The Helmsman’s Apprentice

In a few days, Ngāi Tahu scholar Rata Pryor Rodgers will be one in a select group of students swapping the classic Kiwi Christmas for sub-zero temperatures and snow drifts.

The reality of a white Christmas in Antarctica is sinking in for Pryor Rodgers, who will head off on Friday (December 16) for two weeks on ice as part of a Postgraduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies (PCAS). The University of Canterbury student enrolled in the course after putting her hat in the ring for a new scholarship, funded by Te Ao Tūroa, the environment team at Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu (TRoNT).

Pryor Rodgers is most looking forward to witnessing the Antarctic’s wildlife and says the intensity and broad spectrum of Antarctic academia has been a challenge. But it is what the 25-year-old uncovered after being announced as the scholarship recipient that has been most exciting.

“My cousin told me that our great-great-great grandfather was on the first ship to ever land on the ice in the 1800s. It’s a really cool connection,” Pryor Rodgers said.

Her tipuna, (ancestor) William Timaru Joss, was taken on as crew along with two other Stewart Island locals by the Norwegian whaler Antarctic and, on January 24, 1895, the ship successfully landed on the icy continent. Although carbon dating confirms human activity on the ice from 600 years ago, Joss was part of the first confirmed European landing.

Former scholarship recipient and principal advisor for Te Ao ūroa Nigel Scott said the scholarship was about maintaining the historic connection that Ngāi Tahu has with the Subantarctic and beyond.

“From a tribal perspective, we want to maintain our mana moana (tribal authority) over this part of our tribal area,” Scott said.

“That’s why the pou whenua (marker post) was erected at Scott Base – to reflect our tribal status and history in the deep South.

“The scholarship name [Te Tauira Na Kaiwhakatere] roughly translates as ‘The Helmsman’s Apprentice’. We chose it in reference to the pou whenua at Scott Base, which is named Navigator of the Heavens, and to the ancestral stories of waka helmsmen following the stars to the ice,” Scott said.

The trip is enabled by Antarctica New Zealand, and will include the full class of 16 PCAS students. UC’s Professor Brian Storey, Director of the Gateway Antarctica Centre, is pleased the multi-disciplinary qualification is important to Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu.

“We’ve always had a relationship with Ngāi Tahu and seeing Nigel back and involved with PCAS again is fantastic. The unique thing about this course is that we get to take students to the Antarctic. Not everybody can do that,” he said.

Pryor Rodgers, who affiliates to the iwi through her Southland whakapapa, will return to full-time employment as a graduate researcher with TRoNT’s Strategy and Influence team. She is a former student of Victoria University and has obtained a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science.