Taonga are like newborn babies, precious.
You have to be gentle and careful, and every time you pick them up you need to show them your love and appreciation. I believe that for any taonga Māori and it's the same for my mau rākau.
I grew up in the first full Māori immersion school, Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Hoani Waititi. Pāpā Pita Sharples opened my school in1985 (the marae opened on April 19 1980) and by then Te Whare Tu Taua o Aotearoa (House of Maori weaponry) had already been running for a couple of years. I was 11 when I was first introduced to mau rākau and I just knew that it was something I was meant to do. It's similar to karate in the sense that there are different stages (and grading), with level 1 being a student and level 8 effectively becoming a black belt. Also, in the same way karate has belts that recognise an individual's level, we have tīpare (headbands).
My last grading was in 2016 and I went for my level 4 and I haven't been back since.
Level 4 is no joke, it takes a long time to get there. In fact, only after you've reached that stage can you can throw down a wero. I've done about eight, with the most significant one for a tangi. When you're doing a wero it's a personal experience — the earth is moving beneath you and there's no one else present except you and the person.
It's these things that I love about my culture: mau rākau, whaikorero, even kī o rahi - they all make me so proud to be Māori and then there's the fact I can share this across the other areas of my life.
Right now I'm buzzing because season two of Head High is about to air. I remember I just happened to bring my taiaha and a different rākau to set on the day we were shooting the school haka and I casually asked our director, "What do you reckon if I have a jam with my taiaha while the boys do the haka?"
To be honest, I don't think he knew I could use it in the way I do, so he was a bit iffy and just said: "We'll give a look." Well, once we had finished, he came over and said, "Yes, we're gonna keep that, more please." And that was that.
Head High has always been a story of the trials of middle-class living and it's told through the eyes of this rugby family that faces the same challenges that any other family living in Auckland would — and I like that. Here I am telling Māori stories, the real stories that get into the nitty-gritty details.
But my mau rākau hasn't always made it to the set. When I was 16 I had a role on Shortland Street and my line producer wasn't impressed when I turned up after training with a bit of bruised lip. She told me to "cut that out" and so I did. Didn't want to make too much extra work for the makeup ladies, you know. So I put my rākau into a corner for a little while and that's given me an opportunity to focus on my acting.
But now, I feel the rākau is calling me again.
I think a lot about my grandmothers, both Theresa Tepania-Wellington and Lorris Fakaosilea. They are ta moko'ed into my skin and I feel them all the time.
I know they loved seeing me do mau rākau as a child. They're watching me from above, wherever they are and they can tune into whatever I'm doing — both on and off the marae. I know they'd be so proud.
- As told to Dione Joseph
Lionel Wellington stars in Head High, screening now till early October on Three Now.