To celebrate International Women's Day on March 8, the Herald and online magazine E-Tangata are telling the video stories of six inspirational Māori and Pasifika women, made with the support of NZ On Air. Today: Naida Glavish, the "kia ora" lady who's been leading cultural change since the 1980s.

Maybe it's unfair to keep harking back to that time in 1984, when Naida Glavish stood her ground against the Post Office, as a telephone toll operator who risked being fired for greeting callers with: "Kia ora."

It seems outrageous today (and indeed was outrageous to many back then). But that's the point. It shows we're capable of progress, even if it doesn't always seem that way.

Such moments are important to acknowledge and celebrate. They're a stake in the ground, a turning point in our cultural life.

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Of course, Dame Naida (she was made a dame last year for services to Māori and the community) has achieved so much else in her life.

She's a mother of three daughters and two sons, a grandmother of 19 mokopuna, and a great-grandmother of 31. She has taught te reo and tikanga at high school. She's been the president of the Māori Party. She's headed her Ngāti Whātua iwi rūnanga.

And she's been instrumental in pushing for our health services to be more attuned to the needs and rights of Māori — in real and meaningful ways.

Like those whānau rooms at Auckland Hospital for grieving families, and dedicated corridors for the transportation of loved ones who've passed away.

These things aren't just for Māori, either. They benefit everyone.

As the chief adviser on tikanga at the Waitematā and Auckland district health boards, Naida's still working, still bringing a deeply, unapologetically, Māori perspective to everything she does.

"I actually had an intensivist say to me one time: 'Naida, can you tell us why the Mowrees are crowding out the waiting rooms and the stairwells outside our operating theatres?'

"And I said: Well, for a start, Māori are not responsible for the size of your waiting rooms. And second, Māori are actually entering into a specialist area of karakia to give support to you and ensure that your knife doesn't slip in that operation."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Naida Glavish and Greens co-leader Marama Davidson enjoy Waitangi Day speeches this year. Photo /Northern Advocate
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Naida Glavish and Greens co-leader Marama Davidson enjoy Waitangi Day speeches this year. Photo /Northern Advocate

Naida was born on the front seat of her Croatian father's Studebaker, and raised on the shores of the Kaipara Harbour by her Māori grandmother, Ngapeka Teririkore Nahi.

Her Croatian grandmother, Marija Glavish, lived across the road, so she bounced between the two of them. Both grandmothers were widows; neither spoke much English.

She was "an absolutely loved child", she says — and, although poor, she had an upbringing rich in tikanga Māori, as she told Dale Husband in an E-Tangata interview in 2015.

"We lived in a nikau whare with an earth floor. It was very clean. I remember once when the public health nurse had to visit (because an aunty was there with her baby) and she was just full of praise about the cleanliness of our whare with the earth floor.

"So I grew up with the values of tapu and noa, and karakia for everything with my grandmother. Not playing with food. We were raised with the understanding of the pull of the tide for fishing purposes. Understanding the moon phases for planting and growing our kai, the tāpapa for the kumara and, at the time of harvest for the kumara, how to prepare the pit with burnt fern leaves so that the slugs couldn't get in, but also preparing a pit with the little kumara for the slugs, rats and the like so that they didn't go near the pit for our consumption.

"Of course, I had to go to school, but I didn't learn much there that was of any use to me that I hadn't already learned at home."

Naida was expelled from one school and suspended from two others — compliance has never been her strong point — so school didn't figure much in her education.

She's also a survivor of four years of state care, between the ages of 12 and 16. It's a heartbreaking story, but typical of how little it took for Māori children to be sucked up by the system.

Throughout her life, it's been her upbringing, that solid tikanga Māori foundation and the old values drilled into her by her grandmother, that have guided her and given her strength.

It was her grandmother's voice that she heard back in 1984, as she drove over the Auckland Harbour Bridge. She was thinking of dropping the "kia ora" and letting her Post Office supervisor off the hook, because he'd been good enough to give her time off for a tangi.

And then her grandmother (who'd died in 1972) chided her: "Nui ake tenei take ia koe!" This is far greater than you.

It was her grandmother, too, who'd told her, many times: "If you see something wrong, fix it. Because if you don't, you will become like it.

"And so, because of that, I went through my early adult life hoping nobody does anything wrong in front of me. Because I'd be bound to say something or do something about it. Which I have done. Which doesn't make me popular at all."

• Naida Glavish is one of six women featured in Conversations, a six-part video web series created by E-Tangata, an online magazine specialising in Māori and Pasifika stories and perspectives. You can see all the videos and stories at nzherald.co.nz/suffrage