Dame Nganeko Minhinnick: Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Maori and conservation.

Sitting in the sunshine at Tahuna Marae, which borders the Manukau Harbour, Dame Nganeko Minhinnick touches the moko kauwae on her chin.

It is a mark of a fight to protect Matukutureia, a maunga in the volcanic field, and a pa site which was quarried extensively. Until 2010, it was crowned with a water tank for Papatoetoe.

Dame Nganeko, 73, had the ink marked into her skin in her 50s. It was a message to her elders that it was a fight which she believed she'd lost.

"I just wanted to let the waahi ngaro [place of those who'd passed on] know that we'd tried."


Dame Nganeko is an environmental champion, having taken a claim about the spoiling of the Manukau Harbour and land loss to the Waitangi Tribunal on behalf of all Waikato-Tainui hapu. It set a benchmark for protecting the natural resources of the harbour.

The Waiuku grandmother and staunch kingitanga follower had a hand in the Resource Management Act - although it's not fully reflective of the values she wanted it to capture.

She has protested, been arrested, occupied land and kept on at regional and local councils to protect the interests of her tribe, Ngati Te Ata Waiohua. That work continues.

She has criticised New Zealand at the United Nations for its record on indigenous issues.

For those reasons she was unsure about being made a Dame.

Dame Nganeko has turned down honours before and joked that she wasn't sure how this one made it through the process.

At 11, she was put on a bus to the city by kaumatua and kuia to research tribal land loss at the Maori Land Court.

Everything she is comes from those kind souls, Dame Nganeko says, and they've been with her every step of the way.

"They give me hope to carry on."