Profiling 100 indigenous women – how hard can it be? Very bloody hard, it turns out. But worth every sacrifice, says Qiane Matata-Sipu.
Qiane Matata-Sipu is many things to many people. She’s a journalist who has written for this very website. She’s an award-winning photographer. She’s an activist and one of the land protectors at the centre of SOUL and the historic occupation of Ihumātao. She’s the māmā of a miracle baby. And she’s a visionary who believes in the power of wāhine. It’s this last role that has given Matata-Sipu perhaps the hardest, but most rewarding, challenge yet – profiling 100 Indigenous women through a podcast and bespoke photoshoot, released on her own digital platforms, before eventually culminating in a coffee table photography book.
This week Nuku 100 publishes its 50th wahine. There are two main criteria to be a Nuku wāhine – “Indigenous and kick ass”, Matata-Sipu says. “It’s important that we use the kupu “Indigenous” because it doesn’t necessarily mean Māori, and also someone who identifies as wahine. It doesn’t mean biologically, it’s not about that.
“It’s about people doing things differently. We’ve had women who are the only or the first of their kind, in a particular profession or area of study, or they’re reclaiming certain Indigenous practice. I try to find wāhine that people don’t know a lot about. There are some people who have been in the media or that people have heard of, but don’t know the story behind who they are.”
Matata-Sipu uses rugby league legend Honey Hireme-Smiler as an example. “She’s a duel code athlete who has been playing professional rugby league for 18 years. But it’s also about who she is at her core. She’s someone who lost their māmā to cancer, who was born and raised in Putāruru and grew up playing every single sport against the boys. She and her wife have a blended family of teenage boys. All of those sorts of things.”
She says that every wāhine she’s asked to be involved has had the same reaction – “who, me?”
“They’re all quite humble but so successful,” she continues. “When you think of Lynell Huria, she is the only Māori wahine IP lawyer in the country, and she was like “Me? Why?”. Or Dr Amber Aranui. It’s her job to go around the work looking for our tūpuna, their bones, in museums and bring them home. It’s so interesting to listen to these people and ask, ‘how do you do what you do, how do you navigate it as an Indigenous woman?’”
While every wahine has brought something completely unique to their podcast, Matata-Sipu says there’s one thing that has surprised her most.
“There have been a number of wāhine who have been courageously vulnerable which I don’t think I was ready for, and I really honour those wāhine for sharing that because it is those truths about our lives we learn most from. When I think about Hinewirangi Kohu-Morgan [talking] about being a sexual abuse survivor from the age of nine, or Ninakaye Taane-Tinorau talking about her life as a stripper and being 18 years sober. I’ve been in awe of them sharing those depths.”
She says a conversation with Aqui Thami, a Janajāti activist and artist from the Himalayan region, helped open her eyes to the different experiences of wāhine Māori to wāhine of other Indigenous cultures.
“I was surprised to learn from Aqui Thami that there is a difference between Indian and Indigenous Indian women. Indigenous Indian women aren’t even part of the caste system. Many of them are slaves on tea plantations, they live in militarised communities. When you think of oppression of Indigenous women around the world, we as a society haven’t even scraped the surface of what that means for them.”
Born and raised on her papakāinga in Ihumātao, Matata-Sipu has been on the frontline of the fight to save the contested land there since well before it was controversially bought by Fletcher Building for an ill-conceived housing development. When police moved in to evict the occupation of Ihumātao on July 23, 2019, she put everything on hold to be on her whenua full-time, working tirelessly behind the scenes to progress the movement. While it was her cousin Pania Newton that became the most recognisable face of the movement, Matata-Sipu ran the comms and strategy to create a safe environment for the occupiers, and ensure as many people as possible heard the call and came to support the cause.
To help her keep her business and the Nuku kaupapa afloat, she has a team of women that she says are the reason the project continues to live.
Matata-Sipu’s long-time friend Mel Skelton, who has her own salon in Mt Albert, takes care of each wāhine’s hair and make-up for their photoshoot. Production manager Julia Espinoza takes care of scheduling and has made it possible for Nuku to meet wāhine in Wellington, Christchurch, Blenheim, Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Te Tai Rāwhiti. And she says a young videographer, Taylor Aumua, who started as an intern has since made herself indispensable.
“Right from the beginning I’ve had Taylor working with me – she’s a Fijian Sāmoan wahine who I met when we were both contracting for another organisation and we realised we were both going to be bridesmaids at the same wedding,” she laughs. “She was a young journalist working for Tagata Pasifika and she was really passionate about archaeology and Pacific history and wanted to learn more about video.
“We joke about how our tūpuna brought us together but it’s no joke.”
Aumua is equally passionate about the Nuku kaupapa. “It’s been an amazing journey so far!” she says.
“The reason this kaupapa is so important to me is because many of us have similar stories where we feel disconnected from our culture, our heritage, our language. And it’s sometimes not ‘til later in life that something in us clicks and we have the realisation of how much we’ve been colonised and how that affects us today.
She says Nuku is about creating “an Indigenous world”.
“Sharing Indigenous knowledge and creating resources, like the podcast and the book that will be released next year, so that the next generation of Indigenous women will have the knowledge and the support of all these amazing women. And hopefully, they won’t have to carry the same trauma that we’ve had to carry.”
Aumua says she’s committed to Nuku right until they get to 100, and beyond.
“One of the many things I love about working with Qiane, and the whole Nuku team, is that our kaupapa not only shows how important it is for women to support women – its something our whole team lives and breathes.
“We find healing in this kauapa and it’s also taught us about how to live our lives as kick-ass Indigenous wahine!”
In order to get to 100, Nuku is going to need help, Matata-Sipu says. “Money, money, money!” she laughs. “No one on the Nuku kaupapa is paid what they’re worth, and I really want to change that.”
They’ve had funding from Māngere-Otāhuhu Arts, Next Gen, Creative NZ and a private donor to help them get to 50, but it’s been a struggle and Matata-Sipu has personally worn much of the cost. “I feel bad for my husband and daughter because I’m so passionate about Nuku, sometimes my priorities get a little clouded,” she giggles.
“It’s been hard yakka to get to 50. When we’ve had pūtea we’ve stretched it as far as possible. And then we have to find a little bit more here, and a little bit more there.”
Nuku has now started a Boosted campaign in the hopes that its community can help it reach its goals. Even better, she says, a generous philanthropist would come in handy.
“We want to produce a really high-quality product and we’ll always go the extra mile to make sure it looks and sounds great, regardless of the pūtea. But if someone wants to give us $200,000 – which I’m told is not a lot of money but in my world that’s huge – we would finish the next 50 profiles and have the book published.” Which, she adds, would be self-published.
“If Nuku has taught me anything, it’s been a lesson in tino rangatiratanga.
“The kaupapa continues to be mā hine, mō hine, kia hine – lead by, made by, made for wāhine.”
Donate to the Nuku100 Boosted campaign here.