Review: Nuku: Stories of 100 Indigenous Women

Reviewed by Siena Yates

For too long, we were taught that any type of confidence and self-hype was narcissistic and unbecoming. Nuku is filled with women lauding their indigeneity, their strength and their gifts, and telling others that it’s okay to do the same.

People often talk about the representation kids need to see but rarely do they talk about what we need as adults. Often we look at things and wish we had had them growing up, so that our lives may have been different, but Nuku: Stories of 100 Indigenous Women is one of the few things I’ve discovered in my adult life that’s made me think: This is exactly what I need right now. This could change things.

The book is a culmination of years of work put in by powerhouse writer, journalist, photographer and activist Qiane Matata-Sipu (Te Waiohua ki Te Ahiwaru me Te Akitai, Waikato, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Pikiao and the Cook Islands) and is based on a series of interviews conducted for her podcast, also named Nuku.

It showcases 100 indigenous women from Aotearoa, the Pacific Islands and even as far afield as Mexico through beautiful portraiture and first-person accounts of not only their work but their experiences merely existing as wāhine taketake (indigenous women).

These women are in various fields including business, politics, entertainment, healthcare, education, art and sport. More often than not, they’re at the top of those fields and making a huge difference to not only how things are done but what we see as possible.

Matata-Sipu wrote the pukapuka (book) with her daughter in mind, wanting her and her generation to have access to stories and real-life role models they could relate to which could guide them and teach them their power as indigenous women. I know it will be that for them, because as an indigenous woman who only began exploring and celebrating her indigeneity in recent years, it is everything I never really knew I needed.

The imagery alone is beautiful beyond words. Every single woman looks stunning - not just because they’re aesthetically attractive but because they’ve been captured in a way that draws out their mana, power and strength and lets them shine.

Within that, these are women who look like us, like the women we grew up seeing, learning from and emulating, and the women who raised us. There are women of various sizes, skin colours, facial features, hair types and ages - the youngest is 14, the eldest in her mid-seventies.

What really struck me was that a nearly overwhelming number of them wear tā moko, moko kauae or traditional markings from outside Aotearoa; to see them proudly displayed and stunningly photographed filled me with a sense of immense pride given that our tā moko have long been frowned upon, discouraged and used against us. Here the women who wear them are the majority and seeing that has power.

The images alone tell a story we very rarely get to see or hear. But then there are the stories that go with them. The stories that struck me the most were of wāhine Māori who are leading in traditionally Pākehā spaces and doing so in an unapologetically Māori way. Women who are bringing our tikanga and mātauranga into te ao Pākehā in a way which proves that not only can we succeed there as wāhine Māori but we don’t have to check our Māoridom at the door in order to do it. In fact, we’re more likely to succeed if we don’t.

I think that’s a very new narrative for my generation and the ones before; one many of us need to hear now as much as we did as children. There are wāhine like Dr Lily Fraser, Rangimarie Pōmare, Donna Kerridge and Dr Diana Kopoua who, in their respective fields of healthcare, education, rongoā and psychiatry, are centering mātauranga and tikanga Māori in their mahi and not only making great strides for themselves but giving Māori access to services that actually work for us without us having to work around them.

Throughout Nuku, there is a focus on connection, tūpuna and te taiao as elements of self-care and caring for each other and, more importantly, there’s an unabashed celebration of us as wāhine taketake. For too long, we were taught that any type of confidence and self-hype was narcissistic and unbecoming. But Nuku is filled with women lauding their indigeneity, their strength and their gifts, and telling others that it’s okay to do the same.

Nuku #81, writer and poet Deirdre Nēhua says: "Indigenous women all over the world… have constantly been strong in the face of oppression. We're survivors, we're still here. We still have those links to our spirituality, to our tūpuna. I think those things are genetically ingrained in us. If we dig deep enough, we'll find it".

Nuku feels like a tool with which to do that digging. It’s more than reading other people’s stories; it’s reading their stories and having them be similar to your own or reminding you of wāhine you know. It’s reading their stories and having pathways you thought were out of reach suddenly open up to you.

As Nuku #63, Stacey Morrison points out: “only we know what it feels like to be us… when we see indigenous people rise up around the world, we all impact each other.”

When you start out on a journey of decolonising, reclaiming and re-indigenising, there is a lot that you go through that no one else can even begin to understand unless they have done it too.

This book offers 100 stories of people who have taken that journey or are still on it and they’re saying things many of us have often thought but haven’t had a safe space to say. That’s what Nuku is: a safe space.

Perhaps the most important interview is with Karen Matata, Qiane’s mother. She ends the book with the same quote I’ll use to end this piece because it is everything that is at the heart of Nuku:

“I want wāhine taketake to know how strong and resilient they are… to follow their gut instincts and to stay connected with their tūpuna. The generation coming up after us is… strong in their identity and I sure hope they know they are enough.”

Reviewed by Siena Yates