I te taha o tōku whaea,
Ko Taranaki te mounga
Te Awakairangi te awa
Te Tatau o te Pō te marae
Honiana Te Puni te tangata
Tokomaru te waka
Ngāti Te Whiti te hapū
Te Ati Awa, arā hoki ngā iwi o Taranaki-whānui
I te taha o tōku matua,
He uri o ngā iwi o Taranaki mounga arā hoki a Ngāti Manawa me Ngāti Wai
Ko Tuparahuia Porikapa Pita ahau.
Suprisingly enough for me, my iwi has played a big part in my story and in my Māoritanga. While it’s one of the things I take as a given now, that journey of it becoming a given — becoming normal — is a lot of what’s led me here today. Getting to work for my iwi, take groups out on our waka, tell people the stories of Te Whanganui-ā-Tara and be a part of so many awesome kaupapa is so humbling.
At our waka events, I’m the kaihautū or captain for our waka taua (war canoe), Te Rerenga Kōtare, but I’m also considered the lead kaihautū for our three waka; Te Rerenga Kōtare being one, Poutū and Te Hononga. Being only 22 years old yet holding this position — where people who are older and more experienced actually look to me to lead — is surreal. I'm very privileged to be in the spaces I am today.
So, going back in time to the beginning. My parents split when I was about three but it's never been a subject of raru in our whānau, it was just one of those things. I grew up in Wellington and until I was four, it was just my mum, my older brother and I; then my little sister came along and she has a different dad. With my dad marrying my step mum, my sister's dad and my mum, I pretty much grew up with four parents.
In my whakapapa, I have three Māori grandparents and one Pākehā grandparent. Something I’ve always been so thankful for in my Pākehā whānau is that they really understand it takes a village to raise a child. With mum being a single mum, she obviously had to work and look after three not-so-well-behaved kids. They really showed tautoko to her throughout those earlier years that meant my brother and I could go to kohanga reo and kura kaupapa. Even though she herself understood Māori, she couldn’t speak it and so she wanted for us to be grounded in our culture and reo.
Being a fair-skinned Māori at kura, it's a challenging space to walk through. That's what my older brother and I found and the bullying was something we both felt, especially for me. So that happened, and kept happening until I moved schools. Still, I did make some awesome friends there.
With kura being, well, kura, whakapapa, pūrakau, reo and all of those things had a big focus. Kapa Haka was one of the main subjects at school and while that may not be considered ‘academic enough’ for some Pākehā schools, it’s been the place where I've come to understand some of the most beautiful things of our culture like weaving or making our own poi.
Actually, there was this one time where I was making my own small poi — it was meant to be the length of your elbow to your hand. But me and one of my tuakana, Eugene Temara, were making this poi and it ended up being the length of our hand haha. I think we measured it wrong.
Even though I didn't really appreciate it when I was younger, in my whānau there are a lot of record keepers — my mum’s an archivist and loves history, my grandfather’s an engineer by trade but also a historian, my grandmother's a geneologist and a lot of my whānau are teachers as well. Learning about my whakapapa, our stories and those aspects of my Māoritanga from an early age was really cool because I didn't really learn te reo at home.
When I was about 8, my brother and I started going to English lessons. Before that we couldn't read or write in English and being able to learn because of our whānau’s tautoko, as well as do things like swimming lessons, is something I’ve only been able to appreciate as I’ve gotten older.
When I was younger, I took certain opportunities for granted; as well as who exactly was giving their tautoko that meant I had those opportunities in the first place. A lot of the time, it was the Pākehā side of our whānau. And because I was very much in the Māori space of my heritage back then, often the Pākehā side felt like the lesser side. Whereas today I can step back, appreciate who all of my whānau are individually, who they are collectively, and what they have done for us.
Like I said before, we weren't the most well behaved kids, especially me and my older brother. We’d learnt to stand up for ourselves at kura, but we were often punished for the way we did that — through using our fists to settle arguments. After that had happened enough times, we left our kura, Ngā Mokopuna, which was where we had been for the majority of our primary school.
That was a pivotal moment for us. We took two separate paths. The decision was either head north to live with dad and keep learning in kura kaupapa and whare kura, or if we wanted to stay in Wellington, go to a mainstream school.
I'm surprised how we made the decision together — that he would go north and I would stay in Wellington. He said, “You stay here and look after mum. I’ll go up there and learn.” It's funny to think of us as an 11 and 9 year old making that kind of decision. Then again, we’ve always been like that, a pair. And while we’ve our fights and struggles, we’ve always had each others backs.
So staying in Wellington, stopping my schooling in te reo and moving to a mainstream school was definitely a huge shift but I was lucky to have had a period where I went to a reo Māori unit in a mainstream school first. Then after about three terms in that unit I transitioned fully into mainstream.
Just to give you an idea of how fresh I was, the first time we did a spelling test, there were groups and I was in the red one (the worst spelling group) and the teacher says, “some words you don't spell like you hear it, so ‘people’ you don't spell it like ‘pea’ and ‘pole’.” I look at my piece of paper, look up at the teacher, look back down at my paper and cross it out haha. So fresh.
It was pretty eye-opening coming from kura kaupapa where eveyone’s doing kapas, where everyone knows waiata and pōhiri, where practices look like pōhiri with little 8 and 9 year olds doing karanga on the ātea and whaikōrero on the pae. Then going to a mainstream school and that kind of knowledge being a rarity. It was definitely a shock to the system.
But it was good for me. And actually, when I went to mainstream, I came to appreciate all of the different cultures I was surrounded by. Growing up in a suburb with lots of immigrants, the schools I went to were full of people from different backgrounds. It wasn't like, “the Māoris sit over here, the Asian kids over there and the African kids over there” — everyone was in the same space and so we experienced each other as people, beyond all of our differences.
After primary school I went to Rongotai College and it was a cool experience. It wasn’t formative for me in the way it is for some people — primary was the really formative space that high school added to. I built on a few of the things I’ve talked about here like learning about different cultures, and I began appreciating the way my schooling turned out.
Also over that time, the grounding I had in my Māoritanga became really clear as something unique to my time at kura kaupapa; having this unchallengable certainty in who I was and where I came from. Interestingly enough, it was only something I noticed after other people pointed it out and it helped grow my appreciation for how my schooling experience had unfolded.
In year 13, me and another bro were the only Māori prefects for the school. It was cool to be Māori and hold that leadership space, but we need more honest kōrero around the harmful stereotypes both non-Māori AND Māori themselves are responsible for continuing — those ones of being more Māori or less Māori, success making you Pākehā or failure making you everyone else; they serve no purpose other than dividing us.
One of the things that I've always struggled with is reigning in my curiousity; I find the whole world interesting. Having this love for information but never being able to find that passion is a challenge. I'm always envious when people say, “I want to be this, or I want to be a doctor, or I don't want to be just any doctor, I want to be a pediatrician.” That's so awesome, how do you get there? How did you find it? I’ve been told there’s no road map for passion yet I still find myself looking as if there were.
So I go to uni, study politics, it's awesome and it’s interesting, but I find myself not wanting to do the mahi because there's no ihi, only interest. I pass one paper — funnily enough it’s a paper on logic — but keep going for the first semester. Then when I do decide to leave, it isn’t until after the cut off date for course refunds and so I'm paying off two semester of papers. Lesson learnt, at that point in time uni wasn’t for me.
Because I’ve always been someone who knew people and could create connection, this is where my relationships start taking on a lot more depth. My best friend, Hirini Stewart, is awesome fulla. Him and his whānau built Tapu Te Ranga Marae in Island Bay and so when I bombed out of uni, I had another pivotal moment — I could either find a job and keep living with mum, or I could move out.
While I’m trying to figure my life out, I'm hanging out with my best mate at his marae. He's doing work, the guys are doing work, I’m doing work and complaining like, “man I don't know what I'm going to do, I don't want to find a job and I don't want to study.” One of the guys just says, “Eah, you’re already working — you're here every week, or every three days, why don't you just come here?" It was one of those things I didn’t even realise until he’d said it. So I gave a tono to Matua Bruce, Hirini’s dad, who was the rangatira there and asked if I could move in and work. He was like, “yup, if you're working, yup”, and that started my next chapter.
When I was making that decision, I was probably at the lowest point in my life. I was in a bad space and that was why I was spending so much time with my best mate and the whānau at Tapu Te Ranga, it helped me feel grounded. Within that space I started to be able to bring out the kura kid in me again and continue learning more about my Māoritanga. Always doing kaupapa on the marae and working 5-7 days each week, it was really cool to never need an off-switch for my Māoritanga.
It's funny how that worked out — one door closed and a few more opened. It was one of those things where you never know when the opportunity is going to come up, and even if you're not ready for it, you can still learn something: that you aren't ready. When I went to uni, I realised that and one day I might be ready but either way, I can say I tried, I gave it a go, but I also didn’t force myself through something I needed more time for.
Doing mahi on the marae, I learnt to build, I grew my ability whaikārero, I learnt history, I met people from all over the world, and all of this because my mate said, “just come work here.” That was also the time I started being a kaihautū for our waka.
The next opportunity that came up, which I actually turned down multiple times to start with, was a kaupapa called TUIA. I’d been at the marae for about 6 months now and while I was still working through that low space, I was really starting to enjoy my time there.
I get a call up from my mom saying, “Whaea Nicky from the council needs a rangatahi Māori to do this mentoring thing.” And I go, “Mum, I don't want to do that.” She tries to explain it and then gets my brother on the line and he’s saying, “bro I'm not in Wellington so come on, someone from our iwi should do it,” and he gives me all these reasons why. I still say no.
This is when your whānau who know best express that in funny ways. My mum rings up whaea Nicky without my knowledge and says to her, “just put his name down — he's not doing much, he's just at the marae so put him down and he can come be a part of this.” Two weeks later I get another call from mum saying, come down to the Civic Square, whaea Nicky and whaea Billy want to meet you and kōrero about this mentoring thing. If you still don't want to do it after they’ve explained it, kei te pai. I get to the hui and they go, “awesome so thank you for meeting us, you got the job!”
I've known whaea Nicky and whaea Billy from the Wellys City Council for a long time. Whaea Billy is actually a whanaunga to my dad and whaea Nicky's daughter went to primary school a year ahead of my sister (so a couple of years younger than me) and that's how she knew my mum.
So they’re like, “awesome, we'll just have coffee here and then go meet the mayor. Thank you for doing this, it's going to be a great year, you're gonna do this and that” and I’m just sitting there between mum and whaea Nicky like a sheep who’d just walked off the cliff and thinking, “what's happening?” Throughout the whole hui they’re talking about booking flights to places and in retrospect, it was one of those opportunities where I don’t know how I said no to it so many times. Ever since my first TUIA wānanga, the kaupapa’s been this powerful force of positivity in my life. I've meet so many passionate people and like I said, passion isn’t my forte but I love meeting passionate people because they always genuinely want to do awesome things in their community and that’s inspiring.
Growing up, my whole life has this theme of working together — my whānau working together to give my bro and I the opportunities we had, the whānau at Tapu Te Ranga and I working together and helping me when I was low, my mum, whaea Nicky and whaea Billy working to keep the door I didn’t know I needed open even when I was saying no to it. Then coming into TUIA with all these other cool rangatahi who were all just wanting to do cool things together and for their communties, I was mind blown.
I like to talk about these things being coincidences — like if we out on the water and it's sunny, it's a coincidence or if I go to Maccas and there's no line, it's a coincidence. No matter how many times it happens, it’s a coincidence. So when I’m going up to Te Araroa for the third Tuia wā, I get told to get off at Wairoa instead of Gizzy and wait for a guy called Ngāri there. I have no idea where Wairoa is and I forgot I’d actually met Ngāri so I get off there with my bag, it’s pouring down and I'm like, "oh man, this Ngāri guy where is he?" About 30 seconds later he pulls up and is like, "bro good to see you!” And I’m like, “Oh it’s you! Hey bro.”
What had happened was Ngāri was driving up the night before the wānanga with a mate, Kawakawa, and they were going up there to explore doing this other kaupapa. We got to Te Araroa around midnight and woke up at about 6:30 or something to start this wānanga. They’re talking about going around the motu to different marae for 7 days, I'm tired and I'm just like, “mean sounds cool, put me down for that,” and it was a coincidence; if I’d been flying I wouldn’t have been at that hui. So I ended up being a part of that kaupapa too and it was mean. I do wonder what it would’ve been like if I’d done it a year or two later, but then maybe I would've been someone different to who I am now because doing it when I did helped get me to where I am now.
During Tuia I’m still at the marae and out on the waka as a kaihautū. Then a friend of mine who had moved to Darwin in Aussie to work and he's like, “bro, the money's good, the weather's nice, come up, stay with me and we can suss you mahi here.” So I tell my whānau, "Hey I'm thinking about moving to Aussie; the marae’s cool but I want to start making money.”
Straight off from there I get approached from my great aunt who, along with my koroua, are involved in the iwi with the different trusts and those things. She approaches me with Chris who’s now my manager and says, “we hear you're looking to go overseas and we’ve got a better idea. We’re looking to start up tours on our waka.” She explains what those look like and says, “we'd like you, because of your skills with waka, to be a part of it.” Two and a half, three years a go I took that opportunity and here we are today; I even met my hoa rangatira through the waka kaupapa.
Looking back, I don't think I was ready for Tuia, or to be kaihautū and I definitely wasn't ready for uni but each time I learnt a bit more. Matua Marcus who started Tuia always taught that the greatest growth happens when you are challenged the most, and so be willing to take that opportunity.
The reason why I kept saying no to Tuia originally was because I didn't believe in myself or that I could be the person from Wellington to do that kaupapa. Thankfully my mum, whaea Nicky and whaea Billy did. So even if you aren't confident, take that opportunity and go with it; you might make mistakes but that's a part of growing.
It’s interesting, I’ve met all these awesome people with all these cool skills, who have all taken different opportunities which have grown them to not just survive but thrive without having that formal type of education.
And, actually, on that subject, I see it quite a lot even just within my own whānau — the divide between those who have a degree and those who don’t. The whole whānau dynamic is interesting because it isn’t overt and the signs that let you know a rift exists in the first place are mainly seen in how we treat one another and the value we place on each other’s opinions.
Then that leads into the bridge between those who speak te reo, those who understand te reo, those who don’t know te reo and everyone else in between. Divides aye, but that's what we need to focus on — the things that bring us together, not separate us.
That's the thing that I love about waka kaupapa — everyone knows that when we’re on the waka, we’re one. We all work together whether we’re from government, councils, schools, a cafe, or anywhere else because at the end of the day, if we aren’t, we don’t move; it isn’t possible to be divided and go anywhere meaningfully.
You learn very quickly on waka that we all need to respect each other to make it work — we aren’t just kaihoe or a kaihautū, we are people with a name, a whānau, a whakapapa and all of these things are channelled into those moment when we are working together towards our shared goal. While it can seem easier to divide than align, for Māori and for all Aotearoa, I know that using our waka, art, and reo are powerful tools for bringing people together.
When we were teaching Kupe Hautoa, our haka for Wellington, at the Waka Oddessy event in Wellys a few months back, I saw that firsthand. I was expecting maybe 40 or so people to turn up and learn, mainly Māori. But what I got there, somewhere between 200 and 300 people were coming through and learning about the haka and not just watching Māori do it either but actually physically getting involved, learning the words and doing the actions.
That moment where everyone, Pākehā, Māori and tauiwi were just getting into it and not seeing see differences but connections, that was so awesome and that’s what we have to be looking for — opportunities to come together and if we don't see any in the spaces around us, be brave enough to create them.
Being a young Māori, being kaihautū, standing out of the ātea, feeling the ihi of being in a position of leadership and doing the mahi — for me, that’s success. With our three waka, we've got 50 to 60 or so paddlers and they’re are all standing around each morning we’re training waiting for me to tell them what to do. There's no other experience like that, not just for the kaupapa but to have people depending on you. So yeah, success is having our waka on the water, having whānau enjoying themselves on the water and have them loving being a part of the kaupapa.
Follow Tuparahuia on insta: @tuparahuiapita