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BooksMay 15, 2024

‘One hell of a lesson’: a conversation with Ngāhuia Te Awekōtuku

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Matariki Williams speaks with Ngāhuia Te Awekōtuku about her extraordinary memoir, Hine Toa.

Ngāhuia Te Awekōtuku has a seemingly effortless approach to knowledge: the ingesting, digesting and sharing of it has been part of her scholarship for decades. The week after I interviewed her, I was heading to Venice to soak up the art biennale and she of course had tips for what to see, where to go and who to look out for. Ngāhuia shared that she was hoping to attend later this year and was looking forward to seeing Mataaho Collective’s work Takapau in situ (sidenote: they won one of the major prizes!). On this note she divulged information of the exhibition site, a historic complex of former shipyards and armouries, providing an unprompted interpretation of how Takapau could be read in this space. The level of engagement awed me and – not just saying this because it rhymes – floored me.

The effortlessness associated with knowledge was an assumption I held that her autobiography Hine Toa: A story of bravery challenged. Reality is, Ngāhuia has fought for access to mātauranga a lot of her life. The titular bravery is part of that, but so is her tenacity and voracious thirst to know more. 

First let me state, this isn’t the autobiography I expected to read. I have encountered Ngāhuia’s work through art criticism, history, anthropology, museology, and at symposia related to any of the many subjects in which she is expert. While I’m very interested in Ngāhuia’s scholarship, I’m glad this book is not that, and instead focuses on where it all bubbled up from. We begin with a cautionary tale set in Maketū wherein the kaitiaki tuatara Kiriwhetū, with whom Ngāhuia’s whānau has a reciprocal relationship, enacts utu upon an abusive Pākehā man. From this kōrero emerges threads that are picked up throughout the book: whānau, the sisterhood of wāhine, abuse and protection, love, and the persistence of justice. 

Imagery related to fire, burning and heat recurs throughout Hine Toa. I asked Ngāhuia whether Mahuika is a favourite goddess of hers. She responded with the most gently mind-blowing mātauranga-drop I’ve experienced: 

“I think of the women who brought the fires to Ōhinemutu, to Tikitere, to Whakarewarewa and the thermal activity I grew up with and that are an essential energy throughout the book. They’re about the steam, the boiling water, the way that beneath the earth of Wai Ariki there is this energy that was brought here, by women. Of course we’ve got Mahuika but her fire is red. The colours of Parawhenuamea, Paratehuata, Pupū, those women, it’s black. Or else it’s boiling pāua, kaleidoscopic, extraordinary blue and green and lavender. Pupū, who was the sister of Ngatoro-i-Rangi who brought the warmth, the heat, the fire to Wai Ariki. That’s what I grew up listening to, singing about, that’s what I bathed in every morning and every night.”

I sighed the biggest sigh listening to this, grateful for what was shared. Earlier in our kōrero, Ngāhuia had exclaimed “Ngāti Whakaue” to me, and I responded that yes, my kuia Tangi was from Ngāti Whakaue, Ōhinemutu, Tunohopu marae. Another tipuna wahine from our whānau is buried outside St. Faith’s church, kuia Wikitoria. Seamlessly, Ngāhuia wove connections between my whānau and other Webbers and Rogers who are distinguished scholars. He kōrero manaaki tērā, making those connections for me. 

This description of atua wāhine alone, and the evocative prose of Hine Toa, goes some way to explaining the vivid dreams I had while reading the book. The technicolour of Hine Toa seeped into my psyche in the most trippy way. While telling this to Ngāhuia, I acknowledged my love of scholars who write in a emotive, poetic, and empathetic way, calling to mind the late Teresia Teaiwa. There is an accessibility in this kind of writing, and again while coming across as effortless, this is not an incidental aspect of her work. A favourite descriptive sentence comes right at the end of the book, where she is sitting at a Ngāti Whakaue checkpoint into Ōhinemutu and says she’s sitting in the “half-dark, stained by a lone streetlight.” This easily could have been a line written by any other author describing being bathed in or spotlit by a streetlight but the inclusion of “stained” stuck with me, evoking comfort, cups of tea, home, and loneliness. 

Ngāhuia te Awekōtuku (Photo: gg.govt.nz)

At one point, Ngāhuia referred to her upbringing as privileged, living in a pā with active dynamic marae, including Te Papaiouru, whose wharenui is named for Tama-te-Kapua, the captain of Te Arawa waka. Privilege is a word often associated with other kinds of opportunities and advantages, but I understand what is meant here. The access to fine orators, kaikaranga and makers is of a time that has passed and for Ngāhuia it was a privilege to watch, and listen, and be. Within this she acknowledges her excitement and distraction by the “new”. An aunty who was a teacher, Aunty Torea, saw this interest and opened her world to reading, writing and singing. “That’s why by four, I was singing onto paper with a pencil.” Singing onto paper, swoon! 

While the presence of love is constant, so too is abuse. There are multiple mentions of adults helping themselves to the bodies of children and rangatahi in this book so please be mindful of this as you read. The ubiquity of this abuse leads one to believe it is indiscriminate, though I can’t help but notice that a lot of the victims are Māori. With this in mind, I was heartened to read of the amount of people who invested in Ngāhuia during her upbringing: along with Aunty Torea, there is a Pākehā uncle described as “also being ‘like that’”, the nuns she learned from (variously referred to as dowagers and doyennes, a lyrical choices that I can’t imagine anyone else pulling off), and (the now Dame) Fiona Kidman at the local library who spent time with her repeat visitor. As Ngāhuia makes it to university, because her voracity for knowledge seeks a new puna mātauranga, James Ritchie takes her in as do Elizabeth Hepi, Merimeri Penfold and countless others. It is this encouragement which is worthy of dwelling on rather than the abuse. As she shared, “The book is as much about them and their compassion, their faith, their trying to understand me. I was struggling so hard to understand myself.”

Here we get an insight into what bubbled away beneath the surface: Ngāhuia’s latent love of women which is described in fiery tones of desire throughout. Inklings that start with crushes, experimentation with cousins, much of which is kept secret before finding an outlet in Tāmaki Makaurau. In Tāmaki her identity is able to be more fully expressed as she becomes a vocal advocate in the gay liberation movement, holding space for queer women in the women’s liberation movement and also in her work with Ngā Tamatoa. None of these spaces are easy bedfellows of the other and this complexity is palpable, something which is thankfully less overt (though I’m not naive enough to think it perfect) in today’s intersectional approach to issues of gender, sexual, racial, civil liberation. 

One example of this is a televised proclamation where Ngāhuia describes herself as a “Sapphic woman”, a declaration that resulted in her inability to travel to the US for a student leadership programme. Because of her stated sexuality, Ngāhuia could not secure a visa on the basis of her being determined a Known Sexual Deviant under Section 212(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. During the same women’s liberation protest, the protestors carried a makeshift coffin and calla lilies, signifying Victorian morality and how it has imposed itself on the freedoms of women. The use of this coffin elicited a sharp reprimand from her Paparoa mother, a telling off that queried why she was playing around with something as tapu as death. 

Other members of the women’s lib movement also expressed consternation at her statements about sexuality. Here is a single example as to how the constituent features of Ngāhuia’s identity clashed external of her. From her perspective it is easy to read how they can co-exist and work for each other, and of course with the benefit of 50 years of progress readers can understand their coexistence, but we must not forget where our liberties grew from.

While I haven’t covered much of her Paparoa mother, her kuia and aunties, her whānau in Tikitere and elsewhere, the ease and complexity of those relationships can only be understood through Ngāhuia’s words. The depth of love in those relationships are so visceral. They are what compelled me to think of the etymology of nostalgia, nostos and algos: the return home and pain. This idea of a place being one of comfort and one of pain. Home is a place that is fundamentally changed, or your relationship with it is, at the point of rupture which is leaving. It is so clear that Ngāhuia needed to leave, to experience all that she needed to but the thread back home was always present. Ngāhuia likens the concept to the Tūhoe idea of matemateāone, “Yearning, needing to go home. What the hell is back there waiting for you? Can you be sure? And yet the yearning remains.”

It is her home and upbringing that provided the ability to hold strong in times of opposition. A couple of instances with Ngā Tamatoa, who are remembered now as a bastion of tino rangatiratanga in Māori civil rights but who were also lambasted in their time by Pākehā and Māori alike, provide an insight into the tightrope of identity that members walked. In one planned protest, members saw their whānau at the event and immediately took up the role of ringawera, ironic given how many Māori queried their Māori-ness and claimed they didn’t know how to be Māori. They worked bloody hard though and their politics did not come from the bourgeoisie intelligentsia, for many of them, they were at the university on scholarships: 

“In the 1960s and early 70s, university education was rare, celebrated, special for Māori, for everyone, for working class, for Pākehā, for everyone. To get in was an achievement if you were the child of freezing workers or sharemilkers or Māori. However, you could get in if you got university entrance and scholarship and you immediately qualified for what was free tuition, and if you did really well you got accommodation, board, a small allowance. All you had to do to sustain your privilege, your right to be there, was to pass your exams. If you got through your exams then your bursary, your scholarship was renewed. What that meant was there was the channelling of a small, talented, exclusive elite. With Tamatoa we had a really interesting mix, middle class Māori as well as people like me, people like the character Ārepa, people like Ringo, people like Mana. We were rough but we passed our exams. That was what kept us going, that we knew if we did our work then we had the time off to do the politics. Most of us were like that.”

This is a small lens into the nuanced nature of Ngā Tamatoa: it was a grassroots movement, sure from a tertiary space, but also informed by the experience of the working class. As Ngāhuia told me: “Even though people were yelling at us and telling us we didn’t know how to be ‘real Māori’, we did! When the chips were down, we knew.” It is this collective memory that the memoir has helped expose. Protest movements are reflected upon almost romantically in today’s social consciousness, and are being evoked more and more with this new coalition government. But it’s this that Ngahuia wants us to remember of that time: “You really had to work to get to know what was going on, information was not instant, you waited for letters for copies of the Guardian or the New Statesman. One great treasure was the broadsheet ‘Akwesasne Notes’ made by the American Indian Movement. Their struggle was like ours! Those pamphlets, broadsheets, were treated like gold, clipped together and passed around like taonga. We were much more circumspect, measured, because the information was so slow. That’s the difference between then and now.”

When discussing the protest movements of today, such as Waitangi this year, Ngāhuia beamed: “I think they’re fabulous, I think they’re great. Despite the convoluted and disgusting behaviours and mendacious, absurd posturing of the coalition, Māori were there. Pākehā allies were there. It was waka kōtahi, it was about togetherness, it was about hope.” This is tempered with a warning to stay aware, knowing that this progress can never be taken for granted. 

For a week I bathed in the eddy of words Ngāhuia wrote, eking them out as I didn’t want the book to finish. For over an hour I was enraptured with her sonorous and lyrical voice dropping mātauranga and gossip in turn before the rain, which had held out for our whole kōrero, erupted in a downpour so powerful my internet cut out and our connection ended. In Venice I stood under Takapau and thought of the generations of wāhine Māori who have influenced and informed my thinking, provided a mat on which I stand with others. Adoringly I told our delegation of biennale attendees about this book by our own dowager countess of Māori scholarship that they must read, sprinkling our conversations with anecdotes from the memoir, marvelling at societal progress and so that people know what a taonga we have in Ngāhuia. 

Hine Toa has made me braver in indelible ways I am yet to understand, and confident to live so expressively as a wahine Māori. When I look back at my life, I’d like to one day say, as Ngāhuia does, “It was one hell of a lesson, but I survived.”

Hine Toa: A story of bravery (HarperCollins, $40) is available at Unity Books Auckland and Wellington

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