‘Priceless skill’: The Māori hunter helping women swap the food bank for the rifle

Pania Tepaiho Marsh leads hunting weekends for women that are now so popular she has a long waiting list

The first time Pania Tepaiho Marsh went hunting in the bush, the jabbering and chattering of her busy mind fell unexpectedly still.

Equipped with a high-calibre .308 hunting rifle and trudging through the dense vegetation of Horowhenua in the central North Island, Tepaiho Marsh was cold, tired and pushed far beyond her comfort zone. But she was also exhilarated.

“When you’re in the bush you have to tread purposefully and quietly,” says Tepaiho Marsh, speaking from her rural home outside Palmerston North.

“You have to focus on the sounds and your task and why you’re there – you can’t have 20,000 things running through your head – that’s actually dangerous.”

Such calm didn’t come easy to 38-year-old, who leads hunting weekends for women that are now so popular she has a waiting list 3,500 long. The two-day courses are run under the name Wahine Toa Hunting, meaning “strong, brave women” in te reo, the Māori language.

The Māori woman prioritises women in need for her free trips – beneficiaries, solo mothers and survivors of trauma. The women don’t shoot for fun; they shoot to feed their families.

“We [women] don’t get taught how to change a tyre, we don’t get taught how to use a screwdriver, all these little basic things,” says Tepaiho Marsh.

“I want to break that dependency. When families fall apart, the kids so often end up with the women. We need to make sure those women – especially in an economic crisis like Covid – that these women are fine, that they can still feed their kids.”

As a young mother of two in a “very bad relationship” Tepaiho Marsh began her adult life as a beneficiary – entirely dependent on the state and her partner.

Looking back, she recalls her dependence as “terrifying”, with her “mana [power] and self-esteem” eroded to nothing.

Tall with a warm laugh and quick, kind eyes, Tepaiho Marsh says that as a younger woman she was unrecognisable; lost, traumatised, and feeling she had no way out.

“It was a rock-bottom time,” she remembers, her voice dropping.

“If you’re dependent on the state or a partner to feed you, you’ve handed over your independence to someone else, and that’s plain scary. You honestly feel like you can’t get out of it because you’re living week to week, sometimes day to day, depending on how bad it is. And you’ve handed your power over.”

‘I want to fill our freezer’

Eventually, Tepaiho Marsh escaped the toxic relationship of her youth and met and married her husband, Haaka, a senior rifleman in the New Zealand army. Between them they are raising five children.

Haaka, like many Kiwi men, spent some weekends “out bush”; hunting with his mates and bringing home goat, deer and more to stock the couple’s freezer and feed the family for free. Goat and deer are considered pests in New Zealand, as they were introduced by settlers and destroy the native bush.

Slowly, a curiosity began burgeoning in Tepaiho Marsh.

“I noticed how happy and fulfilled he was [when he came back], and how centred it made him,” she says. “And I said ‘I want this, I want to fill our freezers’ so he said ‘I’ll teach you’.”

Her first trip was tough. The terrain was rugged, the rifle was heavy and her husband pushed her nearly beyond her limits – “We have a very blunt relationship, he threw me in the deep end, and I just had to keep up.”

Tepaiho Marsh hunts in the dense vegetation of Horowhenua in the central North Island.
Tepaiho Marsh hunts in the dense vegetation of Horowhenua in the central North Island. Photograph: Peter Spinner/Getty Images/EyeEm

But the hunt, the quiet, and the focus of a dedicated task at hand lured Tepaiho Marsh in.

“He gave me a priceless skill,” she says. “I’ll never be dependent on anyone else again.”

“I mean I work, I have a good job, but nothing is ever guaranteed. In this economic turmoil of Covid nothing is guaranteed – except knowledge like this. I know that no matter what, I can go out there and feed my family.”

No cell phones, no kids, no wifi

Soon after learning to hunt, in August of 2018, Tepaiho Marsh, whose day-job is an environmental ranger for her local Iwi [tribe] was at the beneficiary office, acting as an advocate for a cousin.

Looking around, she saw the crowds of mostly Māori single mothers queuing for the food bank. Some openly cried when they were turned down; lives not dissimilar to the one she had lived and escaped.

The situation unnerved her. She made a video asking women if they’d like to join her hunting in the bush and posted it on Facebook. It was viewed more than a quarter of a million times.

Hundreds of women from all over the country begged to join. After many “lost years”, Tepaiho Marsh had finally found her purpose.

Tepaiho Marsh runs the trips with the help of her husband and another hunting friend. The weekends follow a similar arc and have become as much about the korero (talk) and therapeutic power of the bush as they are about the hunting.

“We drive up to a hut that’s 120 years old. No cell phones, no, kids, no wifi – it’s just your beers, your sisters, the fireplace and korero. It’s a beautiful, non-distracting bonding time,” she says.

Sadé Midwinter, 31, is a single mother of two from Otaki. Last year she and her children were homeless for eight months after escaping an “ugly, abusive, violent” relationship. She went hunting with Tepaiho Marsh early this year, and now regularly accompanies her on trips with other wahine (women).

“When you look at your babies you never want them to walk through the same path you did, so I am trying my damned hardest to stop that, and steer them towards strength and healthy relationships,” Midwinter says.

Midwinter had no experience with hunting, or even the bush, when she embarked on the weekend, but she was determined to learn how to provide.

“I was just trying to do whatever I could to learn and gain knowledge, so if we were ever in certain predicaments again – I could provide for them. Being homeless is a real kick in the guts – you feel like you can’t provide the basic necessities of food and shelter. I wanted to always be able to feed my children.”

Like Tepaiho Marsh, the peace of the bush kicked off something “amazing” for Midwinter, who felt grounded and soothed by the experience. On pulling the trigger of her rifle for the first time, Midwinter says she felt “overwhelmingly badass, powerful”.

“For me, the flow-on effects have been amazing; I’ve been introduced to the strength of the sisterhood, and just having that sense that it’s ok to put out some topics and not be judged, because the other women have experienced similar things. I have fallen back on them a few times now.”

“I had felt so alone for so long. I have always had friends, but never this deep connection.”

“Everything goes out of your mind; the kid business, your business. You can just be – because you’re focused on stalking and getting a deer. Nothing else matters except ‘I can do this’.”


Eleanor Ainge Roy in Queenstown

The GuardianTramp

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