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Last modified: 08 Dec 2020 12:19pm

Older woman with grey hair, a blue jersey and blue necklace with traditional Maori patterning stands in front of some trees

The Faces of Selwyn exhibition is back, celebrating the district's diversity, our many stories and the things that bring us together. A dozen new stories feature in the exhibition, which is on show at the Council offices in Rolleston and will then go on display in the Selwyn Libraries. One of those stories is that of Denise Sheat:

A teacher, a singer, an artist, a gardener, a farmer, a Kaumātua and a storyteller - Denise Sheat has many strings to her bow.

“That’s why I am 83,” she laughs. “I’ve done a few ten years around the place.”

She first moved to Selwyn in 1962 to live with her husband John Sheat on his Dunsandel family farm.

She was previously a teacher at Heaton Intermediate School in Christchurch and thought she could escape the school environment in the country, but she could still hear the school bells ringing at play time and lunch time.

After having two children, Jeremy and Tracy, she casually taught tamariki at Dunsandel Primary School and then took up a permanent position at Burnham Primary School for the next ten years.

“I loved the fact that it wasn’t like the other little country schools around, where they were all mainly European faces. At Burnham it was like an international school and it had soldier’s children from Singapore and Malaysia,” Denise explains.

The multicultural school also had strong significance to Denise’s bicultural background descending from Motoitoi, who was of a Ngai Tahu chiefly line. She decided during this time to participate at Selwyn’s Ngāti Moki Marae at Taumutu as she and Motoitoi were descendants of Ruahikihiki, who was the father of Moki. She also became fluent in Te Reo Māori.

“I had to learn Māori. I had some from my father, but very little. I found it quite hard to learn, but it’s a beautiful language and lovely to sing. Teaching the children the songs in schools was pure heaven.”

After leaving Burnham Primary, Denise became a resource teacher of Māori for the Ministry of Education travelling all around Selwyn and as far as the Chatham Islands.

“I went to all of the schools in Selwyn to tell them stories and I usually went singing in the car all the way too. I was so happy to drive to Darfield or Springfield,” she recalls.

Denise then went on to teach and lecture in Māori at Christchurch’s College of Education for another ten years and became Taumutu’s Kaikaranga - the ceremonial caller and later Taumutu’s Kaumātua - a respected elder of the marae who shares stories with the community. In Māoridom, Kaumātua are treasured and well looked after.

She also helped on the farm and found it quite hard combining teaching and farming as it left not much time for her singing and painting.

She got a chance to sing when she joined the Dunsandel players with John and together they produced and performed many musicals.

In the 1970’s, it was Denise’s idea to turn the old church in Dunsandel into a craft shop where locals could sell their crafts, creating a reason for visitors to stop in Dunsandel and raising funds for maintaining the historic church.

In 2015, Denise was nominated by friends and colleagues to become an officer of New Zealand’s Order of Merit for her work in education and for Māori.

I felt very chuffed when I went to Wellington and the Māori governor gave me my medal. That was very kind of all those people that wrote the letters,” she says.

Ten years ago Denise left the farm moving to Rolleston. She continued to work with schools on the establishment boards of Clearview and West Rolleston primary schools and now works as a Kaumātua, assisting with blessings of the new buildings in Selwyn.

She enjoys living in Rolleston amongst some great neighbours and being close to shops, the bank and the doctors. She has found time to paint, tend to her garden and meet the rangatahi and tamariki in her neighbourhood.

“I like that there’s lots of nice little kids to talk to in this area, there’s something for every age group here.”

A teacher, a student, a singer, an artist, a gardener, a farmer, a Kaumātua and a storyteller – Denise only hopes she hasn’t left it too late to write a book for her whānau about her many life adventures.

For more Faces of Selwyn stories, visit our Faces of Selwyn page.