Te Ao o te Māori

A window into the rich lifestyles of contemporary Māori
Photographs and words Nā Phil Tumataroa

Whānau is at the heart of whitebaiting for Helen Rasmussen.

Since childhood whitebait or īnanga has been inextricably connected to her life and her way of life. “Some of my earliest memories of Mum are her fishing on a fall,” says Helen (Makaawhio).

“It was the domain of women. You couldn’t fish if you had a full-time job and you had to fish four times a week, so it was mainly women fishing while husbands were at work.”

Helen recalls that whitebaiting was an “absolute commercial necessity” for whānau and in their case helped provide the Christmas presents and any extra things they needed like a new dress or things for the house.

“It was our opportunity to contribute and gave women a taste of being able to determine their own destiny and to be in control of finances.”

Today on the Ōkuru River, 10km south of Haast, South Westland, where Helen and husband Ian have lived since the mid-1970s, things have changed. The bait still come in their same numbers, but there are new families, a different pace and not the same need to fill their nets as before.

“It’s become a bit of a free-for-all,” says Helen.

But it’s the next generations she thinks about as she repeats the pattern of introducing her great-mokopuna to the mahinga kai practices of their ancestors. Helen has her hands full caring for 11-month-old Violet, Beau (3) and Nixon (4) while their mother returns to work full-time.

“It’s something amazing and special to be going back to these places and standing in the footsteps of your tīpuna,” she says. “We’ve been denied access to so much of our traditional places and foods – so what we do have is doubly special and I want my children, their children and their children’s children to be able to continue to enjoy it.”