Ricky Houghton didn’t have a charmed life as a boy. But he learned a lot from the years when he was running foul of the community and the cops, during his time in various state institutions.
For some years now, after a 17-year apprenticeship with the Waipareira Trust, he’s been encouraging his people in the Far North to take a good look at their own resources and find solutions there.
Here he tells Dale of the difficult paths he’s been on — and of the thrill he’s had seeing whānau taking charge of much of their destiny.
Kia ora, Ricky. I understand that you, like many New Zealanders, me included, are the product of a Pākehā dad and a Māori mum.
That’s true. Six of us kids. Our father was an Englishman who fought with the Māori Battalion in the Second World War. He was born and raised in England and was a Sergeant Major for the Royal Scots Greys. He led a tank regiment in Italy and throughout the Middle East.
Then he was quite seriously wounded. He wasn’t expected to live. And two Māori soldiers pulled him into a trench with them — and they put one of their jackets on him from a soldier who’d been killed. It was bitterly cold from what he can remember.
In the trench, he was with the two Māori Battalion soldiers and four other English soldiers from his regiment. They were sort of trapped in a little foxhole. He and his Māori mates survived the night, but his English comrades didn’t. Then, somehow, the Māori Battalion got my father on to a boat and he ended up here in Aotearoa.
His full name was Gilbert Benjamin Houghton. He’d been raised in Wollaston, in Northamptonshire. There’s a factory there where they make Doc Marten boots. My grandfather was a cobbler. The name Houghton, apparently, means “farm at the bottom of the hill”.
And your mum?
They used to call her Kay. Her name was Tukino Kay Latimer. Beautiful, beautiful woman. She was a Latimer from Te Patu, here in the Far North. The surname had been changed from Ratima.
She was a nurse aide and she nursed my father back to full health — and fell in love with him. Her mum had raised her and the other children because her dad (my grandfather) had died in the flu epidemic in 1918.
Anyway, my grandmother sent my uncles down to Auckland to bring my mum back to Te Patu. She told them: “Go and get your sister. She’s tono’d to this local man up here.” So my uncles went and told my mother: “You’ve gotta come home with us.”
Mum says: “What for?” They said: “You’ve gotta marry this local man.” And my mother said: “Well, I’ve fallen in love with this Englishman, and that’s who I’m going to marry.” My uncles said: “Well, if you don’t come back with us, you can’t come home at all.”
And my mother never did. She stayed and raised us in West Auckland.
I was born in 1960. And towards the end of the ‘60s, I can remember my mother had a lot of people coming to our house at all hours. One of the skills she’d been trained in was to recite special karakia.
It wasn’t unusual for people to come in the middle of the night, or whenever, to ask my mother to bless their homes. Or recite prayers for their health, for their wellness and their quality of life. Or bless their marriages.
But under the Tohunga Suppression Act, it was illegal for my mother to practise the special karakia that she was brought up with and trained to do within the hāpu. And the people kept coming. She couldn’t stop them.
As a result, she was eventually taken away under that Act and incarcerated in Oakley Hospital for many years. My father had a bit of a breakdown then and he turned to alcohol.
And what happened for me was that, when I was eight or nine, I’d go off to play with my mates and they’d sort of say: “We’re not allowed to play with you. Your mother’s mad and your father’s a drunk.”
So, I ended up playing with guys that were 18 or 19. I’d be the last one out of the stolen car and the first one thrown through a window. That meant I was in a little bit of strife myself.
I remember the police coming and my dad telling me I had to go with them.
I didn’t know what was going on. I remember everybody crying. There was a Māori warden and a policeman there. But I hopped in the police car. I thought I was only going for the night. I didn’t realise I was getting taken away.
I went from the children’s mental health ward at Auckland Hospital. Went to Oakley. Went to Tokanui. Went to Lake Alice. I was in and out of various wards and homes for a number of years. And when I came back, I didn’t fit into the community because everybody knew where I’d been.
It wasn’t any of my mates’ fault. It’s what their parents told them: “Stay away from that boy. He’s nothing but trouble.”
Some regard it as my blessing, though, because, when I came back to intermediate school, and we’d go to woodwork and metalwork classes, I was too far behind to participate. So I’d be sitting outside.
The girls would be doing sewing and cooking. And here I am sitting outside — and smelling this beautiful cooking. Feeling hungry too. And a window opens and this girl pops her head out the window. I’m 11. She’s 12. She says to me: “Hey, would you like some scones?” I say: “Yeah. I’d love some scones. Thank you very much.”
And that girl, Rosie, ended up being my wife.
But I couldn’t fit in anywhere, no matter how hard I tried. There was just nothing for me. And, if anything went missing in the neighbourhood, they’d assume I’d taken it. That was the story of my life. Anything that went wrong in the community, I got the blame.
So I ended up being taken away and being put in a home again. Then one day I hear this voice down the hallway. And I thought: “Geez, I know that voice.” Then I saw it was my cousin, Denis Hansen. Close behind Denis was the matron, threatening to call the police and have him arrested.
But Denis grabbed me, put me in the car — and off we went. I said to him: “Where you been?” And he said: “We couldn’t find you. You were lost in the system. We couldn’t find you — they wouldn’t give us any information. But anyway, I’ve found you now.” And we drove off through the lights.
He said: “I’m taking you to your cousin’s place. Graham Latimer.”
Denis told me there was a new programme, Mātua Whāngai, where people who were in care could go and live with their kin but they couldn’t go home. He said: “It’s the best I can do for you to get you out of that place where you’ve been.”
So I stayed for a couple of years with Uncle Graham and Aunty Emily on their farm. First time I’d ever seen a cow. I never did understand what Uncle Graham was doing, but he was always busy. When I look back on it now, I can just imagine how busy he would’ve been.
Anyway, when I was finally allowed to come home, I reconnected with my friend, Rosie, who’d given me the scones. Although I was only 14, when you’re out with the bigger boys, the 18- and 19-year-olds, you do things that those boys do. And next thing you know, I’m a father. At 14.
And, when my son was born, I got a school exemption from Mr Amos, who was the Minister of Education at that time, to go to work. So, I’m 14, I’m a father, I’ve got a school exemption, and I get a job on the rubbish trucks. I loved that job. Finally, my life had some purpose — and the job was something I was good at.
Then I got a job working in a factory and I worked at night as a security guard. Here I was, still not 16, and I’m kicking people out of the local pubs for being under age. For not being 20. But it was a job that I loved. Then, in the weekends, I worked on a furniture truck. Trying to make as much money as I could.
When I was 17, our second child came along — a daughter. And I knew we needed a house. So, I went along to Māori Affairs and I spoke to the girl at the counter and she said to me: “No, you’re too young. You’ve got to be married and you need a deposit.”
I said: “Oh yeah, how much of a deposit do you need?” She said: “$500. And anyway, you’re not married so you can’t get a house.”
But I’d learned a lot when I was in the homes. I’d developed a tough skin and I thought: “Well, I’m not gonna take no for an answer.”
So I knocked on the door of the manager. And this beautiful man came out. It was Kai Hui. And he said: “How can I help you, boy?” I said: “Well, I’m about to have my second child. My first child is getting ready for school, and I’d like us to have this house so we don’t have to move and our boy doesn’t have to make new friends.”
And the upshot was, that just before my 17th birthday, I was able to buy a new home. I still have that home today. In West Auckland.
West Auckland means you’re out in Waipareira territory, doesn’t it?
Well, back in the days when I was locked up in my room, in the wee hours I often thought about how I could make a difference — how I could start doing things, and meeting the promises I’d been making to myself. I’d heard of the Waipareira Trust and so I went to a meeting of theirs at Māori Affairs. The Trust didn’t have any offices of their own in those days.
I thought: “This is beautiful.” It was a hauora group who felt the same way that I felt. They gave me a lot of energy and I was very inspired. So I became a Waipareira trustee and I stayed there for 21 years. And I never, ever regretted one minute of it. The opportunities that I was given and the lessons and skills I learned, have blended in me and shaped me into the person for the next stage of my life to where I am today.
As I recall, Waipareira wasn’t a flash operation in those early days, was it?
I used to go down and get the mail for Waipareira then. You’d get two or three bits of mail. Two bits of junk mail and the other one would be a bill that you’d never, ever be able to pay. On the trust board we used to talk about how the heck we were gonna pay this bill. About all we could handle was paying essentials like toilet rolls and light bulbs.
But John Tamihere, who was a conveyancing lawyer at Māori Affairs, came to a trust meeting one day. He’d been part of a law firm in South Auckland. And when he joined Waipareira, he brought a whole lot of insight and commercial knowledge and inside information from Māori Affairs to the trust.
He knew where all the pots of gold were and, when he became the chief executive, he was able to find the funds we needed. I and the people of Waipareira are still grateful because he really moulded the trust into a machine through his skill and his understanding of the way the government operates.
One day, I was asked if I could come home to the north and support my iwi, Ngāti Kahu. And I said: “Nah, nah — I’m from Pamapuria.” Little did I know that Pamapuria was right in the heart of Ngāti Kahu. That’s how urbanised and naïve I was.
But anyway, the opportunity seemed like a good one. So, I came home to work for the ahi kaa. And here I am today.
What an amazing story — and you tell it so well. Good on you mate. Let’s talk about He Korowai Aroha Trust. You’ve received some warranted recognition with your Local Hero award this year. So congratulations. How did that get started?
When I came up here after my mother died, all these people turned up. We brought Mum home to bury her. I loved my mum, so I wanted to stay up here with her for a little while.
Straightaway, I could see that there was so much opportunity up here, in spite of all the things that I’d heard about the Far North being doomed — and being full of groups of Māori who were always disagreeing and who couldn’t do anything right.
But I saw a whole heap of opportunities. So, I put together a strategic plan and took this to the iwi groups. And I talked with the chairpersons of the iwi. They were Matiu Wiki (Te Aupouri), Tom Petricevich (Ngāti Kuri), Rima Edwards (Muriwhenua), Lance Brown (Ngāi Takoto),and Graham Latimer (Ngāti Kahu). And Gloria Herbert (Te Rarawa) was another.
And I ended up with support from four of the iwi. That’s basically how He Korowai Trust was born. But what was important, too, was that I’d found that my mother had 17 acres of land right across the road from where she was buried. So I got two relocatable buildings from Auckland and had them put on that land.
That’s where I live during the week when I’m working up here. And then I go back to my family in Auckland in the weekends. That’s how it’s been for the last 17 years.
So you’ve brought all of these whare from Auckland up to the north. These are all “staties”. State houses. And you get them on a new patch of land, you do them up, and the Korowai Trust makes them available for your people to rent or buy them. It must be a thrill to see that happening.
The thrill that I get out of it is seeing them re-connecting their umbilical cord back to their whenua, back to their whare, to their futures, and to their whānau. You see Māoridom has the appropriate mechanisms. We have the right tools. We have karakia, waiata, mihi, whaikorero. We have everything. The Ture Whenua Act. The Māori Community Development Act.
We have everything, but we shifted away from it. And the systems I’ve developed up here reconnects us back to those key elements. We have all these things, but we’ve been lured away from them. We’ve got to start using them. They’re available but we’ve lost confidence in them.
So, I get a huge thrill, I get really excited, when a light goes off in the whānau’s head. And so now you can stay over there in that state house. Or you can go over here and live in your own house, back on to your own whānau land. You can come out of that cow shed. You can move out of that bus. You can come out of that private rental property. You can do it.
And I say to all these families: “The solution is within yourself. Trust yourself.”
Years ago, I was told that I was the most worthless person on earth. I was told that by people who should’ve known better. I was given shock treatment and I was treated in a very, very abusive way by people that were paid to look after my very best interests and care for me and love me.
The three very best things in my whole life, that changed my life, have all been Māori. The first is Rosie, my wife, who is Māori. The second is the Mātua Whāngai programme that came and freed me. And the third thing was a Māori Affairs home.
Everything that has freed me from depending on the state has been Māori. Everything that has condemned me has been white. That’s the bureaucracy. And it’s been bread. Salt. Sugar. White processes and white bureaucracy. Anything white has been damaging. And I mean that in the most respectful way.
They say we’ve got a P problem in the Far North. Well, we do. But the P problem is prisons. It’s politics. It’s personalities. It’s processes. That’s the P problem we have here.
And the sooner that, as Māori, we start believing in ourselves and trusting each other, the sooner we'll be able to realise our full potential and move on to an improved quality of life.