Huirangi Waikerepuru

No one ever fought harder or more effectively for te reo Māori broadcasting than Huirangi Waikerepuru (Taranaki and Ngāpuhi) who died, aged 91, just over a week ago.

Through the years, tributes and honours came his way as the lasting value of his battle became clearer. An honorary doctorate from the University of Waikato, for instance. Also a CNZM (Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit). And a widespread recognition of him as the godfather of Māori language broadcasting.

Andrew Robb, a bilingual Pākehā journalist (Mana, MTS, E-Tangata) was one of his close allies in the course of the campaigning — and here he reflects on those days and Huirangi’s contribution.


I’ve been battered and buffeted by tides of emotion since Huirangi died. His end wasn’t unexpected, but I hadn’t anticipated the gut-wrenching impact of not being able to go to a tangihanga for him. 

Huirangi was central to events in my life that I feel most privileged to have taken part in — the many Māori language campaigns fought by Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo, starting in the mid-1980s. 

I wanted to put my gratitude on the record, so to speak, and to recount the drama and the comedy, and to celebrate our successes, with Huirangi’s whānau and friends and many colleagues. Not to be allowed to hold a tangi seemed so unfair to him and to everyone. Being locked down here in my bubble of one, it was almost unbearable not to be able to console one another in our grief and loss. 

In the midst of this crisis, Huirangi’s whānau, and the hapū of Ngāti Ruanui, showed enormous strength and clarity in the way they managed their cultural obligations. E te whānau, ka nui te tangi, ka nui te mihi. I’m so grateful that they helped me to flip my perspective on the lack of a traditional tangihanga, so I no longer felt I was a helpless victim of circumstances beyond our control. Instead, I was supporting a brave choice in the face of great danger. Huirangi had that transformative power, too. 

I met Huirangi around the late 1970s, when he and the late Te Ariki Mei of Ngāi Tūhoe were running a six-week Māori language immersion course at the Wellington polytechnic. The course was the brainchild of the late Martin Winiata, of Ngāti Raukawa, who taught plumbing, I think, at the polytech.

At a time when lip service was paid to the value of Māori language, the course was a brave step forward, demanding full-time commitment and offering significant rewards. Many public servants were given paid time off to attend, but others took unpaid leave for the duration, a big sacrifice. 

Huirangi and Te Ariki were developing a unique teaching programme as they went, and they worked hard to turn a collection of shabby prefabs on a desolate outpost of the polytech into a warm, beating heart of Māori culture in Wellington. 

There was excitement in the air. This was a few years after the Māori Land March, and the land occupations at Bastion Point and Raglan. Native speakers of Māori had been trained as secondary school teachers, and they were soldiering along on their own, mostly in pretty hostile environments. 

There were protests at Waitangi. In a couple of years, the country would erupt into virtual civil war over the 1981 Springbok rugby tour of Aotearoa. In Wellington, Te Reo Māori Society had been actively promoting Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, and politicising the battle for recognition of Māori language with petitions, marches, delegations to government officials and submissions to parliament. 

One outcome of Te Reo Māori Society’s push was that, in 1982, I think, the Department of Māori Affairs had finally set aside $33,000 to promote te reo. But they never developed a policy for allocating it, so the money remained unspent. To avoid the embarrassment of having to return it to the consolidated fund, Māori Affairs hastily convened a series of meetings around the country, to urge local Māori language groups to establish a regional Māori Language Board. 

The department then allocated around $7,000 to each board, for them to spend as “the community” saw fit. The Wellington Māori Language Board was called Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo, and Huirangi was a founding member, as was his right-hand man Piripi Walker. Their close relationship was a key dynamic in the Kaiwhakapūmau story. 

In those days, $7,000 for te reo Māori was a princely sum, and Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau spent some time deciding how to get the best bang for our bucks. We didn’t want to fritter it away on classroom equipment or school trips. 

Our first major project was a claim (WAI 11) to the Waitangi Tribunal, lodged in 1985 in the names of Huirangi Waikerepuru and Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo, calling not just for the official recognition of te reo Māori and the establishment of a Māori Language Commission, but also the use of te reo Māori as of right in court proceedings, and government support for Māori-language broadcasting and bilingual education. 

WAI 11 was a groundbreaking claim, the first not related to natural resources like lands or fisheries. Māori leadership was very concerned about the parlous state of te reo and there’d been a national Hui Whakatauira the previous year, for which kaumātua from all over Aotearoa were called together by Māori Affairs, and te reo had been a focus. That hui gave birth to the kōhanga reo movement. 

In 1986, when the claim was heard, kaumātua converged again from all over the motu in support. They gave compelling testimony on the status of te reo as a taonga, and the history of government moves to suppress it. The Tribunal found in support of the claimants, and most of the recommendations have been accepted by successive governments. 

Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau was an incorporated society set up as a regional organisation, but issues of Māori language affected every iwi and all Māori (and Pākehā) people. The support that the kaumātua gave, and the confidence and trust they placed in Huirangi, in effect, elevated Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau’s mandate to a national level, and Huirangi became an important face and voice of the movement. 

By the time the Tribunal’s report came out, simultaneously with the introduction of the Māori Language Bill into parliament, Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau had moved on to our next big project: setting up Te Reo o Pōneke, a Māori language radio station, during Te Wiki o te Reo Māori in 1985.  

It’s hard to overstate the impact of hearing Māori broadcast on radio. At the time, my partner and I were doing our best, as second-language learners, to raise our children as Māori speakers. It was exhausting. Māori language courses might’ve described a visit to a marae, but they had no materials relating to ordinary domestic life. The Williams dictionary was Māori-to-English, so you couldn’t just look up a word for “spit” or “rusk”. 

The day we could turn on the radio and hear Māori language beamed in from outside our home, was a day to remember. And the excitement the station generated among Māori in Wellington was palpable. It was a stunning revelation of what Māori speakers had missed out on all their lives: te reo Māori used for everyday communication in public. 

As Te Reo o Pōneke morphed into Te Ūpoko o te Ika, other iwi wanted a station, too, and Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau, mostly in the person of Piripi Walker, helped many iwi groups to establish their own radio stations. And, as NZ On Air and the Ministry of Commerce struggled to develop policy and funding for Māori broadcasting, Huirangi and Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau were on their case! 

But things quickly turned sour. Before the government had given any thought to how it could use public broadcasting to promote te reo Māori, as the Tribunal had recommended, its Rogernomics policies were driving it to sell off spectrum rights, and to corporatise and privatise public broadcasters. 

Thus began Huirangi’s outstanding legacy in the arena of Māori broadcasting. He, as chair of Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau, led an astonishing campaign over 30-odd years, through tribunals and every court in the land, to the Privy Council in London and back, from the bowels of the bureaucracy to the highest levels of politics, to hold the government to its obligations to te reo Māori. 

You could write a book about how Huirangi met every test of his strength, courage, integrity and leadership, to secure the rights of future generations to the language of their tīpuna. 

It began when the Ministry of Commerce allocated a number of frequencies for Māori radio, that would cover about 70 percent of the Māori population. Nearly all were AM frequencies, sunset technology at a time when the radio industry was rapidly migrating to FM. WAI 150, Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau’s second claim, which secured allocation of FM frequencies to reach younger audiences in urban areas, was the first of the many spectrum claims (which are ongoing, more than 30 years later).

Government moves to turn the major national broadcasters into SOEs came next. The SOEs’ promised editorial independence and commercial imperatives doomed Māori language to oblivion in a broadcasting market driven by advertising revenue. 

Huirangi and Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau, together with Sir Graham Latimer and the New Zealand Māori Council, injuncted the legal transfer of public assets to the newly formed SOEs, to halt the government’s plan until it had developed policy for protecting te reo Māori. 

Hence the cases were known as the “Broadcasting Assets cases” — and most people quite wrongly saw them as a Māori grab for valuable assets that belonged to all New Zealanders. 

Well, Huirangi had grabbed a tiger by the tail. It charged back and forth, left and right, trying to shake us off. The government came up with one phony proposal after another, held one lot after another of “consultations with Māori”, dragged us into one set of negotiations after another, made one promise after another — while we hung on for grim death.

But we had very limited resources compared with the might of the government. It became hard to stay in the fight and, at the same time, keep our supporters up with the play. Over the years, the picture of the broadcasting claims became more and more confusing for most people, and Māori became concerned about the lack of progress in Māori television. People started to believe that the Māori negotiators were becoming intransigent. Cracks began to appear in our united front.

In the end, what saved the day, over and over again, was the huge trust that Māori people everywhere placed in Huirangi. He was a brilliant communicator with the knack of simplifying complex issues to their essence so ordinary people could understand. He demonstrated tikanga in action, so people accepted his tikanga-based analysis of issues. He was an outstanding exponent of te reo Māori, and people believed in his commitment to the kaupapa. So, if Huirangi said so, that was good enough for them. 

On one occasion, when Huirangi and Sir Graham were leading a coalition of national Māori organisations in negotiations over an early plan for a Māori TV channel, the Crown developed a proposal, then went to each of the Māori negotiators individually to secure their endorsement. 

Last of all they came to Huirangi, who they knew was opposed. Huirangi promptly called a meeting of the negotiators, analysed the Crown’s proposal, and explained his opposition. All the other negotiators realised they agreed with Huirangi, and every one of them withdrew their endorsement. And so we were able to battle on. 

As we headed to the Privy Council, Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau faced another crisis. There were four appellants: Huirangi, Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau, Sir Graham Latimer, and the NZ Māori Council. One day we got word from the Crown that Sir Graham had written to the prime minister to say that the Māori Council was abandoning the case and wasn’t going to London — and, instead, wanted to negotiate. 

We had no idea, and neither did our barrister, Sian Elias. It was humiliating that we got a copy of Sir Graham’s letter through the Crown Law Office. Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau were shocked, and we had to find out where we stood. Could we proceed on our own, as we wanted to? We needed legal advice. 

One of the worst things was that we had to go behind the back of our longtime lawyer, the late Martin Dawson, who was as staunch a supporter of our cause as anyone. But Martin also worked for the Māori Council. It was a terrible situation. 

The advice we got was that, technically, Huirangi and Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau could go alone to the Privy Council, but it would be a total waste of time and money. The first question we’d be asked was: “Where is the Māori Council?” And the next question would be: “Who are you, Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau, an incorporated society, to bring a case on behalf of all Māori people?” 

We had already run up legal bills of at least $300,000 and, if we lost the case, we could be liable for the Crown’s costs as well, plus travel and accommodation in London. That would be the best part of $1 million. 

Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau called a special general meeting, to approve a decision to proceed to London. We sent a pānui to our 400 supporters, outlining the issues. The hui was on a cold, wet winter’s night, at Kōkiri Marae in Seaview. The car park was nearly empty as we pulled up outside. We went in and turned on the lights and plugged in the jug. We looked around the room. There were five people, including an official from Te Puni Kōkiri who wanted to raise a different issue with Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau. This was not good. 

We needed 10 people for a quorum, so the meeting was abandoned. Our constitution said that we should recall the meeting a week later, and whoever turned up would constitute a quorum. We did that and, a week later, the same four people turned up, minus the TPK official. 

I sat there wondering, could we honestly, in good faith, say that any decision we made represented the views of Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau as a whole, when so few had come to the meeting? If not, we could be personally liable for the legal bills. So was this the moment to call the whole thing off? These were very dark thoughts on a very dark night. 

And then Huirangi’s brilliance shone forth. He stood and began a karakia. It traced the whakapapa of the dawn of time and the evolution of the world; from Te Kore, through Te Pō, to Ranginui and Papatūānuku; the birth and growth of their children, the atua of the natural world; the separation of their primal parents, and their emergence into a world of light and life. 

Huirangi was mapping out our pathway forward. He was saying that we might feel that darkness was upon us, as we crawled around seeking direction — but we should call on all our strength to stand up for ourselves and take the tough decisions that would create space for enlightenment and clarity for future generations. 

I’m not a spiritual person, at least I don’t think so. But Huirangi’s karakia was a metaphysical experience for me. Without me even fully understanding, I felt the burden of anxiety and stress slip away, pōkaikaha evaporate, and clarity return. He had flipped my perspective. Our decision could not be based on our concerns for ourselves. This was a date with destiny. So the question wasn’t whether or not we should go to London. It was, how do we get there? 

This was another dimension of Huirangi’s leadership. He had shown himself fully able to understand the technical issues of broadcasting and the legal issues in our campaign strategy. We had all seen his strength in te reo and tikanga. His ability to communicate and rally support was ever-present. But, in that moment, I saw a tohunga who didn’t just recite karakia but who truly understood it and its role in human affairs, and who could call on supernatural powers when that was needed. 

To be clear, Sir Graham’s letter to the prime minister was intended to test the good faith of the Crown. He wanted to know if there was any alternative to travelling to London. When the response came from the Crown, it was to the effect: ”Ha ha! We won! You lost!” So, Sir Graham could see there was no point talking — and he simply reverted to his earlier commitment to take the case to London. 

At the Privy Council, we won major findings on the extent and the basis of the Crown’s duties to protect Māori language. The Crown’s promises to develop policy for Māori language on radio and TV, and for a Māori TV channel, became legally binding. And, significantly, the Privy Council said that, if Māori were not satisfied with the Crown’s performance, we could take the case back to them. That invitation remains open. 

It was left to a later government to reopen negotiations on Māori TV, which led, finally, to the MTS channel being opened by Huirangi in 2004. 

Although the campaign was carried out by Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau as a team, with advisers, analysts and legal experts, it was Huirangi who kept the show on the road. He was good at taking advice, good at clarifying the tikanga involved, good at holding the group together, and great at keeping our spirits up. That’s partly because Huirangi wasn’t always deadly serious. He was also witty and amusing, stylish, and a born performer. 

I remember one meeting where Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau and Te Ūpoko o te Ika went to see the chief executive of Radio New Zealand about a big bill. Te Ūpoko had been charged a monthly fee by RNZ for the use of the transmission tower on top of Whitireia, at Tītahi Bay. 

At some point, we decided that money allocated for Māori broadcasting shouldn’t be filling the coffers of RNZ, whose history of using Māori on air was limited, to say the least. So we stopped paying. And RNZ decided we owed them a lot of money. 

Huirangi dressed for the meeting in a big, bulky, rough hand-knitted jersey in bright colours. Into the chest was knitted a white cloud shape and, in the cloud, in black wool, was knitted the word “BANG!” It was a message: “Explosive — handle with care!” He also wore a distinctive felt hat that someone had made for him. Huirangi was the bad cop. 

Next to him at our table was Professor Whatarangi Winiata, in an office suit with his neatly brushed hair, soft voice and a winning smile. Whatarangi was the good cop. I don’t think there was any prior planning to their strategy, just a natural understanding between two wily old campaigners. 

As the chief executive began to read out the “charges”, Huirangi folded his arms, dropped his chin to his chest, and started muttering in Māori. Slightly alarmed, Mr RNZ paused. Whatarangi encouraged him to carry on. As he did, Huirangi’s muttering got louder. Tension built up. Huirangi’s muttering became an interjection. Seeking clarification, Mr RNZ paused again. 

Whatarangi explained that Huirangi was saying he wasn’t going to pay the bill — and that he’d rather go to prison. Mr RNZ was dismayed. “Oh dear, we don’t want that,” he said. Whatarangi wrung his hands. “I’m sure we can come to some agreement,” he said soothingly. I was struggling to keep a straight face. 

Things continued like this for a while, with Mr RNZ setting out their position, and Whatarangi explaining why Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau and Te Ūpoko felt the charge was unfair. And, all the while, Huirangi’s muttering in Māori was getting louder and harder to ignore. 

“Take me to prison!” he finally said, putting into words the explosion knitted on his chest. “Let’s see if we can avoid that, shall we?” Whatarangi said soothingly to Mr RNZ. And, in the end, an amicable agreement was reached by all parties that Te Ūpoko would not pay Radio New Zealand a cent.  

The other day, I watched on Facebook a poroporoaki to Huirangi, delivered by about 20 excellent speakers via a Zoom meeting that lasted about two and a half hours. I was so sorry that Piripi Walker couldn’t take up the invitation to join the paepae, to tell Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau’s stories much better than I can. It was organised by Te Korimako o Taranaki, the local Māori radio station that Huirangi helped to found. 

Oh dear, the tears flowed again. But this was quite cathartic. I was cheering and laughing as well. It was wonderful to hear other people describe experiences with Huirangi that were similar to mine. How he encouraged them to see a way through a crisis of confidence or faith. How he recognised a need for something to be done and he stepped up. How he shared his profound knowledge of reo and tikanga, to ensure they would remain vibrant for future generations. 

And, as someone observed, it was so appropriate that Te Korimako o Taranaki provided the platform, and that the spectrum that Huirangi had fought so long and hard for provided the medium, for all of us, his students and proteges, to share and record our memories of him. It was not quite a traditional tangihanga, but it was a great technological response to these terrible circumstances, and such a relief. 

No reira Huirangi, kua okioki koe, kua haere ki tua o te ārai, kua haere koe ki te Pō. Haere ki ō kuia, koroua, ki ō tīpuna! Haere ki a Titokowaru. Ko koe tōna rite ki te kōkiri ope taua! Haere ki Te Whiti rāua ko Tohu Kākahi. Ko koe tō rāua rite ki te whakatakoto tikanga, ki te whiriwhiri kōrero! Haere ki ngā kaiwhakapūmau i te reo ō mua, ki a Maka mā, ki a Pae, ki a Ruka, ki a Rāwiri, me te tokomaha noa atu. Haere ki Tā Kereama, ki a Ātawhai, ki Āpirana, ki ngā rangatira tautoko i te kaupapa. Haere ki a Mātene, tērā kaihoe o tō tātou waka. Haere, haere, haere atu rā. 

Waiho mai mātou e tangi atu nei, e te rangatira, he tangi mamae, he tangi mokemoke, he tangi aroha. Ko koe te whakatinanatanga o te rangatiratanga. He taonga nunui ō waihotanga mai ki a mātou. E kore koe e wareware, e kore ā mātou mihi atu ki a koe e mutu. Haere i runga i te aroha. Haere ki te Pō!


Andrew Robb is a former reporter with Mana News and Te Kāea in Wellington. He’s been involved with Te Reo Māori Society, Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo and Te Ūpoko O Te Ika radio station, worked in parliament as an adviser to the Māori Party, and is now in lockdown at Orere Point.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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