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Death of Piri Sciascia – kaumātua, educator, artist, composer, performer

piri
Photo: Victoria University of Wellington

Report from RNZ
Revered kaumātua and leader, Professor Piri Sciascia, has died. His many roles included Deputy Vice Chancellor – Māori at Wellington’s Victoria University, which he left in 2016. He joined the university in 2000 filling the roles of Assistant Vice-Chancellor – Māori, Pro Vice-Chancellor – Māori; he became Deputy Vice-Chancellor – Māori in 2014.

Piri Sciascia, who was 73 and of Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāi Tahu and Italian descent, will be taken to his marae, Rongomaraeroa in Porangahau tomorrow. Born in 1946, he grew up in Porangahau in southern Hawke’s Bay.

An artist, composer and performer, in the 1970s he founded Tamatea Arikinui, Ngāti Kahungunu’s oldest kapa haka group, and was the driving force behind the Te Māori exhibition in 1984. His many accolades include a ONZM for service to Māori arts he received in 2013.

Other awards include being acknowledged as Tohunga Huarewa by Te Whare Tapere o Takitimu, Te Matatini and Massey University in 2001, he won the Keepers of Traditions award at the Waiata Māori Music Awards in 2008 and was a recipient of Te Kete Aronui o Ngā Toi at Kahungunu Ngā Tohu Reo (Language awards) in 2013.

After leaving Victoria University, and up until he died, he has been the kaumātua and advisor to the Governor-General and he has been a key figure seen guiding and standing alongside the royals, heads of state and other dignitaries visiting Aotearoa.

In the 1970s, Piri toured with the Māori Theatre Trust, who performed with famous bass-baritone Inia Te Wiata (1915-1971).

He was also the chair of Te Māngai Pāho and Te Māori Manaaki Tāonga Trust.

He was the recipient of Ngā Tohu ā Tā Kingi Ihaka for his lifetime of service to Māori arts.

And what he had described as his most important role was as father and grandfather to his children and mokopuna.

In a statement, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was saddened by the passing of Sciascia – who was one of her advisers.

“He was a true gentleman who guided me in my role as prime minister. I was honoured to have him as an adviser and am grateful for all he has taught me,” she said. “Piri Sciascia was steeped in mana. Over the coming days, many will talk about his achievements in education, [in] performing arts as a composer and performer, his public service and the pivotal roles he played in many Treaty settlements.”

She said that he would use the term, ‘he toi whakairo, he mana tangata’ – which means where there is artistic excellence, there is human dignity.

“There is no better quote to describe him and his contribution to Aotearoa,” Ardern said. “Piri once said he believed if you ever get frustrated you can either write a haka, or be able to breathe in deeply and go to the next place. We’ll all breathe in deeply Piri as you venture to the next place.”

Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy and Sir David Gascoigne were distressed to receive the news that Government House’s kaumātua died.

“Piri was much beloved and respected by us all, and his wise counsel and friendship will be sorely missed,” Dame Patsy said. “We are deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to work with him and appreciate all that he did for us, particularly through his support during our engagements around New Zealand, and his sensitive stewardship of tikanga at Government House events.

“Arohanui to Piri’s whānau and friends. We grieve with them in his passing and feel privileged to have shared in his time with us.

Haere e Piri
E moe e te rangatira
Okoioki atu ai.”

In a post online, Te Taumata o Ngāti Kahungunu paid homage to his many achievements in cultural, political, social, environmental and economic spheres.

“He has provided many instances as a role model, but no less so than in the field of education, where he broke the mould of his labouring generation by going to university and providing a slipstream for others to follow. Hundreds, if not thousands, have since followed in that tertiary trail. And Piri himself, has excelled in these endeavours, as his former position at Victoria University attests.

“Parallel to those educational achievements, were his strident efforts in the cultural evolution of the arts, and its language and whakapapa components, which are now widespread throughout the fabric of this country, with struggling kaupapa such as the Polynesian Festival, Te Māori, Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, Māori and South Pacific Arts Council, Te Papa, and Matatini, which have become current national icons.”

It also acknowledged his other whakapapa ties – and his work within his other tribal affiliations, including Ngāti Raukawa, Rangitāne, Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Māmoe.

His body is expected to arrive at Rongomaraeroa Marae, Porangahau tomorrow where he will lie in state until his funeral service which is planned for Wednesday.