The Kapiti Coast community farewelled a humble leader on 9 May, when hundreds of mourners gathered at Waikanae Catholic Church to pay their respects to Robert Herata Ngaia. Māori and Pakeha, civic leaders, army buddies and taxi drivers, church colleagues and many friends and family, shared a special morning of prayer and reflection.
Our differences seemed to gently melt into unity, as the lyrical chants of the Māori Mass embraced all those who were there. Robert would have loved that tangi.
Robert Ngaia was of the Otaraua hapu and Ngati Rahiri, and was also of Muaupoko descent. He retained strong links to his Taranaki whanau, but he regarded Waikanae as his home, and in the last decade of his life, he was completely committed to the preservation of the Takamore urupa (burial ground), close to the Tuku Rakau settlement. He was a living example of kaitiakitanga – that state of being a guardian for the land and its treasures, such that you have an obligation to sustain it and pass it on to future generations.
The obligation extended deep into Robert’s family, and affected him greatly. He told of how his great great grandfather Rameka Watene Te Awhio [1880-1956] explained the significance of the Takamore area to his aunt, Arete Eruini, who in turn passed the knowledge onto Robert and his brother Huia. However, that obligation to preserve the burial grounds of his ancestors was to face its greatest challenge and to test Robert emotionally and physically.
A battler for his people
The proposal to construct a four-lane arterial highway called the Western Link Road through the Takamore burial grounds hit top gear in 2000 when the Kapiti Coast District Council sought to confirm a notice of designation for the route.
The Takamore Trustees, chaired by Robert, supported a bridge over the Waikanae River, but opposed the particular designation which would desecrate their ancestors. The trustees maintained that there were adequate alternative routes which would not have such a long lasting effect on the community’s cultural and historical heritage. Robert told the Environment Court in 2001:
We cannot imagine how this place could have a road put through it. Caring for this land and those who lie in it as well as passing on the information about this place is a sacred duty. It is a responsibility passed on to us and one we will in turn pass on. Everything about this place and our role as kaitiaki goes to the heart of our values as Māori.
In the court battles which followed, Robert’s leadership was remarkable for its strength and consistency, as it was for its humility and grace. He was often bemused by the legal semantics, frustrated by the disregard paid to the oral traditions of his elders, and would privately question why he had this obligation thrust upon him.
Yet Robert was staunch to the end that his ancestors should lie in peace, and that we as a community would be the poorer for disturbing them. He was the finest example of a kaitiaki that I have known – the toll on him personally was enormous, but his commitment to the whenua was greater.
Since his untimely death on 8 May from heart failure, his mother Moe and the Ngaia family have been inundated with personal tales from those who had been touched by Robert’s compassion.
As I had the privilege of working through his personal papers, I discovered a thoughtful man who set personal goals, strived to be a humble leader, and above all, wished to be a ‘man of God in everything I do’.
E te rangatira, haere ki te taha rangimarie o nga tupuna, ratou ki a ratou. Tatou te hunga ora, ka mahi tonu te kaupapa.
Leo Watson is lawyer for the Takamore Trustees.