“When I’m with my siblings, I feel the power of a love that accepts who you happen to be, without question.” Tainui Stephens (right) with his brother Dale and sister Māmari, in 2003, when Māmari was admitted to the bar. (Photo supplied)

Apart from our parents, our brothers and sisters generally are the first people we ever live with — and we learn much about human relationships from them, as Tainui Stephens writes here.


I murdered my brother’s golliwog.

I was seven and Dale was five. We lived beside a railway line in Searells Road, Christchurch. One day, we had a brotherly spat — and I decided to punish him that evening when the 7 o’clock train whooshed past our backyard.

After dinner, I grabbed his golliwog, took it to the railway line and laid it on one of the tracks. When the train hooted in the distance, I called him to come over and see something interesting. He ran out just in time to witness his beloved toy get sliced in two. He screamed and burst into tears. Our stoush was over, but I’ll never forget the pain on the small face that I knew so well.

I thought the incident might’ve scarred him for life. But no. He can’t remember the slaughter. I’d wanted to hurt my brother. But, without knowing it, I was learning how to interact with another human being. I was discovering what anger felt like, and that I had options for a range of reactions. In due course, you learn that actions cause further actions and so on and so on. When you’re a kid, the lessons come slowly, but they stick with you.

I didn’t despise my little brother. But he annoyed the crap out of me. He cried a lot, and he always followed the rules. Like when we threw the cat down the stairs, time after time, to see the poor little sod land on its feet. When we were caught, Dale was the first to cry — and to point his finger.

Mum always told us that one day we’d be best friends. I couldn’t see it, because my brother was like a flatmate that I couldn’t get rid of.

Some siblings are raised by a village. By a whānau-wide web of their peers and elders. Living closely or apart but getting together at any opportunity. Me and my siblings in New Zealand were raised solely by our mother. We connected well with her family, but not frequently. Dad wasn’t around.

Brothers and sisters, by blood or by connection, are often the first people we ever live with. We discover our individual selves after years of gradual growth alongside each other. We learn how to press each other’s buttons, sometimes to an extreme degree.

My siblings were my first flatmates, and it was clear to us who the landlord was. The old lady raised us to be independent but, in the meantime, we were stuck with each other.

You learn to navigate the big distance that sometimes develops between siblings who are very different. When we were young, my brother worked harder than me. He always landed holiday jobs, stashed his loot and bought new things. I worked occasionally and spent it on good times. All my stuff was second-hand.

I resented him mildly for being cashed up and hardworking. But it was short-lived. He was my brother, and we went through tough times together as our parents juggled their emotions and dropped the ball. In the various storms around us, I learned that material things don’t count. What counted was feelings. My brother and I shared a lot of sadness and fear, and we grew patient with each other.

He once told me that he’d always paid attention to the rules and did his jobs around the house, so he could have freedom. He wanted to get out and work for real money. Or be with his mates.

Tainui, Māmari and Dale, in 1980. (Photo supplied)

Our sister, Māmari, was born at the end of the two-parent era in our family story, and at the beginning of life with our solo mum. I was 11 and Dale was nine. While the old lady worked and schemed to keep our family fed and housed, I took seriously my new role as “man of the house” and as caregiver to my baby sister. I loved her fragility and her smell, and seeing her grow. Thanks to my sister’s explosive bowels, I’ve never been afraid of changing a baby’s nappy.

As Dale and I grew older, the age difference meant I didn’t see so much of Māmari. It was many years before we could spend enough time together to truly understand each other. She was that flatmate you never saw much of.

Our sister was inclined to be solitary. Her own socialisation came after years of internal work. She devoured books and ideas. As a young girl, she thrilled to ancient histories. Egypt and the stories of the pharaohs consumed her for years.

While I was at university, she started school. She was ostracised by some children for being Māori. Not that she looked it. But clearly the taint of the blood was a powerful thing, and the cause of whispers. In those days the usual question asked of you was: “How much Māori are you?” For us, the standard answer was 3/8ths. According to the formula, Dad was three-quarters and Mum was Pākehā, so that made us half of three-quarters. Nearly a half-caste. No Māori ever asked us that question.

After I’d made the connection with our Te Rarawa iwi, I wanted to introduce Māmari to her grandfather and the Ahipara whānau. I felt she needed to start her own journey of identity.

But she encountered a Māori life that was utterly unlike her quiet world at home. She was a small, white girl who felt intimidated by all these big, dark, loud people. Although she was unsure, she was brave and utterly honest about who she was. She ended up warming to the generous embrace of our Aunty Mary Williams. Māmari’s iwi connection became secure and grew from there.

In our young adulthood, I was a little bit hippy and rock ’n’ roll. Dale was a bit more civic-minded and sports-mad. He became a cop. He’s always wanted to be of service. It suits him, and he’s a man who likes to be right. I was proud because I knew he was a good guy in a dodgy culture. And he was patient with me. When he was off duty, he might drop by my flat. He always paused at the front door long enough for me and my mates to hide our weed and jam the giant bong behind the sofa.

At the time (1981), we were on opposite sides of the Springbok rugby tour that was dividing the country. I’d be on a march somewhere and he’d be in uniform stopping a march somewhere. I was grumpy at him for the forces of law and order that he represented. Our discussions were quite short for a few years. In time, we connected better as he found his own successful route into te ao Māori through sports, business, and now, politics.

Our little sis loved us whatever we did, and we adored her. After her encounters with whānau in the Far North, she was awake to opportunities to explore the Māori world. She served as a youth ambassador to the New Zealand pavilion at the 1988 World Expo in Brisbane. On that trip, she was deeply influenced by Taranaki kaumātua Sonny Waru.

She then left home and moved to Wellington where she found work at Te Upoko o Te Ika radio station. She pursued a career in the law and academia — and, in recent years, a calling as an Anglican priest.

Our flat had a reunion when our mum went into hospice care. We all stayed together in the last of the family homes we had known over our lives. Much of the furniture and ornaments had survived the decades. At night, I would hold books that I’d read as a child. The pages smelled the same. I slept on the couch where I’d collapsed when I was a drunken teenager.

In the morning, the familiar sounds of my flatmates arising would stir me awake. My sister would walk in clutching the latest book that she was devouring, and my brother would go for a run. I’d go and get coffee. I missed my mother saying: “Do you want honey with that?” I’d said “no” for 55 years.

Dale, Māmari and Tainui (and Māmari’s daughter Jessica-Lee) after their mother’s funeral in 2015. (Photo supplied)

Māmari and I laugh at how we all married into siblings raised by their villages. All our in-laws are connected to their iwi. They all have active Facebook groups to share yarns, swap photographs and see who wants to go to the pictures. The three of us had to reach out beyond our own family to live in the Māori world.

When I’m with my siblings, I feel the power of a love that accepts who you happen to be, without question. You may do stupid stuff, and you might fail in life’s various journeys, but when you do, your brother and your sister will be beside you to clean your shitty nappy.

The day the golliwog died was the day I began learning not to hurt people. Especially those who made me the way I am.


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.

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