Rewi Spraggon’s many talents include carving, storytelling, cooking, painting and performing music. His family were the first boat builders in Auckland, he designed the logo for Maori TV and has even won a Silver Scroll. So a good place to start, I figure, is to ask just what first and foremost Rewi Spraggon considers himself to be. The answer is a sweet and simple one. “A Maori-preneur,” he grins infectiously.
It his mission to facilitate the maintenance of many of the nation’s ever-disappearing ancient ways. I ask him why he feels such a responsibility to do this. “Since I was young, this traditional leadership role was placed upon me,” he says. “I had elders pushing me to take on this responsibility. A traditional leadership role is very different to someone that just wants to become a leader. You have no choice and great expectations are placed upon you, and for good reason. From a young age I was coached. You become very skilled. The language was dying, the older generation could see this, and they had to ensure that someone like me would uphold the integrity of our culture.”
It sounds like a rather romantic upbringing, I suggest. “I got a lot of stick from my cousins teasing me for being an old man at a young age. There are a lot of restrictions which come with it such as being taken around funerals all over the place. You miss out on a lot of kid stuff. But it has been my grounding, my foundation for what I do now. I advise many companies and organisations culturally.”
“I got a lot of stick from
my cousins teasing me for being
an old man at a young age.”
– Rewi Spraggon –
Further roles include a couple of stints on Maori Television shows such as the much-loved Kai Time on the Road of which Rewi is extremely proud. “I’ve travelled the world as a chef. I’ve always been interested in indigenous foods and medicine and have infused them with my cooking,” he tells me. “I picked up a lot from my mother, who was the best cook in the world. The main thing I like to showcase is the hangi, which I’ve done as far a field as Russia and the States. Here, my hangi workshops have been very successful too.”
Carving is another tradition that Rewi is keen to showcase. He points out that the practitioners of each trade often possess similar temperaments (“strong personalities and big egos!”). It’s a skill he has developed over 20 years, but a chance encounter with a master carver at an Avondale flea market inspired him to take a more proactive approach. “He was selling his tools, I asked him why and he said because what used to be an honour is now a burden,” says Rewi. “So much of the respect for carvers has been lost, they’re undervalued and always the last to be paid, that’s if they get paid at all. This old fella was in his 80s, he’d been taught by someone who’d fought at Gallipoli who had been taught by someone who’d fought in the Maori Wars. He had all this knowledge, but didn’t want to pass on what he now considered a curse.”
Rewi was commissioned to complete a carving for Auckland Council and brought together carvers from tribes of the five districts to assist. “They all had the same story,” says Rewi. “All undervalued, all frustrated. These are the storytellers of Auckland, but there is no succession plan for the young guys coming through.” With that in mind, Rewi has founded Whaotapu o Tamaki Makarau (The Sacred Chisels of Tamaki Makaurau), a place where carvers can share ideas and hone their craft. Just last month, the group moved to a beautiful workshop, formerly a boat-building yard, on the waterfront.
Rewi has long been campaigning to make Matariki a public holiday. “There’s no day that specifically celebrate our indigenous culture before the arrival of the Europeans,” he says. “Matariki is ideal. It’s fantastic that new cultures are arriving here, but it should never be at the expense of our ancient one.” I ask about his thoughts on the final five flag designs. “The whole thing was handled very badly,” he says. “It’s come to the last five, it seems rushed. There has to be a Maori symbol in there, because that’s our point of difference. It should be simple and recognisable. Now they have everyone’s attention, I think that they should go back and do it properly.” Would have made more sense to hold the referendum if and when New Zealand were to become a republic? “I don’t think so, no,” he smiles. “It’s like any break-up. There’s never a good time.”