Ngāi Tahu Rangitane
1946 - 2003
The environment is spectacular and the silence begins to calm my grieving heart.
After visiting the Marae at Onuku in Akaroa, Irihapeti decided she would like to show me her land at Koukourarata (Port Levy). We´ll take the short cut, just turn right at Little River, it´s not far she announced. For the next terrifying 20kms we lurched our way on a winding cliff face, it was a steep, narrow, shingle road over the top and down into this beautiful harbour. As I struggled to keep my Mazda on the road, Irihapeti laughed completely oblivious to this near-death experience as she continued to give me a running commentary on the history of her people and this place.
We had been working together since the late 1980s creating and delivering our unique Treaty of Waitangi programme in a parallel workshop process. Irihapetiís focus and energy was always on the needs of Māori, as she delivered her decolonisation workshops. She also monitored parallel workshops delivered for Pakeha, checked our handouts and constantly challenged our colonial conditioning and assumptions. She was a sharp thinker and a brilliant teacher. Her commitment to the Māori struggle was non-negotiable. She could charm and challenge, sometimes in the same sentence and always with the same focus.
The leveling influence of a mischievous sense of humour prevented her from ever becoming bitter - despite the provocation. She endured ridicule, the lot of all prophetic people, in her struggle to develop her lasting legacy of Cultural Safety. Like many indigenous people some of the criticism attracted the added sting of racism.
We who admired and loved her, valued her extraordinary gifts. Her writing output was significant and scholarly. On any topic, particularly if connected to the challenges facing indigenous people, she had a depth of knowledge and an exceptional mind. Her anger about the plight and place of indigenous people was never far below the surface.
Those who worked and lived with her were aware of the fragility of her own health. The asthma was ever present and later the cancer. Her determination to stay alive to meet her grandchild Billie, finish her doctorate on Cultural Safety and collect her NZOM displayed a rare courage that was an inspiration to her family and colleagues.
In her Poroporoaki to Irihapeti, the Honorable Tariana Turia highlighted her astute mind, vibrant personality and her warm and gentle smile. She went on to describe her as an outstanding communicator - she was able to say difficult things that needed to be said with such understanding that you couldnít really take offence.
In reminding us of her legacy, historian and friend Michael King summed up the feelings of those who knew Irihapeti at her tangi on 8 April 2003: For most of us who knew her, it is as if a powerful light has gone out: the light of her intelligence and understanding; the light of the love she had for the people and places with whom and with she was associated; the light of the humour, with which she so often lightened a troubled atmosphere and uplifted us; and the light of her smile, which was luminous and contagious.
Years ago I sent Irihapeti one of my favourite poems Still I Rise written by African American poet Maya Angelou. As I stood alongside her at her tangi at Rapaki, I shared the last verse as it reminds me of the extraordinary courage of her lifeís journey in the face of her exceptional challenges. It concludes:
Up from a past thatís rooted in pain
Iím a black ocean, leaping and wide
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Irihapeti´s thesis: Cultural Safety and Nursing Education in Aotearoa and Te Waipounamu can be found online at Massey University
An excellent short profile of her earlier life An Existence in History written by Irihapeti can be found in a book of essays entitled Growing up Māori Edited by Witi Ihimaera. Details from Tandem Press