Maori TV chef Rewi Spraggon is hosting hangi workshops for Matariki. His group of traditional carvers, the Sacred Chisels of Auckland, are working at Silo 6 throughout the festival.

1. You've been a leading promoter of Matariki over the years. Did you expect it to get this big?

Ten years ago I said, "One day The Warehouse will have a Matariki sale," and sure enough they do. But that's cool because it's a celebration, right? And now the kids know what Matariki is. I think the Maori New Year should be our national holiday. It's the celebration in June that's relevant to Aotearoa. Me and Bob Harvey have been pushing this since the 1990s at Waitakere City Council. I'm always busy at this time of year. I do traditional carving, music, storytelling, food and medicines, so people come to me to share that knowledge.

2. Which day would be the public holiday?

The third weekend of June would work. The Maori calendar changes each year because it's on a 30-day cycle set to the moon, which makes sense because the moon controls the tides. The calendar gets reset each year on the first full moon after the first sighting of the Matariki star cluster. I'm fortunate to have a calendar written by my great-great grandfather in about 1880 and one from about 1910 on my grandmother's side and although the words are different, they match up.


3. Does New Zealand need a new flag?

I think the flag needs to move on. My grandparents went to war under it but that's a different era. It should include a Maori identity somehow. Maori design is unique in the world and for many Kiwis, it takes an overseas trip to realise that point of difference. When I designed the Maori TV logo, we went around the whole country and interviewed Kiwis as part of the branding. You've got to get the vision in place before you start drawing or you're not going to get buy-in. And use social media, the tools that people are actually using these days. Who's going to go to a public meeting? For me, Maori culture is everyone's culture. If you're fifth generation Pakeha, this thousand years of history is your culture too and it's everyone's responsibility to look after it. Not just Maori, hell no.

4. What about Maori tattoos. Should Pakeha have those?

Yes, they can share the culture as long as they respect it. The sad thing is a lot of our carvers have gone into tattooing now because there's no money in carving. Walk down Queen St and look at the souvenir shops - 80 per cent of those "Maori" carvings are made in Bali and Fiji. People would rather buy a fake carving for $80 than an authentic one for $800. The sad thing is the knowledge isn't being passed down because what used to be an honour is now a burden. I came across a carver selling his tools at the flea market because he couldn't make a living from it anymore. It's tragic that carvers are so undervalued.

5. You got carvers from 19 different iwi together to form "Whaotapu" - The Sacred Chisels of Auckland. Was that challenging?

Yep. These iwi groups haven't carved together in 140 years. We just about had a punch up at our first meeting. "What the f*** are you doing on our turf?" But once it cooled down everyone actually said "we're in the same boat". We have shared ancestry. Our iwi had alliances until 200 years ago and those need to be mended to go forward. Whaotapu are leading the way. We've buried the hatchet and we're doing something bigger than the individual. We plan to develop the landscape so that every child in Auckland can understand the history of where they live. 175 years ago when this city was built there were waka, whare and pou right along this waterfront. Now when visitors arrive on a ship, there's nothing to show that it's Aotearoa. We could be in Brisbane.

6. Do Pakeha institutions find it easier dealing with one entity?

Yep, it's an easy sell. We've done three commissions, including the Auckland Council lintel. In the past you'd have carvers competing against each other for jobs. The Devonport Library job had five iwi with interests in that area so it was hard to resolve who would carve it. We got a carver from each of those iwi and not one of their stories were left behind. That's the power of unity.

Carvers Rewi Spraggon (left), Reuben Kirkwood and Frank Jenkins at work in the Auckland Museum. Photo / Chris Gorman
Carvers Rewi Spraggon (left), Reuben Kirkwood and Frank Jenkins at work in the Auckland Museum. Photo / Chris Gorman

7. Where did you get the skill of bringing people together?

Mum was the head chef on our marae in Pipiwai. What would happen is, someone dies, you get the phone call and 400 people are on their way. Mum could make a menu from whatever food was around the valley, there's no shops, and she'd have that kitchen humming. Pulling people together like that is a skill. You can't take shit personally and you have to keep your eyes on the prize - the bigger vision.

8. What about your dad?

Dad was a peaceful sort of dude. He was English but a fluent speaker of te reo and his father was too. The Spraggons were actually the first boat builders in Auckland, right here in the Viaduct. Dad was a very clever carver but he was more in the background, whereas Mum was a leader.

9. Were you always expected to be a leader?

Yep. My mother just about died giving birth to me and my grandmother said "this is the one". She had 18 children and saw that the language was getting lost, so she raised me. Everything I learnt was from her and the Ngati Hine elders. It's a traditional leadership to keep the wananga or the school of learning alive.

10. Did you ever rebel?

Yeah, I did a bit in my teenage years. Mum was from a generation where they were strapped for speaking the language. She said, "You're never going to get anywhere in this world doing Maori". That pissed me off and I proved her wrong. I got a job at the Auckland Museum curating Maori taonga. Reviving traditional instruments, taonga puoro, was a big passion of mine. Mum was all right about it after a year. Now she's the proudest woman out.

11. What's your earliest Matariki memory?

For my grandmother, Matariki was a time to farewell the dead that have passed on within the year. This year I'll be remembering Erima Henare who was a big loss for Ngati Hine, Eru Thompson from Auckland and Mauriora Kingi from Rotorua. All were brought up the old way and died too young.

12. Are you making an effort to keep yourself healthy?

Totally. I go to the gym three times a week. I still play rugby. My wife says I'm too old, but whether you're playing for the All Blacks or the Waitakere Over 35s, it's just that buzz of getting out there on the field. I love it.

Rewi's hangi-making workshops are at Te Mahurehure Marae, Pt Chevalier, on July 5 and Te Tahawai Marae, Edgewater College, on July 12. He speaks at the Arataki Visitor Centre on July 14 (7pm-9pm).