The beating heart of most organisations is often the person that activity, relational knowledge (er, gossip) and getting stuff done tends to centre around. Seldom is that person the most hierarchically senior. One of the greatest organisational influencers is often in a pivotal front-facing role. That influence is often garnered from an innate and attractive people-sense, similar to chicks nourished within the warm and welcoming plumage of a mother hen. At Aotahi, the School of Māori and Indigenous Studies, we are blessed by one of the warmest, brightest and influential of shining stars, Karen Murphy. Her office is appropriately in the centre of the department’s floor space, it is Karen’s welcoming and smiling face that greets every visitor. In fact, her office acts like a kind of vortex, drawing in passers-by attracted either by the sunshine-like warmth or deliberately sought out by Karen when she ventures out to anticipate, meet and exceed the needs of anyone fortunate enough to happen by.
Karen grew up ‘a couple of decades ago’ at the western foot of the magnificent Coromandel Peninsula in Thames. She is from the Hauāuru hapū of Ngāti Maru that includes her great grandfather Meremana Konui, a renowned hapū tohunga.
Her passion and love of people, for her husband and two sons, wider whānau and hapū meant she took whichever role would allow her to spread her special brand of manaakitanga. From school governor, representing her iwi authority Ngāti Maru in all manner of positions and a variety of committee member posts with her beloved Matai Whetū marae, Karen worked tirelessly for her people. Not, I imagine, that it was viewed by Karen as work – more like she was just living with, and for, her people.
She managed multiple roles including motherhood, managing a family engineering business and being the iwi and hapū go-to in Thames till she left the area, in body anyway, in 1997. She left a legacy, one aspect of which is the focus of this story.
To hear Karen describe her involvement in the establishment of the first kōhanga reo in Hauraki in the 1990s, you would be forgiven for interpreting it as simply being a dogsbody. A bit of digging revealed the full story: Karen was Foundation President of Te Kōhanga Reo o Matai Whetū for five years. She was an organiser, tamariki shepherdess, administrator, fundraiser – something she was experienced in doing having raised similar funds to build the wharenui, a dream she shared with her close friend Lulu Anderson. A team of inspired and formidable wāhine including Bella Reihana and others were determined to establish a kōhanga by the marae. For that they needed to finance and build another whare, not to mention resource the school and assist whānau to attend. The early days meant re-reading the one book they had over and over to the tamariki, but Karen and the team made sure despite the challenges, every child was brought to the marae, fed and enveloped in the warmth of the values and traditions of the marae that Karen fervently maintained.
Karen describes the community back then not as the richest, or poorest. In a time when Māori were reeling from the economic wastelands created by Labour-led eighties neoliberal policy, no doubt Thames had its fair share of hardship. But Karen recalls everyone just got on with it, in their own way. When the kōhanga crew attended hui out of town it was clear other communities were more advanced in their revitalisation of the reo but it did not concern Ngāti Maru. Karen reflects on those early days fondly, “Our home people wanted it (the kōhanga) and we did it our way.” She pays special tribute to Lulu, Bella and the whānau who supported the cause in those early days.
She remembers being encouraged to take a lead role, not Karen’s preferred modus operandi, but because of her tangata whenua status based on ahi kā and a lineage of family servanthood to the community. I suspect too that her humility, genuine heart and not insignificant superwoman powers of multitasking also contributed to her appointment. Did I mention she has served as a Justice of the Peace since 1992?
In 1992 she was appointed General Manager of Hauraki Seafoods Ltd, which took her on a journey into the world of iwi fisheries, and ultimately down to Te Waipounamu at a time when Māori fishing rights was a topical issue. But Karen’s engagement in that kaupapa, like her, deserves special attention all on its own.
So, this is a small part of an incredible story of a precious uri of Ngāti Maru. Karen is our warm glow, a mother hen, an unquenchable source of light for so many. As she did in establishing Te Kōhanga Reo o Matai Whetū back in the day, she continues to transform lives in her discrete and servant-hearted manner. Hers is a story that deserves telling – it will be done.