Welcome to Southern Spotlight, an ongoing series profiling a range of fascinating Mainlanders. This week Uekaha Taanetinorau tells VICKI ANDERSON about a new tourism venture he’s excited about and why everyone calls him ‘panther’.
Uekaha Taanetinorau jokes he is a cat with nine lives.
It is one of the reasons that “back home” he has the nickname Panther.
The respected kaumātua is 72, of Ngāti Maniapoto descent, has one lung, is deaf in one ear and has been a survivor since the day he entered this world.
In 1948, the 16th of 17 tamariki, he was born dead – a “blue baby” – at home in the remote North Island village of Kawhia, southwest of Hamilton.
“I lived dangerously,” he says. “My father delivered us, there were 17 of us kids. Dad had a hard time getting me out of there … my father revived me. After me, my father said ‘that’s it’ and the youngest was born in the hospital.”
Raised in Te Kuiti and Waitomo, of glowworm fame, Taanetinorau says his parents worked hard to provide for their family.
“Funny enough, they never considered it a tough life or complained. It was just the way it is.”
As a toddler he developed tuberculosis. To help him heal, his mother, Inuwai, tied him to her back and walked him down to the river every day.
He spent much of his early childhood years in hospital or at home, sick.
Vividly he recalls his first day at school, aged 8.
“In those days, people were strapped for speaking te reo,” he says. “They had their names changed.
“Before I started school I was the whānau child, with my aunties. I was isolated but I enjoyed the isolation.
“I started school at 8 and was put in the same class as everyone else that age who’d already been there for three years.
“Mum didn’t know … she couldn’t help – she hardly spoke English.”
Taanetinorau contemplates this for a moment before describing it as “a confusion”.
“I was brought up the traditional way and my education did not take into account my Gods, the ontology of the Māori people and the way it impacts people … that was the confusion as I was growing up.”
Colonisation “had a huge impact” on Māori.
“Once you lose your language, that’s a huge part of it. I think the key to it is our language, understanding our language. It is about relationships.”
A homemade firework exploded in his face when he was 8. It knocked him out and left him completely deaf in one ear.
“In those days, they had these cannons, that’s what we called those fireworks, and they went off like a shotgun blast.”
Not long afterwards he was run over by a reversing truck.
“Yes, I was run over by the truck and had a couple of near drownings too,” he says. “But I managed to survive those.”
As he marked his 16th birthday in the mid 1960s, he moved to Ōtautahi-Christchurch for a panel-beating apprenticeship as part of the Government-initiated Māori Trades Training Scheme.
Moving to Christchurch was a “huge culture shock”. Few people could pronounce his name correctly and eventually he started using the name Bob.
“A huge amount of Māori boys and girls went all over the place, a big influx to Christchurch for the training,” he says. “I didn’t even know what panel-beating was.”
He remembers walking with a big group of his peers from Rehua Marae to “the polytech”.
“It was a culture shock for both sides. I’m talking about the ontology here … a whole bunch of Māori walking down the road laughing and people would be looking at you.”
While training he met Lyn Jarman. They married and had three children – Maureen (known affectionately as Maurz), Ninakaye, and Nathan (known as Tiki). Another important family member, Anaru, was born with cerebral palsy and died aged 7.
Taanetinorau is clearly proud of his children. Ninakaye is a fierce woman who stands up for what she believes in but is vulnerable too: “If there’s a protest around the world she’s off”. Maurz has a calmness and graceful elegance and “possesses strong character” and Tiki has impressively “turned his life around” with music.
Tiki was 12 when he got his first guitar from his dad.
In 2007 Tiki released his first solo album, Past Present Future, which had one of New Zealand’s highest played songs, Always On My Mind, and was supported by his two sisters as his management team. His dad was a co-writer and vocalist of the song Tangaroa.
For the album, Tiki recorded his dad in the living room of his house in Heathcote. When he first heard it, Taanetinorau told his son the beats sounded like “techno seagulls”.
Taanetinorau accompanied his son on tour, joining him as a key member of his band The Dub Soldiers for performances at Parihaka, WOMAD, Splore, Homegrown and Coromandel Gold festivals.
Another passion for Taanetinorau has been martial arts, which he turned into a career as a karate instructor.
“To me the way we trained was extreme,” he says. “Train, train, train … you find out who you are when you do that.
“When you do karate and martial arts to the extreme you go through a transition of how you look at life, there’s a spiritual side.”
One night in the 1990s he was walking home after karate class and was horribly injured by a speeding car in a hit and run. It took him years to recover.
“These two cars were racing. One overtook the other, one didn’t pass and hit me just as I turned around. It completely skittled the fence and I ended up on the neighbour’s lawn. I shattered my leg, it had 15 breaks, I still have cracks in it. I lost my memory for two years.”
The person driving the car fled the scene, but was chased by a motorcyclist and eventually apprehended.
“I just wanted to get on with my life. When you get really ill, it’s surprising how calm you are. I’ve spoken to a number of people about this. It’s like a bubble. there’s a clarity. It’s quite powerful.”
When the 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch in 2011, Taanetinorau had just regained consciousness after hip replacement surgery.
“The earthquakes were an interesting time,” he says. “Strange as it may sound, I didn’t feel the anxiety that many of my friends felt. There are a number of reasons … one is I embrace my culture. I refer back to the stories of creation.
“I just thought Rūaumoko (god of earthquakes, volcanoes and seasons), the youngest child of Rangi-nui (the sky father) and Papatūānuku (the Earth mother), had woken from his slumber. You learn these stories and it goes straight into your core.”
He remembered when he was a frightened ill young boy and a lightning storm had seemed above his house and his dad had given him advice.
“The house shook with lightning, just outside the front door. I ran and ran, I was crying and I jumped into bed, crying, crying. Dad pulled me up and he talked to me in Māori – ‘You just go out there and you do a haka’.”
During one aftershock he was in a mall and did a haka as “things were falling down all over the place”.
“No-one can do anything about an earthquake, it is so frightening but it is also so awesome … you are attracted to it, it is a combination of those things.”
Six years ago he suffered a brain aneurysm. Doctors were stunned he survived.
“I was going upstairs and had just got to the top when I collapsed and hit the ground. I don’t know how long I was there for. I tried to get up and get into bed … eventually I was rushed to hospital. I was extremely lucky to be honest, I should have been dead.”
Fit and strong now, he goes to the gym for two hours before work, performing as part of Ko Tāne, the Māori cultural tourist venture at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve.
He is excited about new tourism venture Puari Village.
“There are destinations really, two bits of land – one by the Colombo St bridge, which used to be the Oxford pub, the starting place for the waka” he says.
“Then you go past Margaret Mahy Playground and on the other side of Barbadoes we have another piece of land where the Star and Garter used to be.
“Eventually what we are going to do is build a fortified pā site … [where] we are going to put two big warehouses.”
One of the warehouses will be fitted with state-of-the-art technology.
“It is a futuristic projection, so you could be there in your underwear but you will be fully moko’d up, weapons in your hand, virtual reality. I don’t think anyone has been done like this for Māori before,” says Taanetinorau.
“Weta is doing it. That’s the goal within the next two years. At the moment I’m learning a lot of history for the project, it’s huge but I am really excited about it.”
A conversation with Taanetinorau is a joyful education in ancient ways, Māori medicine and celestial realms.
On the job at Willowbank he stares at the sky above us, his jawline strong. When he speaks, he chooses each word thoughtfully. When he speaks, what he has to say matters.
As he has travelled through life, he has gained a greater understanding of the importance of the ontology of his culture.
One word – manaaki – to protect, support, offer hospitality and take care of others with generosity – stands out.
“It’s one of those words I have always used a lot,” he says. “I’m only now beginning to understand what it is to be aware of your surroundings, the people around you and how you treat them and look after them.
“For some, often money gets in the road.”
There is a lot of life left in this Panther.
“I’ve had a few challenges to deal with but I’m still above ground and life is good.”
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