27 October 2023

Family Trees

Ngā Manukura. Local Legends.

writer: Arpége Taratoa (Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Rārua)
photographer: Niki Boon

Thinking back on her childhood, Mairangi Reiher is filled with fond memories of growing up wrapped in the loving community of her grandparents’ Golden Bay farm. But it wasn’t until adulthood that Mairangi began her journey to rediscover her heritage and whakapapa. Her cultural endeavours have really shaped her life’s passions, and today her children and grandchildren are building on the foundations she has set for her whānau.

Black and white image of two women reaching into a pantry.

Top image. Mairangi (far right) sharing a moment with daughters Maree Reiher, 56 (far left), and Lenaire Crockford, 55. “I have three children, eight grandchildren, and now I have just been blessed with the most beautiful great-granddaughter,” Mairangi says. Above. Mairangi has many memories of her grandparents’ hospitality. At Christmas, a large marquee with a long table running underneath was set up at her grandparents’ house. All of her grandparents’ children and mokopuna would spend Christmas together, and the neighbours would come along, too. At times they would host visiting mayors or other significant people, but they were equally happy to take in people who had just come out of jail, offering them work on the farm. “They were very loving people, and the people that they took in still remember them to this day.”

“My childhood was very free and easy, so to speak. I loved being out on my grandparents’ farm. We had cows and sheep, and huge gardens around my grandparents’ house. They used to spend hours in the garden after they retired from milking,” Mairangi says. Growing up in Tākaka, Golden Bay, Mairangi and her siblings – Judi, Ramari, Rawiri and Paul – spent a lot of time with their grandparents, Rawiri and Ngara Mason, whose farmland they all lived on. It was a large area of land, and her dad and his siblings lived down the road. It was that quintessential “old-school Kiwi upbringing” with the freedom to explore and play in a landscape of farmland, hills and rivers.

Mairangi, now in her early eighties, of Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Tama and Te Arawa descent, describes her childhood as a happy one. Her mother, Hana, loved to bake and her father, Retimana, worked on the farm and at the local cement company, and later ran his own engineering business. Mairangi’s paternal grandparents were the cornerstone of the family and for the local community. Their gardens were often the backdrop for wedding portraits, and Ngara – affectionately called Gran Mason – was known for her beautiful floral creations, including wreaths for special occasions. “I used to love being there with her when she was doing that. Even now, when I think of it, I loved the flowers when they were done. She’d lay them out on the lawn and spray them, and I still see the colours – I just loved the colours,” Mairangi says.

Mairangi at her marae, Onetahua. “We didn’t really have much to do with the marae there, it’d only been re-established since 2000. So gradually I started going back down there, but I found it really difficult because I didn’t know anything about all the tikanga – but I learnt quite quickly from my own mistakes!”

Whilst her childhood was full of fond memories, the absence of her native tongue was a lack Mairangi didn’t realise until later in life. “My grandparents would converse in Māori between them, or when they wanted to talk about something they didn’t want us to know about. We unfortunately used to just switch off and go out and play so we never learned to speak Māori.” Following her formal education, Mairangi first worked at the local post office. However, she left soon after finding out she could gain various typing certificates at the Post Office Accommodation Centre in Trentham. She then transferred to Wellington to work in the regional engineers’ office, where one of her many roles was teaching the girls in both Wellington and Lower Hutt how to use the national accounting machines.

Venturing overseas with a girlfriend for her big OE, Mairangi returned to Wellington and got a job at the University of Victoria’s social sciences school, where she stayed until she married her late husband, Herman. “Herman’s brother, Paul, was one of the group that I used to get around with in Wellington. We were a small group and often got together. Herman came out from Fiji –he was originally from Kiribati – to join Paul, and that’s where we met.”

They returned to Golden Bay when Mairangi gave birth to Maree, their firstborn, and remained there ever since. “I told myself when I went home that I would stay until our daughter turned five – well she’s now fifty-six and I’m still here!” They purchased an old farmhouse for eight thousand dollars at the time, and Herman renovated most of it himself. “He was a do-it-yourself sort of person,” says Mairangi. “He did up the inside and went right through and did all sorts of things in here, then he went outside. He just turned the place into a beautiful family home.”

Not only was he savvy on the tools, Mairangi recalls how much of a blessing it was that Herman loved to cook. He also worked at the local cement company, and when he’d saved enough money, they bought a takeaway shop and owned it for nearly a decade. Sadly, Herman passed away from cancer at the age of sixty – far too young.

Before his passing, Mairangi recalls Herman returning to an “interesting” combination of his native languages – both Kiribati and German. He attempted to teach their children when they were younger but, much like Mairangi as a child, they didn’t retain much. Her first real work on documenting whakapapa was through documenting Herman’s heritage while he was still alive. “His parents used to come out here and stay, and one night, I started talking to them about Kiribati, and I wrote down their whakapapa – because it was something I was fascinated in.” Mairangi’s efforts eventually helped their family connect with a missing link in their family tree, and her passion for whakapapa has remained strong ever since.

Whilst Mairangi didn’t have her language, her cultural pursuits in the rohe have provided opportunities for her children, and now mokopuna, to have much more access than she ever did. She has found immense joy over the years in going through her own family’s whakapapa, and has expanded that work into her wider hapū and iwi. She sits on the Ngāti Tama Whakapapa Committee, as well as the NRAIT Whakapapa Committee. Her involvement on multiple community boards, conservation boards and iwi boards, has filled in that missing piece from earlier in her life.

“Being on the Nelson Marlborough Conservation Board, I learnt a lot about Māori culture and where I sat, and I just loved being on there,” Mairangi says. “You know, once I was just a Māori kid growing up in a Pākehā environment, but once I found where I came from, who I was – it was like opening a completely new era for me. I did all sorts of things I didn’t even know I was capable of doing.”

Mairangi’s devotion to whakapapa has created a world of access for her own children – Maree, Lenaire and Bernard. They have all attended different whakapapa and whenua kaupapa around the rohe and have normalised te ao Māori and te reo in their own homes. Though she speaks humbly of her life experiences, Mairangi’s contributions to her hapū and iwi in relation to whakapapa and conservation are extensive. “I’ve had a pretty full life. I’m still involved in lots of things – I find it very hard not doing anything!”

Amongst all of her major accomplishments on boards and local projects, Mairangi has enjoyed learning new crafts, something she developed helping her Gran with the wreaths and from learning to make her own treasured piupiu as a child. She calls these interests “stages” and they’ve included everything from spinning, knitting, making christening gowns out of wedding materials and more. “I’ve had lots of fun doing things and doing it to the best of my ability. But at the end of the day, my focus is really on who I am as a Māori person, and trying to live the best of that as I can.”

Glossary. Hapū, subtribe, kinship. Iwi, tribe. Mokopuna, grandchildren. Piupiu, knee-length flax garment. Rohe, region, area. Te ao Māori, the Māori world. Te reo Māori, the Māori language. Tikanga, correct procedures, customs. Tūpuna, ancestors. Whakapapa, genealogy, heritage. Whare, house. Whenua, land. Kaupapa, programmes, discussions. Whānau, family.

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