Dion Peita: My story, as told to Elisabeth Easther

Dion Peita (Ngāti Tipa, Ngāti Te Ata Waiohua, Te Rārawa) is the director, Tumuaki Māori and Pacific Development Tāmaki Paenga Hira (Auckland Museum).

I grew up in Grey Lynn, and it was the centre of the universe to me. In the ’80s the community was predominantly blue collar, mostly Māori and Pasifika and quite eclectic. We lived in a very diverse street with a number of influential creatives like Che Fu and his father Tigilau Ness, as well as prominent sporting talent, especially in the rugby league scene. We virtually lived at Pt Erin Pools and Grey Lynn park and, being urban Māori, we spent a lot of time round the CBD and Ponsonby, all the key spots.

I was expected to go to boarding school, to Tipene in Bombay, or Hato Petera on the North Shore but, after some words with my mother, I managed to twist her arm and went where all my friends were going, to Seddon High School, now Western Springs. This is when the marae was established and the bilingual unit. I walked to school every day from Grey Lynn, part of a small mob travelling together and we lived in each other’s homes. There was none of this ‘you have to go home now’ instead it was ‘pull up a chair and have some kai’. In some places you’d also stay the night. It was normal to hop between homes and be looked after as everyone had strong principles around caring for their wider community.

We were mainly raised by our mum. She was fantastic and taught us all the things we needed to know. How to be respectful, how to be of service, how to tackle – as she was also our rugby league coach. She’s in the stars now, but I thank her for instilling those values and virtues which I carry today, how to be selfless, to see a need and fill it. We were also taught to never go to anyone’s house without taking an offering, whether it’s a loaf of bread, fruit from the trees on your property or something lavish like a pot roast, you always took whatever kai you had. That’s how we were brought up, and I still do it to this day, turn up with a tribute, however humble.

My first insight into the world of history and heritage, art galleries and museums, was through an exhibition called Te Māori, which showcased the culture of my ancestors to the world. I saw it at the Auckland Art Gallery where I participated in various events alongside kaumātua and kuia. There was celebration and crying, oratory and laughter and it was really dynamic. Something happened during that experience that made me think, ‘wow, I really want to be a part of this.’ Since that early encounter, I’ve been in and around spaces where culture is thrust into the epicentre, and for the last two decades I’ve worked in museums in highly specialised artefact engagement roles all over the world.

Before I went to university, I was actually an apprentice butcher. I had a wonderful careers advisor in the late Deidre Walker the wife of the late Dr. Ranginui Walker and when Dr Walker asked what I wanted to do, at that age, 13, I was unsure. I’d had no experiences of life, so he suggested I try butchery and I did.I gave it all my energy and passion, but it was not for me. I did not like it one bit and it wasn’t till I clicked at the Auckland Art Gallery’s Te Māori exhibition that I found something that resonated, and the rest is history. But I’m glad I gave butchery a go, as it’s one of those experiences that helped propel me in a different direction that ultimately advanced my career.

I’ve held many significant historic objects. I’m an ordinary kiwi but, when I’m put in contact with an important taonga, I feel the potential for the ordinary to become extraordinary. The relationship we have with objects and held memories is so important, but it’s also about the people who were wrapped around those artefacts. They reveal truths and memories; and a wonderful interaction takes place. That’s the magic of working in museums, and this is my contribution to humanity, to be kaitiaki, a guardian, to reconnect people with their identity and to provide access to the taonga we care for.

One of the privileges of working in museums is, we’re surrounded by extensions of our ancestors. When I go into the museum’s Māori Court, being in that space I’m reminded that I’m able to do what I do, to participate in contemporary Māori culture, because I’m standing on the shoulders of the makers and creators of the taonga I care for. They’re all there, and they give me a deeper connection, physically, back to the whenua, reminding me that I’m part of a much wider ecosystem.

I have tribal affiliations to Te Rarawa in the Far North, Ngati Te Ata, Ngati Tipa along the Waikato and Manukau. While we did attend tribal activities when I was growing up, it was a very Tāmaki-bound upbringing. We’d go back for tangihanga and important social events, but mum knew we’d have greater prosperity in Auckland. Remote areas can be lean with opportunities, so it was normal for Māori families to mobilise to urban centres, but I’m still thankful for my connection to land, seas and rivers. To hear the stories of significant tribal narratives connects you to the generations. Some families have access to lots of material wealth, but I had access to cultural wealth, waiata, tikanga and the connections made through whakapapa. I am an extension of that awesome social fabric.

I am privileged that my whanau have whenua that keeps me occupied outside of work. Nothing quite salves the soul like connecting back to the land, mowing lawns, trimming trees, growing kai. It might seem very boring but it’s also visceral and gives me a deeper appreciation of being part of an eco-system. I’m in it and part of it. I’m also a musician and our household is always full of song. Although we have one rule, we stop playing music when we’re eating but, other than mealtimes, everyone picks up instruments as it’s a great way to stay centred and connected.

One challenge Māori communities encountered during Covid was not being able to attend funerals due to the policy about how many people could participate in tangihanga. Numbers were limited for very good reasons, to keep communities safe, but normally we would mobilise and pull together. When we lost close family members, the only way we could connect was through social media. We could see through the pixels the pain people were feeling, but we were unable to offer the support we’d usually provide. To lose loved ones and not be there to lament, to help whānau grieve, I found that extremely difficult. After the second lockdown the amount of tangi we attended was unprecedented and in some instances those experiences are still raw.

I was the first in my family to graduate from a tertiary institution. We were very blue collar and while education was there, it wasn’t promoted as strongly as it could’ve been. I also credit my wife for putting me on the trajectory of post-graduate study and this has all encouraged the next generation. A normal conversation around our table now will be things like, what master’s programme will you go on to? And now nearly all our extended family, my nieces and nephews, most have BAs, some with honours or master’s degrees and in some instances, when they’ve got the grit, they’ve gone on to do PhDs. The benefit for our iwi and Māori in general is huge because normalising higher education doesn’t just progress the individual, those people with those skills can go on to give back to iwi, hapu and the wider community. If my mother was still alive today, she would be so proud.

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