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‘I have been created to do this’

Tui Keenan is a hunter, Maori, wahine and proud. She has had to navigate her many identities throughout her work in TV, the navy and the police force. Tui spoke with Jack Marshall about her role supporting families at Waikirikiri School and how the bush can change lives.

The first time Tui Keenan went hunting, it wasn’t a lot of fun.

“It was terrible. I was heavily pregnant. I had bad hayfever and couldn’t take any medication for it, so I got the evil look from my husband every time I sneezed. I was hot, I was uncomfortable, and I was grumpy. I hated it.

“But I was spending quality time with my husband. Then I tried it again and didn’t enjoy it because it was raining, and I had my dad’s gumboots on, and they kept falling off in the mud. I was wearing his bright PVC yellow motorbike jacket.”

It took a handful of trips to the bush before she started to enjoy the lure of the hunt, once she shot her first deer.

“It was that ‘ah-ha moment’ and I thought ‘wow, I have been created to do this’.”

The act of stalking and harvesting food for the family felt natural.

“The reward of cooking it for my kids . . . and lying to them and saying it’s beef sausages from Pak’nSave.

“It’s becoming a normal lifestyle for me, and no turning back. I took over all my husband’s hunting gear.”

Tui grew up in Christchurch, far from forests, rifles and butchering animals. After school, she joined the Royal New Zealand Navy, becoming an officer steward and communications analyst for five years, then stepped into the police force for eight years.

Now she has her own show called Hunting with Tui on Maori TV.

Tui the hunter started the Operation Fill My Freezer initiative

Since becoming Tui the hunter, she has started initiatives like Operation Fill My Freezer.

Her family decided to stop buying meat for a year and instead rely on the bush for animal protein.

Then she took on a role as a family harm response co-ordinator with Whangaia Nga Pa Harakeke, a police-sponsored initiative.

Through the programme, police and local iwi work in partnership to reduce family harm. Tairawhiti is one of three pilot sites in areas that have disproportionately high rates of family harm occurring.

Then a role came up at Waikirikiri School, where she felt she could use all her skills from the police, navy, hunting, whanau health and as a family harm co-ordinator.

“I saw a job advertised in the paper about this time last year. They were looking for a wellbeing teacher.”

The job description piqued her interest but there was only one issue, she had no experience teaching in a classroom.

“So I was cheeky and contacted the principal and said, ‘I can tick all the boxes, everything you’re looking for . . . except I’m not a teacher.”

Waikirikiri School principal Yolanda Julies told her to apply for the job anyway.

There were nine applicants and Tui didn’t get the job. Unsurprisingly, a teacher did.

Instead of becoming a teacher, the board of trustees and the principal offered Tui a role on the wellbeing team at the school, a bold new programme to support their whanau.

“In lockdown last year, they saw a gap for our families, students and staff. Hence they wanted to create a wellbeing team.

“It’s a great team where we can meet the needs of our families and fill in the gaps where either the system is failing them, or there’s nothing out there to support them.”

Tui teaches whanau how to forage and hunt in the ngahere

Now from her skills and experiences in the police, navy, hunting, and by her reconnecting with te ao Maori, she is sharing those skills teaching whanau how to forage and hunt in the ngahere.

“We’re creative, and we find things that work specifically for our families because, as we all know, our families aren’t one-size-fits-all.”

One of their new projects is a turkey hunt planned with some of the mothers from Waikirikiri School.

“Because turkey is delicious, and there are so many farmers out there who want turkeys off their property.”

Another way they’re getting food in fridges is via a food bank.

A big supporter is The Village Butchery, which has started raising money online for the food bank. Some of the funds help cover the cost of processing animals they harvest.

Tui says a blessing of the wellbeing job was helping as an essential worker during the lockdown.

She would visit whanau safely, drop off supplies and do welfare checks — because many families she works with don’t have internet access or credit on their phones.

Tui says she is part of a larger team and, being in a fast-moving environment, it can feel as though they are flying a plane as they build it to find solutions, especially working in Covid-19 conditions.

Tui runs fitness classes, takes parents hunting and teaches elements of Maori tikanga

The role is broad. She runs fitness classes for whanau, takes parents into the bush to go hunting and teaches elements of Maori tikanga. But she doesn’t know it all.

“I call myself a three-year-old Maori because I very much lived in a te ao Pakeha world until I was 39. But working up here and getting into hunting opened my eyes to te ao Maori, to learn tikanga, about the forests.

“I grew up in te ao Pakeha believing that Maori are inferior.

“Then leaving school and going into the navy and the police, joining these boys’ clubs, I started to believe women are inferior.”

Although she was fed beliefs that Maori and women are lesser, Tui says our society is changing for the better.

“I’m eavesdropping on my nine-year-old’s teacher teaching them, and she’s Pakeha as, but she’s having a full-on conversation in beautiful reo Maori.

'I’m loving the journey that New Zealand is on'

“I’m loving the journey that New Zealand is on.”

Which is an important change for Tui, as she has five Maori daughters.

Although her husband Comrie is outnumbered, Tui says he loves the dynamic.

“He’s so used to getting his nails painted and lipstick on, dress-ups, and he’s really good at having a fake cup of tea.”

Through hunting, she has been able to embrace all her identities.

“For the first time, I can be myself and a woman and as a Maori.

“But the best thing is I can see my girls learning this from me, that they can do anything. That’s been the ultimate for me in this journey.”

And through her own learning, she is helping pass things on to whanau at school.

“I’m learning at the same time as our families, and it’s a beautiful thing because we are, and I was, very urbanised. The majority of the families I work with are urbanised, yet they whakapapa up the Coast.

“Introducing them to the bush allows them to make a connection, so some of them are beginning to explore their land, and go home, and learn how to hunt.”

Another way Tui gets families into the bush is with the Eastern Whio Link organised by Hamiora Gibson, aka Sam The Trap Man (who featured in last week’s profile).

“Sam is amazing. He is like a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the bush.”

Tui says the results from the trips to the bush are clear to see.

“You should see both the parents and the kids when they rebait one of the traps. When we’re leaving the bush, I say, ‘you can put that on your CV now, you’re officially a conservationist’.

“You can see that sense of pride.

“They have a sense of purpose going into the bush to protect the native birds, and it’s changing lives.”

A SHARED LOVE: Tui’s husband Comrie first introduced her to hunting, but she has since overtaken him in enthusiasm for the sport. Picture by Samuel Richards