End of an era
The Sunday night of AGM, Denis Gapper reckons he had the best sleep in years. He’d had mixed emotions that day – relief that his name wasn’t in the hat again for re-election as a trustee, but also a sense of sadness that almost four decades of representing his people had come to an end.
It all started in the 1980s, think neon, shoulder pads, stubbie shorts and muscle tees, when Chrysler Valiants and Holden Kingswoods ruled the roads. Denis can’t recall the exact year, but he was in his early 30s when he received a phone call from Aunty Kath Hemi.
“’Come up to Omaka Marae, the Blue Room’, she said, and it started from there.
“At that meeting something clicked, and I felt a real sense of responsibility. Aunty Kath talked about our connections, our Ngāti Apa connection comes through our grandmother, Tini Kere (Denis’ Mum was Lena Whawhenga Rangimarie Hemi , Aunty Kath’s sister).
“All I know is we started off with nothing, absolutely nothing.
“But we had each other and we had a leader (Kath). She was the one who had the knowledge and experience. Her knowledge of Ngāti Apa was second to nothing.”
From that meeting, the Ngāti Apa Iwi Society was formed, with various iterations until the 1990s when the two hāpū came together as Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō. And Denis, backed by a large majority, has served continously in a governance position since, including one term as deputy chair.
“I always said to Aunty Kath that I’d stay here until we’d settled, I’ve probably stayed about six or nine years longer. Mostly it was hard to step away because I had that support, a lot of people had faith in me.”
The people he worked alongside have been the biggest drawcard.
“It’s the people that you’re on the board with that have been the highlight for me. You know, I was lucky because when we started out we had Aunty Kath there. We’ve had a lot of good people on the board and there are some people out there with a lot of knowledge. We had some good times.
“And Brendon, he’s been a great leader, he took us into this new era, and with his business experience it’s really kept us moving and kept things pretty level. He’s been huge and he’s going to be hard to replace.”
Denis is also proud of the way the Trust has worked together over the years.
“We just do things quietly and get on with it. Sure, there have been some trying Trust meetings at times, but hey, we survived them and we always moved forward. You come back in another month for a meeting and that was that. We haven’t been out there fighting with anyone, you know. We put our claim in and it was against the government, not against each other and not against any other iwi.”
Looking back over 30-odd years, Denis says a couple of things have really stuck with him. One was doing the Heaphy Track with daughter Joanne and a much younger Kiley Nepia. That trip, he says, was about walking the whenua, connecting once again.
“It just felt so, so good. We met really, really nice people on that journey, it was just a marvellous environment.”
As for other highlights, Denis struggles.
“So much has happened in the past 30 years. As I said, we started with nothing. We’ve got to, what, $71m on the books? We were that broke at the start that our North Island Ngāti Apa whānau sent us down a fax machine, because we didn’t have one.
“One of the big things I have learned through all of this is that you have to be there (at the Trust table) for the whole iwi, otherwise you may as well not be there at all. Because if you’re not there for your whole iwi then you end up fighting, and that’s no good to anyone, you get nowhere.”
For now, wife Zena is happy to have her husband home a little more, and Denis has his sights set on their bus and a trip to the Catlins. For the past 11 and a half years Denis has been battling kidney disease and he says it’s been a wake-up call to get out there and enjoy life while you can.
He’s happy to still be there for his iwi - “If the iwi need me to do something, I’ll do it” - but without the constant schedule of meetings and board papers. He is also hugely thankful for the opportunity to represent his whānau and iwi.
“It’s made me a better person. It’s made me a lot calmer than what I used to be. I used to fire off at the drop of the hat when I was younger. I’ve learned from the people I’ve been lucky enough to be around.
“It’s made me wiser.”