Norman Kerei Keepa

Norman Kerei Keepa looks back on his childhood, remembering how he grew up feeling Māori but looking Pākehā, thanks to his Scottish family connections on his mother’s side. He tells us the Māori tamariki wouldn’t play with him. To them, he looked Pākehā but the Pākehā wouldn’t play with him as he was half-caste. He felt he grew up in a very awkward place as a result and tended to lean toward finding whānau groups outside his childhood.

“As I moved into teenage years, I was attracted to motorcycles and also motorcycle gangs as I felt accepted regardless of race.”

It was tough from that perspective but great from another, as he had a Scottish mother who was tough and a Māori father, who was involved in all political spheres including the Kaikōura Council and a number of community organisations; and who did a lot of his work from home.

“Our family was made up of two and I was the younger of the first whānau. I had a wonderful older brother, John, who was like a mentor to me and he was the one who took me on a hīkoi to learn about resource management – without me actually knowing I was learning. He was an avid hunter, so he would take me in the hills to teach me the rongoā plants and how to use their health properties. He had learnt from our grandmother, Mahara Kerei Keepa, and he showed me how to get a feed in the bush and how Papatūānuku was going to supply it all to us while we were there. He taught me the pounamu trails and wāhi tapu sites right down the coast, out to the back of Hanmer and all of those areas. I was a very fortunate man, to not only have my older brother (John), as a father figure but also a mentor.”

After leaving school Norm became a butcher and then he brought a farm on the West Coast. Through those early years he was able to apply all of those teachings. It was then that he realised the damage that was being caused to our lands by farming activity.

“We had lost touch with the fact that Papatūānuku, the rivers and the streams were the blood veins. The wetlands (the repo) were her kidneys and they were being ploughed under and the rivers were not being protected.

It was after this that Norm threw himself into resource management at Takahanga Marae and listened to the old people like Bill Solomon, Tini King and Darcia Solomon. He says they helped him and told him not to be afraid to learn.

That was Norm’s start in resource management. He now believes it was a lifestyle he lived from boyhood in Ōaro, and having his own awa flowing past him, to being taught by many of the old ones on how to care for and maintain the awa.

“You learn by watching the tuna, the inanga, all going up at different times, but you also got a clip in the ear if you got it wrong. If you took the tuna at the wrong time – when they should be breeding for example – and took them home, you were always told to put them back.”

This is where Norm learned how to be a kaitiaki.

At 32, Norm was diagnosed with chronic lymphatic leukemia (CLL). He was then farming and married with a young family and a mortgage and given six months to two years to live. At first he felt very sorry for himself. That turned into anger and he started to lash out and project his anger on others. But gradually he became more accepting and realised he had two choices –roll over and die, or get cracking.

Norm says he was fortunate that he had a big mortgage and three kids. Fortunate because he had to put his head down and arse up and work like hell to clear the mortgage and make sure his kids’ education was sorted and the family was secure. Four years passed and the disease didn’t shift and he felt he was living on borrowed time. He was always tired, overworked and losing time with his family – so he decided to “let it be”. However, he did not feel comfortable sitting back and waiting to go to the Ōaro urupā, he decided to throw himself into resource management in the hope of making a difference.

Norm started to look at all the things in his life that were causing stress and went through a programme called “Breathing,” which took him back to his indigenous past. The course encouraged him to confront his personal issues and he realised he was able to heal himself. He went back to his original medicines, he spoke to people like Aunty Lena Beaton and Karen Starkey and he had great support from those within Māori health. Norm believes that using both modern and traditional medicines and methods helped beat this sickness. He felt that he had a korowai placed around his shoulders from his tīpuna and remembers hearing his grandmother’s words in his ears saying, “it’s not your time boy”, and he knew he was as safe as houses.

Whakapapa is important to Norm but so too is teaching the knowledge of where and how our people lived and ate. He says it is not just about looking at whakapapa and seeing a name, it is also about who that person was, what he or she achieved, where they lived and why they lived there. Norm feels very fortunate and is grateful to the many people who are and have been in his life on this journey.

Norman finished our kōrero by saying these beautiful words for people out there who may be going through similar things: “Have good health and be in the here and now, not concerned about your past. You cannot change that. Be concerned about the future as you can change that.”

Norman Kerei Keepa.

Norman Kerei Keepa.