Our Unit Commander, FLTLT Poihaere Knight, has been the subject of a Profile story: “Outlining the life and times of Rotorua people from the city’s diverse community”, using quality long-form journalism that showcases the Living Taonga that are part of and energise our Rotorua community.
As No. 29 (Rotorua) Squadron, ATC, we are proud and honoured to have her as our leader.
Discover, learn, and enjoy about FLTLT Poihaere Knight as you read the article and watch the video (reproduced with permission)
Childhood, teenage years
Born a country girl, her growing up was done at Manutuke 13kms inland from Gisborne. Her dad managed the engineering side of a large sheep and cattle station and her mother picked fruit and vegies in local market gardens. That was until she became the first Maori woman to be ordained in the Anglican Church’s Waiapu diocese. That her daughter would follow her into the church was a long way into the future.
When she was seven, Poihaere took up tap dancing, meeting her husband-to-be, Kurei Knight, who was a year older. What the youngsters didn’t know was that in the customary way of the older generations of Ngati Porou they’d been promised to each other at Poihaere’s birth, but left to find their destiny as teenagers.
Inspired by her father who’d been a member of the post Second World War J Force, Poihaere wanted to study Japanese at Gisborne Girls’ High but it didn’t feature in the syllabus.
She enrolled at Waikato University where it did but had to scramble to catch up with classmates well ahead of her in the language both spoken and written [brushwork].
She coupled her Japanese study with te reo Maori which she already spoke fluently; however when her final marks were tallied Japanese headed off te reo.
Her university time included three months on an exchange programme in Japan’s Urawa city on an intense language programme.
After university Poihaere wasn’t done with tertiary study. She remained at Waikato for an additional year to qualify as a secondary school teacher.
Her memories of living in the uni’s Bryant Hall of Residence are those of a typical student.
“There were 147 steps from my room to the Hillcrest Tavern. We’d go there every night for an ale or two during the happy half hour before dinner.”
Poihaere had to cut back “a bit” on her socialising when she became a hall warden during her teacher training year.
Becoming a warden was a precursor of things to come with the ATC.
Out in the world
Her first year as a qualified teacher was at Ngaruawahia High School working closely with the woman she calls “the lady”. That was Maori Queen Dame Te Atairangikaahu.
Ngaruawahia High had a thriving exchange programme with a school in Japan’s Tochigi city, 140kms north of Tokyo. Poihaere applied (in Japanese script of course) and was accepted, moving there in 1993.
Initially she had to leave Kurei behind. The couple had married immediately after her graduation; naturally her mother officiated.
Some months on, his job at the Hamilton court was put on hold so he could join her.
Officially Poihaere was employed to teach English. “But I managed to convince my board of education the students should learn a bit of Maori too. It was neat to walk in town and talk to the Japanese students in te reo. I mostly taught them their pepeha [introducing their geographical heritage].
In return Poihaere immersed herself in Japanese culture.
“I think I was one of the first foreigner teachers to do that.”
It led to learning the complexities of how to dress in a kimono and perform Japan’s complex tea ceremony.
“It took three years for me to become a licensed tea maker. It’s a very methodical process involving exams.
“For me the hardest part was getting up gracefully after kneeling, my legs would go numb.”
Her kapa haka experience with the poi was an unscripted bonus. “Being able to whisk the tea so vigorously with a chashaku [handmade bamboo whisk] was distinctly to my advantage. The Japanese ladies were much more gentle.”
When she and Kurei returned to New Zealand it was to Rotorua to join his Te Arawa whanau. Poihaere relieved at local secondary schools before joining Western Heights High teaching Maori, Japanese, social studies “and a bit of art”.
She was there six years before being shoulder tapped by Te Puia.
Unexpected Motherhood, cancer homes in
The Knights bought a house and focused on their careers. “We were DINKS [Double Income No Kids], we’d been told we couldn’t have children . . . I started to feel unwell. I toddled off to the doc. She got me to do a pregnancy test, I raced down to the courthouse [Kurei’s workplace] waving the stick with two lines on it yelling “I guess we’ve proved the doctors wrong.”
Son Morgan was born in 1998. He was four when cancer announced its presence. “Yeah, it was in ‘the girls’ [breasts] The first lump was in the left one. It was the size of my closed fist.
“We tried to keep things as normal as possible for our son, make it less traumatic for him so that he wouldn’t be scared when Mum lost her hair. The most challenging part of it was making sure he was comfortable.”
Every day for six weeks Poihaere drove herself to Waikato Hospital for radiotherapy. Chemo at Rotorua Hospital followed. Administered by slow release drugs, the normally stoic Poihaere acknowledges they knocked her around.
“That was a journey and a half, it really wrecks your body.”
By the time son BJ (Billy-Jean) was born in 2006 she’d been declared cancer free. It was not to be. Another lump appeared ten years after the first. It was in the right breast, smaller and removed with a hook wire.
Suddenly she was back fighting the foe she believed she’d conquered. “Round two took a bit of a toll. That went on for two years.”
In 2019 the battle resumed when a lump reappeared in her left breast. To counter it Poihaere had a full mastectomy. “We all agreed both girls needed to become part of a rose garden under a rose called Blackberry Nip which coincidentally was my Mum’s favourite tipple before she became a minister.”
There is only one question that can be asked. How the devil did this person with so many commitments cope with cancer’s three-peat?
“You just carry on. If your faith is strong, your support crew are stronger, you can meet any challenge.”
For round three she was given another slow release chemical that puts the stoppers on oestrogen production.
Messing with hormones is serious stuff. Surely there must have been side effects?
“Yeah, I did become grumpy and got really bad road rage. There was a lot of that.”
With the Knights now living in Onepu, Poihaere spends considerable time behind the steering wheel.
“It wouldn’t have been nice to be in the car with me, you’d hear me yelling and screaming, using ‘other languages’. I made sure the windows were up.”
She found a solution.
“I went to the cancer retreat in Taupo. They taught me to breathe, to realise the cancer wasn’t introduced, it was there all along. If I was more accepting of the fact that sometimes a cell will go rogue it wouldn’t be such a blame game, to stop [asking] that ‘why me?’ question. One in three Maori and Pacific Island women get diagnosed with cancer all the time so okay, ‘why not me?’”
Life goes on
With only scant time off, Poihaere continued teaching, leading the air cadets and working in unison with vicar Tom Poata at St Faith’s in Ohinemutu, the church where she was ordained seven years earlier. She received her commission four weeks later.
“That was a busy year . . . I was very green heading for Ohakea.”
It was her mother’s death a month after Poihaere arrived in Japan that turned her towards the ministry.
“I was already a Christian. At Mum’s funeral a matekite (prophet) said ‘one of you is going to take her place’. We thought it was our oldest sister but in Rotorua I got this feeling it was something I had to do. I broached the subject with the [then] St Faith’s vicar Darren O’Callaghan. He took me on as a lay reader then I started training for the ministry.” She now holds a Bachelor of Theology.
Pohaere’s involvement with the ATC began when her elder son joined. Being supportive parents she and Kurei attended the next AGM.
“For a laugh I nominated him [Kurei] as treasurer; he nominated me for fundraiser. I was working at Te Puia at the time so I had contacts that meant the cadets didn’t just have to rely on sausage sizzles at Bunnings for fundraising.”
From that time on, Poihaere and the 29 Squadron have become synonymous. She’s joined cadets working towards their wings. Gliders are her aircraft of choice.
“BJ has a natural flair for flying; I don’t. I’m really bad at looking left and right. It’s the opposite to a car. The instructors keep telling me off.”
At present her focus is on more grounded matters that are the hard graft of fundraising to have the asbestos-ridden cladding on the squadron’s crumbling Geddes Road hall replaced and the building upgraded “to last another 50 years.”
It anyone is the epitome of that old maxim “if you want something done ask a busy person” it’s Poihaere Knight.
To borrow her own words, she’s someone who thrives on challenge.
“Being involved in so much can be challenging, a bit of a balancing act when there are all these different worlds I walk in. I have had to be helped on my cancer journey so I am hopeful I am able to be of some help to others.”
Poihaere (Denise) Knight – the facts of her life
Family, people. “I’m a real people person”. Karaoke, “I love karaoke with a passion, singing, playing my guitar, zumba, painting, gardening, weaving, cooking “I’m learning to make my mother’s rewena bread. I love horses; if I had the opportunity to have one I would.”
Manutuke Primary (intermediate years included), Gisborne Girls’ High, Waikato University and Teachers College, St John’s Theological College Auckland, Te Amorangi Anglican training centre, Hannahs Bay
On the cadets
“Cadets is a really positive place to come, they are all genders, races, creeds. Most come shy, withdrawn. By the time they leave they can organise anything. It’s called leadership skills, being a good team player. The added bonus is learning to fly a plane. A lot can fly before they can drive.”
Husband Kurei Knight, sons Morgan 22 (recently moved to Canada) , BJ (Billy-Jean) 14
“Let go and let God.”
* Air Training Corp
Founded in 1941, Rotorua’s ATC was established to train World War Two fighter pilots on the airfield at what’s now Fenton Park. The hangar was the cadets’ first headquarters. The biggest events on their calendar are Anzac Day when they play a prominent role at the dawn and civic services and in the Battle of Britain memorial activities each September. They care for former servicemen and women’s graves and act as marshals at various community events including the marathon and Tough Guy and Girl Challenge. Most obtain their private pilot’s licence.