Sustained by learning

Thelma Karaitiana remembers her childhood at Te Ohaka Marae, Manutuke. Picture by Rebecca Grunwell

Thelma Karaitiana grew up in a world foreign for many today. A humble woman who has committed much of her life to the preservation of Maori culture and language, still considers herself a student of te reo. She shares her experience with Delilah Whaitiri . . .

The ninth child of 16, and the daughter of Raina Waipara and John Karaitiana, Thelma Karaitiana descends from a long line of strong wahine.

She was born prematurely, and wasn’t expected to live very long. A whangai at birth (raised by family), for the first two years of her life Thelma lived on a farm at Te Reinga with her maternal uncle, Te Moananui a Kiwa and aunt Ema Waipara.

Both were speakers of te reo me nga tikanga (the native language). Alongside the family lived a nanny Herena, a staunch Ringatu believer who spoke only te reo, no English.
“She was from the old days and lived in a world where you did everything outside. The only time you went inside was to sleep.”

When Thelma was two years old her parents took her back home to Manutuke. She lived at Te Ohako Marae on the banks of the Te Arai River in the 1950s where she was exposed to life at the pa from an early age.
“It wasn’t unusual — a lot of families lived at the marae.
“The men back then would go out and work the land, and if you were lucky enough to be employed you held on to your job for life.”

The women managed the marae very effectively, she said. There was always a pot of food on the boil and in the winter the fire was always warming.

“My mother owned an all-purpose pot and she would bake huge rewena bread.”
“Half of it was for our school lunches and the other half was often given to the manuhiri/visitors.
“We lived in a communal way which is foreign to many today.”

Many whanau were reliant on what they could grow, catch, gather and harvest. Watercress and puha grew wild and was plentiful.

Thelma attended Manutuke Primary School at the young age of four but she says that wasn’t unusual, as many children started school young. During her teenage years she attended Gisborne Girls’ High School.
“My high school experience became memorable when Karen Johansen became my form teacher. Ms Johansen opened our eyes to a world much larger than Gisborne. Her stories about other cultures and countries expanded our minds, and for some, this was life-changing.”

It was at school that she discovered her niche, a love for writing and advocacy.
“I wrote my first article for the GGHS newsletter about the lack of academic content and courses being offered to Maori students.”

She also discovered her passion for creative arts and won an award from the then Maori Affairs, a government department, and dreamed of attending an arts school in Wellington.
“My parents didn’t see it as a suitable future and I didn’t get their support for such lofty ambitions.”

During her time at secondary school Thelma attained School Certificate in four subjects before leaving and starting training as a general nurse at Cook Hospital.

In 1988 her language journey began in earnest when, together with her children, she joined Te Kaupapa o te Kohanga Reo, a preschool in Tairawhiti.
“I felt as though I had arrived. I just knew I belonged.”

A modest woman who attributes a lot of her learning to her peers and mentors, she says she greatly benefited from the presence of Kui Emmerson, Dolly Kapa, Kay Robin, Keita Morgan, Gaylene Taitapanui, Charlotte Gibson and Mini McKenzie.

In 1990 Thelma, a woman with a wealth of knowledge who still considers herself a student of te reo Maori, enrolled in Te Rumaki Reo/Bachelor of Education at Te Wananga o Waikato.

“I’ve been engaged in te reo for a very long time and you never stop learning,” she says.
“There’s always room for improvement. It’s one of those things that keeps me going — it sustains me.”

Life changed for Thelma and her family shortly after she enrolled in the degree course, with the loss of her middle son who died in Wellington.

This strong woman continued to create a life after loss, in the face of such tragedy.

She welcomed the new millennium as project manager of a community-based Maori language revitalisation programme for Te Runanga o Turanganui a Kiwa and the three iwi of Turanga — Te Aitanga a Mahaki, Rongowhakaata and Ngai Tamanuhiri.

A proponent of change and revitalisation of everything traditional, Thelma still doesn’t consider herself to be a leader.
“A lot of the work I do, I don’t consider work.
“It’s a passion. It’s about who I am.”

As the kaikaranga (ceremonial caller) for her hapu Ngai Tawhiri and Ngai Te Kete, she is often called on to serve at the marae. Traditionally kaikaranga is the eldest sister’s role, but Thelma finds herself front and centre to carry on one of the many traditions that underpin Maori as a people.

Thelma is a full-time student at Te Wananga o Aotearoa, studying towards a degree in Maori development in te reo, and heavily involved with hapu development and sustainability as a trustee at Ohako Marae. She is also actively involved at Te Kuri a Tuatai with the development of the urban marae, and works towards building good relationships with community organisations, businesses and schools.

With her treasure trove of knowledge, she actively pursues her calling of kaitieki/guardian of things from Te Ao Maori and is committed to preserving the culture of her tribal people for many years to come.

Thelma Karaitiana grew up in a world foreign for many today. A humble woman who has committed much of her life to the preservation of Maori culture and language, still considers herself a student of te reo. She shares her experience with Delilah Whaitiri . . .

The ninth child of 16, and the daughter of Raina Waipara and John Karaitiana, Thelma Karaitiana descends from a long line of strong wahine.

She was born prematurely, and wasn’t expected to live very long. A whangai at birth (raised by family), for the first two years of her life Thelma lived on a farm at Te Reinga with her maternal uncle, Te Moananui a Kiwa and aunt Ema Waipara.

Both were speakers of te reo me nga tikanga (the native language). Alongside the family lived a nanny Herena, a staunch Ringatu believer who spoke only te reo, no English.
“She was from the old days and lived in a world where you did everything outside. The only time you went inside was to sleep.”

When Thelma was two years old her parents took her back home to Manutuke. She lived at Te Ohako Marae on the banks of the Te Arai River in the 1950s where she was exposed to life at the pa from an early age.
“It wasn’t unusual — a lot of families lived at the marae.
“The men back then would go out and work the land, and if you were lucky enough to be employed you held on to your job for life.”

The women managed the marae very effectively, she said. There was always a pot of food on the boil and in the winter the fire was always warming.

“My mother owned an all-purpose pot and she would bake huge rewena bread.”
“Half of it was for our school lunches and the other half was often given to the manuhiri/visitors.
“We lived in a communal way which is foreign to many today.”

Many whanau were reliant on what they could grow, catch, gather and harvest. Watercress and puha grew wild and was plentiful.

Thelma attended Manutuke Primary School at the young age of four but she says that wasn’t unusual, as many children started school young. During her teenage years she attended Gisborne Girls’ High School.
“My high school experience became memorable when Karen Johansen became my form teacher. Ms Johansen opened our eyes to a world much larger than Gisborne. Her stories about other cultures and countries expanded our minds, and for some, this was life-changing.”

It was at school that she discovered her niche, a love for writing and advocacy.
“I wrote my first article for the GGHS newsletter about the lack of academic content and courses being offered to Maori students.”

She also discovered her passion for creative arts and won an award from the then Maori Affairs, a government department, and dreamed of attending an arts school in Wellington.
“My parents didn’t see it as a suitable future and I didn’t get their support for such lofty ambitions.”

During her time at secondary school Thelma attained School Certificate in four subjects before leaving and starting training as a general nurse at Cook Hospital.

In 1988 her language journey began in earnest when, together with her children, she joined Te Kaupapa o te Kohanga Reo, a preschool in Tairawhiti.
“I felt as though I had arrived. I just knew I belonged.”

A modest woman who attributes a lot of her learning to her peers and mentors, she says she greatly benefited from the presence of Kui Emmerson, Dolly Kapa, Kay Robin, Keita Morgan, Gaylene Taitapanui, Charlotte Gibson and Mini McKenzie.

In 1990 Thelma, a woman with a wealth of knowledge who still considers herself a student of te reo Maori, enrolled in Te Rumaki Reo/Bachelor of Education at Te Wananga o Waikato.

“I’ve been engaged in te reo for a very long time and you never stop learning,” she says.
“There’s always room for improvement. It’s one of those things that keeps me going — it sustains me.”

Life changed for Thelma and her family shortly after she enrolled in the degree course, with the loss of her middle son who died in Wellington.

This strong woman continued to create a life after loss, in the face of such tragedy.

She welcomed the new millennium as project manager of a community-based Maori language revitalisation programme for Te Runanga o Turanganui a Kiwa and the three iwi of Turanga — Te Aitanga a Mahaki, Rongowhakaata and Ngai Tamanuhiri.

A proponent of change and revitalisation of everything traditional, Thelma still doesn’t consider herself to be a leader.
“A lot of the work I do, I don’t consider work.
“It’s a passion. It’s about who I am.”

As the kaikaranga (ceremonial caller) for her hapu Ngai Tawhiri and Ngai Te Kete, she is often called on to serve at the marae. Traditionally kaikaranga is the eldest sister’s role, but Thelma finds herself front and centre to carry on one of the many traditions that underpin Maori as a people.

Thelma is a full-time student at Te Wananga o Aotearoa, studying towards a degree in Maori development in te reo, and heavily involved with hapu development and sustainability as a trustee at Ohako Marae. She is also actively involved at Te Kuri a Tuatai with the development of the urban marae, and works towards building good relationships with community organisations, businesses and schools.

With her treasure trove of knowledge, she actively pursues her calling of kaitieki/guardian of things from Te Ao Maori and is committed to preserving the culture of her tribal people for many years to come.

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