Keith Ikin: Steering Māori Television along new paths

by Dale Husband
Sun 18 Feb 2018
12 min read

Keith Ikin, the new man at the helm of the Māori Television Service, is bringing a fresh approach to the job. More responsive to the appetites of the viewers. More eager to team up with others working in Māori media. And keen to encourage young talent to recognise how satisfying a life in Māori broadcasting could be for them. Here he talks with Dale about his background and the challenges ahead.


Kia ora, Keith. I’ve known you for some time simply as Keith Ikin, but there’s probably much more to your name than that.

Actually, my full name is Keith Richard Te Horumoananui Ikin. My father is an Australian. He’s an Ikin from Brisbane, so we’re connected to Ben Ikin, who many people will know as a former-rugby league player for the Broncos, Queensland and the Kangaroos — and now as a TV sports commentator.

On my mum’s side, I’m Ngāti Maniapoto, born and bred, but connected to Whanganui and Ngāpuhi, Waikato, Ngāti Apakura.

How did the two of them get together? Where did they meet?

Well, my father Warren was on a trip from Australia and travelling through, of all places, Piopio in the middle of the King Country. Called into the gas station and ended up doing a bit of part-time work there. And then he met my mother, Ngamuringa, when she called into the gas station. That’s how it went.

Where did your mum grow up? What are her connections?

We’re a sheep and beef farming family from Piopio. I grew up spending a lot of time with our grandmother, Hohipera, and my Uncle Tohe who lived on our whānau farm in Piopio. My mother and father lived with my five younger brothers in Te Kuiti — and we lived between those two homes.

And the whānau name?

Rauputu. We’re related to the Taitoko and the Coffin families. Jenny-May is a cousin. We’re all the same family.

And Phil and Huhana Coffin are your rugby playing cousins, too?

Yes. And it was great going to Piopio College being related to the Coffin boys because there was no danger of getting into any fights. School was a very safe place for us Ikin boys.

Apart from that, what makes Piopio special?

It’s a very tight-knit community. As kids and as teenagers, everyone knew what everyone else was doing. Our whānau connections are still very strong. I grew up on our farm and one of the fondest memories I have as a young fulla was working on whānau farms at hay-making and shearing time.

We’d travel as a group and help out at those busy times of the year. Great memories. And a really good relationship, too, with the Pākehā in the community. It was a great community in many ways.

And your dad. How did he fit into the Māori community of the northern King Country? That must’ve thrown up some challenges for him?

It threw up quite a few. He was a European from Australia who turned up in the middle up of a very Māori family in the middle of the King Country. But he managed to survive a very different culture and lifestyle because we lived in different homes and worked a lot with our uncles and aunties. But he got quite used to, and enjoyed, the communal way of living.

I’ve got a Pākehā dad, too, Keith. And, it’s fair to say, it took some time for him to be universally embraced by the whānau. But he’s still around and he’s everyone’s Uncle Ray, the Pākehā uncle. I hope your dad is still kicking, too. Still going all right?

Yeah. He lives in Hamilton and is getting close to 80. Still works. He’s a mechanic by trade. And he’s always had a great work ethic — like my aunties and uncles. They’re gone at the crack of dawn and they’re back at nightfall. That’s what us young fullas grew up with.

And not a bad inspiration for you, I reckon. But let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the influence of the King Country, and its unique history: standing up to the Crown invasion, offering some protection to kaupapa Māori, and turning its back on drinkers. A whole lot of interesting developments. Has that left you with a sense of pride?

It’s a sense of immense pride for me, the history of our people back home. We have a similar history to Tūhoe. We were among the last of the tribal groups to suffer the impact of colonisation. We held out until the opening up of the King Country when the railway came through, right through to the early 1880s.

Until that time, we had our own system of government within the Rohe Pōtae, within the King Country. Our people exercised rangatiratanga and maintained order within the tribal structure. And we did provide — some would describe it as sanctuary — but we did provide a location for Te Kooti and others.

Tawhiao and Waikato relocated into the King Country for the best part of 20 years after the confiscation of the land through the Waikato. In fact, some people, through the claims process, have described that period of time as Maniapoto being a refugee camp. And that more than doubled the size of the population for a significant period of time.

Because of your roles with the Maniapoto Trust Board and your work with the settlement mahi, you’ve been exposed to the absolute injustices of those times and the devastating impact it’s had on Maniapoto people over the years. But when did you first get a decent appreciation of that?

From a very young age. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother and my uncle. We attended a good many hui and I guess I was fortunate to hear a lot of the kōrero. Particularly from my grandmother’s generation because they were just the next generation down from their parents who had suffered the injustices of places like Rangiaowhia, where the troops came through, and our men, women and children lost their lives.

They were the children of the parents who’d survived and witnessed those events. So that was very much to the fore in the conversations that I heard as a young fulla — and right through to the more recent Tribunal hearings.

Unfortunately, Dale, much of that kōrero has been lost since my grandmother’s generation. We tried our best to reflect that history in the hearings, but, unfortunately, a lot of it has been lost.

That throws up significant challenges, doesn’t it, for our modern negotiators? And, of course, there’s another challenge — the health of our reo Māori. But I get the feeling that you made a commitment to the reo many years ago, way before most of us. 

I was part of the generation before kōhanga reo. I think we had someone teaching one hour a week in school. That was the first formal learning exposure that I had to te reo Māori. But my grandmother was a native speaker. She spoke pigeon English to me, but she spoke mostly in Māori. So I heard Māori all the time at home.

It was strange, because, as a boy, I never spoke Māori back to her. But I understood what she was saying. Same with my uncle. It wasn’t until I got to my teens, that I started to use a little bit of the language.

My grandmother passed away when I was 14. And my uncle died in more recent years. But I’m not sure why I didn’t speak the language when I had it around me all the time. It wasn’t until I got to university, where, for a range of reasons, I decided to commit myself to learning the reo.

I was very fortunate because, when I went to Waikato University in the early ‘80s, Wharehuia Milroy, Timoti Karetu and Hirini Melbourne were all teaching there. And they were wonderful mentors. Not just in terms of language, but also in terms of being wonderful people. So I was very fortunate to have that background to shape me.

Had there been others in the family who headed off to university?

No, I was the first. And I was the first to get School Certificate too. That was in the fifth form. Or Year 10 as they now call it. I remember when I got School Cert, my uncle put the certificate up on our mantelpiece in the lounge. It was seen as a big deal in those days. So I’ll never forget that it was a first.

Then I think I was the second Māori student from Piopio College to go to university. It wasn’t a common pathway in those days. And when we got to university, you could count the number of Māori students on two hands. But we were a tight knit group and we’ve remained close friends since.

When you went to varsity, that would’ve been something of an inspiration I imagine. Did others follow?

Yes, I’ve got a younger brother Kevin who’s the principal at Centennial Park School in Te Kuiti. And another brother Gary is a civil engineer. They both followed me through university.

Harking back now to other Māori students when you were at Waikato, who were some who come to mind?

Joe Harawira was a key player in our first year. He was a couple of years ahead of us. So he was playing a leadership role with the Whare Wānanga o Waikato kapa haka. And, in my year, there was also Hinewehi Mohi.

Hinewehi hasn’t changed. She’s still exactly the same person as she was back then. Just a really bubbly, wonderful woman. And there’s others who’ve done great things — like Peter Douglas, the previous chief executive at Te Ohu Kaimoana, Tania Simpson who’s on the board at the Reserve Bank, and Wiremu Doherty who’s now a professor and chief executive at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi.

Moving on from university, it wasn’t long before you were working in Papatoetoe for Radio Aotearoa, the predecessor of Radio Waatea. How did that come about?

I started in student radio at university. We created a Māori language programme once a week in the late ‘80s. Kotuku and Rhonda Tibble, Hinewehi, Tai and Haani Huata, Hemi O’Callaghan — a whole bunch of us got it going with Kotuku leading the way.

We then trained the first group who were part of setting up Tainui radio. It was at the opening of Tainui radio when I was on air that I was offered a role at Aotearoa radio in Auckland. Temuera Morrison and Jay Laga’aia were on breakfast, Moana Maniapoto on morning programmes. I started doing youth programmes, then ended up on talkback radio.

Land has been another big focus for you, hasn’t it? You’ve spent some years working away at that.

I don’t think there’s anything closer to the hearts of our people. And there were some real challenges when I was a director at the Māori Land Service and then at Land Care Research. But I really enjoyed getting out on the road and meeting with Māori landowners, going to hui around the motu and understanding the challenges that Māori landowners deal with on a day to day basis.

Having come from that background myself — setting off with my grandmother and uncle to land meetings and knowing intimately the frustration and the challenge of landowners — I understood the need to ensure that the land is looked after and isn’t lost for future generations. So it was a privilege to hear from landowners, first-hand, about the issues they’re dealing with — and to work on solutions with them.

What have been the main challenges to do with land, for our Māori people?

It’s been the growing disconnect with landowners. As we move from one generation to the next, there’s a growing number of our people that aren’t succeeding to the interests of their parents or grandparents. So they may no longer have any ownership. Or, if they do, they’re not participating as owners. They’re not playing a part as decision makers.

You also have been a Maniapoto negotiator, and I get the feeling that a settlement is not too far off. Has there been some satisfaction in that work??

Well, there’ve been huge challenges in the settlement space. One is the continued sense of injustice. So you work through the process, but it always ends up with a result that doesn’t, in any way, reflect the significance of the injustice.

We know that, right through the 20 years of Treaty negotiations, that has been the experience of iwi across the motu. We knew when we were going into the process that that’s what we were dealing with. So we went in with our eyes open. We weren’t blind to what the outcome of this process would be.

Our biggest challenge has been working kanohi ki te kanohi with our people. It’s not been easy talking and working with our whānau back home to move the process forward. You get to know your own people a lot better. You get to hear the mamae. And you get to hear it in a whole lot of different ways. Sometimes in a very confrontational way.

But that’s part and parcel of taking on these roles. You know you’re going to be at the front end of the hurt and the anger and the distrust that our people rightfully feel about the system. Yet you still have to find a way that works through that process — that respects and reflects, as best as you can, the mamae and the aspirations of our people.

Some say that only the tribal elite benefit from Treaty settlements. How do you avoid the risk of that being a reality, Keith?

I think we’ve got an opportunity to learn from the last 20 years of Treaty settlements. We’ve had, for example, Tūhoe who have entered into a particular arrangement about the Urewera where they now have significant decision-making ability. And that will transition, within a short space of time, into Tūhoe having absolute decision-making abilities. So we’re interested in that as a template.

We’re like every other iwi, in that we tell the Crown they’ve failed miserably — for instance, with their health, education and employment initiatives — and that we won’t allow them to keep abdicating their responsibilities.

We’re looking for a true relationship, a true partnership with the Crown in the future. I think that that’s what the core of a settlement should be.

Thanks Keith. In a way it feels like you’ve come full circle now that you’ve become the CEO of Māori Television — and that your earlier roles have provided you with a toolkit for this undertaking. What do you make of the task ahead?

Well, I believe that, of all the spaces I’ve worked in, broadcasting has been the one where there’s been the most significant change. Technology has changed dramatically, and the expectations of our audience have changed dramatically too. And that’s all going to continue to change.

So we’ve got to change the way we operate. And one important change is to become a fully, audience-driven organisation. We’ve got to provide the content they want to see. And we’ve got to look for partnerships and relationships to do that well.

One of those relationships that we’re keen to build is the relationship with Māori radio because there’s potential for the network of 21 stations around the motu to work in with Māori Television. And, in real time, there could shared, up-to-date news, information, and stories of interest that are broadcast on television, online and radio. I think that’s an exciting opportunity.

So do I. And I’m going to be very interested to see how that pans out. So I wish you well. One difficulty, though, has been the miserable amount of pūtea directed towards Māori broadcasting. Māori Television is still very much punching above its weight and that’s because there’s so much goodwill going into it.

Absolutely. Our x-factor in Māori broadcasting has been the talent and creativity of our people. We’re producing programmes with 40 per cent less funding than what’s available outside of Te Māngai Paho’s funding regime. As you say, we punch above our weight.

But now we need to take the opportunity to work collaboratively and create an environment that nurtures that talent. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the talent should work directly for Māori Television, Māori radio, or for one of the Māori-owned production companies. It’s really about us all working together and creating an ecosystem so that our people, wherever they are, can express their creativity and be supported.

Then we’d have another Taika Waititi coming forward. Another Cliff Curtis. And others across all parts of the industry. Camera people. Sound. Technical. Whatever. 

So the question is how we can create an ecosystem which supports that creativity and is attractive enough for our young people to want to join in.

I hope, within the next two to three years, that a significant number of our schoolkids really aspire to be in Māori broadcasting. If we’re doing things well, then I think that’ll be their aspiration. 


© e-tangata, 2018

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