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  • Writer's pictureTim Higham

Wild at heart

Updated: May 16, 2023

Thirty years ago Marilyn Stephens lay on a mattress in the whare at Motairehe marae watching pāteke come up from the creek and cross the grass outside the door. But when she moved to live on the island a decade ago, the brown teal were gone.

“And once they’re gone, they don’t come back, and that saddened me. It was beautiful watching them.”

She also remembers kererū gorging themselves on her father’s row of guava trees.

“They still do that, and they get so fat they can hardly fly. But it saddens me they are down there eating guava – foreign food – when they should be up in the bush eating taraire and miro and pūriri.”

Marilyn’s father’s house is the white one, past the marae, where the road starts to curve along the bay. His name was Peter Davies, though everyone knew him as Koro, which means son. “Everyone respected him because he was the only son of an eldest son of an only son of an eldest son.” She has fond memories of coming across to the island for holidays in a boat with him.

“It was the awesomest place to be a kid. We would circumnavigate the island, wherever we felt like stopping we would jump off the back and swim to shore. That was our life”

She moved here when she was 15 and worked for a year as a housemaid at Fitzroy House, then owned by Colonel Mackey, and spent weekends with Aunty Mae and Uncle Dick Wii and Aunty Eileen and Uncle Jim Ngawaka, who lived “in the forestry” above Akapoua.

At 17 she left for town “didn’t come back” and “life wasn’t easy.”

Marilyn came back to bury her son in the urupā at Motairehe after studying political science and law.

“That’s when the island started grabbing me and wouldn’t let go.

“I was in my forties – a tomboy really, my love was up there in the bush – and I got involved with Aunty Whetū McGregor. She saw something in me – a wildness and determination – and encouraged me to learn about the Māori Affairs Act, which became Te Ture Whenua Māori Act.”

Marilyn put her research and storytelling skills to work, helping Whetū document knowledge about the hundreds of islets and rocky outcrops around Aotea. This proved Ngāti Rehua Ngātiwai ki Aotea’s mana whenua status through consistent occupation and formed the basis of the hapū’s Treaty of Waitangi claim and Deed of Settlement signed with the Crown in 2016.

She was invited onto the Motairehe Marae Trust Board in the 1990s and her love of conservation saw her appointed to the Auckland Conservation Board, where she says she learned a lot.

But it was through Aunty Whetū that she came to view things as Māori.

“I was brought up very European, but then I came into the Māori world, and these worlds are separate.

“Being Māori means you look at the world and don’t see money, you see your people, and see their needs.

“Māori will give away whatever they have. If you walk into their home, they will manaaki and it is without thought …

And I learned to listen, which I didn’t do when I was young.”

Now in her seventies, Marilyn says her generation is having to relearn what it is to be Māori.

“Māori have always respected their elders, but I didn’t have the opportunity to sit at the old peoples’ feet and learn. Suddenly, we’re old people. We’re it.

“Not all of us speak Māori or are not fluent. The loss of tūpuna knowledge has been devastating.

“How do you know what you’re doing, when you don’t know what you’re doing … You have to learn by trial and error.”

Marilyn has been meeting with other kaumātua as a ‘Taumata’ and says a breakthrough came when a cousin joined who had interviewed old people as part of his thesis on kaumātua tikanga Māori.

“He showed us we don’t need to ‘go Pākehā’ – we don’t have to vote – we can ‘go consensus’; recognise when people have fears and watch each other and move through uncertainty. We have built a closeness and become stronger through each problem we’ve faced.

“We don’t tell what to do, we offer advice. It’s not about power or control, it’s about using the knowledge that comes with age to help the hapū move forward.

“We help our people to be strong enough to work in that Pākehā world where money is a goal but to keep true to the beliefs that we have.”

Marilyn also serves on the Project Steering Committee of the Tū Mai Taonga project, a partnership between mana whenua and the Aotea conservation community, but when she was first told about it she felt “offended.”

“You say you need us to be partners, but you’ve come because you need us to tick boxes. There’s a history of doing that. If you don’t get it from me, you can always ask a neighbour, and eventually, the box will get ticked.”

But the Tū Mai Taonga project – which sought funding to create local jobs and training through the removal of feral cats and rats as part of the Government’s Jobs for Nature COVID recovery scheme – coincided with the election of a new Ngāti Rehua Ngātiwai ki Aotea Trust Board, which signaled its interest in leading the project.

“I went into this sceptical but watching how Tū Mai Taonga has developed I’ve learned to trust the steering committee members and they’ve learned to trust Māori. It needed a partnership that is 50:50. We are holding hands and doing very well together.”

This week the Taumata hosted a pōwhiri at Kawa marae for field workers, then offered Karanga and karakia at the end of Burrill’s Route, where work in Te Paparahi will begin.

“The northern bush is an archaeological landscape where our people have camped, passed through, are buried and their presence is still felt.

“The trees are old, there’s no new ones because when the berries fall the rats eat them, and the feral cats eat the birds that distribute them.

“For 20 years I’ve fought with the principle that with your LAW and my LORE there’s not a fence we can’t jump together.

“Tū Mai Taonga is proving this is true.”

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