Creative Leadership He Kete Tuku Iho - Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi

Creative Leadership
He Kete Tuku Iho

He Kete Tuku Iho

Cat Ruka (Ngāpuhi, Waitaha) and Huia O’Sullivan (Te Ātiawa) in conversation with Anahera Gildea (Ngāti Tukorehe).

Cat Ruka and Huia O’Sullivan are two powerhouse wāhine leaders in the arts. Since meeting they have worked consistently alongside each other hei tuarā. As Huia said during our kōrero, ‘we share a value system’.

So, we’ve all been chatting about how crucial relationships are in te ao Māori, tell me about how you came to work so closely together?

Huia: When we met it was a really challenging time of navigating a whole number of things for our organization and on a whole number of levels. There were massive fundamental changes going on for us. Cat came with a body of knowledge both as an artist and an academic, and that really consolidated a foundation of a person I could trust. Because it’s like, yeah, she gets me, we’re on this, we share a value system.

Cat: I think the coolest thing is the tuakana-teina relationship. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve had a really authentic and productive tuakana-teina relationship. A lot comes out of it; a lot of clarity, reciprocity, a lot of aroha. Huia is a really important bridge for me, into te ao Māori, and into wellness. And she’s the first person that I call because, you know, leadership – you can’t do it on your own.

Huia: I don’t see it as tuakana-teina really, or even ‘partnership’. Like we’re in comms every day. That’s a given. It’s not saying I can’t move in the world without you, but it’s just simply not as joyful if I do. For me, it’s like, you are my trusted counsel, my marker, one of the trusted advisors that I have around me at all times, that I very rarely stray from because that’s what keeps me safe.

You’re both speaking from a Māori worldview, how does that take effect for wāhine in leadership?

Cat: Huia and I have been talking recently about how much you kind of have to go into, not quite a masculine energy when you’re in a leadership role, but you do have to enter into that Tūmatauenga space of negotiation. And as wāhine, when we’re called on to go into those spaces, I think of how important it is to have your sisterhood, that other wahine who’s got your back hard. It’s like divine feminine energy, you know what I mean? It’s so important, if we go into that Tūmatauenga space, that we have balance.

Huia: Yeah, we just lead differently, intuitively, we’re collaborators, we share, you know? I think about the mahi we do together, and it’s because of our personal relationship that the pathways are clear.

What is leadership for you?

Cat: I think that leadership is essentially quite simple. It’s just the art of how we look after people and allow for the flow of mana back and forth between us. Researching leadership is a positive productive practice, but I think that not overcomplicating it is key. We learned about leadership by looking at our Nannies and looking at our whānau and I personally learned it from observing my Dad and Aunties and Uncles, the way they were on the marae, and the integrity that they held. The way that they spoke, the way that they feed people, and the way that they keep people warm. For me, that’s all it is. My criteria for how I make sure that I’m tika is to go back to those very simple things – keeping people warm, keeping them fed, keeping them joyful and energized. And nurturing people through kōrero. That’s really important, you know, ‘dialogue is the food of chiefs’. Kōrero is how we open up spaces where ideas can flow equitably. Which sounds simple but when we’re in this Westernized framework of hierarchies and roles and titles and all that, sometimes we forget to be equitable with the way we speak to each other and exchange ideas.

Huia: What comes to mind straight away for me is tika, pono, and aroha. And manaakitanga is massive. I did some years of thinking about how I live my life, and it’s always done through manaaki. If I come back to those values, then anything I’m doing, and how I move in the world will always be safe. Because those are the three or the four values that I align to. How do we have mana? That can be one of the hardest things as an individual – to live your life with tika, pono, and aroha. And to have some of those authentic relationship conversations with yourself. First and foremost, wānanga with yourself, and if you aren’t able to do that, check yourself, love yourself.

So, if you were to mentor young Māori wāhine who were stepping into leadership roles, what advice would you offer them?

Cat: How important it is not to listen to too much noise around you, especially as Māori. Pākehā frameworks and how you should do things according to the Western way – it can be quite hard to not listen to the noise. And daily self-reflection practice, which is what Huia is talking about. You know, asking yourself simple but purposeful things like what are my intentions today? Why am I feeling mamae about that thing? Write it all out. Be really true and honest with yourself. Everything that you need is inside of you, your Nannies put that in you. We are natural leaders because of our practices, our customs, they teach us how to be leaders, and that we all have the capability. And note the importance of your wawata, your dreams, your subconscious. Your tūpuna will come to you that way.

You’ve both referenced well-being. What do you do to recover when you’re exhausted? When things have been hard, how do you pull yourself back and close your boundaries down if you need to?

Huia: It depends. I have learned that sometimes I just need silence. And when I say silence, I mean no talking. I can go the whole day and just lock myself down in my room and have absolute quiet – no talking. And I don’t mean on my phone either. Just absolute silence, retreating into myself. That is my process of going into wānanga, of going back into myself and just kind of snuggling in. And then whakawātea – I need to get to the water and do that. And there’ll be certain times I’ll need to seek counsel. And mirimiri. It’s got to be part of my self care routine, to shift the energy.

Cat: The first thing I need is my girls and a glass of wine. That cutting through of total noa. Be gross, be ugly, let it all out, bitch about whatever, you know, vent hard….but then following that with three or four days of sacredness, hydrating, bush, and I have a life coach that I see about once a month. And mirimiri hard, as part of your healing process.

When I think about Māori women in leadership, the whakapapa is long and esteemed. As two wāhine Māori leaders in your communities who are nurturing others in turn, he mihi tēnei ki a kōrua, otirā ki a koutou katoa.
And finally, if you had one more thing to add about leadership today, what would it be?

Huia: Isolation comes up, you know. Even when I look at non-Māori women in leadership it’s always quite an isolating time, and then to understand what that means when it’s layered with being Māori, and then layered with what that looks like in the arts. I’m coming back to that masculine feminine space. I’m a woman leader. And I love that and I’m unapologetic about that.

I think about the resilience of what it takes to be a young Māori wahine leader. In some spaces, they have taken a hit, and have been hurt. And it’s like, just take the lessons, don’t take the hurt.

Cat: Resilience for me comes from being able to keep my eye on the big picture, on the horizon. And something that my Dad used to teach me was that, you know as creatives, all we have to do is just pass that Kete Aronui down, we’re just passing it down. And in that kete is aroha, peace, and creativity. When you’re having a really hard time, just remember, it’s all good, it’s temporary – the kaupapa is just to pass that kete down.

Cat Ruka and Huia O’Sullivan were participants in the Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi Creative Leadership programme.