Ruakere Hond, with Taranaki in the background, was among those who delivered their whaikōrero for Huirangi Waikerepuru’s virtual tangihanga on TVNZ’s Marae programme. (Screenshot)

It’s difficult to imagine a more serious spiritual transgression than removing the right to a tangi, writes Vanessa Ellingham. And yet, watching Huirangi Waikerepuru’s online tangihanga from Berlin, she got a rare glimpse of what she’d been missing at other tangi.


For those of us who’ve lost a family member during the lockdown, forgoing the tangihanga has been desperately hard. And the hardship has only been magnified when faced with the passing of a national figure of Huirangi Waikerepuru’s significance. Huirangi was one of the saviours of te reo Māori, as well as a key figure in the preservation and revival of the Taranaki dialect.

But, with the pressure on all but a tiny few to stay in their own “bubbles”, there was no tangi to attend, no hordes of mourners arriving to support the whānau through their grief.

Before the Covid-19 crisis, thousands would have gathered under our iconic mounga to pay their respects and to awhi his loved ones. It’s difficult to imagine a more serious spiritual transgression than removing the right to a tangi.

As Māori, we sit for hours with our tūpāpaku, kiss them, cry all over them, tell them what we really think about them. There’s space to let it all out. So the lack of a tangi for Huirangi — and for all of those who have passed at this strange time — leaves a distressing void where there should be catharsis and closure.

And yet, this ban created a situation that never would’ve been possible if we weren’t all stuck at home, unable to go about our daily lives and rituals. If Huirangi’s tangi had taken place.

On Marae that Sunday, something had clearly broken open. The show’s team had cut whatever they’d planned for that week and transformed their programme into a virtual tangihanga.

Scotty Morrison called Huirangi back, so that he could be lamented. Kaumātua from all over the motu took turns broadcasting from their backyards, dressed as if attending a funeral, which they were, thanking Huirangi for his service, listing his achievements, and powerfully conveying their empathy to his whānau.

And I watched on my laptop screen, curled up in bed on the other side of the world, where I now live, in Germany.

When my grandfather died in 2000, having just re-learned the Māori mother-tongue he’d cast off as a young man, we delivered him back to Parihaka for his tangi. Or rather, he delivered us back there. I was nine years old and I’d never been there before. After that, my mother and I began to play catch-up, attending tangi and other hui, not yet understanding all the words but wanting to be present, to participate.

As a child, sitting on the floor of Te Niho o Te Ātiawa, I would cross my legs one way and then the other, over and over until I was equally sore on both sides, as the whaikorero carried on, often late into the night.

I knew that what the men had to say was important, but I had next to no idea what they were saying. And that includes Huirangi. I saw him speak once or twice, my child’s mind homing in on the tiny man with the flash of white hair protruding from his patterned headbands, flicking his tokotoko to emphasise his point.

Huirangi’s online memorial offered those of us still working on our reo a very rare gift: whaikōrero with English subtitles.

For the first time, I got to experience the variety of whaikōrero, the mix of sombre acknowledgements and rousing calls to action, plus a rather poetic whistle-stop tour of the nation’s iwi radio stations by Julian Wilcox, taking in Huirangi’s vast impact.

I was moved by the diversity of the speeches in the half-hour broadcast, the opportunity to tune into dialect, to comprehend nuance. It made me wonder what I’d missed at my own koro’s tangi.

If I spoke our reo, which I’m now learning through an online course, this wouldn’t have been such a revelation. That online te reo courses exist, and that I can participate from so far away — I owe these opportunities to Huirangi and his contemporaries. And I owe them to his whānau, for sharing him with us at this time of such great disconnect.

Of course, a virtual poroporoaki grinds against what’s tika. And, when Māori can safely gather again, there’s sure to be a backlog of hui, with no further need for televised, subtitled replacements — because there’s just nothing like being physically present in te ao Māori. I moved away from Aotearoa almost eight years ago and I still struggle to accept that that’s what I’ve given up.

It will be years, if not a lifetime, before I can sit among our whanaunga and understand the whaikōrero. And yet, from my spot half a world away from Taranaki, I got a rare glimpse. I got to imagine what it would be like to understand.

As New Zealand went on lockdown in March, there was suddenly a lot more te reo in my feed. Te Ātiawa and Taranaki iwi launched daily lockdown broadcasts on Facebook: exercise classes, reo lessons and meditations on the words of Te Whiti and Tohu, plus Sunday night karakia on Zoom. There were suddenly so many more ways to participate from afar.

The karakia session following Huirangi’s death was a special two-and-a-half hour poroporoaki fronted by Taranaki leaders and hosted, so appropriately, by the iwi radio station Te Korimako o Taranaki.

Virtual backgrounds seemed to be catching on, because from one Sunday to the next, three of the attendees had swapped their kitchen and carport backdrops for virtual ones, and now appeared hovering in front of various stunning images of Taranaki. In one Zoom square, two heads neatly framed the mountain’s snowy peak.

That is possibly the clearest and most literal image of what my own heart yearns for: I want to greenscreen our mounga on to my life.


Vanessa Ellingham (Te Ātiawa, Taranaki and Ngā Ruahine) is a writer and editor living in Berlin. She runs a magazine about migration called NANSEN.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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