For some years, Rahui Papa (the chairman of Waikato-Tainui’s executive arm, Te Arataura) has been playing a major part in helping the Kīngitanga understand their history.
That history has partly been the story of successive monarchs. Pōtatau Te Wherowhero (1858–1860), Matutaera Tāwhiao (1860–1894), Mahuta Tāwhiao (1894–1912), Te Rata Mahuta (1912–1933), Korokī Mahuta (1933–1966), Te Atairangikaahu (1966–2006) and Tuheitia Paki (2006–present).
But there's been a rich history prompted, back in the 1850s, especially in the central North Island, by the alienation of Māori land as the British settlers streamed into Aotearoa. And, as Rahui explains to Dale, present-day developments ensure that there's significant history still unfolding.
Kia ora, Rahui. As I often do with these interviews, I’ll start with asking you how you came to bear your interesting names.
Well, Papa was the first name of my great-grandfather. He was Te Papa Huirama. And he was also Te Papa Tutata. It just depended on which block of land he was standing on at the time. But his family took on Papa as their last name. They were from Taharoa and Kāwhia with smatterings of Ngāti Te Ata and Ngāti Te Ahiwaru.
My first name, Rahui, comes from my grandmother’s brother who passed away just before I was born. Rahui is actually a hapū/tribe here in Tainui. Ngāti Rahui. From Kāwhia and even up to Rangiaowhia.
That’s on your dad’s side, isn’t it? But your mum?
She was born in the Second World War in England and grew up in the East End of London. Our grandmother used to sing us all the Cockney songs when she came over. Our mum became an insurance clerk in London and then, in the 1960s, she and a friend decided they’d do their OE by heading for Aotearoa on a boat called The Orion.
When they were here, one thing led to another, and they ended up at a railway party where Mum met my dad, who was working on the railways in Frankton. So what was to be a two-year OE for Mum ended up as permanent residence in Aotearoa.
Our parents were a mix of true blue Tainui and true blue English. Dad’s first name was Tioriori — but he was mostly known as Wally. And Mum, Vivienne, was true blue English. She died on Waitangi Day this year.
You have some sisters, don’t you?
Yes. Four of them. Three older than me. One younger. I’m the rose among the thorns. There’s the eldest, Ataahua, who’s spent a lot of time in the States and Canada with the Kahurangi Performing Arts company. Next is Linda, one of the first from our marae to achieve a law degree — and is now an associate professor at Waikato University’s law school. Then there’s Pania whose passion has been learning and teaching te reo. She has a big profile, especially with Ako on television. And our baby sister, Wiki, is the scientist. She has a degree in biology and earth sciences — and she’s been a big influence at the marae and with Ngāti Korokī Kahukura.
And your growing up?
That was in Mangakino and in Tokoroa. Both places only 30 or 40 minutes from our home marae, Pōhara. So we spent a lot of time there and I was lucky enough to know my great-grandmother, Te Werawera, until I was about 17 or 18. She’d been born in 1898, so she had seen a lot of things.
The marae had a living papakāinga since its inception. In almost every house was one of the old nannies. They’d all outlived their husbands. So we grew up with a whole lot of nannies. And they were a magnet. A lot of the families would gather back at the pa. Not just for tangi and things like that. It was to go back and clean up around their nana’s house. So it was a really close-knit community.
As for school, well, we went through primary, intermediate and secondary school in Tokoroa. It was like a melting pot of the Pacific at that time, with the main employment being the New Zealand Forest Products, out in the bush. Or Kinleith, out at the mill.
You look like you could’ve played a bit of sport in your day. Is that the case? And was it rugby league?
Actually, I was a terrible sportsman. Dad used to play for the North Island railways rugby team. All I made was the 2nd XV at high school. I wasn’t very good. Rugby league was just a fledgling sport in Tokoroa when I was growing up. Softball was a big thing in Tokoroa though. And our marae had a softball team. Tried my hand at that — and found out very quickly that I was terrible.
All my sisters were netballers and played other sport too. Linda and Pania, in particular, had some successes. Linda playing for North Harbour and Pania playing for Waikato and then had a stint with the Silver Ferns. But, me? Yeah, nah. I was the couch potato.
Rahui, you’re renowned for your knowledge of and your deep interest in tribal history. Especially Tainui history. But I guess you’ve had the benefit of knowing people who’ve been wonderful resources and have helped in gathering that information.
Very much so. For instance, when I was a child, Dad was the chairman of the marae and other committees. And a couple of our kaumātua from Ngāti Korokī Kahukura had a close affinity to the Kīngitanga and to Waikato. And to Raukawa as well. There was Uncle Kapo Clark, who was the holder of the pai mārire in his time. Uncle Wina Taute, as well. He was a key speaker in the same era as Pumi Taituha.
They saw that, with the decline in te reo among the people, they needed to do something. So they established our wānanga. And, one weekend every two months, people either went to Maungatautari or to Pōhara at our marae, and they would foster whaikōrero and karanga and waiata. And we would talk about whakapapa and general tikanga issues as it related to Kīngitanga and to the tribe.
So, I did my first whaikōrero — even though it was very, very short and insignificant —at seven years old. That’s how they were fostering us. Everybody had to have a try. And there were people just a little bit older than me, right up to some of the kaumātua who were trying it for the first time.
We were very lucky that those two visionaries saw the need and actually put in place a programme. It’s not like going to university where that’s optional. When your koroua and your nana ask you to go to our wānanga, you have to go. There is no option about it.
I imagine that you clocked up a few hui as a young fulla.
That’s true, because Dad was working in depth with the Kīngitanga. So, as children, we got to travel with him to various hui where we’d see some of our mates who were there with their dads and mums and nanas. And I suppose, through a kind of osmosis, we’d absorb things from people like Te Whati Tamaiti and Henare Tuwhangai when they were speaking on the marae and when the nannies were doing the songs. We weren’t participating in the processes, but those things are still ingrained in my memory.
And the nanas were wonderful because they each had a packet of black balls — aniseed balls. And we’d go up and down the paepae and they’d feed us with lollies. But it really was a matter of creating a relationship. An intergenerational relationship. And I see the value of their ways now.
We were very lucky. They would share stories and they would sing songs. I didn’t really understand what they were singing about or what they were training us to sing about. But, later on, the penny would drop and I’d realise: “Actually, I’m singing about our whakapapa.” Or: “I’m singing about a historical occurrence or historical place.”
That really doesn’t dawn on you until you mature in your thinking. But those relationships that were formed in my childhood are invaluable to me today. So I’ve tried to foster that approach — and to further our knowledge through discussion and by finding out more from the writing and the speeches of the old people.
Remarkable, really. It sounds like you had the affairs of state for kai, as your meat and potatoes. And one result is that a lot of people defer to you in matters of Kīngitanga. Its history and the richness of the interwoven whakapapa. But sometimes there are questions about the relevance of the Kīngitanga in this modern age.
First and foremost, there has been a challenge for the Kīngitanga in that a lot of our kaumātua are able to express and explain the tin tacks in Māori. But there are fewer and fewer who can actually express it to other cultures and in other languages.
So one of the needs impressed on me is to refine your English language — in order that you can share those feelings and put those thoughts into a historical context that other cultures can understand. Because that’s part of the Kīngitanga. The Kīngitanga’s job, by its very nature, is to create alliances. Create relationships. Create foundation stones for those long-term relationships.
And so I think that the Kīngitanga is absolutely relevant in today’s terms. The Kīngitanga relationships across the Pacific. The Kīngitanga relationships that bind all tribes.
Those are the key points that people talk about when we walk on to a marae. We talk about our whakapapa. The Kīngitanga whakapapa spanning back to every waka. To every tribe. Almost every locality around the country has had some relationship with the Kīngitanga whakapapa throughout the generations. And, with those foundation stones, the Kīngitanga has the job of creating and maintaining those relationships. Solidifying those relationships from generation to generation.
No doubt, the annual poukai at each marae is a significant occasion in strengthening those bonds.
For me, in particular, our annual Kīngitanga events are very important. The poukai at our marae is our one chance in the year for us to host all the stalwart supporters of the Kīngitanga. To be able to discuss the issues, to grieve together, to mourn those that have passed on. But, more than that, it’s the one time of the year when our whānau can take the opportunity to come back to the marae and participate in an event that was established by our old people — and uphold their principles and values.
Our poukai is in June, around Matariki time. And it commemorates the birthday of King Korokī. Even though it’s in the middle of winter. Even though it can get bloody cold and really wet, there’s the warmth of whānau coming home. Of course, there’s the koroneihana and other annual Kīngitanga gatherings. For us, the koroneihana, regatta and poukai are sacrosanct times in the calendar. And participating in them means a rejuvenation of the spirit.
There was one major talking point this year, in the wake of Kingi Tuheitia’s somewhat surprising, politically-focused kōrero at the koroneihana. And the question was whether it was right for the Kīngitanga to be actively political.
Well, the Kīngitanga, by its very nature, is political. It was set up as a political response to the land sales in the 1800s. By 1858, the relationship with the Crown had soured so much that Māoridom had seen a need to come together in a kotahitanga — and to frame a response. And one of those responses was the formation of the Kīngitanga.
Te Wherowhero and Governor Grey had many political discussions in their time. And one of the stories is that Grey put this question to Te Wherowhero: “When all of your resources are gone, when all of your foodstuffs are gone, when all of your water has gone — what then will you eat?” And Te Wherowhero replied: “I will eat you.”
That’s a real statement of political force. He was saying: “Yep, we can have a wonderful relationship but, actually, if it sours too much, we’re going to have some really harsh words with each other.”
Tāwhiao, in his time, was political as well. There was Grey’s invasion in 1863 under Tāwhiao’s watch. And then Tāwhiao made a voyage to England (the first Māori king to do so) to seek an audience with Queen Victoria about the repatriation of confiscated lands. So that was a political move.
Mahuta, in his time, accepted an invitation to sit on the Legislative Council and was an MP in Wellington for about seven years. That was another political move. His motivations were to put the topic of land confiscations at the forefront of any discussion with the government. So he was politically minded. And, later on, Te Rata was a supporter of Āpirana Ngata and the land reforms. And Te Rata was another to make a voyage to England. He got an audience with King George who, he hoped, would sort out redress for all the confiscated Māori lands.
Te Puea was another political mover from the Kīngitanga. She showed that in her support for the governors-general — but also in her non-support of the World War I efforts. Then there was Korokī and his support for Te Tiriti o Waitangi. And we had Te Arikinui Te Atairangikaahu playing host to prime ministers, governors-general, and heads of state from across the world. She also went around the world and visited them. All those moves were political — which they made in their own ways.
So Tuheitia’s comments at the koroneihana really just follow an established tradition?
Yes. It was simply his whakaaro on the lay of the land, as he sees it. And he should be able to express his opinion. If some people don’t want to listen to it — pai ana. If they want to take it with a grain of salt — pai ana. But those are some of the issues foremost in the mind of the king, and he should have a release valve — and that release valve should be his annual kōrero at koroneihana where he’s able to express his opinions openly and honestly. Lots of people say the Kīngitanga is apolitical. That’s quite correct. But the apoliticalness of the Kīngitanga is that they do work with any government of this country, provided it creates benefits for the people.
So, the Kīngitanga will form relationships with foreign governments. With church denominations too. But it will also form relationships with like-minded people wanting to see a betterment of the people. Especially the people impoverished because of the confiscation of their land. Actually, it’s looked on as a responsibility of the Kīngitanga to stand up for those who won’t get heard and to express the opinions of those who won’t make the news.
When can we confirm your political candidacy?
(Pause. Chuckle.) Look, I’m considering it at the moment. My mum passed away on Waitangi Day this year, and it’s part of our tikanga not to make any big moves while we’re still in the whānau pani state. In our tikanga, that lasts a year as kiri mate. After Waitangi Day next year, there may or may not be a confirmation. But it’ll take some consideration about the impact on whānau and on the tribe.
Fair enough. But now let’s find out a few things that we don’t know about you. Like what do you do that most people wouldn’t know?
Nothing. I’m an open book.
You don’t ride motorcyles? Or play table tennis?
Only for fun. And when it involves the people I can beat — and, sadly, they are very few and far between.
Are you musical?
I play the guitar and the ukulele and things like that. Just basic three-chord songs. My papa was a drummer in a band. My nana was a singer. Dad was a musician and so were his brother and sisters. They all were very musical. And my sisters and I have been kapa haka stalwarts and leaders.
Finally, back to the big issues. What, are some of our most significant challenges? Just off the top of your head without a political hat on. Just as a middle-aged Māori bloke?
Well, we need to realise that some of the attitudes that are detrimental to Māori development, aren’t necessarily Pākehā attitudes. They’re our own attitudes. We’ve become too fixated on the here and now. That’s why I take my hat off to Te Kotahi Mahuta and people like him, who were visionary — and who looked two or three generations ahead and started to make the stepping stones for us to get there.
Our job is to see that the next generation have a better platform than the one we inherited so that they can do more. There’s got to be that succession planning and that platform foundation for our next generations.