Tim Tipene had it tough as a kid in an abusive home in West Auckland, back in the 1970s and early ‘80s. But he had a few understanding teachers at primary school — and they made a big difference. It helped, too, that he got some lessons in self-control from years of martial arts, a feeling for manaakitanga from his Māori whānau, and a gift for writing. He’s put all of that to good use as the author of children’s books and the founder of Warrior Kids, which helps out kids and families having trouble finding a way through their problems. Here, Tim talks with Dale about the path he’s been on.
Tēnā koe, Tim. I wonder if we might start with you telling us a bit about the Tipene clan. Am I right in assuming that you were whangai’d into the Tipene whānau?
Kia ora, Dale. Yes, as a baby, as a pēpi, which was a blessing. I was so fortunate, I was so loved by the whānau — my aunties, grandparents, uncles, all of them. But my immediate family didn’t do so well. My mum and dad had a lot of anger, a lot of hurt, some of it to do with members of the whānau, but also just within themselves.
I was brought up Māori and I knew no different, really. When my little sister Krissy started school, there weren’t many brown kids there. She was brown, but I’m pale-skinned and the kids would tell me she couldn’t be my sister because she was a different colour from me.
That was news to me. And I’d say: “No, no. She’s my sister.” I didn’t even see that she was a different colour. Didn’t see it at all. But she had a hard time at school because the kids were teasing her right from when she started as a five-year-old. They’d say she was brown because she’d been rolling in the mud.
My mum and dad didn’t have the skills to address that in an appropriate way, so their idea was to send me to school to beat other kids up — and that didn’t go down too well with the teachers. But I was more scared of my parents than I was of the school. And, as you can imagine, (chuckling) I had a lot of identity issues.
I’ve seen some pictures, nice ones too, of you surrounded by your aunties. You’re the little white kid with these aunties and it’s a nice shot, Tim. And I’m pleased that you didn’t see the colour thing as an issue — which is a reminder that love doesn’t see colour as a problem. So you were raised by your biological mum, who is Pākehā, and your adoptive dad, William Tipene? Am I reading this right?
I believe that Annette was my biological mum, although her name does appear on the adoption papers. My conception was through rape, so there was a lot of projection and resentment towards me from her. My biological father, Peter Mead, is a convicted sex offender and has spent most of his life in prison for hurting women and children.
So I was raised by my mum and adoptive dad within the Tipene whānau setting and that’s how I was brought up. But, with me being white, it was a confusing time for me, especially as I got older, because a lot of people were looking at me and trying to work out who I was. And, even now, when I go into schools, there are kids there trying to work me out and looking sideways at me, like: “Who is this guy?”
So I’ve had to explain it to them and tell them where I’m from and how I got the name Tipene. And, for years, I was apologising for who I was, apologising for having the name Tipene because I felt like I shouldn’t have had it. But I’ve felt that to deny it would be to deny my grandparents — William (Tim) Waitai Tipene and Dollyann Tahu — and to deny my whānau. And that’s just not right. That’d be stepping on their mana and I’d never ever do that.
Hearing you talk about those times is a reminder of the all-embracing ways of some of our whānau. For instance, I’ll never forget the way my nana embraced my now wife when we were just young. She was awesome. The arms were wide, the heart was big. . . . A lot of this was as you were growing up in West Auckland, in Henderson, nē?
Āe. Yes, I was born in Waitakere Hospital, then moved up to Kaukapakapa, came back as I got older, and now I’m living in Ranui.
Always a Westie though, by the sound of things. And, somehow, among your achievements there’s been you becoming a writer.
Yes, and in my latest book for younger readers, Mrs Battleship, I acknowledge teachers who made a difference in my life. One of them turned up when I was 10 years old — and, boy, did I like her. She was wonderful and, as far as I was concerned, I was going to marry her.
I wasn’t good at anything at school, and I was in special classes for everything, but she believed in me. And, when I wrote a nice story for her, she was really impressed. It was just about a man walking in the park and seeing the birds and the trees and all that.
Next day at school, she calls me up to the front of the room and, as I’m walking up, I’m wondering what I’m in trouble for now. But, when I get up there and all the kids are looking at me, my teacher reads my story to the class. After that, she praises me. She says it’s wonderful work.
And it doesn’t stop there. She takes me around the other classes and my story is read to them. She told me I was a good writer when I hadn’t been good at anything at school. I loved and adored this teacher so much that I believed whatever she said.
So, when she told me I was a good writer, I believed her — and I believed her so much that I’ve never stopped writing since. And now I’ve done 11 books, and won awards too, which is not too bad for someone who was kicked out of high school. In fact, it’s pretty good.
Who was the teacher who took you under her wing and encouraged you to write? What was her name?
Her name was Miss Foote. But she was at our school only for a year, and so I didn’t get to marry her. She married somebody else and they moved away. But I was lucky because I got to be in her class for that one year and she changed my life. Changed it forever.
Isn’t it a lovely reminder to those who are teachers that sometimes the smallest act can have the largest impact. Here’s a woman who inspired you, Tim, and we take our hat off to her and to you. Have you ever found out what happened to her?
No. I haven’t. Not yet.
Maybe after this we’ll be able to find Miss Foote and say thank you more officially. Let’s hope so. But now, let’s turn to high school. Were they difficult years?
Yeah. My high school didn’t know what to do with me. They had no idea. I mean, I asked them for help. I told them a bit about what was going on at home because my family was at a crisis point. I wasn’t going to school to learn — I was going to school to get away from what was going on at home. I was just so traumatised.
I couldn’t concentrate because I was on edge and so hypervigilant that, if there was even the slightest bang, I was spinning around to check out what it was. Every time I walked into a room, I was looking for the exits so I knew how to get away quickly.
It’s a sad thing to hear what you went through as a young guy.
Well, Dad and Mum had a lot of anger and hurt and that was coming out in all sorts of abusive ways. They weren’t coping well at all. And there was a lot of alcohol and a lot of drugs. Nah. They weren’t doing well with that stuff.
Are they better now?
They’re not together anymore. And they don’t like the fact that I’ve got a big mouth (laughing), which you can imagine. So I don’t hear from them. And when I went down country to see them a couple of years ago, it didn’t go well. But I’ll try again. I’m certainly more connected with the wider whānau, like up at the marae and so on. I’ve got my aunties and that, so that’s all good.
I love my mum and dad. I can understand where they’re coming from. I get that. I understand. But someone’s gotta stop it and break the cycle.
Do they think that you’re exposing their stuff?
Yes. And there are some aunties and uncles who feel that way, too. They feel I’m sort of shaming them, but that’s not my intention. My intention is to stop it. So I go into schools and talk about this with the kids. So many of them identify with it. I have them coming to me afterwards. And not only them but also their families. So it’s creating change.
We gotta talk about it, gotta get it out in the open. We talk about suicide and mental health, yet childhood trauma is one of the leading causes. Most of our people in our prisons were abused as kids. So it’s an issue that has to be discussed and brought out into the open much more.
There’s much more to your work, though, than your mahi in schools. There’s your martial arts. How did you get into that?
Well, I started in karate. There was a club called Go Shintai Kai where they taught Shotokan karate and judo. That was in Dairy Flat and me and my sister went there.
That was a big help because it was a physical outlet and it also taught me self-control. And it was away from all the violence and abuse that I knew so well. So I stayed with that for a while and then looked around at other martial arts like Togakure Ryu Ninjutsu, Kung Fu, and Aikido.
And I’ve never stopped, really. But I’ve changed it and what I teach now is what I call Toatoi where I’ve brought Māoritanga into it. So I’m not teaching karate and judo in my Warrior Kids classes so much as manaakitanga and personal development and anger management. It’s real hauora.
Warrior Kids has been a very successful kaupapa over many years now. Maybe you could share with us what your intent was when you got Warrior Kids started?
Well, when I was kicked out of school, out of Kaipara College, there was no help available for kids like me. And, later on, I was looking for something that I could do to help kids through some of the troubles like I’d had. And I hit on the idea of changing my karate class into Warrior Kids with the focus on personal development.
And I found the kids were just sort of waiting for it. That was up in Helensville at the Kaipara College gymnasium, the very school that kicked me out. And, from there, I just kept going.
The parents could see the value. They were bringing their kids because they wanted them to have more self-control and be able to deal with trauma. So they went to other schools and told them they needed to bring me in to run my classes. At first, the schools weren’t ready to listen to that but, over time, that changed. And then I came back down to West Auckland and started classes here in Henderson.
It’s been going 25 years. And I’m still going, even though, in all that time, I’ve had only about a year of funding. I’ve done it for love. I’ve just seen this as my purpose in life.
But, of course, there’s been a huge reward for me in seeing how the lives of so many kids and families have benefitted. Many of them still connect with me today, still come and see me, some of them bringing their kids. It’s been wonderful, really.
Congratulations, Tim, on all these years of commitment to the kaupapa of helping others. Can you give us an example or two of the way you approach some of the family problems?
Well, one simple thing I do is getting whole families together at the table sharing the high points and low points of their day or their week. Opening up to one another. Other times, I’ve had them simply doing breathing exercises.
And then there are parents, trusting me and coming to me with a particular problem. Like one mum really frustrated because she couldn’t get through to her boys. ”They’re just not listening to me,” she said. “And I’m hitting them. Hitting them with sticks.”
I saw that as just a matter of me staying there, being with her, and pointing out a few strategies to get away from the hitting. Like, for a start, getting rid of the sticks, and switching off the TV when it’s time to talk. And spending time with them. Simple stuff like that.
Aww man, there’s been so many situations over the years, some horrific. In one class, we had a boy opening up about walking into the garage and finding his dad hanging there. Terrible stuff. And so it’s been important to be there and just āwhi and support the kids — and doing it as a group where the kids can support each other.
So it’s not talking down to the kids. It’s allowing them to talk and pipe up with strategies and answers themselves. And recognising that sometimes mum and dad aren’t coping or aren’t feeling well, and you might give them a break by taking the younger ones away for a while, or making mum a cup of tea. The kids themselves just have so many ideas.
It’s great that you can put so much of yourself into your work, but I imagine that even as an adult, you still may have some issues yourself.
I’m still getting therapy to help me. Every Tuesday I go and see someone. I’m still finding my way through it all. I’ve certainly come a long way, and I do have a safe home now, with my partner and two kids, Taiyang and Tahlia. But I’d never say that I’m there yet.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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