Wena Harawira

There’s not much that Wena Harawira can’t do or hasn’t done in radio or television. And there’s not much that she hasn’t done with style. She is, as the saying goes, a class act. And she isn’t too shabby either when she turns her hand to print.

So, this month when the time came to choose who should receive Te Tohu a Tanara Whairiri Kitawhiti Ngata, it was no great surprise when Wena Harawira was selected. That was Massey University’s way of acknowledging her lifetime of achievement in the Māori media.

Her career began with a brief apprenticeship at a Gisborne radio station as a teenager nearly 40 years ago — and it’s still flourishing. 

Here we have Dale finding out about the paths she’s been on.


Kia ora, Wena. You and I have crossed paths often enough through the years, especially in the days of Mana Māori Media when, through the 1990s, we were doing programmes for the iwi network and for National Radio — and working on Mana magazine. But I’m sure you have much more to reveal. Like your full name.

It’s Wenarata Harawira. Harawira isn’t the northern Harawira whānau that many people mistake us for. We are the Whakatane-Tauranga Harawira, and quite a large family. Dad is from Ngāti Ranginui and Ngāi Te Rangi. Mum is a Teepa, from the Tūhoe hapū of Hāmua in Rūātoki. I’m one of six children. Five girls and the youngest is the only boy.

My name is also Wendy. I think I was named after my dad’s younger sister. But when I started at Te Karere more than 30 years ago, I was told that my name was going to be Wenarata. That was after Wenarata Rangihau who had died around that time. And so, as our people do when someone dies, they take the name as a form of honouring and remembering them. So, I was given that name.

My mokopuna call me Nanny Pet. Pet is my family nickname and the standard name used by my nieces, nephews and mokopuna.

Nanny Pet. How lovely. But tell us a bit more about your mum and dad please. 

My dad was Eddie Harawira. He was born on Matakana Island and his parents owned the shop there. He was a saw doctor by trade and worked for many years in Taupō. Mum is Te Waiarani Harawira. She was a school teacher. Her first posting was actually on Matakana Island where Dad lived.

She tells the story about when she first saw Dad. One of his cousins had said: “Come to the window and take a look at my cousin.” He was riding a horse and the sunlight was glinting off his sandy coloured hair. It had all the makings for a big Mills & Boon romantic moment — and it was.

He’d take her floundering when he was courting her. When she became hapū, his people travelled to Rūātoki to ask her people whether the two could get married. And one of the conditions came when Mum’s grandfather, Rangitane Teepa, asked that Mum retain her own Ringatū faith. Dad was Rātana. The trade-off was that their children and mokopuna would be Rātana. So, that was the deal. They got married and had us.

We still adhere to that tradition. All of us and our children are  baptised Rātana. Our mokopuna are Rātana as well. However, some of our boys, my sister’s eldest son for instance, has become quite a stalwart in the Ringatū faith. And many of our children and mokopuna go to Rūātoki School where the morning prayers are Ringatū.

How about the reo?  Was this home taught or school taught?

Very much home taught. Mum taught both Māori and English at high school level. That’s after she’d finished having all of us. She was very strong in her Tūhoe culture and language and spoke Māori at home. But we grew up in an English-speaking community in Taupō.

I think we were quite sheltered as well — to the point where I didn’t know any other tribes existed. I didn’t even know that the people who hung out with Mum, like Georgina and Timi Te Heuheu, were Tūwharetoa and blue blood!

Everything was focused on our people — Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui and Tūhoe. It wasn’t until I went to high school and saw a map of other iwi in Rangatahi 1, that I discovered they even existed.

In the 1970s, John Rangihau had told his old people that if they didn’t pass on their knowledge, it would go with them to their graves. There were a number of Tūhoe wānanga around the early to mid-’70s to help preserve that knowledge.

So Mum would leave us with our father and go off for a week to her Tūhoe wānanga. We were able to fend for ourselves. Dad worked from about 7am until 5pm. But by the time I was 10 and my sister was 11, we were cooking dinner, peeling spuds, making rewana bread. Doing the washing and hanging it out. We carried out those sorts of chores and managed quite well. Mum says her father told Dad he should divorce Mum, “the way she just keeps leaving you with the children.”

Konini Street in Taupō was a great place to live when I was at primary school. The kids were all very close. All the fathers from our street worked for Tasman Mill. So all the parents and kids knew each other — and our street was our playground. Then my parents got a new house on the outskirts of Taupō and we moved up there.

But we often went back to Rūātoki and Matakana where life was focused around whānau, the marae, the bush — in the case of Tūhoe — and the sea. My grandfather, Tukapa Harawira, was just the loveliest man. He’d feed us ice cream for breakfast.

When I had my own kids, he came up to the house with this big box of ice cream from the shop and started doling it out into the bowls on the table. And I thought: No. That’s so bad. Then I had to remind myself that that’s what he did for me. Let it go.

Ice cream for breakfast still sounds good to me. Now, what about school? How did that go?

It was fine because Mum also taught at the schools I went to. Primary school was just over the fence at Mountview School where she was a relief teacher in between raising kids.

She knew all the Māori and Pākehā teachers there and they treated us well. High school was the same. That was Taupō-nui-a-Tia College.

Mum first taught Māori with a Pākehā, David Hill, then became the full-time Māori language teacher. While I was still a student, Mum had my baby brother — and she’d bring him to school. The principal okayed that because they were so desperate to keep her there. Mum’s senior students helped look after the baby. She breastfed him in the staffroom.

And, next minute, you’ve finished school, you’re 17, and you’re ready to leave home. Where did life take you then?

I didn’t want to go to university. There was an expectation that I would, but I didn’t want that. I’d had enough school and wanted to earn money and spend money. Fortunately, my seventh form year was the year that Tū Tangata was being promoted around high schools by Howard Morrison.

This was an initiative established in the early 1980s by Kara Puketapu, who was the secretary of the Department of Māori Affairs at that time. So Howard Morrison showed up. Talked a bit about his life. And encouraged us Māori kids to make more of ourselves.

He also had people with him from various professions, including Helen Young who worked for Radio New Zealand’s concert programme. And she was interested in me because, when we filled in some forms, I’d written that I liked classical music. An uncle who had boarded with us bought a beautiful big record player-radio. It was the latest thing in the ’70s. And Mum had bought some classical music records including Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers, which became my favourite.

Anyway, I put this in the form and Helen invited me to Wellington for an aptitude test. At that time, RNZ was trying to bring more Māori into the radio industry. Two others were Joanna Paul and Mike Rehu who’s now the head of content at Māori Television.

They flew me down to Wellington, I sat the test, got told I’d probably make a good copywriter, and was offered a job as a cadet in the copywriting department of Radio 2ZG in Gisborne. And I accepted. So my parents and one of my kuia drove me to Gisborne, handed me over, and I started the next day.

So there you were. Writing copy. Joe’s Shoe Store, Main Street, Gisborne, Open 9 to 5. For the best shoes in town.

I’d never been to Gisborne. I met Lewis Moeau who did a Māori news bulletin and Māori language ads. It was the first time I’d ever heard the word hupamakete to describe supermarket. I made friends, played netball, joined a kapa haka and learned to do the East Coast takahi.

There were only two other Māori at the station – and one was my boss Carmen Jeory whose mother was Ngāti Porou. Her brother, Liam Jeory, was a TVNZ journalist who spent some years as a foreign correspondent.

Two years on and you were in Auckland, a young fresh face in television joining the team at Te Karere. How did that come about?

I’d seen Te Karere now and then. I wasn’t too interested in television in those days. In fact, I was boarding with a Pākehā family, the Barrons in Gisborne, who were great. I lived in a caravan out the back.

One day, my uncle, Purewa Biddle, came to visit 2ZG. He worked for the Māori and Pacific Island unit in RNZ. He was related to Mum and had lived in Turangi when we were there.

He told me I was wasting my reo in this job. “Moumou nei tō rei i konei.” I said: “I don’t care. I want to stay here.” I had a boyfriend then, too. Naturally, I wanted to stay.

Anyway, he took it upon himself to direct my career. He’d been working with Derek Fox at the time, on a part-time basis. He and Whai Ngata would finish their work at Radio New Zealand, go over to TVNZ and help Derek put together the five-minute reo bulletin.

Whai and Purewa were preparing to take on full-time roles at Te Karere. So Purewa told Derek that a condition of his employment was that they bring on a cadet and that should be me. He didn’t tell me this. Instead, he told my mother and got her support, and then rang Carmen who also thought it was a great career opportunity for me.

So Carmen, Mum and Purewa pushed me to sign up. Then I had an interview with Bruce Crossan and Derek. And I got the job, even though my Māori was crap. Whai resented missing that interview. He said I probably wouldn’t have got the job had he been there. But he and Purewa both took me under their wing. I wouldn’t have survived without them.

How do you feel when you look back now at your involvement in a kaupapa that we now take for granted — and in a project that was a significant step in Māori media history?

I think it opened my eyes to the fact that I really like being part of that blue-skies, greenfields approach to anything Māori. Being with those guys and helping develop Te Karere was hard work, but it was really satisfying. It gave me a chance to absorb their experiences and see their vision for the future of Māori broadcasting.

There was the opportunity as well, as others came on board, to appreciate their reo, their skills and their personal experiences. People like Waihoroi Shortland, Rereata Makiha, Tawini Rangihau, Hone Edwards, Ruka Broughton, Tukoroirangi Morgan, Pere Maitai, John Tahuparae and Pierre Lyndon. It was just a fascinating time.

Then I landed a secondment to the BBC and lived in Wales for three months. I came back and was a bilingual reporter in Hamilton, filing stories for both Te Karere and a regional news programme called Top Half. Next, I took two years off to have babies. Derek Fox was my partner and we had two children. By the time I came back into broadcasting, it was 1990 and Mana Māori Media had been established.

We had an office in Rotorua and I worked there with a bunch of journalist-mothers. Tawini Rangihau, Ana Tapiata, Sue Wilkie, Hinerangi Barr and Hinemoa Rangihuna. And we had offices in Wellington and Papatoetoe. They were the pre-email days of typewriters, clunky computers and faxes.

We were broadcasting English and Māori language news to the iwi radio network and produced a half-hour programme for Radio NZ. Soon we were publishing Mana magazine as well. We also did some corporate work like videos for the Ministry of Health and Te Papa. It was a great time.

Let’s go back for a moment to the reservations that Whai Ngata had about your reo. I’ve always thought that you’ve been one of the real guns with the Māori language. But you say that Whai didn’t think so. Have you, over time, done a lot of work on your reo?

I’ve had to work hard on both languages. I relied a lot on Whai and Purewa for my Māori. But I also had Mum and my uncles at Waikato University who were a phone call away. When I started at Mana Māori Media, my English had to undergo a lot of editing because that was crap as well! The thing that got me by, and was one of my strengths, was my voice. People talk about my voice — I don’t hear it. But, anyway, it works.

You’ve worked on all sorts of programmes. But have there been a couple that have stood out for you? 

Obviously, ANZAC  is one. When Larry Parr first came to me about the idea, he said: “Listen, we’re going to do this. We’re going to have an all-day broadcast and I’ve brought on Judy Bailey.” Then his next words were: “And I want you to anchor it with her.”

I knew very little. Of course, there was the 28th Māori Battalion. I knew they met every year and had a reunion. But ANZAC helped me to appreciate just how big the Māori contribution was during World War I and World War II. And then, I went to an ANZAC service back home in Rūātoki where Tame Iti had got up and told Tūhoe not to forget those who had fought during the New Zealand Wars.

And I remembered my uncle had been to Vietnam and we had his photo album. There was so much trauma associated with that particular war. So my education proceeded. And it was inspiring and life changing for me to be involved in the programme.

Since then, I’ve made a few documentaries for ANZAC Day broadcasts. I’ve developed my own interests. For instance, I gathered up, with the help of one of my koroua, the late Tama Nikora, as much information as I could about all the Tūhoe who’d fought in World War I. That was just a labour of love.

I’ve done print, radio, communications and a bunch of other stuff but TV has been the biggest thing for me. I love it. There’s something about working with pictures and words and sound that really appeals to me. I’ve had managerial roles in broadcasting, but I didn’t enjoy them as much as I enjoyed being a programme maker.

Your work there has won you widespread respect, Wena. But I and others respect you too for having other priorities in your life. For you, the media is important but it’s not everything. When your whānau have been in need of tautoko, you’ve gone home to take care of others.

Naturally, there are times when your personal interests have to take second place. And one such occasion was when I learned that two of my sisters, Hana and Angie, had breast cancer.

Hana was the manager of her own health service, Te Kaokao o Takapau in Taneatua — and she was struggling. My older sister Tania rang and said I needed to come back. So, I threw in my job at Māori TV and went back home to help manage the service so Hana could focus on her health.

It was good to be home, and I didn’t mind managing the health service because I had my sisters, my mother, aunts, uncles and cousins all working there. It was very much a family thing. And I was still able to keep my hand in broadcasting. Doing the odd documentary for Māori Television and some producing with Te Karere at TVNZ. It kept me busy. Angie, the fourth youngest of us, went into remission and is still very healthy today. But Hana, after battling that mongrel disease for several years, succumbed in 2015.

I’m doing a lot of oral history work now. I’m building an archive centre for the iwi, Waitaha in Te Puke. I’m an interviewer for Te Tai Whakaea — the Treaty stories project which is run by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. I talk to people around the country who’ve been involved in the Treaty process like the late Rangi McGarvey who was the translator for the tribunal, Eddie Durie, politicians like Jim Bolger and Doug Graham. Protesters. Lawyers. Negotiators. Iwi claimants and leaders. It’s fascinating and a privilege.

Finally, Wena, looking back over your years in the media, I wonder if you might touch on what’s impressed you most, what regrets you have and what your hopes are now.

I don’t have any regrets, that would be a waste of time. I think the best Māori initiatives in broadcasting have come about through the independent efforts of Māori — and keeping the government at arm’s length in many respects.

I used to bother Jim Mather, the former CEO of Māori TV, with my plans for world domination — re-creating a multimedia platform within Māori TV that makes and produces bilingual programmes for online, radio and TV. More recently, I’ve thought phone apps, iwi communications, education resources and other info-tech would all be natural by-products, too. And from this, another development would be archives and creating that database.

The government would have to support this because it’s legally required to foster and promote the Māori language. That guarantees us an income stream, or should, and with the $40 billion or so that makes up the Māori economy, there’s more than enough scope for independence through partnerships.

There are some incredible young bilingual people in broadcasting today, and others who should be enticed into the fold from kura kaupapa Māori, wānanga, the workforce and iwi communities.

Good ideas, smart thinking and a fearless approach. That’s very Māori to me.


© E-Tangata, 2017

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