Kylie Willison is studying a Masters in Māori and Indigenous Leadership at the University of Canterbury and has received the Tāwhaki-nui-a-Hema (Mātauranga Māori Kaitiaki Scholarship).
Education and the whenua are hugely important for Kylie Willison and she believes her ancestors have helped weave the two together into her life path. “Māori culture is a big part of my identity, and I am conscious of the saying ‘in order to move forward we must look back, or to our past.”
Kylie reflects on the influence of ancestors like Maharaia Winiata who was the first Māori to gain a doctorate from Edinburgh University in the 1950s. He was a leader of vision and courage, a servant to his people, a disciplined scholar, and emphasised education as the way forward for his people.
“We have to realise our own destiny and be responsile for the implementation of our dreams and aspirations. There’s been so much trauma from our past, but we have a chance to change that. It’s up to us to achieve our own prosperity and education is a big part of that,” says Kylie.
Giving back and being of service has been rolemodelled and learned from her Mum and Dad, and her grandfather Morehu Ngatoko-Rahipere, who had a huge influence on her life.
He lived through the aftermath of land confiscation followed by poverty and deprivation, the result of the battles that took place in Tauranga in the 1860s. Kylie’s grandfather was one of the last surviving Kaumatua of her hapu to see the hapu treaty settlement claim signed in 2012. “He was very connected to his whenua, a quiet humble servant and leader, an advocate, a mentor who provided wisdom and guidance when requied, and forged relationships with pakeha in a peaceful way to benefit his people.”
Brought up on the West Coast, Kylie moved to Tauranga aged five. She has whakapapa to Ngāti Rārua, through her fathers side which connects her to Marokopa, a west coast settlement within the rohe of Ngāti Maniapoto, and where Ngāti Rārua originally come from. After completing a Bachelor of Social Sciences at Waikato University she spent eight years with the Western Bay of Plenty Council, first working with Māori land and then as a cultural advisor in the policy and planning and community development teams.
Then began a journey into sustainability and reconnecting with the whenua. She became a Zero Waste educator and Para Kore advisor working with Māori organisations on waste management systems. She then studied horticulture and organics and completed a Certificate in Permaculture Design in 2019.
Kylie’s grandfather always had his hands in the dirt and was the inspiration behind Kylie getting into gardening and growing kai. She is currently working to establish a nursery that will provide training and employment opportunities for her hapū Ngai Tamarawaho, growing native plants, with long term plans to grow and teach maara kai (food gardens).
The nursery kaupapa will provide opportunites to work in partnership with local councils, and contribute to the restoration of projects like the Kopurererua Valley wetland park. This site is of particular significance because it is where her ancestors once lived, and was also the staging and withdrawal route for the Battle of Gate Pa which took place in 1864, which her ancestors fought in.
Kylie’s Masters thesis will examine how the establishment of a native nursery contributes to the regeneration of mana motuhake and tino rangatiratanga within her hapu. The nursery is a vehicle to enable the hapū to reconnect with their ancestral lands in meaningful and culturally appropriate ways, and enable the revitalisation of matauranga Maori. “This project gives us the opportunity to be kaitiaki on the ground, to reclaim our cultural narratives, connection, and identity to the whenua.”
For Kylie, study has been an empowering experience. She’s grateful to receive a scholarship and keen to become more engaged with NRAIT.
“What we give we get back in return. Once you strengthen your whānau, you strengthen your hapū and then your iwi.”