Renee Thomas - Scholarship Recipient

Renee Thomas was awarded the Mātauranga Māori Kaitiaki Scholarship offered by the Ngāti Rārua Ātiawa Iwi Trust for the first time in 2019. This is a story about the past few decades of Renee’s journey, which has led her to a place where she says, “it feels like everything fits.” A life she explains is one which has released her from the grip of society’s systems and expectations to one that can fuel her vision of meeting the needs of mana whenua, whānau and hapū.

Picnics on the Picton foreshore, swimming in the Pelorus River and BBQs on Moturoa/Rabbit Island was a classic summer outing for Renee Thomas growing up in Te Tau Ihu; the rohe where she was born, grew up, began her adult life, works, lives, protects and can never see herself leaving. It is these fond memories with her whānau, and her grandparents in particular, that were important in forming the foundation for her love of the region.

"I am trying to live my best version of life, as part of the legacy left to me from my Tupuna, and to build for my mokopuna to come."

After leaving high school in term one of her final year, Renee was done with school and settled into her first job, and after six years, it was time for her next move – Renee went back to education and began her accounting degree.

With the support of the Ngāti Rārua Ātiawa Iwi Trust and Wakatū Incorporation, Renee was granted scholarships throughout her study, and upon completion she received her Bachelor of Commerce in Accounting and Management. She went on to work in accounting and management roles within whānau/iwi/hapū entities gaining almost 10 years of experience.

During this time Renee also worked in a growing number of governance roles including Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Rārua – where she works to create a platform for the iwi members to fulfil their own dreams and aspirations, among many other responsibilities; Tiakina Te Taiao – which involves a large amount of work with councils to protect the rights of the tangata whenua to ensure that our environment and protection of it is upheld; and a voluntary role at Te Āwhina Marae to support the activities of the local Marae in Motueka.

After 10 years in accounting and management roles her feet started to itch again, and she was looking for her next move. It wasn’t a change in jobs, it was a change in career, and a change in lifestyle that Renee was seeking. But she didn’t realise it at the time.

Through her experience working within the Māori, iwi and environmental space and working closely alongside whānau, hapū and councils, Renee understood the importance of the environment and the role it played in a healthy, thriving economy. It was this combined with personal experiences camping at Mārahau for several summers Renee started to realise the rapid pace at which our environment was changing, and the impact people were having on the whenua and moana.

Renee’s path started to change. She began to seek out an environmental, and sustainable resources-focused life, and edge away from one that revolves around economic motivations.

“There’s more to the world than money – and without our environment we have no economy. There was this moment where I didn’t buy into the life the system asked of me, and I followed through with it.”

 Renee and her husband were offered the role of Kaitiaki in Mārahau – which to them meant they could wake up and do what they loved every day.

“It was a role we simply couldn’t turn down. We sold our house, resigned from our jobs, then closed down our café in Nelson and moved to Mārahau.”

Her and her husband’s role as Kaitiaki for Wakatū at Mārahau ensures the whenua and our whānau are looked after for future generations to enjoy. They also own an iconic real fruit ice cream and coffee cart operating at Mārahau. Captain Cone NZ frequents the Mārahau beachside in the summer which keeps them busy alongside their Kaitiaki mahi.

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Having been some time since completing her degree, Renee was keen to step back into study and is currently working on her Masters of Māori Indigenous Leadership through Aotahi University of Canterbury. 

“It felt like a good fit with the governance and leadership roles I currently have. It was time to step back into study and upskill once again.”

Involved with the study is a community-based project focused on connecting people to places, which will include a 10,000-word thesis and for Renee’s project it’ll involve creating more facilities in Mārahau including covered, dry outdoor areas and communal cooking areas. The community project aspect of the Master’s program aligned well with the criteria of the Mātauranga Māori Kaitiaki Scholarship being offered by the Ngāti Rārua Ātiawa Iwi Trust for the first time (in 2019), so Renee applied and was the successful recipient.

Renee’s ultimate goal is to meet the needs of our whānau and hapū – that includes looking after, protecting and championing sustainable use of the whenua and moana, and to help whānau achieve their dreams and aspirations.

“It’s a big decision to give up full time employment to running your own business, and while it’s scary, I encourage others to follow their dreams and don’t be afraid.”

Renee is already well on her way to achieving that ultimate goal. With new governance and kaitiaki roles in the rohe she can deliver on her vision to protect and champion the whenua.  As well as her current roles as Kaitiaki for Wakatū in Mārahau, Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Rārua, Tiakina Te Taiao, and Te Āwhina Marae, Renee is also starting on the Kaiteretere Recreation Reserve Board in April 2020 to support the governance of the area – a very special and significant place to tangata whenua. She is also on the Mārahau Rate Payers Association to ensure that Wakatū and mana whenua are kept up to date with what is happening in Mārahau – a busy and active little village. 

While not living in Motueka or in Nelson where the Trust resides, Renee remains an active and engaged Ngāti Rārua Ātiawa Iwi Trust member. Whether it’s attending Ohu Maatu and the AGM every year in Motueka, visiting and interacting with the Facebook page, or popping into the office whenever she passes by, Renee actively leans in and encourages others to do the same, either online on Facebook or when you’re in the area.

Renee explains that while she may not choose to settle into one chosen profession or career and sees more study and development on her horizon, one thing she is sure of is her commitment to Te Tau Ihu and the whānau, hapū and iwi here.

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