Tainui’s tokotoko, bequeathed by his grandfather — a cure for Chronic Kaupapa Fatigue. (Photo: Tainui Stephens)

Many Māori are engaged in kaupapa to make the Māori world better. But being forever active in the frontline of Māori revival and growth comes with a price, as Tainui Stephens writes here — and it’s important to value rest and recuperation.


My mother observed her two sons very closely in our early years. She decided that when my brother, Dale, and I turned 10, we should get a special present. She chose gifts that she hoped would give us peace for the rest of our lives.

Dale got a full cricket set complete with bat, wickets, pads, gloves and box. Sport has always been my bro’s best friend. Although he’s regularly glued to the radio monitoring the progress of his favourite teams, his greatest satisfaction comes from daily exercise. It’s a time for sweaty solitude and a chance to calm his mind. 

I remember watching him run his first marathon. As we cheered him on at the last stretch, I thought I’d never seen my brother in such pain and misery. He reckons he had a great time. I believe him.

For my 10th birthday, I received a Reader’s Digest box set of LP records called The World’s Greatest Piano Concertos. I’d been learning the piano, and, in moments of fantasy, would use my mother’s knitting needle to conduct the classical music on radio 3YC. I couldn’t believe my luck. This was serious vinyl with stunning artists and performances. Mum got it right. Being with music has always relaxed me. I’m grateful to have a zone like that to retreat to, if I get stressed about a kaupapa that obsesses me. 

Many years ago, Derek Fox and I had a casual conversation about the toll extracted from people who were so dedicated to making the Māori world better. Derek said they suffered what he called a kind of “Māori Burnout”. As he spoke, the words Chronic Kaupapa Fatigue popped into my mind. 

It’s in the nature of oppressed peoples to fight back. There are necessary roles for the strategist, the warrior, the diplomat, and many other types of advocates and workers. But being forever active in the frontline of Māori revival and growth comes with a price. 

I’ve known many individuals who grew old before their time because of the energy they expended, and the risks they took with their health or their domestic happiness, all to be able to serve a vital kaupapa that uplifted the wellbeing of the people. 

The fatigue from their efforts is chronic when it becomes continuous. To serve the entity we call “the people” requires more hours than exist in a day. No wonder Māui tried to slow down the sun. 

I recall Auckland-based kaumātua like Ani Tia, Betty Wark, Fred Ellis and Eddie MacLeod. Their lives were wrapped up in the kaupapa of giving shelter and hope to the homeless, the hungry, the unemployed and the imprisoned of Tāmaki Makaurau.

I could only ever guess at their sky high levels of fatigue. But the humanity of the challenge and the chance to relieve suffering energised them. They were admirable people who neutralised their stress with loving tears and easy laughter. We still see their like today. 

There is a similar sense of urgency among those who are consumed with preserving the language and tikanga of their marae. As the ranks of our kaumātua thin out, there are more and more younger men and women who are learned in tribal traditions. 

They too, like their elders before them, must cope with the responsibility and stress of stepping up and being present at any time of day or night for whānau and iwi who need them to keep the rituals alive.

Māori society is expressed and driven by many kaupapa. We use the word to define a particular mission, and we use tikanga to bring a kaupapa to life. 

The most urgent kaupapa are about survival, but all kaupapa are the building blocks of our modern Māori world. It’s a different world to that of Pākehā. We share so much in common, but one significant difference is the sheer number of obligations when you’re connected to so many like-minded souls.  

It’s also damned expensive to be a Māori. That’s not a complaint. It’s only a fact. 

If you marry into a Māori or Pasifika family, you’ll often inherit a small tribe or a village. It’s easy to blow your budget feeding hordes of visiting whānau. It’s no problem to dedicate the remaining kilometres in your ageing car to travel to the tangi of people you don’t even know. Your last bucks can easily be spent on the koha and expressions of aroha you take with you as you deal to maintaining your connections to family. 

And it’s not just a matter of blood connections. Kaikohe kaumātua Tarutaru Rankin once told me of a northern proverb concerning adoption: Hore kau koe i whānau kōpū mai i a au, engari i whānau mai koe i taku manawa. You were not born of my belly but of my heart. As long as the love is there, you‘re in. Blood or not. Whānau is whānau — and whānau comes in many shapes. 

The intimate character of the Māori language binds our society even closer. In Māori, we use one word for mother or aunt. Your “whaea” is your mother as much as she is your aunty or your nan. And your “mātua” is your father and uncle and, really, any senior male for whom you have respect. The words for our cousins are the same as those for our siblings. They’re “tuakana” or “teina”. That easy familiarity also occurs in English because most Polynesian men know each other as “bro”.    

Believe me there’s an upside to all these connections. To have been on the receiving end of so much love and attention when your life has turned to shit, tends to make you grateful. People who are grateful feel compelled to protect the Māori world that has protected them.  

We are a dynamic people. Our world has been shaped by activism. The protest actions of the 1970s for land and language got results from the 1980s onwards. The kōhanga reo movement, the kapa haka world, hauora, justice and commerce have all seen progress as well as great disappointment. 

Significant inequalities remain and Māori still have shorter lives than Pākehā. Yet the struggles of generation after generation of our people to preserve and pass on all that we are, is shaping a new New Zealand.

The recent government declaration that Matariki is to be an official holiday is a case in point. This ready acceptance of indigenous New Year rituals marks the restoration of a kaupapa that’s had the benefit of a couple of decades of gentle activism. 

Occasional books and television and radio broadcasts planted the seed in the public mind about the cosmological traditions that mark our New Year. Recent authoritative tribal accounts have enhanced the intellectual rigour of these ancient beliefs. The country was ready to accept the kaupapa. That’s a massive political shift that could never have happened without the selfless commitment of previous generations of change agents. 

A total personal commitment to something greater than you is not for everyone. I once worked in a pub with a wise old fulla called Jack. He told me: “Son, there are only three things that ever happen to you. You’re born, you live, you die. That’s it. So, for chrissakes, live while you can.” 

Many individuals of all cultures live their lives according to a personal kaupapa that fulfils them. Many Māori choose to be guided by tribal causes or cultural commitments because they perceive that as one reason for their existence. 

Another wise koroua, John Rangihau, used to say: “A Māori works to ensure that they are rewarded with a good tangihanga.” He’s right. It’s the ultimate awards ceremony and you’re the only winner.

All those decades after turning 10, my brother Dale is still putting his body on the line, and loving what the filter of health and wellbeing does for him. For me, two of my most precious taonga are gifts from my grandfathers, and they offer up their own music.

My mother’s dad, Roy, left me two ancient volumes containing the music of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. My father’s dad, Bobby, left me his walking stick. They play an essential role in my own healing if I get too wrapped up in work, and stressed out by the weight of my lazy arse and guilty conscience.

When I’m learning Beethoven, I’m connected to every single pianist in musical history who has played the same stuff. Every one of us has felt uplifted by Ludwig’s gorgeous melodies and been suspended by the harmonies of a loving genius who found joy in pain.

When I uplift and caress my koroua’s tokotoko, I use it to learn my whakapapa. To be connected to him is to spend quality time with those ancestors whose names I utter, as I map out my past and my present and see where I fit in.

Somehow, when I’m reminded of my small place in the long game of time, I find peace. It’s a way I’ve found to replenish the mauri ora that was invested in me the day I was born, to a mother who saw me. 


Tainui Stephens, of Te Rarawa, has been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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