By Dr Jim Mather* for Aotearoa Media Collective.
Analysis - Soon after arriving at Māori Television as its new CEO in December 2004, I was confronted with a daunting array of reo and tikanga challenges spread far and wide across the organisation.
It didn't help that I was an absolute novice in both domains, and here I was, tasked with aligning our cultural aspirations with the pragmatic requirements of running a brand new Māori television service.
That quandary led to probably the best decision I ever made during my nine-year tenure as CEO which was to establish a kaunihera kaumātua.
After consultation with colleagues it was abundantly clear that there was only one person who should be invited to lead our elders council and that was Dr Huirangi Waikerepuru. To this day, it remains a deeply humbling and privileged experience to have been guided, encouraged and mentored by someone of his stature and wisdom.
Many things struck me when I first met Huirangi at our inaugural kaunihera kaumātua hui, however, I was instantly mesmerised by his ability to lead a group of strong-willed and often highly opinionated rangatira to consistently agree on things.
We were absolutely blessed to also have on our kaunihera at that time the late Dr Apirana Mahuika, the late Dr Merimeri Penfold, Hauata Palmer, Esther Davis, the late Don Selwyn, the late Bill Wiki, Te Ariki Morehu and my uncle Timi Peri. Their collective role was simply to give us kaumātua perspectives on how well we were doing, or in some cases not doing.
They were also required to provide guidance to a new CEO on how to traverse the veritable minefield of the many high expectations that were placed upon us at that time, and most importantly the huge contribution that was expected of Māori Television in terms of the revitalisation and normalisation of te reo me ngā tikanga Māori.
Huirangi would always turn up to each of the kaunihera hui excited to be amongst his contemporaries and he clearly enjoyed the banter and their company. Many of the discussions revisited past inter-tribal issues and supposed wrong-doings each had strong opinions on.
Throughout all of those reflections Huirangi would always be ready with a compassionate pithy comment or some other mana uplifting insight if he felt someone needed a hand to defend their position - always delivered with a mischievous smile.
He also guided the kaunihera through some difficult discussions, such as how our programming should emphasise Māori perspectives in our coverage of high rates of Māori youth suicides, or to a lesser degree, would naming our new current affairs programme Native Affairs be offensive to many of our elders who had suffered through some of the related draconian policies of that era.
In terms of the latter issue, reflective of Huirangi's philosophies on tino rangatiratanga, it was all about reclaiming our indigeneity (a word I'd not heard of until that point) and shifting negative perspectives to positive ones.
I still recall that in his summation on that matter he said something along the lines of "I am an indigenous person of Aotearoa and as such I am a Native of this land". And the potentially divisive name of our new current affairs programme, which had also been vigorously debated by the board, had effectively been endorsed by Huirangi.
He also clearly had a finely tuned awareness of the need for decisiveness and I should add that he later said to me over a cup of tea "make sure it is a good programme".
As a keen student of Māori leadership I always observed Huirangi closely. He was always optimistic and accessible. Without fail whenever he visited Māori Television he would take the time to walk through the building and kōrero with our kaimahi, and then later sit in the wharekai and listen to what our predominantly young people wanted to share with him.
This must have all been hugely gratifying for the man whom I have always referred to as "Te Pāpā o Whakaata Māori". He was literally the father of the organisation that had been established after he and other members of Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i Te Reo Māori took a claim in 1985 to the Privy Council in England to have te reo Māori recognised by the New Zealand government as a taonga.
I recall a fellow member of Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau sharing with me that during the course of the hearing, Huirangi would make collect calls from a public phonebox in London back to his colleagues in Aoteaora to pass on updates and get additional advice.
And of course, there was no government funding for such language reclamation initiatives back in the 1980s - it was all funded personally by Huirangi, Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i Te Reo Māori and others to whom we all owe a hudge debt of gratitude.
A great, but understandable, injustice in this prevailing pandemic, is that Dr Te Huirangi Eruera Waikerepuru, CNZM was not able to receive the customary tangihanga that would have attracted literally multitudes from the breadth and width of Aotearoa.
We all would have wanted the opportunity to pay our respects and reflect on his kindness, humility, compassion and wisdom. And I would have simply been one amongst thousands.
E te Pāpā o Whakaata Māori, ka nui te aroha mōu kua wehe atu nei i a mātou.
Tīraha i te tīrahatanga o ōu kuia, koroua, karangatanga maha. E moe, e moe, e moe mai rā.
This column was first published on the website of Aotearoa Media Collective.
* Dr Jim Mather is a former chief executive of Māori Television and is the current chairperson of RNZ.