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To build a legacy

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

For generations the Hetet family have practised and taught traditional Māori arts. Now they are bringing their knowledge to new platforms. Hanahiva Rose visited to find out more.

Sitting in her sister Veranoa Hetet’s studio in Waiwhetu, Lillian Hetet Owen gently grasps a small unfinished konae in her hands.

‘Our Mum sat in her rocking chair when she was sick, working these scraps of whenu left over from kete, just talking and having a glass of wine. She would just magic up something and this was one of those somethings.’

It looks like magic, this intricately constructed vessel; the apparent ease with which it was put together revealing a life spent devoted to the art. All around the room, the family’s passion for traditional Māori arts is pervasive. Kete and kākahu fill the space. Out the window a small waka rests in the backyard, carved by their father Rangi Hetet and Veranoa’s husband Sam Hauwaho for the children to play in.

Sam ducks in the door to say hello. He’s not in for long before he leaves again, back out to the carving studio where he works on his own craft. Sam was taught by Rangi, a master carver who learnt the art from the late Hone Taiapa.

It was at a Christmas party at Taiapa’s home in Rotorua that Rangi met Erenora Puketapu-Hetet, Lillian and Veranoa’s mother, in the 1950s. Soon Erenora’s grandfather’s dream of building a wharenui in Waiwhetu was about to be realised.

‘He said to our Mum, “Now we’re ready for some carvers”. And Mum said, “I know some carvers”,’ chuckles Lillian. ‘Four carvers came down – one of them was our Dad – and they stayed and lived here with the people and carved the meeting house. And, of course, our Mum and Dad courted and fell in love.’

Arohanui Ki Te Tangata was opened on 10 September 1960. Unusually, the house is named not for an ancestor but a philosophy: the legacy of the great Taranaki pacifists Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi. One month after the wharenui was opened, Erenora and Rangi were married inside it.

‘Our parents life’s work together has been to teach and practise our traditional arts.’

Traditional arts like weaving and carving have a capacity to at once memorialize and revitalise. Each piece of weaving carries in its weft and warp the knowledge of the history from which it comes as well as its own uniqueness. But the histories they speak to were, for many years, in danger of fading from view.

‘In the 1950s it was recognised that many of our arts were dying out,’ Veranoa, a renowned weaver and teacher of weaving, explains. ‘Our great-grandmother Rangimarie Hetet and our great-aunt Diggeress Te Kanawa, through the Māori Women’s Welfare League, broke with tradition and taught across tribal boundaries to try and revive the arts.’

It’s a legacy Veranoa and Lillian are intent on continuing. Together with Rangi and Sam they have established the Hetet School of Māori Art, an online suite of lessons which take students from the tikanga around gathering harakeke and weaving kete all the way through to weaving a kākahu. They are building on generations of knowledge of teachers and practitioners, following a kaupapa embodied in a waiata composed by Rangimarie:

E ngā uri whakatupu


Kia kaha

Hāpainga ake rā ngā mahi huatau

a ngā tūpuna i waiho ake nei

hei painga mo te iwi o Aotearoa e

O coming generations,


be strong,

Uplift the arts

left by our ancestors

for the good of the people

of Aotearoa

By teaching beyond the hapū level, Rangimarie widened the net, with the faith that knowledge shared is knowledge retained. Veranoa and Lillian see the school, and its online accessibility, as the logical next step in following that philosophy. Students can learn when it suits them, without the pressure of a group environment.

‘It’s just one on one with you and your teacher at the pace that suits you,’ explains Lillian. ‘Learning in an academic setting with a group of people, everyone is moved along according to an academic year. Online learning is much more aligned with the traditional way. It builds confidence.’

They’re not stopping there. Last year their school received a New Zealand Open Source Award for a pilot programme they developed with Corrections, an online weaving course for incarcerated women. And last month they signed an agreement with Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu (formerly the New Zealand Correspondence School), to pilot a course that will eventually, they hope, enable secondary school students around the country to learn Māori art through online courses.

‘You look at colonisation and what it’s done to our people. It seems a cruel thing that Māori people should have to pay for Matauranga Māori. In the absence of a written literature, carving and weaving is our visual literature. In our minds it has the same value as te reo. So we’re excited about the possibility that Māori, as well as other students, could access this traditional knowledge through modern technology. For free. And they can have that knowledge accredited.’

For a family that has devoted itself to the retention and development of traditional knowledge, Matariki provides a time to reflect and plan. What are they anticipating this year?

Well, they have a few books to publish. And a film will be ready to be screened at the NZ International Film Festival: Mo Te Iwi: Carving for the People, about Rangi and the history of carving in Aotearoa. It’s the last in a series of film-festival documentaries: the first, Tu Tangata: Weaving for the People, focused on Erenora; the second, He Waka Hono Tangata: A Canoe that Unites the People, on the making of the two waka now housed in the Te Māori cultural centre across the road. They also plan to introduce a carving course, which Rangi and Sam are developing.

‘It’s going to be a busy Matariki for us!’ Veranoa tells me as I leave. ‘And I’m sure Mum will be pleased.’

Story by Hanahiva Rose

Photos by Chevron Hassett

This story is also available in te reo (translation by Piripi Walker) here.

First published Cap #62 Republished in ArtZone #81


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