Indigenous Urbanism

In Conversation with Elisapeta Heta

Episode Summary

On this episode of Indigenous Urbanism, we speak with Elisapeta Heta nō Ngāti Wai, an architectural graduate working at Jasmax. Elisapeta is also an artist and academic, and has held various significant advocacy roles.

Episode Notes

EPISODE SUMMARY: On this episode of Indigenous Urbanism, we speak with Elisapeta Heta nō Ngāti Wai, an architectural graduate working at Jasmax. Elisapeta is also an artist and academic, and has held various significant advocacy roles.

GUESTS: Elisapeta Heta


Jade Kake: Tēnā koutou katoa

Nau mai haere mai ki te Indigenous Urbanism, Aotearoa Edition, Episode 7.

I’m your host Jade Kake and this is Indigenous Urbanism, stories about the spaces we inhabit, and the community drivers and practitioners who are shaping those environments and decolonising through design.

On this episode of Indigenous Urbanism, we speak with Elisapeta Heta nō Ngāti Wai, an architectural graduate working at Jasmax. Elisapeta is also an artist and academic, and has held significant advocacy roles, including her previous role as Co-Chair of Architecture Women, and current role as the Ngā Aho representative to the New Zealand Institute of Architects Board.

We caught up with Elisapeta at the Jasmax offices in Parnell.

JK: Ko wai koe? Nō hea koe? Where are you from, and who are you?

Elisapeta Heta: I am from many places actually. On my father's side I'm from up north, and a little bit south of here, so nō Ngāti Wai ahau, me Waikato-Tainui, and on my mother's side I am Samoan, Tokelauan, and English. So she's first generation New Zealander, whatever that means. Her mother was born in Apia, and her father was born in Portsmouth in England. So, from everywhere. Ko Elisapeta Hinemoa Heta ahau. I'm an architectural graduate at Jasmax, but I'm also part of a roopu here called Waka Maia. We are three architectural graduates, who run a lot of the - for want of better words - Māori navigation type stuff for projects. So we have boldly given ourselves the title of Kaihautū Whaihanga, so Māori design leaders within the practice.

JK: And so you find yourself in a really large firm, being one of a few Māori practitioners. So could you talk a little bit, just about that experience.

EH: Yeah, for me, for starters, it's quite funny as a graduate I think you sort of assuming you are going out into the world begging somebody to take you on as some kind of strange liability to them, or something. But I was very deliberate about choosing to want to come and work with Jasmax. And that was partly because Jasmax had a known reputation for working on community projects that involved Māori that I was really intrigued by. A lot of that was led and run by Ivan Mercep, who's since passed away. But he had quite the legacy, effectively, with Māori communities, with Māori projects. Even though he wasn't Māori himself, and had mentored Brendan Himona and sort of a little bit at the end there as well, Rameka Tu'inukuafe, who are both my colleagues in Waka Maia. Jasmax I think, sort of had a cultural capacity, shall we say. It had an understanding. It had a bit of - when I sort of found out the history of why Jasmad began, little bit of a radical sort of beginnings, and wanting to make the city a better place. And I suppose that's considered radical sometimes.

JK: Shockingly

EH: Shockingly, yeah. Protesting against motorways being built in ridiculous places, and all sorts of things like that. So, I think Jasmax just had, there was an inbuilt sort of sense for me, from the outside looking in, that it was something I could get in on. It's hard, I think, to build cultural capacity from scratch. Knowing that there were Māori colleagues already here that were trying to make things happen, that was sort of a nice transition, I suppose. It had some momentum, it had some legs. I came on at a time that Haley Hooper, another Māori wahine, had also joined Jasmax only six months prior to me starting here, so there ended up being four of us, which was a little bit of a bubble. And we, I think in sort of a momentum, kind of riding the wave of a whole lot of things happening outside of the office. So, the first time Māori had ever met officially with the NZIA had happened at the same time, and there were talks about the kawenata which eventually comes into being later on, I suppose, in the chronology of my life. So, being here, or coming here to Jasmax was kind of wanting to push myself where I thought was really important, with the kind of powerhouse that this already had, I suppose. Nothing's perfect, everybody, every group, every collective, every office, has things they can do better. I think that's what's been pretty amazing, personally from my point of view, is the willingness of this office to actually let us roam a little bit far, and then come back, and sort of genuinely start to initiate and embed a lot of the things that we thought were important from a te ao Māori point of view into business as usual at this practice. Which is pretty amazing, steering a ship of - you know last year it was over 300 people. So, you'd think change like that would take a long time, but it's been surprisingly flexible and adaptable.

JK: I liked what you said a bit earlier when you mentioned Ivan and the kind of relationships that he had with Māori communities, and they were very deep enduring relationships. And what I was really encouraged by is when you also talked about how he was bringing young Māori practitioners through in this process. Cause that's something I see a lot is that sometimes quite experienced Pākehā architects feel that they should occupy that space as a matter of right. And I kind of want to, I often want to challenge them on that, saying well, you don't occupy that space as a matter of right, and what are you doing to bring Māori practitioners into this space.

EH: Yeah well that's, we're seeing now, that now really bubble up as a conversation around cultural appropriation, right? Is the question of, what right do Pākehā have to occupy our spaces, our knowledge, our things that represent us. And for me, I always start with questions. What is it that they are giving back? How is it that they are supporting Māori, Māori communities? The knowledge where that has come from. What permissions have they sought out? Where does the mana lie? And I don't like to talk about mana often, because I find it's used as a means of currency, where it should not. But, I do genuinely mean, where - who is being uplifted, truly? Who is being empowered by what you are doing? That question actually applies to anybody. Pākehā, Māori, tauiwi alike. I think there's a lot to be said for Pākehā who have occupied and do occupy those spaces, and do it in such a way that they are breaking down barriers, and enabling those other people to step into those spaces. And I think of a lot of people off the top of my head who have been huge, hugely instrumental for me, I suppose, breaking through a barrier, demonstrating that it was possible, and then kind of pushing me through it. So I guess what I mean by that is, somebody like Ivan would be a really great example. You know, the kind of semi-invisible Maurits Kelderman at designTRIBE is another really good example of that. And he will never, he will never talk about himself in such a way that he is occupying that knowledge for himself. He is very much present for the kaupapa, and he will give you whatever knowledge he has. And, I have always found that very humbling, and quite inspiring. And I'm actually getting teary about it. And if he ever listens to this he'll laugh at me. But that's okay, and it's people like that who are really, really important. I saw a huge discussion about cultural appropriation breakdown on facebook. It was fascinating actually. On Tracey Tawhiao's facebook page. Yeah, but it was something like 600 comments deep. And there was this one comment from Aroha Gossage about her dad's mahi, Peter Gossage. All of the beautiful drawings that he did that brought us as children, like the whole country, you know the Maui stories, and he was a Pākehā man. And, I thought about that actually, her sort of challenge to that space of cultural appropriation. And she said, my dad has spoken, he did this, and everybody was kind of jumping in and going, oh my god yeah that wasn't cultural appropriation, and you know, we're really appreciative. And we are really appreciative, and I think in those times as well, that was Pākehā stepping into spaces that the mainstream probably weren't super stoked about. But it's breaking down barriers and enabling other things to happen. Whether or not that was exactly what they were thinking about at the time, I don't know, I can't speak to that. But, you know, I guess all I'm saying is, for me it's those critical questions around where the kaupapa sits, what your true intentions are - the road to hell is paved with good intentions - what those good intentions actually form, in terms of intangible outcomes and actions, and then just constantly being rigorous and critical about how you check yourself in that. That would be what I would ask of anybody operating in that space, but definitely of I think our Pākehā practitioners who sometimes mean well but maybe don't hit the mark, I suppose. And I still don't think about that in a, kind of like, I'm not giving anybody a lecture, or telling anyone off about it. I just think we all have the opportunity to grow. So I would hope this is people's opportunity to grow.

JK: Yeah and I think what you've described is actually just, like, the conditions for a really solid Treaty-based relationship.

EH: Exactly!

JK: Based on respect.

EH: Please!

EH: I really - gosh, if I had one sort of wish, it would be that people stopped seeing the Treaty as a negative, as associated with negative connotations. And I feel like what I mean by that, is that it was, it should have been and it was - to my mind - predicated on the idea that we had two peoples coming together. And working together. And negotiating what that meant. That's why it was so amazing, that we as an indigenous people would have an actual Treaty that would be honoured.

JK: Yeah, and setting the foundations and articulating an ongoing relationship

EH: Yeah, and I actually do ask myself, and I have asked my colleagues, and I try to ask the practice. And certain people are able to engage in the conversations, certain people aren't. But I do think it's an important question to ask ourselves is, what are we doing to honour the Treaty, ourselves. Yourself, personally. Every single day. And I have answers for myself, and they will change and evolve over time. My biggest honour to the Treaty and that relationship is learning te reo. And making sure that everybody around me feels more and more comfortable in learning it too.

JK: My uncle who's in his sixties, he's on this real buzz of reclaiming being a Māori. I mean he's always been there in the community, but I think cause he grew up - as our parents did - in the time, where, you know. So, he's taking te reo classes, and he's starting night classes this semester. He's the chair of our land incorporation, and he's leading all of this amazing stuff, and he's like, oh I need to step up. And I just think that's beautiful seeing especially - I mean it's awesome for us - but especially for our parents generation. To be able to reclaim that.

EH: Yeah, I really feel that one. Growing up with my dad, for as long as I did, up until I was about 13. He used to describe himself as a plastic Māori. And that used to break my heart. And, particularly as a child, even when I was really, really young, I didn't necessarily understand it, but I knew that it felt funny. Dad kind of wore it as this unusual badge of honour and shame. He kind of said, he used to say it to get out of doing a mihi on the marae. Cause he had two rules for going to a tangi - one was show up late so you didn't have to do a mihi, and the other was to sleep in between the two biggest aunties so you got real warm. Which is actually not bad advice, I have to say. That claim of being a plastic Māori used to just hurt me. And I don't mean in a - you know, he wasn't doing it on purpose - but it was something that I understood as I got older, and then at his tangi, you sort of realise, like he's got sort of one brother of sixteen that can actually speak te reo. And people's ability to engage in the language was very limited, our kuia's ability to engage in the waiata - beyond E Hara - oh my gosh, apparently that was the anthem of the day. You know, even things like karanga, all that sort of stuff. And it's not an uncommon story, and that's the sad thing.

JK: We're big on the church, so Whakaaria Mai is our -

EH: Yeah yeah yeah, exactly, exactly. We sung Whakaaria Mai a few too many thirty times. But yeah, it's going back into those spaces and seeing our parents generation is pretty important, pretty powerful. The reo class that I am in, there's a couple of older guys, and oh man, they're crack up. You know, you call them papa blah blah, and koro blah blah, and the deeper their reo gets the more you joke about them being kaumātua, and they're like oh, I'm getting older by the week. But it is amazing, you know, you can see their struggle with realising the years that it's taken them to get there, but I just think there's power in learning regardless of your age. It's amazing. It does really illustrate the mamae we have to get through. It's undeniable, but, at the same time, it's quite uplifting as well.

JK: Sometimes I get quite impatient, cause there's so much that I need to get done while I'm alive.

EH: Sometimes Jade - that would be all the time. But we won't do your therapy session today.

JK: So what I was going onto was, you know, because I do feel like, you know, I need to get registered, get the language back, and get the land back.

EH: Just all those things. Save the country... Yeah. Somehow tell Don Brash to shush to his face. Little goals.

JK: What I did want to talk about next, moving on from that discussion around the Treaty relationship, is that as Ngā Aho we formed an agreement with NZIA, the kawenata. And I haven't really asked anybody to talk about it on the podcast yet, but then I thought, who better than you, who's been there all the way through it, and who is now our rep on the NZIA board. So could you talk a bit about that?

JK: Ngā Aho and the New Zealand Institute of Architects have in recent years developed a kawenata or covenant agreement. The Kawenata, which was signed by both parties in early 2017, sets out a set of principles for a treaty-based relationship between the two organisations. Elisapeta was recently interviewed about this kaupapa over on the 76 Small Rooms podcast, so do check that out.

EH: Getting to spend so much time with Mātua Haare, Haare Williams, who I actually just adore. I adore the man. Myself and Rameka, one night we drove out to his house. We went and got Chinese food - he's never forgotten that, very proud - and we just sat with him you know, and we talked it through, and we talked it through, and we talked it through. And he's such an orator, and he's of such the old way that we had to, every, literally if there was a grammar change, there was a comma put it, or one hair was put in, we had to say the whole sentence out loud, again. It was amazing. But what it did is it really taught me about where he was coming from and what he was trying to instill, from his point of view, within the language of the kawenata. For me, that was really about establishing, again, a Treaty-based relationship between two organisations who have otherwise not had a formal relationship set up. And that formal relationship wasn't about the two organisations, but it was about what those organisations and who those organisations represent. And the massive, honestly power that all of those members of those two organisations have to effectively change the entire face of New Zealand. If we think about that. Cause architects and everybody working in the built environment, our landscape architects, our planners, our urban designers, everybody, we are making significant change all the time. Even if it's just to an alteration on a street, it's changing the street fabric. So, the kawenata, from a very high, governance level was saying, this is a relationship between two peoples - two organisations, that's what I mean by that. That relationship is going to be based on all the good stuff - respect, and we're going to honour mātauranga Māori, we're going to honour mana whenua, we're going to think about sustainability. And from that, our memberships, both Ngā Aho and the NZIA, have such a solid foundation from which to interrogate ourselves, in a positive way. Be self aware. Think about our practice. So all that stuff I was talking about before in terms of like, the fundamental questions you're asking yourself about what space do you occupy, what are you leaving behind, who are you pulling up, who are you empowering - communities, staff, whatever. You can actually refer back to the kawenata, we can all refer back to the kawenata and go - oh, it's telling me here, this is how I could do that. It's telling me here, this is how I can establish a relationship. And it can be so simple. It can just be with the artist that you want to employ to do some kick ass tukutuku panels on the side of an I-don't-know-what. And if you want some way of thinking about it there's lots and lots of methods to think about it. But the kawenata is one, and it just talks about the type of respect, respectful relationship you are going to have with that other group.

JK: We're only a few years in, what are some of the ways that this relationship has started to come to light since then?

EH: The visible one is my role in the NZIA. It's not my role, as in I'm not holding it for forever, because oh my gosh, it needs to go to somebody else, please. But it is a role, it's a co-opted role onto the NZIA Council, for a representative of Ngā Aho to sit. And effectively diversify that conversation at that table, to give the te ao Māori point of view, to give the Ngā Aho point of view, to speak as kaitiaki of Aotearoa, effectively.

JK: Not a big job at all

EH: No. No, it's enormous. And it's one I feel every time I'm at that table. And, you know, I don't get it right. What I do, do, to the best of my ability is listen really hard, everywhere I am. I realised how important the power of observation is. Less than the power of questioning. The power of questioning is less important than the power of observation. Because you just really have got to be attentive. So I listen to what everybody's talking about, I listen, I kind of keep my ear to the ground around changes, you know, happening in our Councils, and in our industry, and all those kinds of things. But I also listen to what iwi are talking about, and the things that are affecting them, and that they're troubled by, or concerned by. Right from the big Treaty negotiation stuff, all the way down to the way that architects may or may not be engaging them on projects. And I can bring all of that to the table. And anybody that ends up at that table, has that opportunity. So that's a really super tangible outcome, is effectively, be a voice at that table, brings that perspective, that is mandated to be there, to bring that perspective.

JK: And that mandate thing's pretty tricky

EH: Yeah, it can be

JK: It's a big deal that we've gone through that process, and we have a solid mandate process in place

EH: It is, it is. I think it's really critical, you know, and I think - I've never underestimated, or undervalued the power of the voice. I think our voice at that table is a big one. And it's one - you can see, I think, in the changing tides, that people are getting more and more, kind of, their anticipating Māori to kind of come forward, and give our opinion. And, people really hunger for it, and that's really exciting. So that's one tangible outcome.

I mean, there's lots of others. The NZIA in their own little way are learning and understanding how to incorporate some parts of tikanga into their lives. There's everything from, there's an expectation of me to do karakia to open and close our hui. So they're getting used to hearing the language. To the past president and the current president having, genuinely wanting to be able to understand reo more, so that every time they get up to speak, they can say something. Other than, maybe just Kia Ora. And it's a genuine want. It's everything from, opening things, in:situ last year with a full-on pōwhiri. And that was amazing. All these AUT students came, we had our international guests come up, Dame Patsy Reddy, the Governor General was there. Wasn't going to speak at the pōwhiri - which was kei te pai - everybody just got up, and were doing our thing. But Mātua Haare gave such a rousing whaikōrero, that she decided to stand up and speak, off the cuff. Which I realised at the time, isn't normal. And that, I think, for the first time for a lot of NZIA members, I got a lot of comments from people saying, oh that was just so, powerful is a word people always use to describe pōhiri. You know, it's so powerful, and you know, it meant that relationships we're forming with our international guests were formed on something that is uniquely New Zealand. We've a potency here, with our ability to do that stuff, and do it genuinely. And as a result, they never forget their time here, it always becomes much more special than just another conference. And the NZIA being able to engage in that, but engage in it meaningfully, is a small but tangible step in a direction. It's heading somewhere. It's little things like, I happen to know that the CE of NZIA is doing te reo classes with her whānau down in Wellington.

JK: Oh, that's awesome

EH: You know, it's really beautiful. Cause I think that reo is the gate into fully empathising in a meaningful way with a Māori perspective. The community down in Raetihi, the very famous Ratana Church, is in a bit of a desperate need at the moment to, it needs to be looked at. It's kind of, it's falling apart in some ways. It's also a bit of a historic kind of monument, we all know it very well. It's had some hilarious addition to in it's life, including some random metal sheets nailed to the side of it. Yeah, it needs a bit of love. And, the group that went down, to awhi that community, were a Ngā Aho - NZIA strong crew. It's not to be ominous or anything, but you know, you wonder, I wonder, if there had been change - and maybe there might not have been, but - with Āniwaniwa, for example, if a kick ass strong whole crew of NZIA and Ngā Aho had gone down and put their foot down. You know, it's not perfect, but it's definitely a marked kind of response. At the moment, there's a genuine want to, for instance, understand better what's happening out at Ihumatao. And to form an opinion, and go out and support in whatever way can be done. And that is all because, the kawenata exists, and they're realising that, in order to honour that relationship - both sides, but particularly from the NZIA side because it's the most unknown, for the NZIA coming into te ao Māori - what is it we have to stand up for? Ihumatao is a big gnarly thing to try and deal with, but you know, Mātua Haare got up at the recent event they had out there, he's just been given the New Zealand Order of Merit, and he said, if the government don't do anything about Ihumatao, he's going to give it back. You know if a man, if somebody like that can make a statement that powerful, we can too. So it's those sort of things that make me go, oh my gosh I'm so lucky - we are so lucky - that we're living in a time, that a relationship like that exists, and we can go look, we need to sit down and have a serious conversation about this, and everybody shows up.

JK: I really liked those examples, cause it shows that even at this early stage in the process, this relationship just has so much potential.

EH: Yeah, it could go anywhere.

JK: We could do a lot together.

I'm just going to ask one more question. And it's - the kaupapa of the podcast is Indigenous Urbanism. As I've been going through this series, I've been looking at it, I guess trying to push the boundaries of what that definition could mean, so not just thinking about cities, but anywhere where we have settlements and a relationship with our physical environment. So I guess I just wanted to invite you, if you have any thoughts on that theme, or you know, things you want to talk about.

EH: I love it, actually. I love Indigenous Urbanism as an idea, as a thematic idea, as a notion. The idea that Indigenous people are somehow rural is inherently incorrect. Particularly because we know the world over that, for the most part, and I'm just kind of finger in the air here, but, our cities were built where they were built because there were probably settlements there from the Indigenous people anyway, because it was good for food, and for foraging, and for travelling up and down waterways, and for probably good points of view from a maybe, for war, or whatever. They already had settlements in them. We know that for Tāmaki, Tāmaki was massively fought over, and for a damn good reason. Our soils are fertile, we've got two harbours - well four harbours really, but you know, we've got water. So the notion that there are not Indigenous people in cities, in urban spaces, is fundamentally incorrect. Which we know. So that's preaching to the choir.

I'm going to say this because I really wanted to say this at a panel: Black Panther made me so excited. Because, and lots of people were actually, lots of us were talking about it, and I think there's a lot to be unpacked in it. The notion of Wakanda. Right? The notion of a city that was not affected by the white man, in Africa, that was able to grow and become this kind of like dense, intensified, urbanised city, that was 100% African. Like, looking. Whatever that looks like, you know. And I know that Africa is a continent and not a country - I'm not stupid - but, you know, the notion of that. That's amazing. I think Black Panther was so successful for so many reasons, but from an architectural point of view I looked at that and I was like, oh my god, yay. Could you imagine, Auckland, Wellington - Christchurch has made some genuine efforts, but, starting to really embody the notion of the Treaty as being reflected in our cities. That is such an exciting prospect. From a not, like, talking about an Auckland centric point-of-view, because you know, Aucklanders are good at that. I just think that the te ao Māori point of view genuinely has a lot to offer our built environment spaces. We thought about things sustainably, we moved around according to the seasons really well, we knew when to plant, what to plant, how to plant. Then we knew how to build, where to build, what we were building in relation to the sun, in relation to the water, in relation to the materials we were using. And we now can evolve all of that thinking to other types of materials. But we can still draw on those really important stories, those pūrākau that we've got there, that can continue to influence all of our little pockets of, kind of, whether it's a village, whether it's a community, a township, a city. All of that can infiltrate. I would love Auckland to lead the way. Because I am ambitious. And, cause why not hit the biggest, hardest, ugliest thing in the room and see what happens. So, you know, Auckland needs to do better, and I think we are trying. With a, Te Aranga design principles is a really good example, which I don't need to get into. But, the fact that urban decision making, our developments, all those kinds of things, happen to go through the urban design panel, which happens to include people who understand Te Aranga design principles, who happen to include Māori designers. All of that sort of stuff, hopefully means that maybe in 20 years time our city looks less like another stamped out city. Because I remember going to Sydney and thinking, well this is kind of just a bigger Queen St. Like, downtown Sydney and downtown Auckland, have the same ugly vibe. Just a nondescript thing. And I remember Mātua Haare saying, what is it about Auckland that is Māori? Where are the Māori buildings? That aren't relegated to kind of some out the back little spot that's hidden by some fences. You know, even Waipapa Marae being probably the most centralised Māori looking thing, is on the actual periphery and down the hill at University of Auckland. It's not in the middle, it's not in a prime location. But it's beautiful. Imagine that affecting other parts of the City. There's a really tall, very Chinese looking building in Wellesley St, I think. And it's cool, it's beautiful. It's red. It stands out. We could do that, we could do that. And I think, you know, the Auckland Art Gallery is obviously a really beautiful expression of architecture, and it has Māori touches in it. But we can keep pushing things, we can keep evolving things. I think the notion of what is Māori architecture, what is a Māori city, those are cool questions to ask. I think they just pose more possibilities and probably kind of endless outcomes. Which if anything it's just like, it's exciting. I think our generation are probably setting up ways to break down the barriers, and all the platforms and foundations for that. Hopefully so that a generation or two back, they can just start making the big crazy buildings that do embody that notion of what a Māori city might look like.

JK: Indigenous Urbanism Aotearoa Edition is a production of Te Matapihi. Sandy Wakefield does our sound recording, editing, and mixing. Our theme was composed by Thomas Burton. I’m Jade Kake, your host and Executive Producer.

For more information about today’s show and other episodes of Indigenous Urbanism go to You can drop us a line at And if you like what you’re hearing, please give us a review or rating on iTunes.

Coming up next on Indigenous Urbanism, we visit the Vinegar Lane precinct in inner-city Ponsonby, and learn about how a bi-cultural design ethos has been successfully applied to multi-residential housing within a mixed-use development.

Nick Dalton: We look back to Māori design principles of old, a vertical papakāinga. A papakāinga where we worked on site, we lived, we ate, we played, we educated, we trained for war. Everything was done within the pā. The idea of taking that vertically is really quite exciting for us.