Looking to the Future

Mar 25, 2018

In November 2017 Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu elected its first female kaiwhakahaere to head its tribal board, which represents the 18 Papatipu Rūnanga of Ngāi Tahu. The appointment of Lisa Tumahai comes amidst a wave of change that is seeing increasing numbers of wāhine in top jobs throughout Aotearoa. TE KARAKA caught up with Lisa to talk about leadership and her vision for the next 20 years.

Lisa feels most at home when spending time with her husband Francois and tamariki Dane and Chantal on the Arahura River.

Lisa Tumahai surveys the cityscape outside the window of the meeting room on the third floor of Te Whare o Te Waipounamu – the tribal headquarters in central Christchurch. In the distance you can see Kā Tiritiri o te Moana (the Southern Alps). Lisa’s tūrangawaewae, Te Tai Poutini, lies beyond.

For Lisa, life experience as a wahine, a mother, an employee, and a trustee has led her to acquire an impressive range of skills to prepare her for iwi leadership. “I have watched and learned from those around me. My parents, whānau, kaumātua, and many others across our communities.”

Lisa says she is invigorated and excited by the challenges and opportunities before her. She speaks fondly of her gratitude for the support from her husband Francois Tumahai, who is the Chair of Ngāti Waewae. “We have strong, supportive whānau and we ensured we provided the same for our daughter Chantal (28), our whāngai daughter Tamara, (28), and our son Dane (18).”

Lisa learned a strong work ethic from her parents, which served her well on leaving school at the beginning of her sixth form year. She took a job in a sewing factory, and later, hospitality work.

Married by 22 and a mother at 23, Lisa decided it was time to further her education. She enrolled in a Diploma in Tourism course, which ignited a passion for learning. Years of juggling family, work, and study led her through a Bachelor of Commerce and positions in education and at the Canterbury District Health Board, to where she is today. Throughout it all, she never lost sight of her close connection to the West Coast.

“My Tai Poutini whakapapa extends from Māmoe, Waitaha, Ngāti Wairangi, and our Ngāi Tahu people.”

Lisa is quick to play down the significance of being the first female kaiwhakahaere, and points to the significant role wāhine have played throughout Ngāi Tahu history. She relates examples of the important role wāhine played in our tribal migration to Te Waipounamu, and of the many women from her hapū who fought alongside the men during the Ngāi Tahu war parties that sacked the West Coast.

She tells the story of Waitaiki, the mother of Pounamu, who Poutini Ngāi Tahu revere, and describes in detail the adventures of Raureka, the fearless female explorer who first traversed Browning Pass, to cross between the West Coast and the Canterbury Plains.

She talks about the sisters of Tūhuru, Kokoiti and Moroiti, who adorn the Whare Tipuna at Arahura. The weaving of these stories with Lisa’s own life journey are important insights into the role models and life lessons that have prepared her for leadership.

No stranger to governance, Lisa is now a 16-year veteran on the board of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. Her path from rūnanga meetings to a seat at the table began in 1998, when, much to her surprise, she was elected as the Ngāti Waewae representative.

“I went along to the meeting and next minute I was elected from the floor.

“In the early years I absorbed and listened to those around me. I participated where I could add value, and I ensured the voice of Ngāti Waewae was included on matters important to our people; but by and large those early years were a time to listen and learn.”

Lisa was elected to the role of Deputy Kaiwhakahaere of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu in 2011, and says she is humbled and honoured to have been elected Kaiwhakahaere in 2017. She acknowledges the work of her predecessor Tā Mark Solomon, who filled the role for 18 years. Her decision to stand for the permanent role came when Ngāi Tahu kaumātua Tā Tipene O’Regan took her aside and instructed that tribal leadership is not an optional exercise. She recalls his words, “The people have spoken, and you have mahi to do.”

“I was and remain grateful for the valuable lessons I learned in my time on the board. Lessons from Tā Mark and other senior members around the table. We achieved some incredible success, but we also had some major challenges to get through. We had periods of deadlock at the table, and unhelpful factionalism. As a large board from very different parts of the South Island and often backgrounds, it is understandable.

“I also understand how important it is to nurture and support unity and respect around the board table. Ngāi Tahu have made incredible progress in the first 20 years of our post-settlement journey, despite our governance table not always rowing in unison.”

Following her election in November 2017 Lisa was presented with a korowai from Waikato Tainui and Ngāti Maniopoto. She wears this proudly alongside Hon. Nanaia Mahuta (left) and Tipa Mahuta (right).

Lisa’s election is an opportunity for a fresh start, and she is looking forward to the challenge. “I have a number of key priorities; one of which is to nurture the leadership capability not only across our board table, but across our iwi and rūnanga, so that our whānau are leaders in the many communities we share throughout Aotearoa and further afield.

“We are entering a new and exciting period of improvement and change. I want to delegate aspects of leadership with my Deputy Kaiwhakahaere Matapura Ellison, who brings incredibly complementary skills to the role. I also want to share key responsibilities across the board. Leadership is not about ‘me’, it is about ‘we’ – we have an incredible depth and range of skills across our table. Part of my role as Kaiwhakahaere is to nurture and better utilise those skills to advance the needs and aspirations of our people.”

“Kotahitanga is [a] key priority across our board – to do what we need to do to ensure we are paddling the waka powerfully and in unison. What an impressive sight our waka is when it is surging ahead in driving the social, cultural, and economic needs and aspirations of our people.”

This shared leadership approach, which also allows people with differing views to be respectfully heard, is what excites Lisa’s supporters, including her newly appointed Deputy Kaiwhakahaere.

“Listening is a crucial part of leadership – listening to our people, hearing what my colleagues, those on our board, on the paepae, out among our whānau, have to say.”

What is clear in speaking with Lisa is that she is passionate about bringing a new level of transparency and accountability to the board.

“Kotahitanga is another key priority across our board – to do what we need to do to ensure we are paddling the waka powerfully and in unison. What an impressive sight our waka is when it is surging ahead in driving the social, cultural, and economic needs and aspirations of our people.”

Contemplating the need for greater support for some of the social issues that affect Māori and Ngāi Tahu disproportionately, Lisa says: “We spent the last 20 years building a really strong foundation and a strong economic base, but we know that we haven’t done enough on the social side of the ledger. We have the same demographic issues as any other community.”

Matapura Ellison shares Lisa’s vision. With 17 years’ experience on the Te Rūnanga board, he can see there is a new phase beginning in iwi development.

“We have been very focused on Article 2 for the past two decades … on the settlement, protection, and preservation of Treaty rights, and partnerships with various territorial authorities such as DOC,” Matapura says.

Without losing sight of these, Matapura says, the time is right to refocus.

Back where it all began – despite the demands of her new role Lisa still makes time to attend monthly rūnanga meetings in Hokitika.

Last year the board launched a governance review tasked with refining and enhancing the board’s form and function. Lisa hopes to evolve to a cabinet-like approach where board members will lead particular kaupapa according to their strengths. “For example, with an important kaupapa such as freshwater, why wouldn’t we look at our board of 18 and identify who the experts are in these areas, and bring them through as the key leaders for Ngāi Tahu?”

“We have almost 60,000 iwi members both here in Aotearoa and overseas. We are focused on doing our best to support the aspirations of all our whānau – targeting support with a limited amount of funding to where it can have the greatest effect for our young, our elders, and our marae.

This approach will allow Lisa herself to focus on what has always been her passion – Ngāi Tahu whānau. She is aware that as it stands, there are some whānau living both inside and out of the tribal boundary who feel excluded or disconnected from the growing wealth which so strongly defines the Ngāi Tahu corporate image. The tribe’s balance sheet has grown to $1.3 billion, a massive growth from the $175 million settlement in 1998. The resources of the tribe have grown significantly, but so too has the tribal register, and the needs and expectations of whānau.

“We have almost 60,000 iwi members both here in Aotearoa and overseas. We are focused on doing our best to support the aspirations of all our whānau – targeting support with a limited amount of funding to where it can have the greatest effect for our young, our elders, and our marae.

“In part, this means remaining absolutely committed to protecting and growing our pūtea so we have a worthy taonga to pass onto the next generation, while investing in programmes that deliver meaningful outcomes for the current generation.”

In addition, Lisa says it is important to continually review and assess what is happening nationally and globally to address disproportionate social challenges in indigenous communities.

“How can we increase education outcomes? How can we create greater opportunity for home ownership? How can we improve the health outcomes for our communities?”

Lisa’s vision of thriving Ngāi Tahu communities extends beyond the tribal takiwā. “We have to take a global approach, and make sure we have mechanisms for participation for all.”

These are big issues, and Lisa is well aware of the challenges ahead of her. But she remains confident that she can bring about the required change. “I bring a different style of leadership, and I think I’m of a generation where we are looking for something different. If we don’t remain relevant to our people, then what is it all for?”

Lisa says the years on the Te Rūnanga board were instructive in forming the pathway she wants moving forward. She is thankful to the mentors and coaches who have nurtured her in leadership.

She refers to a speech made by Tā Tipene O’Regan at Charles Darwin University in Australia, one that she turns to for guidance and motivation. She reads:

“When the tribe takes the decision that it actually wants to exist as a culturally identifiable kinship or whakapapa-linked community in a context of its traditional territory – in two or three generations’ time – it has to take decisions now as to how it is going to fund, protect, and develop that culture over time. It is that underlying strategic requirement that must inform its economic governance.”

Drawing inspiration from those past and present, Kaiwhakahaere of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, Lisa Tumahai, is determined to direct the iwi firmly and surely into the future.