Cyclone Cook was battering the country, but the top story on New Zealand’s biggest news websites was about an Auckland woman who was at the centre of a media storm after being found to be “full-blooded Maori”.
Journalist and single mother-of-four Oriini Kaipara, 33, who presents Maori Television’s Native Affairs, had taken a DNA test for a story and was surprised to discover that although she has European ancestors, her parents had passed on only their non-Pakeha genes.
Unveiling the results, astonished genetics expert Brad Argent revealed that Oriini was “100% Maori”, which made her “unique”. He explained, “In the world, we’re all becoming a little more mixed and it’s quite unusual to find anyone pure of just one thing.”
The internet went crazy and Oriini fielded interview requests from as far away as the UK.
“There was an actual storm outside, but I hardly noticed because my phone would not stop going off,” she tells Woman’s Day. “While I knew the story was going to push some buttons, I didn’t realise how big it would be.”
Though controversial, Oriini – who is of Tuhoe, Ngati Awa, Tuwharetoa and Te Arawa descent – is pleased by the attention her story brought Native Affairs and says, “It’s positive to have a healthy debate about what it means to be Maori.”
As for the results, she insists, “It doesn’t define who I am. It doesn’t change me. I’m proud of my Pakeha roots.There are people who are way more Maori than me – they live, breathe, eat and sleep the language and culture. I admire and salute them.”
While there were a lot of negative reactions online, Oriini says she tried not to look at them.
“It was my own personal story and I didn’t want to get caught up in the comments. The only people’s opinions I was worried about were those of my whanau and my children – and they thought it was cool.” The kids now want to take the test themselves, but their mum has simply told them, “You don’t need to. You’re as Maori as you feel.”
Whakatane-born Oriini had just turned 16 and left school to study law when she discovered she was expecting her son Paetawhiti, now 16.
She recalls, “I was in denial. I knew something was up, but I didn’t bother to check as I thought I was too young to get pregnant. I was five months gone before I properly found out. It was a shock.”
But there were more surprises to come. Paetawhiti was born just one month later, with under-developed lungs, and it was a year before Oriini could take her premature infant home from hospital. In the meantime, the teen mum fell pregnant with her daughter Te Aomihia, now 15, by the same ex-boyfriend.
“We were in and out of hospital for two and a half years,” recalls Oriini. “It was stressful and scary. Being a teenager, I coped as best I could, but every day was a struggle.”
When Te Aomihia was six months old, Oriini’s mother sat her daughter down and told her, “Look, I don’t want you to stay at home and be a statistic. I’ll look after the babies, but you need to get your life sorted.”
That same day, the teen was looking through a newspaper and saw an ad for the South Seas Film & Television School. Having been told at her wharekura (Maori language-immersion high school) that she’d be great on TV, Oriini called up and was told to apply for a scholarship. Two days later, she was awarded one.
“It was a turning point and the wake-up call I needed,” she remembers. “I loved it and worked my butt off the whole time so I didn’t muck up my opportunity. I struggled a bit with the English, so they let me do all my assignments in Maori. I learnt and grew so much, and I overcame the shame I put on myself for being a teen mum.”
After South Seas, Oriini worked for TVNZ news show Te Karere before training as a journalist at radio station Ruia Mai and moving on to the documentary series Waka Huia. She got a job at Maori Television when it started in 2004, went back to Te Karere and now fronts the award-winning Native Affairs.
In between, she and her ex-husband had two more children, son Nikau, 11, and daughter Ngarongokahira, four, with a heavily pregnant Oriini at one stage suffering Braxton Hicks contractions (false labour) while presenting Te Kaea.
Now her two eldest are teenagers, Oriini has shared her story, telling them, “Don’t be like me. Live your life first.” When they told her she’d done a good job, she replied, “I learned the hard way. You don’t have to go through what I did."
However, Oriini is confident that her children will make better choices than she did. She smiles, “My kids are pretty awesome. They remind me of the important things in life and keep me grounded.”