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Sunday, 24 March 2019 04:43 am

Ngāti Katoa, iwi all, gathers at Orongomai Marae in Upper Hutt



Looking through the entrance to Ōrongomai Marae, which considers itself to be a place for everyone


How can non-Māori make personal bicultural connections? LAURA WILTSHIRE decided to explore her bicultural connection through the story of her great grandfather, and visits the community marae where he was a Pākeha ahead of his time.


One of the poupou outside the Whare Tipuna, or meeting house, at Ōrongomai Marae represents Ngāti Katoa, the iwi for all.

Ōrongomai is a remarkable urban marae, a place whose purpose is the serve the Upper Hutt community.

The Whare Tipuna, Kahukura, sits opposite the main gate, next to it is a large building called Rongomai, the first building to be built at Ōrongomai.

Inside Rongomai, women are doing tai chi.

One of them smiles, but doesn’t break from her slow movements.

It’s easier to wait outside the main gates rather than try and find your way to reception through Rongomai.

A young man walks past in the street and smiles: “Is someone taking you onto the Marae today?”

“Yes,” I reply, and he walks on.

The people of this area have an obvious connection with the place.

A figure appears from around the side of Kahukura. He’s wearing a red hoodie and jandals, and walks slowly as a koro might.

His name is Heemi Kara, and he is one of the kaumātua at Ōrongomai.

He takes me into Kahukura, and we sit down.

“So,” he asks, “how can I help you?”

Jock McEwen, the Pākeha kaumātua

Ōrongomai is inextricably connected with one of its founding fathers, Jock McEwen, my great grandfather.

Jock McEwen in old age wearing his Korowai and holding his carved walking stick. At this point he was known as Te Oka, Pākehā Kaumātua. Photo Credit: Eric Wood

To understand Ōrongomai you have to first understand that Mr McEwen, who was Pākeha of Scottish whakapapa, was a kaumātua here.

Such was his standing in Maoridom that when he pāassed away in 2010, people came from all over the country to farewell him, and one of those farewells was at Ōrongomai.

Born in 1915, near Fielding, Mr McEwen showed an interest in Māoritanga from an early age. He learnt to speak Te Reo Māori in the schoolyard, an unusual experience at a time when most Māori kids were being banned from speaking Te Reo while at school.

After he finished school, he was hired as a cadet at what was then known as the Department of Native Affairs, in the Palmerston North Office, a for-runner to the Department of Māori Affairs, and the current Te Puni Kokiri ministry.

Later he represented the New Zealand Government as Resident Commissioner in Niue.

The previous Resident Commissioner to Niue had been murdered in what remains the only political assassination in New Zealand’s history.

When Mr McEwen went home to tell his wife, Ruth, that he had been asked to apply for the position on Niue, she asked if that was the place where the Resident Commissioner had just been murdered.

“Yes,” replied Mr McEwen.

“Well, they wouldn’t do that to us,” she replied. And so they packed up and moved with their three young sons.

Jock and Ruth McEwen with their three sons, Andrew (left), David and James (sitting), just before the family moved to Niue. Photo Credit: John Ashton

Mr McEwen learnt to speak a small amount of Niuean before he arrived, and was fluent after six months. He used his knowledge of the language and wrote the first Niuean dictionary.

“He was able to get off the boat and have a spattering of Niuean,” says Andrew McEwen, Jock McEwen’s middle son.

“We were just so excited to be there, and apparently the fact that we were so happy and excited to be there and were smiling and waving helped Dad’s acceptance by the Niuean people.”

The family spent almost three years on Niue, before returning to Wellington, briefly living in Khandallah until moving to Heretaunga, a suburb of Upper Hutt just down the Road from the land Ōrongomai eventually got built on.

Although he had started working on Orongomai before his retirement, it was after he left the public service that he had time to really focus on the marae.

Ōrongomai’s beginnings, like many urban marae, can be found in the migration of Māori from rural New Zealand to the main centres, beginning in the 1920s and 30s. This urban migration separated Māori from their Iwi, and often as a result, from Māoritanga.

My guide, Mr Kara, is a typical example.

Originally from further north in Tuhoe country, he moved to the Hutt Valley in the 1960’s, although at that point he was based in Lower, rather than Upper Hutt.

“Those people who migrated at the same time as we did, there were a few here also,” says Mr Kara. “And they get together in a hall or somebody’s garage and they’d sing songs. They became quite good at Kapa haka.”

Heemi Kara with his native Tuhoe Poupou in Kahuhura

They started fundraising to build a permanent home, a place for Māori not originally from the area to stay connected with their culture.

It was not without challenge though.

Mr McEwen’s daughter in law and author of his biography “Te Oka-Pakeha Kaumātua,” Mary McEwen, says they ended up not being able to use the first piece of land given to them by the council. “There was a lot of disquiet among the neighbours, they didn’t want a ‘Māori thing’ near them,” says Mrs McEwen.

It is easy to learn his story and forget how remarkable Mr McEwen was, until reminded that in the time he was fighting for Māori rights, New Zealand’s racism was a lot more blatant than it is today.

So to have a Pākeha involved in developing a marae was different.

Rongomai was the first building to go up at Ōrongomai. It was perhaps not as grand a space as Kahukura, but it was at least a space where Māori living away from their Iwi Marae, could come and not be distanced from Māoritanga.

Once they had a physical space, they were able to spend time creating Kahukura.

Jock carving in 1948. Photo credit: John Ashton

Kahukura is a remarkable space.

By the time it was being built, Mr McEwen was considered a master carver.

“He told me he picked up carving, just picked it up” says Mr Kara. “He used to just hack away at different things and became quite good at it.”

He worked with men at what is now Rimutaka Prison, teaching them carving; teaching them the arts of their people in order to reduce recidivism.

Mr McEwen had a deep understanding of whakapapa, or ancestry. Even when the men at Rimutaka Prison did not know which iwi they belonged too, Mr McEwen could usually find out by asking a few questions about their family. He strove to teach each man to carve in the style of his own iwi.

“This is the result, in here” says Mr Kara, gesturing to the carved pillars called poupou made by the men at Rimutaka Prison.

Every Iwi in New Zealand is represented by one of the poupou in Kahukura.

There is also one to represent our Pacific whānau.

Mr McEwen’s vision was clear, this space was to be a space for everyone, it did not matter where you were from in New Zealand, or indeed the world, to come to Ōrongomai was to come to an inclusive space.

The final aspect of that inclusivity is the name.

Kahukura is the te reo Maori word for rainbow.

Respect comes to life in death

Mr McEwen passed away in 2010. A sign of his status, he had three funerals, a Niuean one, a Māori tangi, and a pakeha funeral at his local church.

The Jock McEwen I remember

His sons decided he should be carried onto Ōrongomai by at least one member of each generation of his descendants. As the karanga went out to call him onto the Marae, it was his three sons, one of his grandsons, and two of his great-granddaughters who shouldered the coffin.

I remember the moment well. The coffin shook as one of my great uncles cried. I was only 13, the coffin was unbearably heavy, and I was scared I would not be able to keep a hold of it and slide my shoes off as we moved into Kahukura.  My great-grandfather had always been a formidable figure to me. One of my earliest memories involves him poking me with his walking stick as he laughed.

During the hongi line at his tangi, one of the kuia at Ōrongomai broke down as she got to me. I remember holding her as she sobbed into my shoulder, as those in the line behind her moved past to greet my mum.

It was at that moment that I realised the respect people had for my great grandfather.

After our interview, Mr Kara showed me around Ōrongomai, and introduced me to everyone: “this is Jock’s great-granddaughter, this is Laura.”

We stop in the waiting room of the social service area to have a kaputī (cup of tea), and korero with the woman who works there.

Ōrongomai has an extensive outreach programme, providing health services, drug and alcohol counselling and social services to the people of Upper Hutt.

They have said in the past that Ōrongomai specialises in people who are normally put in the ‘too hard basket.’

It’s fitting for a marae whose poupou were carved to help prisoners reconnect with their culture.

Ōrongomai treats everyone the way that Jock did; equally.

Ngati Katoa, Iwi for All.








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