“I knew nothing about earthworks, but I knew a lot about the earth and the land.”
This was Kawe Nikora’s first thought when she was appointed kaitiaki (guardian) of the Waikato Expressway. Stretching 15.2 kilometres with 4.4 million cubic metres of earthworks and 38 major culverts, the expressway dissects an area of deep cultural and environmental significance for Māori
Kawe’s days now involve anything from blessings to translations, advising on cultural symbols along the expressway to fish protection measures, waterway sediment monitoring to pastoral care – and baking for teams who have been particularly “hard at it”.
”If we look after the land and the people, they will look after us,” she says.
Kawe encourages people to think and act as if the expressway was their own property: “This helps see any decision as cultural as well as constructional, and leads people to create long-lasting relationships with each other and with the land,” she says.
Project Director Tony Adams says Kawe’s “mucking in” has gained her immense respect from the construction team.
“Kawe has true passion for the environment and the spiritual and physical aspects of the land. Her beliefs, her historical ties to the area – once the ‘food basket’ for iwi – has been one of the best things for everyone working on this project,” Tony says. “She’s an invaluable negotiator and communicator, bridging the gap between iwi and construction.”
Kawe’s also had an effect on the site’s language.
“I’ve always greeted people in te reo but it was a few months before people started doing it back – now it’s commonplace. I now get emails saying ‘how can I say this in Māori’?”
But she says her greatest success measure is simpler than all of this.
“When I started here I waved to everyone – if I knew them or not. Now everyone waves to me – it’s one of my proudest achievements.”