Raising four children on her own amid great personal loss, Sally Wast committed her working life to her people, Ngāi Tahu, and Māori in general. Now 65 and suffering from terminal bowel cancer, Sally hopes her vision of equality will be taken forward by others after her death. She spoke to Hannah Brown from her home in Invercargill.
When and where were you born?
Mum trained as a schoolteacher and we were well fed, we had nice clothes and a roof over our head, and my father was adamant we would all have an education so we wouldn’t end up in dead-end jobs like the ones he felt he had. He was the same as many men in those days – he drank too much, but he never missed work and we always had a nice warm clean home. Mum provided that.
It was funny, Dad used to make us clean our school shoes every day; he was quite particular. He said that as Māori, you’ve got to put in that little bit extra so people can’t comment or criticise. Mum ironed everything: towels, sheets, everything had to be perfect. Both Mum and Dad were Ngāi Tahu and they told us to think like Pākehā because they thought it would help us get on in the world. I now find that quite sad – but we still had lots of involvement with things Māori, like going to the marae at Uenuku and also Tamatea.
The first house they bought in Dunedin, the woman across the road took up a petition to stop us moving in there because we were Māori. They thought we’d bring the neighbourhood down. Well, I tell you, after a while she was always chatting to Mum and got to know us, and my parents became accepted and we played with their kids even.
Dad went fishing one day in 1981 [after the couple moved to Moeraki] and drowned; they said he had a heart attack and fell off his boat and I don’t think Mum ever got over that. She died of a broken heart 15 years later. I went to spring-clean her house one day and the wind moved a manhole in the ceiling and she said, “Don’t worry, Dad, I’ll be with you soon.” She told me, “That’s your father wanting me to be with him.” You could make a movie about their love story – she never stopped loving him.
When did you know what you wanted to do in your life?
Early on, I saw inequity and inequality and wondered why we never saw Māori lawyers or accountants, and I thought, “Why isn’t my father in an important job like that?” I knew early on I’d like to advocate for Māori and make sure they got equal treatment.
I noticed how Māori have a real calmness about the way things are done, like how a tangi provides such a great way to grieve and shows us from childhood how death is part of life and not scary. My aunty took me to hui and marae and I’d listen to what they were talking about, and it made me want to get involved even more. I think the family had a path set out for me and that’s what I was going to do, and I did it.
What did you do?
I started meeting with businesses to advocate for Māori to be included on boards. In those days, if you wanted to do something the Māori way at work you mostly couldn’t, because all the people on the board and in management positions were non-Māori. It wore you down and I wanted to help change that.
Then this organisation called Maatua Whāngai was set up for Māori within the government social welfare system and I took up the role of mōkai in Invercargill. I was the whānau support person at WINZ appointments, or the police would ring me and say, “We’ve got to remove a child from a whānau. Can you please come and help smooth the waters?” I’d calm them so it didn’t become a full-blown war, and explain the law to the family and why it was happening.
There were a couple of grandmothers whose daughters had had babies. The grandmothers went and just got the babies out of the hospital and took them home, which they shouldn’t have done, and they got into trouble. I’d be called in and they’d say, “Don’t tell me what to do – I’ve had 16 of my own.” My job was to explain the process: “I know you’re good at looking after babies, but you can’t take a baby out of the hospital unless it’s your own baby.”
After that I worked for Ngāi Tahu. It was an exciting time politically – iwi were getting a say in New Zealand laws and we were part of the process. The Resource Management Act meant Māori had to be consulted. Then the Treaty claim started, so we were in a decade of excitement and relevance. Ngāi Tahu led the way in terms of claims and the Waitangi Tribunal, and we finally had a platform to grow economically and ensure our kids could get good-quality education and compete in business.
You’re not well now – tell me what happened.
I thought I had the stitch. But the next day, I still had it – and my whole side was sore. It was cancer. I’ve got quite emotional since I’ve been sick. When you’re a single mum, you get quite tough, and now when something makes me sad, I cry. I think, “At my age, if I want to cry, I’ll cry.”
I’ve noticed when I go through cancer treatment I don’t see many Māori. In the last two years, 350 non-Māori and 26 Māori went through my hospice. The hospice is wonderful, so where are they all? Are Māori provided with the same information? Do they say, “No thanks, I’ll just go home and die” – and what is the reason for that? Is there anyone advocating for them? I’m lucky because my daughter’s a nurse and my son-in-law’s an anaesthetist and they have walked me through it.
How many children do you have?
I’ve got four: three girls and a boy [aged 44, 41, 38 and 35]. After I got married at 20, the fantasy wasn’t as wonderful as I had imagined and I was a single mother for many years.
Tell me about losing your Dad.
I was listening to the radio and heard there was a fisherman in Moeraki gone missing. I thought, “Oh, I hope Dad’s alright,” and the phone went and it was Mum saying Dad was missing. And because they never found his body, we couldn’t have a funeral and he wasn’t pronounced dead for five years. It’s hard when there’s no body. People said things like what if he’s run away with another woman, or still alive and pretending he’s dead.
Twelve years later, I got a call from the police to say, “We’ve got a skull here.” Some people found it on the beach. The police said, “It’s been tested at Canterbury University and we think it’s your father’s skull.” I just about fell off the phone. I had Mum staying with me at the time and I saw the relief on her face. It must be terrible not having a body. Someone as a joke had said, “Oh, we saw him in a pub in Australia.” They thought it was funny. But how insensitive is that?
Thoughts on life after death?
I’ve gone through real dilemmas about what we believe as Māori versus Christian philosophy. To me, they clash. I think I’m Christian because to me that means being a good person, being kind and helping others. The Māori side says you go to Hawaiki after death and if anything, that’s the one I believe in. I don’t think about it much.
Children make life so simple; we make it complicated. I said to my grandson, “Tāua is going to die” [tāua is Ngāi Tahu for grandmother], and he said, “Can I have your Transformer videos?”
What are some of your favourite childhood memories?
My mum was an incredible cook. Every day, we’d have a lovely hot meal and a nice pudding, and she had a nice vege garden: gooseberries and rhubarb for hot pies. Yum. Real food. Homemade custard, homemade gravy. The house was warm. In my day, that’s what mothers did. That’s what my mother did. She cooked a lovely meal and it was always waiting on the table when Dad got home. If it wasn’t there, he’d get angry and say, “Where’s my tea? It should have been ready.” That’s the way they were brought up and that’s the way it was.
You lost a sister – what happened?
Her husband killed her. He stabbed her to death. She had two little boys, and they have issues now they’ve grown up and found out what really happened to their mother. He only spent two-and-a-half years in prison, because in those days there was the impression she deserved it because she’d left him. But you have to get over the anger and bitterness, otherwise you couldn’t function. That was in 1979 and Dad drowned two years later, in 81. It just about destroyed Mum. You put it into its box and carry on.
What’s been your greatest joy?
My wonderful kids, who contribute to society. If there’s anything I’ve done well in my life, it’s them. When you peel away all the layers, what more do you want? They’re respectful, they care, they work hard and they don’t bludge.
How would you like to see the future unfold for Māori in New Zealand?
I would love to see a really true bicultural society. Real equality. Māori are my passion, but equality for everybody. I’d love to see Māori without the highest prison numbers, not living in the lowest socio-economic areas, not dying earlier than everyone else, not feeling like second-class citizens.
This article was first published in the January 2019 issue of North & South.