David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Greatest NZ Stories: Brave spirit of iwi's fiery heart lingers

Sheridan Waitai and her nephew watch the sun go down at Ahipara in Northland. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Sheridan Waitai and her nephew watch the sun go down at Ahipara in Northland. Photo / Mark Mitchell

As part of the Herald's 150th birthday commemorations, reporter David Fisher and photographer Mark Mitchell travelled the country looking for the greatest Kiwi yarns. Follow their journey in this series.

Reporter David Fisher and photographer Mark Mitchell. Photo / Ted Baghurst.
Reporter David Fisher and photographer Mark Mitchell. Photo / Ted Baghurst.

Day 1: Cape Reinga to Spirits Bay

There was this woman astride a horse, on a beach, far away at the top of New Zealand. She moved forward - she always moved forward - because these were her people's lands and she would not be denied.

Gates stood in her way and her brothers came forward to cut them down. The gates fell and Saana Murray rode forward to land from which her people had been driven long ago.

Two years ago, she returned to Kapowairua for the final time. She was laid to rest in the urupa sitting above the bay which was named for its role as the departure point from land for the spirits of the dead.

On that journey, Saana was borne aloft again. This time, though, it was in the hands of those who had supported a life of belief, a life of protest and a life of struggle.

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This story is a treasure her granddaughter Sheridan Waitai holds dear. There are tears, still, as Sheridan tells of the woman who grounded her and others in their belonging to the land and their iwi.

"It's identity," she says. "If we know who we are, you'll never be lost. She taught us who we were."

How to describe the impact one person can have? Look to the strength it took to be Saana, kuia of Ngati Kuri. It was an iwi written out of pakeha histories. Its name was missing when the stories of the first people began to be told again.

It takes some awesome strength to reach into the past and pull free from history a people buried in time.

Sheridan, 36, and cousins would look at maps at school showing other iwis' rohe marked across land she had been raised to believe was Ngati Kuri's "We were in a place where the crown weren't recognising us as an iwi therefore in the education system they were teaching something different, we would challenge our teachers, or write in the books ourselves the boundary lines of Ngati Kuri, I laugh now because my children are still doing the same thing at school with these old books" she says. The absence would be argued. She remembers her grandmother raising all the grandchildren with the lesson before they went to school: "You're Ngati Kuri and don't let anybody tell you otherwise who you are."

And that was how the mokopuna grew up, says Sheridan. She was born a few years after the tide really began to turn, the 1975 hikoi to Parliament led by Dame Whina Cooper. Saana was there, among other strong Maori women who helped force a change, Eva Rickard and Titewhai Harawira.

Saana Murray, of Ngati Kuri. Photo / Herald on Sunday
Saana Murray, of Ngati Kuri. Photo / Herald on Sunday

There were protests throughout her life - as long as the battle needed to be fought, she fought. "No one stopped my Nan from showing her rangitiratanga." So this was how Sheridan grew up. "The earliest memory wouldn't be so much about what she said but what she made you feel. You were loved ... she was our sanctuary."

From that embrace came the lesson - go back to the mountain and begin from there. "Know who you are," Saana would say.

Childhood was filled with te reo and kaupapa. Saana would teach, encourage, nurture and push. She would lead the karanga, the welcoming call from the women of a marae to the visitors, and then as the children grew she'd say: "You go first and I'll cover you." She expected knowledge to be shared and taught among family and beyond. It went from singing waiata in the car on the way to marae to being asked if she had a waiata to sing when they arrived.

"As we got older and started to understand, it was clear - you were Ngati Kuri."

As you grew, you learned. "If Nana said we had to do anything, we followed blindly. Blind love." As you learned, you joined the struggle. "Every mokopuna has gone and done a march with her."

But the compulsion wasn't just one way - Sheridan says her grandmother was driven by the children.

"Her love for us made her step out into places and challenge things in a way some nanas didn't do any more."

When they walked next to her out into the world, it brought with it the realisation Saana was fighting the struggle on many battlefields. "We learned to share her, with the nation and with the world."

The change which has been wrought in recognising the Treaty of Waitangi is immense. "She knew there would be these things. Articulate, educated Maori who would go in there and argue. But what happens to the ones of us who are out on the fringes?" That is where the most basic of lessons comes. "Look at your mountains, mokopuna," Saana would say. Sheridan: "That's the poutokomanawa for us - the heartbeat of the chief. She was, to me, the walking Treaty in action."

Saana had 10 children who were all put to work for the cause, says Sheridan. "Our parents loved her and supported every cause she had. I just remember her passion and her drive and no one was going to stand in the way. Her tamariki and her mokopuna fell in line. If she said, 'be there', then they were there." If there was driving to do, they did it. If visitors needed hosting, they would cater for them and make them welcome. "They did all the things for her that allowed her to do things for her people," she says.

"She loved them - but she invested in us," she says of the grandchildren.

Echoes of Saana can be heard in talking to Sheridan. "Her dreams are my dreams. Her song hasn't changed," she says. In a 1975 documentary of the land march, Saana talks of Maori geographical names being supplanted by European names. These are common ills but core values and the words from 1975 can be heard again from Sheridan's mouth: "Our names are always being neglected when they should be what they are. They are the first names of the first people."

Even the name of Ngati Kuri's home marae, Te Reo Mihi, is at a geographically misnamed location. Te Hapua, on the shores of Parengarenga Harbour, should be called Te Hopua Wai.

The latter describes a large body of water, the former a depot, which it served as for gum transports during the 1800s.

Saana survived long enough to see the success of one of the most far-reaching of all Waitangi Tribunal claims. She was the sole surviving claimant for the Wai262 (Waitangi Tribunal claim number 262) claim, one which sought determination on Maori rights to flora and fauna. In effect, it successfully claimed for Maori all things in New Zealand before Europeans arrived - and designed a regime under which those things could be used.

"Visionary," was how Sheridan described it. "It's not just for Maori but for all New Zealand. Maori control over Maori things is the heart of the claim. I acknowledge that many may not share the same view but for us it is worth standing for even if at times others feel uncomfortable.

"I think that feeling would change though if all of New Zealand knew the truth and took time to understand our world as Maori. All New Zealanders should be given the right to learn the real history of the birth of this nation and they would be better for it, our country would be better for it."

No understanding is possible without the context of occupation. In the case of Ngati Kuri the iwi was one of New Zealand's oldest yet almost ceased to exist - at least officially.

When Sheridan talks of being from Kapo Wairua, she is talking of a place from which her people are forcibly restrained.

"At certain times of the year, the sea smells different. You'll see the birds come back. You're a natural part of that environment. If you're not there, you long for it.

"When you're taken out of it, things don't naturally fit. If you keep denying us, you're crippling us as an iwi."

The land is under Department of Conservation guardianship as Spirits Bay. There is an active claim on it from Ngati Kuri and a partially resolved claim involving other iwi.

"Land was confiscated. Our people got moved to other places. It was our harbour. We gathered our kai ... we moved with the seasons of our whenua. We migrated and shared our resources inter-hapu."

Saana Murray's grave overlooking Spirits Bay in Northland.  Photo / Mark Mitchell
Saana Murray's grave overlooking Spirits Bay in Northland. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Saana died on September 4, 2011, and was returned to Kapowairua. Sheridan: "I would say her last march, and her last protest, was when she died. We took her to Kapowairua, because that's where she wanted to go ... it was all about occupation.

"Even in death we were going to occupy that land and make our statement. In her cheeky smile ... and her stubbornness, she was not going to let anybody take that from her.

"That was our rightful land and that was where she wanted to go back to."

The hikoi to Kapowairua was led by Saana's great-grandchild, singing Tutira mai nga iwi, waving Tino Rangatiratanga flags and wearing their Ngati Kuri T-shirts.

"She returned to a place we belong. She was a leader who had the ability to bring others with her. We need leaders and leaders need to have followers ... My nanny was that and still is that for me today."

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