Tahu Pōtiki, who died last year aged 52, left big shoes to fill — literally. Mike Stevens remembers the Ngāi/Kāi Tahu rakatira.


I can’t remember the first time I met Tahu Pōtiki. I think it was at Bluff, either on the marae or in my mum’s driveway picking up pōhā-tītī. Then again, it might have been at Wellington during the third reading of the Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Act in September 1998.

Tahu and I increasingly made one another’s acquaintance from the early 2000s, largely through my then girlfriend — now wife — who’s a whanauka of his and was raised in the same village on the Araiteuru coast. Tahu always made time for us when we visited Te Wai Pounamu House on Hereford Street. He appreciated news from south of the Waitaki as much as I enjoyed thumbing through his personal book collection.

I got to know him better when he returned to Dunedin in late-2006, by which time I was nearly two years into a PhD. Our mutual love of whakapapa, history and politics, and a shared interest in cultural revitalisation and its specific relationship with Māori economic development, was the basis of many stimulating conversations.

In more recent years, in my role as the Alternate Representative to Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu for Te Rūnanga o Awarua, I witnessed his intellect and passion at work as the Representative for Te Rūnanga o Ōtākou. I also had the privilege of working alongside Tahu, and a group of similarly passionate Kāi Tahu individuals he assembled at Aukaha Limited, right up until the time of his death.

Emails we received from his hospital bed continued to be so future-focused and enthusiastic about our mahi, one could almost believe he would sufficiently recover to take the helm again. While that was not to be, the ship is not in irons. The sails have been reefed, but it continues, determinedly, along the course he charted:

The port is near, the bells I hear,  the people all exulting. While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring.  (Walt Whitman, O Captain! My Captain!)

Rakatira, visionary, reo champion, best mate, and hōhā! All of these terms were used to describe Tahu Pōtiki during his tangihanga on Ōtākou Marae. And, five months later, his hapū and iwi — as with his whānau — are still coming to terms with the huge void created by his death.

He was a man with big dreams and big opinions. And, at nearly two metres in height, Tahu was quite simply a big man. In the words of his father-in-law, Edward Ellison, he has, literally, left big shoes to fill.

Born in Palmerston to a Pākehā mother, Rona, and a Kāi Tahu father, Les, Tahu was raised at nearby Karitane. This coastal village is an important Kāi Tahu heartland and has produced several regional and national leaders over the last century.

They include Tame Parata from whom Tahu descends. Tame was an MP who held the former Southern Māori seat between 1885 and 1911. The seat had previously been held by Hori Kerei Taiaroa, another of Tahu’s ancestors. This backdrop of tribal governance and its engagement with parliamentary politics goes some way to accounting for the career Tahu eventually carved out for himself.

As with several other Kāi Tahu settlements, Karitane was home to a shore whaling station in the 1830s and 1840s — and to all the intercultural interdependence such sites engendered. Indeed, Tahu grew up in a house a proverbial stone’s throw from the site of the first Christian mission in Te Wai Pounamu.

And looking down on it all, from its position under the lee of Puketeraki, is Huirapa Marae, which hosted several hui in connection with Te Kerēme, the Ngāi Tahu claim, from the 1880s until the 1980s. In short, Tahu and his siblings Tanea, Paul and Sandra were nourished by a landscape saturated in Kāi Tahu history. Their father also ensured that their links with nearby Ōtākou — a key hub of their Taiaroa and Karetai descent lines — were nourished.

However, Tahu wasn’t groomed for leadership. Nor was his younger self especially knowledgeable about Kāi Tahu history, whakapapa and culture — beyond a lived understanding of mahika kai traditions that proved durable in places like Karitane, Tuahiwi to the north, Awarua to the south, and other points in between.

Instead, like so many Māori boys before him, he was funnelled into trade training after a few years at secondary school. He became an apprentice fitter-turner. This took him to Christchurch — specifically, Te Kaihanga Hostel — as part of the Māori Trade Training Scheme.

Years later, Tahu reflected that this “was the first time I really had to interact with a lot of Māori people” and also be exposed to te reo Māori. “We’d be singing songs and my name would keep coming up: ‘Tahu Pōtiki’. I was interested to know more, because we were singing about my ancestor.”

He did indeed carry a powerful name — that of our tribe’s eponymous ancestor. As such, Tahu Pōtiki is woven in to waiata and haka throughout the iwi. The whare-tipuna on Bluff’s Te Rau Aroha Marae bears his name and he’s represented in one of its three koruru. In short, Tahu Pōtiki is a name that evokes chiefly mana and bears significant weight across and beyond Te Wai Pounamu.

During the tangihanga, a contemporary from Te Kaihanga picked up on this theme and recalled the stir created when his name was spotted on the list of upcoming intakes: “’Tahu Potiki?! Man, that guy must be a legend!’ So we all waited for him to turn up. And in walked this great big Pākehā fulla from Dunedin!”

The Pōtiki siblings, from left: Tahu, Paul, Sandra (baby) and Tanea.

Les passed away while Tahu was still only in his mid-teens, and his dad’s premature death led to Tahu abandoning his apprenticeship, by then hosted at a Dunedin freezing works. He went back to Christchurch, worked in low-skilled jobs, and abused drugs and alcohol.

Fortunately, a sea-change came in his early 20s. Returning home to Dunedin, he reconnected with his marae, underwent addiction treatment, and began working in mental health.

In the early 1990s, he also studied te reo Māori full-time for two years through Te Wānanga o Raukawa. This was in response to the limited cultural capacity available within Kāi Tahu at the time, especially south of the Waitaki River, to uphold cultural responsibilities requiring a modicum of te reo Māori.

At the same time, he initiated revitalisation initiatives within Kāi Tahu, including the first reo rumaki. This sowed the seeds for what became Kōtahi Mano Kāika, which he supported in a number of different ways right up until his death.

Tahu explained in later years that he was concerned that we’d be less able to hold our own and sustain the sort of cultural institutions that make up our iwi, if we didn’t have people that could speak te reo Māori.

This view of te reo and its revitalisation within Kāi Tahu brought him into the orbit of Hana O’Regan. They became a couple, worked and studied together at the University of Otago, and eventually married.

In 1997, they relocated to Christchurch and worked in Māori Studies at CPIT (now Ara). Although their union didn’t last, Tahu and Hana still collaborated to strengthen te reo Māori within Kāi Tahu whānau and communities. His love of language, which was enriched by self-directed research into the Kāi Tahu mita, evolved into an ever deeper understanding of Kāi Tahu whakapapa and history.

Tahu was an archive hound and a devourer of manuscripts, many recorded in the 19th century in te reo Māori. He became increasingly recognised as a source of Kāi Tahu knowledge.

However, he was neither wannabe guru nor intellectual gatekeeper. Rachel Wesley (nō Kāi Tahu ki Ōtākou) speaks for many when she observes that “he’d always pass on anything he found in his research that he thought I might find interesting or useful for my own interests. . . . Even when I was knee-deep in babies and nappies and he was living in Ōtautahi, he’d still get in touch and tell me about things he’d found, try and talk me into doing various programmes . . . and generally remind me that I still had a brain and a capacity for using it.”

A graduate in archaeology from the University of Otago and a museum curator, Rachel isn’t sure she “would have quite ended up on the direction I’m on now without his support and advice over the last 30 years.”

This scholarly (and avuncular) aspect of Tahu is not well-known — at least outside of Māori circles. His public persona is more readily associated with the corporate side of Kāi Tahu because, in 2002, aged 35, he was appointed chief executive of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. Occurring after the Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1998, this was a pivotal moment for the organisation. Not easily captured by “the suits”, Tahu was adamant throughout his tenure that Te Rūnanga needed to serve its heartlands.

In 2003, he explained that, “if the organisation can’t develop the sort of relationship with its constiuent members that is relevant, and is acting in a way that they value, then it’s doomed. You’ve got to be serving the people.”

This position drove the establishment of the Ngāi Tahu Fund, which has injected funding into targeted projects that enhance a whole suite of cultural traditions: from whakairo projects to pōhā-tītī and kākahu workshops, and from whakapapa research to habitat restoration.

Tahu also spearheaded Whai Rawa, the Ngāi Tahu savings scheme — or “IwiSaver” — which was established before KiwiSaver. It was aimed at improving rates of Kāi Tahu home ownership, participation in higher learning, and retirement savings, and it now has over 26,000 members and more than $85 million of funds under management.

Of course, both schemes were the work of many, rather than one, but they each owed much to Tahu. So much so, they are part of his legacy.

Also significant, was his decision in 2006 to resign as chief executive and relocate south to Ōtākou with his partner — later wife — Megan (née Ellison) — a whanauka of Tahu’s through both the Taiaroa and Karetai whānau, and their mātāmua, Rīpeka. By such means, Rīpeka and her two brothers, Timoti and Tūkitaharaki, have been raised “at the kāik” (kāinga).

Their maternal grandparents are just along the road, as is the marae. The children are at home here, on their whenua papatipu. As Lisa Tumahai, the kaiwhakahaere of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, rightly observed, while Tahu was well-known as an orator and tribal expert, without a doubt his most important role was as the beloved husband to Megan and pāpā to their children.

Tahu and Megan with their children Ripeka, Timoti and Tūkitaharaki.

Nonetheless, this geographical shift also enabled Tahu to take up governance roles within and beyond the iwi. He was variously a director of Ngāi Tahu Tourism, the Ngāi Tahu Fund, Environmental Science and Research, Māori Television Service, the Southern District Health Board, and the New Zealand Council for Educational Research. He also served as kaiwhakahaere of Te Rūnanga o Ōtākou and was appointed as its representative to Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu for nearly a decade from October 2009.

This was the good life: Megan was a university lecturer in Dunedin but could also rock the Red Bands when she was off the clock. Tahu might give a talk at parliament one evening and hold court in the Portobello pub the next night.

Unfortunately, life was interrupted in 2014 when, after prolonged health complications, Tahu was diagnosed with leptospirosis, a bacterial disease. Later that year he developed end-stage liver disease.

Three years later, when death looked a near certainty, he had a liver transplant. This was so immediately successful that many of us referred to him as Lazarus. With a new lease on life, Tahu recommitted to his hapū and iwi responsibilities.

This was especially true in his capacity as acting chief executive of Aukaha Limited from 2018. A Dunedin-based entity (co-owned by several southern papatipu rūnaka), Aukaha works across various sectors including resource management, education, criminal justice, and the arts.

On his watch at Aukaha, Tahu quickly grew the collective visibility and influence of Kāi Tahu within the Otago region. This was really no surprise. One way or another, that is precisely what he’d been doing over the preceding three decades — helped enormously by his ability to talk with people from diverse backgrounds and social stations.

Sadly, it was not to last. Tahu started to get ill again in 2019 and was obliged to return to Auckland for monitoring and specialist care. He died there, aged 52 — the same age his father was when he passed away.

Tributes flowed in the immediate wake of his death. They flowed throughout his large and impressive tangihanga at Ōtākou and they continue to flow now. They will flow for quite some time. And that’s as it should be.

Lisa Tumahai is just one of many who has said that his varied contributions “certainly will not be forgotten.” She likewise reflected the thoughts of thousands of people when she wrote of “how deeply I am going to miss my friend — for his humour, his sage advice, and above all, for the big and humble heart that he always wore on his sleeve.”

For now, though, the last word belongs to Megan: “He was my best mate, hilarious, quick-witted, loving, and a beautiful dad.”

Unutai e, unutai e

Ko te wai anake, nā ko Ōtākou.

Tahu Leslie Karetai Kīngi Pōtiki (23 December, 1966 — 27 August, 2019)


Mike Stevens (nō Kāi Tahu) was raised in Bluff and divides his time between there and Dunedin. He completed a PhD in History at the University of Otago and now works as an independent historian. Mike is also currently the Alternate Representative to Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu for Te Rūnanga o Awarua.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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