I plant something, someone else plants something different and we’re sharing seeds and kai in that beautiful community way of living, right beside our marae, surrounded by our awa, on the side of our moana, and right next to our whenua.
Growing up in Māngere was the best upbringing I could’ve asked for.
When my family moved back to Tāmaki Makaurau, I drove out to Ihumātao and I thought: “I could live here. It feels right, like a village from yesteryear.” And, if there’d been a house for rent, I probably would’ve been your neighbour.
I’ve worked in Māngere for a long time, and, if you drive down Bader Drive today, you can see the changes, see the houses going up, some of them like boxes where people don’t have the freedom that you and I perhaps grew up with. What would you say about those major housing changes and the clustering of whānau? How do you think that will affect the future of Māngere residents?
First of all, I recognise my own privilege in where I live. I live on a block of land that was once my great-grandfather’s orchard, so I have a beautiful backyard that my kōtiro can run around in, and I’m really privileged that I own a house.
But when I think about city planning and what’s happening to our low socio-economic communities, one of them being Māngere, I can see that people who don’t live here are the ones planning what happens here — and you can tell that they don’t care.
What I mean is that, when you go down Bader Drive, you pass five or six fast-food outlets on one strip of road, and that doesn’t include the little takeaways inside the blocks of shops.
That already tells me that planners don’t care about the health and wellbeing of our community. You drive past alcohol outlets across the road from schools, two on the same street, and, again, that tells me that planners don’t care about the health and wellbeing of our community.
And you look at what a whānau in a wealthier suburb will enjoy — having a backyard, having space for their tamariki to run around in. Our communities are losing that, one by one.
It’s high-density housing that’s going in, and while I appreciate that whānau need warm, dry houses, when you’re building, you’re not just building a house. You have to consider what the community looks like around that.
If you’re going to put 100 houses with multi-level living on a small block of land with no real backyards, and then surround those houses with fast-food outlets and liquor stores, what outcomes do you expect?
I understand that a teacher tried to discourage you from going into the media as a career, but that didn’t stop you. You learned to use words as your tools of trade. Tell us about that.
Yes, my careers teacher told me I wasn’t good enough to get into the communications degree at AUT, but I did make it.
At university, I was one of less than a handful of Māori who went through that degree, and in my final year, when I was majoring in journalism, I kind of became the token Māori, and everybody would come to me for Māori story ideas or ask for help with their Māori story.
So, before I left uni, I said to myself: “I don’t want to be typecast as only writing Māori stories. I don’t want to work in Māori media.”
But then my first job was with Mana magazine. I think my tūpuna were giving me a slap around the ears and saying: “No, you’re gonna go down this pathway.”
I worked for Mana for a few years. It was a small team at that time, but it was the best education I could ever have in journalism, because I learned how a magazine was put together. The advertising, production, layout, design and photo shoots — and, because it was a small team, I also had plenty of opportunities to interview and write and take photographs.
After Mana, I became the deputy editor for three years at Spasifik, a Māori and Pasifika magazine. It was another independent, low-budget, small-team publication where I was able to learn so much.
Often, when you work for a newspaper, you’re assigned to a certain round, but when you join a small organisation, you get to be everybody and do everything.
While I was working for those magazines, I was also freelancing and doing some stuff with Te Puni Kōkiri and building my network and my portfolio of work.
Then, when I finished at Spasifik, I decided that I didn’t want to work for anybody else, and that I’m not a great employee. I’m too driven. I know what I want and when I want it and how I want it. So, I decided to start my own business.
I launched a one-person multimedia production house, doing photography, comms and freelance writing. I did some writing and photography for The Spinoff and New Zealand Geographic and other publications, and it was great because I got to do what I like to do — that’s to tell stories through words and images.
I still run the business but now I have a bit more of a team. My speciality is working with our Māori and Pacific people, telling those stories.
A couple of years ago, I was challenged to talk about my purpose in life in one sentence, and I realised that it is to amplify the stories of marginalised people and their communities so we can change the narratives of future generations. That’s what I do. That’s been a driver behind me starting NUKU.
Let’s talk about photography and your development as a photographer.
I never studied photography. I taught myself and, when I bought my first professional camera as a 19-year-old, I soon learned that a camera doesn’t make a good photo, just like a hammer doesn’t build a good house. You need to know how to use the tool.
Early on in my business, I realised that journalism wasn’t providing enough money to live on. So, I started shooting weddings. And there’s this interesting whakaaro around photographers who shoot weddings. It’s like: “Oh, you’re just a wedding photographer.” But weddings aren’t a pushover. They’re some of the hardest events that you can ever shoot. And it’s a great way to hone your skills.
There can be great people to work with or there can be headaches from the guests or families, like a crazy drunk uncle who, somehow, you have to incorporate into a photo.
Also, you have to learn to work with the elements, because you have no control over the day. It may be raining or bright, so you have to read light, how to work with different personalities, how to get great images.
Five summers of weddings was a great learning experience but I branched into other photography too. And I began to hold exhibitions of my work.
One of my first solo exhibitions was about Ihumātao. I photographed my whānau of Ihumātao and its ever-changing papakāinga, and that work travelled internationally. It was about providing an inside perspective of life in a papakāinga today.
Another show was about exploring the diversity of faith in Māngere. That included going into a megachurch that was like a big concert. Another was visiting a small Thai temple.
Experiences like that helped me become more confident as a photographer. And the various people I’ve met in my now 15-year media career have made me fearless in the sense that I don’t have any issues approaching people I don’t know.
Your unwavering commitment to Ihumātao is inspiring. What does the land mean to you now, and have your feelings for it changed after fighting so hard for it?
First of all, the battle is not quite over. These last six or seven years of fighting for our whenua have been one of the most rewarding, painful, exhausting and stressful times of my life. I got to wear my communications pōtae for a lot of it — and it taught me a great deal about strategising.
Learning how to take stock of the people we’re dealing with, gauging what moves we should make, predicting what consequences would come from those moves, and seeing what leverage we’d be able to exploit.
That constant strategising was exhausting, but we were fighting for the whenua, for our kaumātua and kuia who’d gone before us, and for our tamariki and mokopuna coming after us.
Those aware of the history of Ihumātao know that the proposed housing development was just another nail in the coffin of the āhuatanga and the wairua which is Ihumātao.
Our tūpuna, right up to our grandparents, once had a clean awa to gather kaimoana from, a clean harbour to go and collect scallops and fish, and whenua where they could grow their māra.
And only two generations later, there was none of that. No ability to get kai that’s not polluted or poisoned. No ability to roam the whenua because, somehow, there are owners or laws preventing that. So, we could see how much loss our whānau had faced and how disempowered our whānau were.
I don’t think that the six of us cousins who got together to do the campaign ever understood what we were getting ourselves into. If we had understood, I don’t know if we would’ve done it.
But there was a beauty in that naivety because we just kept pushing and, as we pushed, we learned we couldn’t give up.
I remember the day the police came in. I remember being emotional because I was thinking about our kāinga, our kāumatua and kuia who were no longer here, who’d stood by us, supported us, told us they wanted us to take this whenua for them.
Then I thought about my own child, that she would recite her pepeha to something that possibly wasn’t going to be there anymore. So, it’s been a significant part of my history and will be in my daughter’s history too.
Now that we’re on the other side of it, I’m so proud of my whānau and the way that our wider whānau embraced the change that the Ihumātao campaign brought into our lives.
It’s seeing my whānau stand up and be vocal about what they want and no longer feel like they’re oppressed about who they are, where they are, and about the circumstances that have happened to them.
They want to create a different future, and they’re holding the reins to do that themselves. And that’s been incredible to witness and to be part of. It’s been a whole shift of consciousness.
It’s been a remarkable achievement, to protect your beautiful whenua. Many of us feel forever indebted to you and your cousins and those who stood beside you.
But let’s turn now to NUKU, your book about the lives of 100 Indigenous women. NUKU is your metaphorical baby, but I believe it took quite a long time for you to conceive your physical baby, even though you’d been with your bloke for a long time. How did becoming a māmā affect the way that you rolled?
My husband Willie and I have been together 18 years this month, and it took 14 years for us to have our pēpi. She’s just turned four.
Becoming a māmā has been a journey in itself — but becoming a māmā in the middle of what was happening in Ihumātao was an even stronger driving force for me. And it was also the inspiration, one of the strongest inspirations, behind creating NUKU.
When I fell pregnant with my kōtiro, I looked at the world differently, and thought about my responsibilities as a māmā raising an Indigenous kōtiro.
She has a Tongan father and a Māori-Cook Island māmā, and she lives in a patriarchal world that gives preference to western systems, western values, western knowledge. But she’s growing up in a papakāinga in the middle of this multicultural, bustling metropolis of Auckland city.
I was wondering: ”What do I yearn for? Is it for her to have, the moment she’s born, something that she won’t have to search for when she’s older? Where will she find the pūrākau of our mana wāhine? Where will she see Indigenous wāhine voices being amplified? Who will she look up to as her role models? What will she aspire to be, based on the people she can see around the world who look like her? And where will she find these people?”
I had those whakaaro going on in my mind. And I was also wondering how my whakapapa would affect how I parent. How will that influence how I’m going to raise my child? Am I going to teach her about all of these Pākehā holidays? Or do I need to learn more about our te ao Māori way of living?
A year before I had my baby, I’d lost my grandmother, so I was in a dark place before I fell pregnant with her. I was still grieving over my nan and over this baby I hadn’t yet had.
As I was growing my baby, the idea of NUKU was growing too. And, when my baby was born, so, too, was NUKU, because I was home for four months with my child, and I’m a person who’s used to doing 100 things at once. I started planning, and the result was NUKU, a multi-media series followed by a coffee-table book documenting the lives of 100 Indigenous women.
I wanted to create a kaupapa that was authentic, that honoured our story sovereignty, that did journalism differently, from a te ao Māori perspective not a Pākehā perspective.
When I interviewed these women, I wasn’t there to extract. I was there to share, to learn, to give as much as I was being given, to hand over that story sovereignty to those wāhine and to allow them to say whatever it was they wanted to say.
My kōtiro’s name is Haeata te Kapua, because she was my beam of light who broke through the clouds. Her ingoa has two meanings. My grandfather’s grandmother was Te Kapu, and my grandmother’s name is Dawn, which, in te reo Māori, is Haeata.
So, she’s connected to both of those strong, Indigenous wāhine, and she is the light — and with the light she brought, she made this kaupapa. So, if anybody’s enjoying NUKU, they can thank my baby for that.
NUKU is a vehicle to celebrate our Māori and Pasifika wāhine. What do you like most about bringing their kōrero and their images to print, and can you share a couple of favourites that might illustrate the richness of the overall kaupapa?
When people ask me to pick some of my favourite wāhine, I always say that I can’t. It’s like choosing your favourite child. Every single one of these women has so much impact and so much value to share.
But let me try to think of someone who I haven’t talked about before . . .
Okay, let’s take Honey Hireme-Smiler. Honey was the captain of the Kiwi Ferns and played rugby and rugby league for New Zealand. We interviewed her in her whānau home and talked about her sporting career, but the thing that got me was that Honey talked to me about her mum, who she’d recently lost to cancer, and she talked about looking after her and what that meant to her as a wāhine, what that meant to her whānau.
When I looked around her whānau home, it was full of photos, all over the walls, and you could see from the history that lived on the walls, that that was how she lived her life.
I feel guilty now, asking you to name favourites. As you say, let’s celebrate all 100 of them.
I guess the easiest thing I could say is that I loved everyone I documented, but I felt extra privileged to interview the kuia, and there are a number of kuia in this book who are in their 70s, and I felt humbled to be in their presence.
Thank you so much for sharing about your mahi. Just to wrap up, despite the cultural roadblocks that colonisation has created for our people, it feels like a wave has started to propel us forward as a people. What excites you most about the possibilities that we face in the future?
There is a global uprising of Indigenous people, and I love it. We see it in Mauna Kea, we saw it on the pipeline in America, we’re seeing it in our Pacific climate activists at COP26, showing us that regardless of the barriers that Covid put in front of them, so many showed up to advocate for the Pacific Islands and climate change.
There is definitely a wave of Indigenous excellence. We stand on the shoulders of giants, as the saying goes, and we look at who fought for our reo, who fought for kura, fought for all of those things that came before us.
And we now have a generation who are armoured with the experience of education from te ao Pākehā and the knowledge, experience and intergenerational knowledge, and even trauma, that’s been handed down through te ao Māori.
And those two things combined have done exactly what Apirana Ngata talked about — using the tools of the Pākehā while remembering the work of your tūpuna to advance our people.
So, for me I’ve taken those tools of social media, the pen and paper, the microphone and the camera, but I’ve used our Indigenous perspective to push our whakaaro, and I can see that happening powerfully around the world.
I’m so excited by the disruption, because we have to disrupt — and it’s not just disrupting the government or the United Nations. It’s about disrupting our thinking and disrupting the everyday choices in our households. How are you disrupting the way that you’re parenting your tamariki and your mokopuna? How are you disrupting by purchasing from small Māori-owned business and not from big commercial enterprises?
All those little disruptions are supporting the ecosystem of the Indigenous world. It’s creating an amazing movement, and we need more of it. Our tamariki and our mokopuna are going to be riding those waves of change, and I’m excited to see what’s gonna happen next.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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