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Ako . . . New Tuia programme intern Tessa Robertson is eager to learn more about her Maori heritage. PHOTO: ASHLEY SMYTH

Oamaru woman Tessa Robertson likes to think her ancestors would be proud she is taking steps to rediscover her Maori heritage.

Miss Robertson is this year’s Tuia programme intern for Waitaki. The purpose of the programme, which began in 2011 and is run nationwide, is to develop the leadership capacity of young Maori in communities.

Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher mentors Miss Robertson one-on-one at least once a month, over a 12-month period. She gets the chance to explore local government and leadership through hui/events, and in turn helps Mr Kircher better understand what it is like to be a young Maori, growing up in the community.

The 25-year-old was chosen in February as this year’s Waitaki intern, based on the leadership skills she had already displayed and her desire to further explore her Maori iwi, Mr Kircher said.

‘‘Each year, we look for someone who fits the criteria of the programme, and who we feel will benefit from the programme. In choosing Tessa Robertson this year, we felt that she was already showing leadership skills, and that I may be able to help her gain a broader knowledge and experience of leadership.’’

Miss Robertson had recently started working as regulatory services officer in animal management for the Waitaki District Council, and before that had worked as a supervisor at Oamaru Meats.

Miss Robertson applied for the programme because she wanted to make a connection with her Ngai Tahu iwi through both the Moeraki and Waihao marae.

‘‘At the moment, I don’t have one.’’

Her Maori heritage came through her father’s side, but it was something he had never explored, and she hoped she could take her findings back to share with him. She was also taking evening te reo classes on a Monday, at St Kevin’s College.

‘‘My aunty, Kate Mihaere, she sort of gave me my family tree, and she talked to me about how important it is to make these steps. It even just comes down to pronunciation — pronouncing things properly, educating . . . so I can pass that on.’’

The internship involved both Mr Kircher and Miss Robertson attending four wananga/meetings throughout the year, although the first, in Hamilton, had already been cancelled due to Covid, and the second had been scaled back to a Zoom meeting, which took place last week, she said.

She would be meeting other current and past participants in the programme, and hoped to gain inspiration from their experiences. Helping in the community for a minimum of 100 hours over the year was also part of the internship.

Miss Robertson planned to deliver the harvest from Waihao Marae gardens, and hoped it would allow her to connect with her wider whanau. She was looking forward to becoming more involved in the Oamaru Community Gardens.

The presence of Covid had also scuppered a planned trip to Moeraki, but it would happen eventually, she said.

‘‘The goal, for me at least, is to open up my wings, meet new people and sort of just be in that environment. This is something I’ve never ever touched or grasped, like this is very new to me. But it’s been really good, I guess, having that support.’’

The internship was self-driven and it was up to Miss Robertson how she wanted to make the most of it. She could then talk to Mr Kircher about what she wanted to do, and he would help make it happen.

It was about learning through building relationships with people and, Mr Kircher was providing ‘‘avenues’’ to create those relationships.

The mayor said the Tuia Programme was a chance for him to take ‘‘time out’’ from his usual work.

‘‘To focus on how to encourage one of our young Waitakians to aspire and achieve their goals in life.

‘‘It is also an opportunity for me to learn as well, by discussing the challenges for young people in this demanding world we live in.’’

Miss Robertson said her main goal was to understand where she came from.

‘‘I’m smack bang in the middle of where I’m supposed to be, which is the most incredible thing. Both the maraes are either side of me. I literally can go out and touch where my ancestors used to walk.

‘‘I suppose, you would think that they would be proud, you know.’’