Remembering Keri Kaa (1942–2020)
Keri Kaa, Hohi Ngapera Te Moana Keri Kaa, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou, CNZM QSO, was also winner of Te Tohu a Ta Kingi Ihaka in 2016, in recognition of lifetime contribution to Nga Toi Māori and strengthening Māori culture, as well as many other awards; and a much-beloved arts matriarch.
Keri contributed strongly and very generously to Spiral. She introduced us to Miriama Evans, who became a member of the collective that published the bone people; and to her own sister, writer Arapera Blank, who travelled to Europe with a Spiral group. In Spiral 5 she contributed a letter to her mother Hohipene Kaa, a review and some poems. She organised book launches, for Patricia Grace’s The Kuia & the Spider/ Te Kuia me te Pūngāwerewere — which she translated with Hirini Melbourne; and for Keri Hulme’s the bone people. Keri made us laugh, evoked joy. Gave us wise counsel, warmly and sometimes sternly. Made us think. Helped us to love. Anyone who knew Keri will never forget her.
Because Keri died during Covid, many of us could travel to her tangi only via livestream.
Warm thanks to Gaylene Preston and Fiona Lovatt for their tributes below, followed by some online appreciation; clips of interviews with her, including about her award-winning children’s picture book, Taka Ki Ro Wai; a list of Keri’s work published in Spiral 5 and on this site; and finally her poems ‘BAREFOOT BOY: a ballad for Ben Couch’ and ‘Te Ata — The Morning’. Special thanks to Pearl Sidwell, Tungia Baker’s daughter, for her photographs. — Marian Evans
by Dame Gaylene Preston, with Whetu Fala
Keri Kaa was a force. Cultural, spiritual, intellectual. I met her in 1980. Tungia Baker brought her round to my house.¹ When you were friends with one, you got the other. Keri was the first Māori American Field Scholar, Tungia was the third. That’s how they rolled. Keri Kaa — ‘she was boss’ — before that phrase was invented.
Keri had a keen eye for talent and, a poet herself, was a dedicated promoter of all things Māori particularly in the arts and education. Wherever fun and activism collided, that’s where you would find Tungia. And she got a lot done that way, but Keri was different. Measured, strategic, and confident, Keri was more mainstream. She could command any Pākehā committee she found herself part of by her sheer presence. Often not just the only woman in the room, but also the only Māori, she maintained her decorum, demanded good manners of everyone and commanded widespread respect. Tokenism was not a word in her vocabulary. Her ideas were visionary and she knew how to get people on board to make them happen. She did this by installing fear into the hearts of anyone who dragged the chain. When she walked into the room it was as if the ground shook and the metaphorical red carpet rolled out before her.
She was a true rangatira with a beautiful poetic streak and I was lucky to have her services on several films. As cultural advisor for the feature film Ruby and Rata, she gave Graeme Tetley, Robin Laing and me confidence to make a comedy drama about outsiders — an abandoned Pākehā elderly woman, and a Māori solo mother and her truant arsonist son. Later, when I was making Kai Purakau, a documentary about Keri Hulme for Thames Television UK, I asked her to help me with the commentary. I didn’t think the film needed a commentary, but the British commissioners wanted one. I asked Keri. She composed a beautiful poem in Te Reo Māori and sang the commentary. Everyone happy, especially Thames TV.
You can see from her extensive list of achievements, that she was an educator and pioneering force. Her influence in helping set up the first indigenous professional theatre in the world — Taki Rua — and her tireless promotion of Māori filmmakers when she advised the NZ Film Commission — particularly on the short film fund panel — certainly contributed to the depth and spread of Māori filmmaking as it is today. She never worked alone. The great persuader. She taught me a lot.
And if anyone got a bit big headed she could be ruthlessly funny. When a BBC team spent a day filming her brother Wi Kuki — another brilliant Kaa — it came her turn to be interviewed for this piece about the genius actor that he was.
‘Yes, but can he mow the lawns,’ was her response.
Her motto — ‘Don’t be anti-anyone, be pro Māori’ — was one she lived by and promulgated. People who form bridges, who are culturally and linguistically confident in two worlds (her spoken and written English put me and my peers to shame) are taonga. Born of two rangatira parents and from Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Porou iwi, she was educated to lead and lead she did.
I’m very grateful to Tungia for bringing Keri round to my place that blustery night in 1980 and thank the Gods I passed muster and came to know her well. She is greatly loved by everyone who knew her and will be missed by many.
(First published in the NZ Techo Magazine, the Screen Industry guild’s quarterly magazine. Excerpts from Gaylene’s Kai Purakau, where you can hear Keri’s voice, are here.)
by Fiona Lovatt
O how the rain falls this day when our mareikura is laid to rest. Her vivacious presence, her expansive heart, this kuia who took the long walks from one century into another was at the forefront of the renaissance of Te Reo Rangatira.
As a student of Keri Kaa we knew she could round up a posse: to go to a choral performance in Latin which she freely translated into the ears of those nearby; or to run a late night session of tapestry, taaniko, and poi production for kapa haka uniforms; or to lay an early morning hangi as a fundraiser; to just get on a bus with a blanket round the legs and off ‘to put some warmth’ into new wharenui being built around the country; to join a march on the right side of history; to step into Women’s Gallery and launch Te Kuia me Te Pūngāwerewere.
Her eyes danced. Her hands danced. Her voice danced.
She was compelling and compassionate. She was a mother to everyone who snuggled under feathers and her tutorial rooms were often a place for sharing kai because she wasn’t going to let any student go hungry.
She was gentle as she blew on embers within us, setting us burning as small lights and great roaring flames. She knew the power of broadcasting seeds of hope.
It was an indiscernible, compelling and practical radiation of aroha, manaakitanga and her own mana… so that years later we can still feel the warmth of it, still feel the heat of it, and know that our task is not done yet.
She was a showcase, and no doubt muse, for Maida² who had the design skills to make this wahine toa appear to be as light as the ripene pai she sang of. It was her gleeful gift to be majestic, incandescent and ephemeral, as light and as strong as the pūngāwerewere’s thread.
Light on the balls of her feet to sing the shining cuckoo home, to raise waka and carry them home, to dig down a paddle or scribe the arcs and constellations of the navigator’s journeys overhead.
‘E hoea ana au, nga waikarekare ki Hawaiiki pamaomao.’
She knew this day was coming. This rain and these tears across the motu speak of the great space left in the landscape of our hearts.
Moe mai ra Whaea Keri i raro i nga parihau o te Atua Kaha Rawa.
Moe mai ra.
(first published on Facebook)
Towards the end of her life, Keri gave an interview for the Health Quality and Safety Commission, facilitated by her nephew Anton Blank and filmed by Clare O’Leary. Of course, she reminds us that “our task is not done yet”.
Keri Kaa’s writing published by Spiral & associates
Te Kuia Me Te Pūngāwerewere, translation of Patricia Grace’s The Kuia & the Spider, with Hirini Melbourne.
‘A Letter to My Mother’ (1982) Spiral 5 pp7–8
Patricia Grace: Aspects of Her Stories in Waiariki & The Dream Sleepers (1982) Spiral 5 pp 3–6
‘Te Ata — The Morning’ (1982) Spiral 5 p10
‘barefoot boy: A Ballad for Ben Couch’ (1982) Spiral 5 pp 8–10
a ballad for Ben Couch³
DO YOU REMEMBER?
summer smells of fruit and flowers
sweetcorn leaves flapping in the breeze
racing down to the river
squishing your toes through oozy mud
darting into holes in the river bank
CAN YOU HEAR?
the shouts of other children
“Hey you fullas backy me ‘cross the river I wanna come too!”
as everyone rushed off to sample luscious pears
borrowed from Tuhaka’s tree
while he snoozed in the heat of the noonday sun
DO YOU REMEMBER?
Ani’s salty fried bread
the nut-like favour of dried karaka berries
crunching your teeth into sweet apples stolen from Tom Lima’s trees
tasting for the first time furry yellow loquats from Great Uncle Poi’s orchard
CAN YOU REMEMBER?
cold frosty mornings
numbed feet in stiff gumboots
stumbling after a stubborn horse
rounding up sleepy cows
to get them all in for milking
DO YOU HEAR?
milk pinging into shiny buckets
pigs squealing below
cats mewing by the cream spout
calves bawling across the yard
Star the dog dancing about knocking the buckets over
Father shouting anxiously “Is the cream truck here yet? Get to the road now!”
DO YOU REMEMBER?
warming frozen feet in cow shit
picking and licking at pieces of ice from the roadside
hearing the school bells ringing
to line up for yet another
WILL YOU EVER FORGET?
the agony of health inspections
lining up for Toothbrush Drill
heart thumping madly ‘cos you don’t have a toothbrush
and worse — no proper toothpaste
only salt or pungarehu
your Granny gave you
CAN YOU TASTE?
the halibut capsules
given out by teachers who never took them anyway
and at morning break
the sweet flavoured malted milk drinks
provided by a caring Education Department
DO YOU REMEMBER?
proudly showing your clean rag pinned to your clean shirt
and the monitors laughing
hiding your long dirty fingernails in your pockets
and the SHAME
of having your tapu head checked for nits and
everyone pointing as they
wrote your name
on the District Nurse’s list
WILL YOU EVER FORGET?
the joy of singing
and dancing about
your own history in
your Mother Tongue and
the terrible trials of
morning talks and
ALL IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE
DO YOU REMEMBER?
the desperate hope
that you would win a scholarship to Te Aute College
leaping like a kahawai
into the seas of learning
NOW barefoot boy
you are a city man
a graduate a Member of Parliament
maybe you have a house mortgages perhaps a chauffeur driven car
nice children smart clothes posh neighbours and
far too many pairs of shoes
DO YOU SOMETIMES THINK ABOUT THAT
Te Ata — The Morning
above the roar
of Air New Zealand jets.
Their wailing calls
made me homesick
where surf booms and crashes
onto the shore
and you’re sure
the sea will come pounding
into your bed.
I lie still listening
to the day’s heartbeat
Red buses racing by
Puffing snorting dragons
Peter splashes about
in the bathroom
Elizabeth phones for a chat.
seagulls are wailing.
² Maida was a Wellington designer.
³ Ben Couch (1925–1976) was an All Black and a politician.
⁴ ‘Te Ata — The Morning’ was written for Irihapeti Ramsden (1946–2003) who, like Keri, then lived in Hataitai, Wellington.