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Beehive to Manutuke

Amohaere Houkamau talks to John Jones about her new role as project manager for the Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust.

From the ninth floor of the Beehive to the Manutuke Post Office, that is the transition Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust project manager Amohaere Houkamau has made.

After nine years as a senior adviser to Finance Minister and then Prime Minister Bill English, she has now taken on the task of working with Rongowhakaata to achieve the status and recognition they deserve.

It has been a busy period since she started with the iwi in February, taking responsibility for oversight of the triennial trustee elections, inducting a new board and the finalisation of the trust’s strategic plan.

One of the key priorities for the trust is communicating with its members and key stakeholders, and to progress this she established a communications reference group including Turanga FM acting chief executive Matai Smith.

“One of the things that struck me is the talent pool that Rongowhakaata has to draw from, including many young people and the likes of Maori Television’s Matariki Supreme Award winner Derek Lardelli,” said Ms Houkamau.

“One of my focuses is harnessing the skills, knowledge and expertise of Rongowhakaata, particularly in communications, arts and design, taonga conservation and protection and restoration of the Taiau (environment).

“The new iwi trust board has got huge potential to provide the quality of governance that Rongowhakaata deserve. My job is to work with the board to help them realise their potential.”

Rongowhakaata were appointed host iwi at Te Papa last year and their residency continues for the next two years.

Part of the agreement is the establishment of two new roles called pou tikanga.

These have primary responsibility to help Te Papa to care for the taonga in the Ko Rongowhakaata exhibition and taonga that have been at Te Papa since its inception, including the historic meeting house Te Hau Ki Turanga.

Rongowhakaata support Te Papa to host international visitors and have been working to develop educational resources for tour groups, as well as training their young people to become the next generation of story-tellers and guides.

Demonstrating active leadership in the environment space“Manutuke School, when they visit later in the year, will benefit from the innovations that our pou tikanaga and Te Papa staff have introduced,” said Ms Houkamau.

Currently the iwi are negotiating to have a researcher located at Te Papa to establish a Rongowhakaata taonga data base and explore other opportunities for formalising an ongoing strategic relationship with Te Papa, post the exhibition.

Trust board members and management are working on options for the historic house Te Hau ki Turanga, and whether it comes back.

A conservation report and feasibility reports have been completed on two potential sites if Rongowhakaata agreed to bring Te Hau ki Turanga home.

Funding was secured for the restoration and conservation work required to bring the house closer to its original condition.

“We agreed that while the exhibition is down at Te Papa, we should undertake with vigour restoration and conservation work on Te Hau.”

The trust has agreed to hold a referendum with Rongowhakaata members about whether to bring the house home or leave it at Te Papa.

Rongowhakaata demonstrate active leadership in the environment space. In partnership with DoC, the trust recently held a bio blitz at Rakaukaka Scenic Reserve. This was an opportunity to get scientists, cultural experts, historians and the Manutuke community involved in mapping out ecosystems and places of significance.

“The data collected from the mapping will help us track the progress we are making in restoring Rakaukaka to a glimmer of its former vibrant self.”

Rakaukaka is just one of many sites of significance that Rongowhakaata, working with local communities, DoC, EIT, Turanga Ararau, environment groups and the GDC, are seeking to restore and repopulate with eco-sourced plants.

“I don’t think we will ever get Rakaukaka, Pipiwhakao, Te Wherowhero lagoon, Te Arai River and the Whatatuna stream back to their former glory, but at least we will stop the further degradation of these former food bowls and medicinal cupboards of Rongowhakaata — and are heading in the right direction.”

They were also planting alongside the Waikanae Stream adjacent to the railway building. That land was originally Ngai Tawhiri’s and one of the many pieces of alienated ancestral lands that they would like to reclaim.

That is going to be part of the iwi’s programme for Tuia 250 — developing a memorial garden to recreate a semblance of the flora and fauna that was here in 1769 when Cook arrived. There would also be a living garden showing flora and fauna that endured the Cook encounter, and new flora introduced post-Cook.

“Every year, we will plant eco-sourced plants to illustrate the iwi’s ongoing presence, increasing eco-footprint and continuing commitment to being a vigilant kaitiaki.

“What I am doing is trying to get Rongowhakaata to focus on our strengths and play to those strengths, because that builds iwi confidence and makes people want to engage, sit up and take notice of what we have to say.

“A challenge for Rongowhakaata is that being a smaller iwi, who have endured in the shadows of large iwi to the north and south, is being taken seriously by the council and other Gisborne institutions.

“We have a programme to establish high-level relationships with Gisborne District Council, the Eastland Group, and Eastland Port as well as rebuild our relationships with our whanaunga (relations), the neighbouring iwi of Turanga and the Tairawhiti.

“So we are on a course to develop and enhance relationships so that Rongowhakaata is given its recognition in respect to its mana whenua footprint in this town, the Rongowhakaata story is heard and given its due in the Tairawhiti story, and that there is greater awareness and understanding among some of our local institutions that we share a number of priorities — and if we were properly engaged, we could add significant value.”

After nine years in Wellington it has been “an interesting transition from the ninth floor of the Beehive to the Post Office at Manutuke where the trust is based,” she said.

“Basically I was ready to come home from Wellington, 12 months ago.

“When I first went down to Wellington to meet with Bill, I told him that I would give him five years and then go home, but I ended up stayed for nine.

“Two years ago I had indicated to Bill that I wanted to go home but I stayed because he had been newly-appointed prime minister and I wanted to support him, because in my view he is one of the smartest, genuinely humble and visionary leaders that I have had the privilege to work for.”

When Bill English interviewed her for the adviser’s position she asked him why he chose her, saying she wasn’t a career bureaucrat, or policy wonk, and had hardly served any time as a public servant.

“You could have any senior public servant, policy analyst, or consultant on Lambton Quay,” I said.

“He replied ‘That is true. I can get a senior policy analyst or a bureaucrat on Lambton Quay any day of the week. What this place lacks, which I believe is absolutely essential, are people who have been doing real work with real people in real communities. That is the intelligence, the experience and the expertise that I am looking for and you would bring to the Beehive.’

“That was pretty insightful, possibly liberal for a Tory Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance.

“In the Beehive you meet a lot of well-intentioned, well-meaning, smart policy analysts but very few of them come from small, rural predominantly-Maori communities, and they are responsible for writing policies on small rural communities and Maori communities.

“Having someone like me in his office, who lived and worked in communities that were constantly challenged by the never-ending political roller coaster of changing Governments, and the inevitable restructuring of agencies and policies, created quite a stir in the Beehive and I would hope a change in its thinking and attitude.

“I would be sitting in a room with a lot of senior bureaucrats who were theorising about poverty in rural communities, or what iwi rights and interests in water might be, when I would say, well actually this is what it’s like, so your well-intentioned policy is just not going to work because this is what they actually believe, think and want,” she said.

“When Winston made his decision to form a coalition government with Labour and the Greens, I packed up my office and within a week was home.

“When I first came home, I did a couple of voluntary jobs for the Ngati Porou runanganui, developing an integrated Ngati Porou East Coast tourism strategy and peer-reviewing a report on stopping the flow of Ngati Porou children into state care, and returning them to the care and protection of their whanau, hapu and iwi.”

Before going to Wellington she was the chief executive for the Ngati Porou Runanga from 1997 to 2009. Prior to that she was programmes manager for the runanga for five years, setting up their social services, housing, employment and education programmes.

She is married to Ngati Porou Runanganui chairman Selwyn Parata and the couple have four children, two grandchildren and “one on the way”.

The eldest daughter Awhina lives in London with her husband and son, Mokena, and the other three children, Ngarimu, Rapaea and Te Muiora live in Gisborne and Ruatoria. Ms Houkamau says she and Selwyn are delighted to share their home with their 18-month-old grandson Tumatahaia, and his mother.

“One of the benefits of my current role is the opportunity to learn more about my Rongowhakaata side.

“My Rongowhakaata connections are through my maternal great-grandmother, Keita Kohere whose father was Paratene

Tatae and Hera Halbert was her mother. They are not my only whakapapa connections to Rongowhakaata, however it is the Paratene whanau, who still live in Manutuke, that have maintained the ahi ka (home fires) for our whanau. My hapu is Ngati Maru.”

The Rongowhakaata position, in essence the chief executive, was offered originally on the basis of a four-month contract, starting in February and finishing at the end of May. After an approach from the board she decided to stay on until November, as she has had other approaches including from the Church, organisers of the 2019 APEC Conference and working again with Bill English, who has set up a consultancy.

“I have committed to working with the team to get the Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust waka future-proofed, fit for purpose and ready for a Rongowhakaata chief executive who is 200 percent committed,” she said.

“I enjoy my work with Rongowhakaata, although it has challenges such as managing potential and/or perceived conflicts of interests. An example of this is the coastline dispute with Ngati Porou and takutai moana rights and interests.

“I think the trust and I have adopted a mature approach, where I register a potential or a perceived conflict of interest, we agree on a risk management approach with touch points if we need to re-think the approach. I don’t get involved with the politics but I am responsible for ensuring that my board has the best information and advice available to them to make informed decisions. Being in this unique position of understanding the views and position of both parties, I am highly motivated to find a win-win solution.

“What I love about the job is working out at Manutuke, being at the Post Office which is still a happening community hub, the team I work with, people dropping in with a freshly-baked cake, tray of eggs, fruit or produce from their gardens (manaaki is one of the values that I closely associate with Rongowhakaata), and a sense of the real progress that we are making.

“So here I am again working in another small, rural, predominantly Maori community, with real people, doing real things to try to make a real difference.”

Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust project manager Amohaere Houkamau outside her office, the Manutuke Post Office. Pictures by Paul Rickard
Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust head Amohaere Houkamau (far right) is pictured with members of the trust team (from left) Beck Waihape, Sammy-Jo Matete, Jody Wyllie, Leah Hawkins and Chrissy Moetara.