Isaiah Apiata - Te Hāpai Hāpori Spirit of Service Awards Young Leader of the Year

Isaiah Apiata, a youth justice leader and rangatira on his Te Tii Waitangi Marae, has been named Te Hāpai Hāpori Spirit of Service Awards Young Leader of the Year. What drives him is cultural connection, service, and a commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi. 

Isaiah Apiata’s public service career began as a prison guard in Kaikohe. After eight years with the Department of Corrections, he moved to a youth justice role with Oranga Tamariki. He is currently seconded to Te Rūnganga-Ā-Iwi-Ō-Ngāpuhi as Government Relations Manager. Aged just 32, he is also a rangatira for his marae, Te Tii Waitangi, and has been appointed by Ngāpuhi as their kaikōrero (spokesman) for Waitangi Day events at Waitangi.

In nominating Isaiah, Oranga Tamariki said: “He has guided many people away from crime and towards positive life pathways through strengthening their cultural identity and reconnecting to whakapapa.”

Pivotal moments

For Isaiah, it’s been some journey.

“I came from nothing. I was born to a 17-year-old mother into a world of gangs and alcohol. When I was two, my grandmother took me into her care, and into te ao Māori. That’s where I got out, and that’s where it all commenced.”

His grandmother was the senior matriarch of their marae, and Isaiah says that as a young boy, her mission for him was to sit in the wharenui and listen.

“I could hear my cousins outside, playing and laughing, and I was inside, listening to the stories and wisdom of my elders, to mentors and teachers like the late Kingi Taurua. People ask about my native tongue, and they assume I got it from kōhanga reo. I learned te reo from sitting in the meeting house, at the feet of Ngāpuhi giants. Now I see the blessing in what my grandmother did.”

Another pivotal moment was when he was 11. “My uncle, Wiremu Wiremu, knocked on the door and said, let’s go. I looked at my grandmother and she nodded. He took me to Whakatāne, along with other young Ngāpuhi men he was training in our Mātaatua wāka kinship, which we share with the Whakatāne people. Our job was to teach them this kinship and to reconnect. Wiremu was captain of the great Ngāpuhi wāka Ngātokomatawhaorua. He was a major influence.

“So cultural understanding and leadership was given to me at a young age, although I didn’t understand what my destiny was until I joined Corrections. Then I realised that because of those conversations in the meeting house, I’d learned about Te Tiriti o Waitangi and our rights, but in a humble way, so I’d also learned about not being an activist but about working within the system.”

Isaiah was 18 when he joined Corrections, and over seven years he moved through several roles related to rehabilitation. “Over time, I learned that everyone has a story and that once you get to the heart of that story, that’s where you can build a relationship.”

But then came another pivotal moment. “There was a great-grandfather in Corrections. He heard that one of his mokopuna was coming into jail, and he was boasting about it. The pride he had; the intergenerational acceptance that going to prison was normal for his family – that told me Corrections wasn’t the career for me.”

Isaiah moved his attention to Māori youth, building on a previous role with He Iwi Kotahi Tatou Trust, where he’d help run an alternative programme for rangatahi not coping in mainstream education. “We taught them their pepeha, about paddling our traditional wāka, water safety and hunting, fishing, and diving, plus some basic numeracy and literacy. Other kids started to be naughty, just trying to get into the programme,” he smiled.

The path with youth

From there, it was a logical step to Oranga Tamariki and the role of Northland-based Youth Justice Co-ordinator. What did that look like?

“When a young person offended, my role was to take a neutral position and to discuss options. Historically, offenders were directed to do community service. My focus was about giving mana back to the offender, sowing the seeds of aspiration. One boy said he wanted to be an engineer so I set him up with the local mechanic, doing five hours a week.

“Another boy lost his father to suicide. His offending wasn’t because he was bad but because he didn’t know how to handle his emotion so I saw my role as one of constant engagement, being the older brother, sharing conversation, and planting the seeds of aspiration to give him something to aim for.”

Culture is really important for these youth, he adds. “There is a lot of disconnection for our rangatahi. With Māori offenders, the first thing I’d do was for them the hardest. I’d pick them up at 7.30 in the morning. They’d turn up with their flash hoodies and jeans and cellphones, and I’d walk them up the highest mountain of their community. On the way up, we’d talk about their offending, and what caused them to do that. By the time we got to the top, they’d be all hot and sweaty, and they’d see the beauty of that view of the far North, that ancient charm, and I’d tell them the old stories and see a gentle peace sit on that young person. The hard stuff was done on the way up, and on the way down, I’d talk about what we were going to do to support them so it was all positive, looking into the future, and at the bottom, we’d have a big feed. That’s how we’d gain the relationship and, like the pivotal moments in my own life, it would often be a milestone for that young person, integral in changing their life.”

With Pākehā youth, he would put culture aside. “It’s not my role to impose a different culture. Instead of teaching pepeha, I’d say let’s visit some places from your community and build your knowledge of where you come from. And let’s go get your driver’s licence, or first-aid certificate – lets teach you to be the best you can achieve.

“With all our rangatahi, we also looked to wrap services around their whole family because it’s their responsibility and we need to resist building a co-dependency on the government. We need to teach them how to fish, which would sustain them for a lifetime, instead of just giving them one fish.”

A mystery that benefits all

Isaiah acknowledges Oranga Tamariki faces difficulties. “We need to hold Oranga Tamariki to account, yes, but critics must also be willing to work with Oranga Tamariki to contribute to a collective change.”

Legislatively, Oranga Tamariki has an integral role, but in practical terms, the family needs to step in and take accountability. “Hapū and iwi also have an integral role in building that network around young people. Every child born into this world should have a firm foundation to stand on.”

Isaiah believes Oranga Tamariki, like many government agencies, is a reactive agency. “They react to incidents, the resourcing goes into what has to be done at the bottom of the cliff. And they’re tired, always dealing with the hard, negative, reactive engagement and antisocial behaviour of the family. If we’re working at the top of the cliff and the family is a strong unit, then we can change that direction. Let’s stop being reactive.”

In 2018, Isaiah was appointed by iwi elders as kaikōrero (spokesman) to speak on behalf of all Ngāpuhi at Waitangi Day events. Now, seconded to Te Rūnunga-Ā-Iwi-Ō-Ngāpuhi, his work is about building relationships between Ngāpuhi and the Crown. He says service remains his mantra.

“I’m serving my people now. It’s a different capacity with different outcomes, but the key word is service. To continue to serve, to be accountable and to benefit my Ngāpuhi people – it’s a beautiful role.”

Core to Isaiah is Te Tiriti o Waitangi. He is delighted with the acknowledgment and adoption of Te Tiriti by Crown agencies.  

“When Oranga Tamariki adopted Te Tiriti o Waitangi as a cornerstone of the organisation, that was also pivotal for me. That’s where my role developed from working with our youth to becoming the senior cultural advisor for the tamariki in Northland.

“Te Tiriti has been bashed around. There’s negativity, talk about racism and loss of land – I’m not going to disregard all that, but at its core, I think it is one of the most beautiful documents in the world.

“When my tūpuna signed that Treaty, they made a promise, an enduring promise of nationhood. Their promise was for manaaki (care), tiaki (support), and aroha (love) for all those who would come to this land. In my opinion, that was the intent – that we would nurture everybody who calls New Zealand home.”

He says that Māori have a voice, but it must be acknowledged that this is a nation for all New Zealanders. “So how do we build a relationship that encompasses all? That’s the bicultural link that we have to discuss, and we need to be bold about having those conversations.

“For the Māori who work in the public sector, it’s about how we can share or fulfil our knowledge in a mana-enhancing way.

“Although we have a voice, it should be the voice of the collective not the individual. Yes, acknowledge our pain, but also acknowledge what an aspirational future could look like. History is history, the future is mystery, we don’t want to take our history and rub it all around our future. If we can change our narrative, we can start to create a better mystery that will be beneficial for us all.”