Tess Nichol talks to Pita Turei, a local iwi orator, about storytelling and Te Hono - The Gathering, a key event in the Elemental AKL winter festival's calendar.
How much do you know about the history of Auckland? Personally, I know so little I had to Google “history of Auckland” just to try and think up an example to put in this story.
I’m especially disconnected from the city’s pre-colonial history, as many who live in this country’s urban areas are. As a 17-year-old, orator Pita Turei was too. Growing up a ward of the state in west Auckland with pakeha carers, Turei was disconnected completely from his whakapapa.
As soon as he was able, he went in search of who his family was, propelled by a longing to know his and their history, to understand who he was and how he fit into the world. Of Ngāti Paoa and Ngāti Whātua lineage, Turei has spent decades reading, listening, learning and retelling the history of this city, as well as many years as a representative for both iwi during Treaty settlement negotiations. Tall and grey-haired with a feather tucked in his bun, Turei speaks softly but quickly and confidently, always poised to respond with an answer which is in itself its own small story. These days he could tell you about the history of Tāmaki Makaurau, without stopping, for six and a half hours, if you had the time (for real, he once spoke at an event which ran that long).
This weekend, as part of the Elemental AKL winter festival, Turei is one of three storytellers performing in Te Hono - The Gathering, held at Auckland’s Town Hall. A hero event of the festival, it incorporates digital projection mapping onto the Concert Chamber’s walls to create an immersive storytelling experience. Turei, Rewi Spraggon (Te Kawerau a Maki) and Taiaha Hawke (Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei), all local iwi orators, will perform every two hours from noon to 6pm on both Saturday and Sunday. The event is free, wheelchair accessible and open to all ages.
The outside of the Auckland Town Hall will have large-scale digital light projections reflecting Te Reo myths and legends each evening.
“I’ve chosen to tell a story which really related to the tradition of kaitiakitanga,” Turei says. “And it’s a traditional story, one of the stories handed down, nighttime stories, which is embedded with the principles of how we anchor ourselves as guardians of the environment. It’s about our relationship with spirit, it’s a love story and it happens in a river - not a Chinese bottling company in sight.”
Te Hono is anchored in the time of year it’s being held - Matariki. “Matariki is the end of one cycle of life and the beginning of another. What ceremonies and rituals do we afford ourselves in that context? Part of it is those rituals we have which honour and farewell the dead to release ourselves of grief.” Mid-winter holds our shortest days, but also our longest nights - the perfect time for lengthy storytelling.
Turei says Te Hono is for everyone, and especially anyone who wants to know more about our city. “For me there’s no Māori history or pakeha history, there’s a history of the land and that belongs to all of us.”
When he first started telling stories of the land, Turei says he was confronted by older pakehar men in particular who would deny Auckland’s Māori history. “[They’d say] That’s why there’s a city here, because there were no Māori here. People wanted to believe that because it leaves no ledger of guilt of what might have been taken wrongfully. That’s why no one knows the history - it’s not accidental.”
Turei lives out in Piha and makes tiny houses for a living, but he’s always loved storytelling. Whether he’s talking for 20 minutes or three hours, his tools are the same: Set up a question and make people wait for the answer “As long as you can keep fuelling the question - interrupt it, disturb it, create other questions underneath it and bring it to a place where there’s a crisis climax and there’s a resolution.”
Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) General Manager Destination, Steve Armitage says of Te Hono: “This special event plays an important role in showcasing Auckland’s unique identity, transferring knowledge and stories across generations, and connecting Aucklanders and visitors to the rich history of who we are as a region.
“I encourage audiences to take part in this inaugural event programmed alongside several other exceptional Māori and Pasifka events throughout the region.”
Te Hono, The Gathering, is a free event held at Auckland's Town Hall on the 6-7 of July from noon to 6pm. The event runs every two hours.