Growing up in Waikawa, The Catlins, mahinga kai (hunting and gathering) was necessity for now Invercargill-based whaea (term of respect for wahine/women) Steph Blair. Abbey Palmer has a korero (conversation) with her about Rangatahi Tumeke – a camp she has been running for the past eight years, passing her knowledge on to Southland rangatahi (young people).
AS a teacher, Whaea Blair recognised a need for rangatahi to reconnect with the environment and their maoritanga (maori culture) – where they come from.
“School doesn’t suit everybody, taking them out there into the environment has changed some of these kids.
“It was about getting back to basics, taking them out into nature and away from technology.”
In 2012, she started Rangatahi Tumeke, a five-day camp for 12-17-year-olds, predominantly from Ngai Tahu and other iwi descent, based on teaching traditional mahinga kai practices, waka ama, kapa haka, pounamu carving, cooking and all things outdoors.
“We grew up doing all that as probably more of a necessity for food… it’s quite a powerful thing [now at Rangatahi Tumeke] because we’re all together as a family.”
From Te Rau Aroha Marae, Bluff, to Tautuku Lodge in the Catlins and back to Invercargill, hundreds of Southland rangatahi had made their way through the programme, which ran three times a year during the school holidays.
Despite little advertising, the word-of-mouth technique had resulted in a waiting list of rangatahi eager to go on the adventure.
“A lot of people know that we do it, we have about 10 to 12 adults come with us and we never have any problems with getting people to help.
“They all bring different sets of skills and everyone brings a new lens.”
Lily Thomas (15), who had been on four camp trips, described it as “a home away from home”.
“When I started high school I lost a lot of my confidence.
“Out there at camp, we always say when we go out there, when we start, there might be some new kids but by the time we come back, we’re just a family.”
The experience made her feel connected to people, gave her a strong sense of who she was and provided routine, she said.
One of the most eye-opening activities for her was learning about mahinga kai, such as eeling and setting the hinaki (eel pots), as well as the origin of kai (food).
“We only ever take what we need.”
India Diack (16), who had also been on several camps, said the last day was always the hardest.
“You don’t want to go to sleep because you know you have to leave… we always cry.”
Pounamu carving was a highlight, she said.
“They [leaders] always tell stories about the origins of everything and it’s all done with tikanga (maori culture/customs).
“We learn the protocols [of our] ancestry.”
Since joining the camp, she had been given the opportunity to lead group activities and teach newcomers the ropes.
Ryan Meikle (14) said he loved “everything” about Rangatahi Tumeke, so much so he wanted to become a marine biologist when he was older.
Whaea Blair said Rangatahi Tumeke became a charitable trust about six months ago.
This meant they would be able to apply for more funding, which would allow for expansion of the programme to bring more rangatahi along, as well as run camps more regularly.
“The funding means we can take money out of the equation because if that was a factor, there would be lots of rangatahi that would miss out.
“All we ask for is a koha (donation) of food or even a little bit of money towards it.”
The camp would also not be possible without the generosity of two community doctors, who provided funds each year, Verdon College and support from several marae in the Southland region, she said.