You mentioned John Taiapa before – a well-known carver – how did you meet him and what influence did he have on your career?
Well, going back to old Dave Winterburn. One day there were all these carved barge boards for a meeting house in Dave’s basement. John Taiapa and his offsider were working on them for the Hangarau meeting house over home, one of ours, in my tribal area. That’s when I first met John. I knew then I wanted to be under this guy. He was the gun.
And that was when you applied to the carving school at Whakarewarewa?
Yes, my first year was 1967. In ’65 it had started because of the New Zealand Māori Arts & Crafts Act 1963, which we sit under, they had to have somewhere to administrate it. The government said we’re not funding it; you can fund yourselves. And right up to today, we’ve done that through tourism. That’s what’s kept the project going all these years. When I came here in ’66 there was nothing but the old Ngongataha Post Office. That was the first admin building. By the end of ’66, they’d built the admin block and that was the first carving school.
What was it like turning up to school on the first day?
It was good. I was 17 when I came up here to get my application form for the school. Anyway, I applied, and they rejected it, saying you’re not Māori. Dad said, “Oh yeah, is that right? Here’s his iwi, here’s his hapū, here’s his all the rest of it.” They still didn’t believe it, So, they sent somebody from Māori Affairs around to interview me. I showed him all my drawings and carvings and things. I explained what they mean, and he said, “You know more about it than I do, boy.” Highly recommended. That went in, and they still bucked it. Dad knew some of the guys on the board too, so he went in and said, “Okay board, just look at this.”
This family photo?
Yes, he took that in, and he said, “Righto, you’re questioning my Māori background. Here’s the go. The little girl there, that’s my older sister. This is my mother, his grandmother. That’s his great grandmother, his great, great grandmother and that’s his great, great, great grandmother. That’s the oldest child in each generation spanning five generations. Now, having seen that, have you got one in your fella’s family to better it?” Well, of course the answer was no. I got an acceptance letter from the Institute on Christmas Eve 1966. So, I ended up here under John Taiapa and Tuti Tukaokao. He was 2IC and from my own iwi too, a distant relative.
How many students were there at that stage?
There were seven.
When you first started was everyone of comparable skill? Were you all starting from the same place?
I think everybody was sort of…I struggled a little bit because they half-pie picked on me at the time. Didn’t realise my tribe was Ngāti Ranginui. We know how to dig in. We taught them that. Taught the colonial troops that lesson at Gate Pā. Because all these guys were at a hostel, they were having a royal time. There was wine, women and song, and parties and everything. I stayed at home and did the study.
Was it all carving?
When you do a diploma, you do a whole lot of other things, including tukutuku work, kōwhaiwhai painting. We’d all gone through all of that. When we graduated in 1969, they announced a special award, an honours award for the top student. Anyway, I’m sitting there thinking well you’re not going to get that mate. Next minute they call my name out. It took me a while to digest. Then there was a bit of controversy, a lot of people questioned it. John said, “Hang on a minute. First and foremost, he’s not Pākehā. He’s Māori just like you. And, the other thing is the guy worked for it.
So, it sounds like discrimination was a recurring theme? You sound quite driven, through.
I was. It was what I wanted to do. I’d made my mind up, that was all. It was a passion. So, these young ones we’ve got now, I would say to them look for a passion. If you’ve got a passion in there, you’re going to go way ahead. We’ve got one boy in here now, he’s here every day on time, every time. You can set your clock on him. He’s just passionate about what he’s doing.
After you graduated, what did you do?
I stayed on because I had the opportunity to work under John. The first thing was long weapons. He says, “You haven’t made those. Go and cut all this timber out.” It’s the rātā. “Go bring it all up here.” Took all that up. He says, “And, you’re going to make a set too. I’ll show you how the old fella Iramea taught me.” I learnt a lot from him. I started to go in and pester him each day for information. Now those are the only records, my notebooks and other stuff there.
Did your notes inform the book you wrote, Te Toki me te Whao – The Story and Use of Māori Tools?
Yes. I always thought about writing books but because I wasn’t an academic success at school, I didn’t want the book to be an academic nightmare. I wanted something that everybody could use, from primary school to university, and be easily understood. Like my brother, he doesn’t know anything about this at all. He got the book, read it and said he understood every single thing. I’m on a second book now, on carving.
How’s that going?
It’s a bit more difficult. You’ve got to be careful not to regurgitate everything else that’s been done. There’s that much written on carving but the biggest problem is that the authors aren’t carvers, they’re academics. They’ve probably never picked up a chisel in their lives. I’m coming from the hands-on perspective of a carver – and ironing out a lot of the boo boos they’ve come up with that don’t make sense.
What sort of reference material do you have?
I’ve got a huge collection of books. I didn’t have to go anywhere. I just go up to the room, pull the books out I needed. I’ve got a huge collection of artefacts like adzes that I’ve collected over the years. If want anything get the thing, draw it all out.