MAU Written by Kirsty Dunn

Wenerei 16 Ākuhata

Wednesday 16 August


We can’t go past the terraced banks of the Ōtākaro winding its way through the centre of Ōtautahi without stopping to visit the tuna. My son gets as close as he can to the edge every time. He dodges seagull shit and pie pastry and muddied serviettes to get his knees right next to the wai. He peers into the awa, eyes darting, hoping for a glimpse of a tail fin slicing black water or a piercing pale eye, searching. A waha, maybe. Waiting.

Some spectators dangle bits of bread over the water and others tear pieces of meat from their own lunches and swish them around a little before dropping the morsels into the river. They watch with fascination. Maybe with disgust, maybe awe, maybe caution, maybe with all of these things, as the bodies push past each other to get at what’s going; mouths gaping, swallowing. Their lithe writhing, their silken slipperiness reminds me of strands of seaweed shifted by an incoming tide. 

This is not a frenzy. But it’s not a serene gathering either. This is another thing, in between.


We are all of us caught by something

And yet there is no net, new or otherwise, that can hold this: taumaha

Snares lie, suspended

And the mystery of what’s missing is almost abated

By the delicacy of a drawn out departure


We can make something of the leaving though, you know

Gather up the debris

Weed in instead of out

Find the tohu in the tūhono and all that


Well, here is as good a place as any


Last time on our slow walk back to the carpark, we saw:

two shopping trolleys,

three road cones, 

a broken cardboard box, 

a sorry-looking soft toy rabbit, 

flashes of McDonald’s red, and a 

squashed plastic milk bottle missing its lid. 

There are a thousand whys accompanying our inventory but I am yet to settle on a satisfactory answer to any of them. Driving back home, roadworks force me to change my route: two detours, more road cones, changing speed limits. All those flashing lights and high-vis vests and shiny signposts calling out.

When we get home, tama shuts the lounge doors, lets down the blinds, collects the black fluffy blanket from the wardrobe and turns off all the lights, ready for pō kiriata. Right before he grabs the remote to turn the television on, there’s an at once eerie and delicious moment that feels like we could be in a cave. We might be underground, underwater, underneath the all of everything. I’m grateful for the dark and momentary quiet. I feel my eyes beginning to adjust.


Not yet, not yet, whisper the kōhatu in the kōkonga

bearing the marks of their migrating cousins

the weight of their sister kōkōwai


'you are both the wehi and the wehe’ they sing 

‘both the bait and the wielders of it

don’t you know you live in the trap and the trap wants you to draw something in,

why not a breath instead?’


I’ve been thinking about hīnaki and the running in and out of things for some time now. About the mystery and tenacity of tuna. And how the tops of road codes protruding out of the awa—uncanny beacons that they are—make me feel after we’ve watched a few more of our whanaunga slip away in the opposite direction. I’ve been thinking about unswimmable awa. And that saying about kai being at the ends of our hands.

I can’t make it to Ka kore, Kua kore, so I write in its aftermath because various circumstances and things in the way prevented me from making the haerenga down to Ōtepoti. My response is a collage, then, of trawled-for images and gathered kōrero. I want to get closer, maybe even to touch it, if I’m allowed; to make something of the interplay between contrasting and complimentary materials and approaches; the saying of a similar thing in different ways beside each other. Moewai and Aidan’s mahi and the relationships nested within their work—to whenua and to the knowledge she holds and to the mokopuna of our imaginings—offer not just a commentary on an alarming state of affairs but of potential responses, answers; ripples of stories. I return once more to the process of translation and what might be lost or found or created there in that fraught space, so many mistakes to sift through; broken-up bits of words, precursors, tail-ends.

Ārai Awa in Tāhuna1 is another collaboration which I cannot attend either. This multi-media, moving image installation carries a lament, sings to the tuna heke: a journey becoming ever more difficult. Meanwhile, in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Hīnaki: Contemplation of Form2 displays a range of  intricate, enduring taonga; their cocoon-like āhua so ripe for metaphorical picking. So many ways in—and ways out—too. 


'Kua Tangaroa ara rau’3

on account of your slippery designation

might we treat these leaves, these stones,

these starving sacred traps as pathways through the wreckage?


'Kua kaheko te tuna i roto i aku ringaringa'4

and there you go again, tūpuna, taonga, tipua

your shining puku the original warning light 

I see it now in the cascading kōhatu, the reclaiming, reconstitution, reiteration of a page, 

the once luminous bones of potential.


We returned to the awa one day in the rain. I like these visits when there are less people scrambling for a look. My son says ‘did you know that tuna can live for a hundred years, mum?’ I repeat: ‘a hundred years. Imagine all the stories you could tell in that time. Imagine all the songs you could hear if you lived a hundred years.’ ‘Imagine all the dumplings you could eat!’ tama laughs; it always, eventually, comes back to kai with him.

While we are there he collects:

three small sticks,

five leaves, in a range of colours (two mostly intact, the others much more compromised),

a white feather,

two shiny bottle tops, and

a small black button with a couple of threads still hanging on.

When we get home, he lays them out on the kitchen table before heading off to his room. He returns to find me eyeing his collection; picking a leaf up for closer inspection.

‘Leave those, okay mum?’ he asks. ‘I’m going to make something with those.’


1 Ārai Awa, Rachael Rakena and Paulette Tamati-Elliffe with Laughton Kora, Michael Bridgman, Komene Cassidy, Tūmai Cassidy, Ross Hemera, Amber Bridgman, Iain Frengley, Arihia Latham, Donna Matahaere-Atariki and Virginia Watson, Te Atamira, June 25 - September 22, 2023

2 Hīnaki: Contemplation of a Form, Museum of New Zealand: Te Papa Tongarewa, June 10, 2023 - June 2, 2024

3 Mead, Hirini Moko and Neil Grove (eds). Ngā Pēpeha a ngā Tīpuna: The Sayings of the Ancestors (Wellington: Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2001), no. 1520, p.248

4 Mead & Grove (eds), no. 1675, p.272




Kirsty Dunn

Kirsty Dunn (Te Aupōuri, Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a lecturer at Aotahi: the School of Māori and Indigenous Studies at Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha University of Canterbury. Her writing has been published in Bulletin, Correspondence, Tupuranga, Te Whē ki Tukorehe and other publications in Aotearoa and overseas. She is currently working on a Marsden-funded project about taniwha with Aotahi colleague Madi Williams.