A lake in mourning. Rotoiti from Manupirua, on the day Tā Toby Curtis was buried. (Photo supplied)

As she witnessed the kōtahitanga and resistance of iwi Māori at the Tūrangawaewae hui in January, Elana Curtis recalled the days before the passing of her father, Tā Toby Curtis, a proudly Māori academic and iwi leader who led a “Māori-as life”.


There is a little flutter across the waters of Ihenga. A light red spray of colour. A dusk to be remembered. Matawhaura stands, majestic in green as a mountain of stone and trees, looking down on this scene. Beautiful layers of sunset etched across the sky.

This is a lake in mourning. Much like its people.

Water glistens below the little one-storey house perched on the shore of Lake Rotoiti. Overgrown grass caresses the water’s edge. Swans swim aimlessly. A worn-out brick barbeque sits, back to the mountain of stone, front towards the house with who knows what lying inside.

Cars (so many cars) are parked on verges. The ground is printed with tyre tracings, much like tā moko on weathered skin. Children scamper about, oblivious to the grieving.

A makeshift marquee has been erected between the humble homestead and the shore of the majestic lake. Whānau busy themselves, feeding hungry visitors.

There is much to take in with each breath as the people ready themselves. We are awaiting tangihanga, yet out come the homemade chocolate kisses, shortbread, cake, pikelets. Love, glad-wrapped in perfection with a beating heart fit for the living. This is a confused space.

“He’s not dying. Look at him, he’s eating, he’s giving everyone their ōhākī.”

Elana’s father Tā Toby saying goodbye to John Hinchcliff, a former vice chancellor of AUT. They’d worked for many years and together they transitioned ATI to a university AUT and set up Māori studies as a department. (Photo supplied)

Yes, but still he tires on each turn. His body physically melts, even as his wairua soars, buoyed by every person that arrives to mihi, to cry and to wait for the passing that will surely come.

Time has travelled slowly since I sat with my three brothers in Rotorua hospital a week ago, negotiating our father’s return home to die. There was nothing more that could be done for this long-standing academic and iwi leader. The pneumonia had triggered the heart failure, had triggered the kidney failure, had triggered the tiredness.

We all thought he was ready. And then he saw his lake, his home (once our grandparents’) and everyone coming to visit, and suddenly Dad looks very much alive again.

I don’t know whether he will live or die. Yet, here I am, knowing in my being that he is slipping away. And I, a drop in my beautiful body of water, a lake of aroha for my people, find myself arguing with my sibling’s assertion: “You’ve got it wrong, he’s not dying.” Golden sun across our sunken faces, watched by our significant others from the framing of the leaking aluminium windows beside our dying father.

Dressed in grief, for all to see.

And what really counts is aroha. Aroha for each other (wherever we may be) and aroha for the one inside.

As the only daughter of my dying father, I could not leave his side. I could not stray. I was determined to be with him on his passing. I owed him that at least. And so I sat, I listened, and I witnessed. Like a silent, unknowing scribe as he exchanged his last phrases of love.

And love there was.

Love in the form of gourmet dishes from the hands of great friends (freedom fighters for Māori sovereignty), mundane cleaning tasks from book-writers and loving daughters-in-law, comforting presence from whanaunga, expertly delivered kapa haka, blankets of warmth, glass patu blown by master Māori carvers, and deep, deep moments of advice given to iwi leaders from across the motu.

Perhaps most important was the arching cadence of the day. From the early morning karakia chanted by our whanaunga tohunga cutting through the shadows of dawn (a legacy to the old man) to the essence of the evening karakia, devoid of colonising religion, anchors for whānau to gather and, in doing so, cleanse and learn. Ancient Māori meditation for the soul. In between lay the caring, the nursing and the waiting.

I felt the presence of this in-between space engulf my dying father, Tā Toby, as he laughed and remembered his unique, Māori-as life. He was so very, very proud.

The Curtis whānau in the late 1980s. Back row from left: Mikaere (Mike), Richard, Piripi. Front: Toby and Mary Curtis, and Elana. In the mid-1980s in the Hato Petera principal’s house in Akoranga Drive, Northcote. (Photo supplied)

All of this came back to me as I watched the gathering at Tūrangawaewae in late January, the hui called by the Kīngitanga, with more than 12,000 who gathered to honour the breath of kōtahitanga and to publicly and loudly shout back against the smallness of the self-absorbed. I couldn’t help but recall one of the most poignant conversations I experienced during the time of my dad’s passing.

It was from one leader to another, one Māori to another.

It was beautiful because it used old Māori. Lyrical in flow, clicking circles from the language of the ones who have crossed over. It was whimsical in its beat, yet deep in its message. It was straight to the point and yet at times so far from the obvious. It was deeply respectful in a way I have only heard from the ancient ones. That I remember. In my broken Māori interpretation, I was able to pick out remnants of the sharing.

Here was an old man on his death bed, coaching his younger protege, prompting him to become the leader he was always destined to be, to stand up for his people, to step into his space. To not hold back. This meant something, to me witnessing and to the Māori leader receiving it.

It was a highight of my father’s passing — if there can be such a thing.

Over the months that followed, I started to see little pockets of evidence appearing. Whispers from the ōhākī — my father’s dying words — swirling around my knowing. From the Matatini pōwhiri, where iwi pride and politics played out on the paepae (as it should), to the hui of thousands at Tūrangawaewae. I can see the ōhākī leader at the centre of these events, and I recall the conversation I was so honoured to witness and I believe that maybe Dad’s message had some influence after all. Certainly not the beginning, but hopefully a tailwind of support for the protege to sail on strongly in support of our people.

And so here I am, enamoured with the power of being Māori, strong in the knowing that we will not lie down, fully believing in our mana motuhake and kōtahitanga. I see the legacy of our leaders who have passed and those who continue. And I want to thank them all, because generations now know they will be their ancestors’ dreaming and their mokopunas’ remembering.

I can’t think of a better tribute to my father’s memory than the resistance we embrace and the emancipation that we will surely enjoy. I can’t think of a better way to move forward — out of grief, to celebration for what is to come.


Dr Elana Taipapaki Curtis (Ngāti Rongomai, Ngāti Pikiao, Te Arawa) is a Māori public health physician. Before she left the University of Auckland in 2022, she was an associate professor and the director of Vision 20:20 at Te Kupenga Hauora Māori, within the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences. Through her own consultancy business Taikura Consultants Ltd, she continues to teach and work in Māori health.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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