Former Deputy Chairman of Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi, John Barry Heperi-Smith Passes Away: A Life Dedicated to Serving His People

Monday 17 April 2023, 1:32PM

By Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi


John Barry Heperi-Smith
John Barry Heperi-Smith Credit: Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of former Deputy Chairman of Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi Incorporated, John Barry Heperi-Smith – JB.

On Saturday, at 4pm, JB’s whānau will return their pāpā to Rākautātahi Marae, Takapau where he will lie in state until his funeral service at 11am on Tuesday 18 April. 

The following are excerpts from an iwi interview with JB in 2021 where he shares great acknowledgements of his life.


JB was in his 4th term as a Board member of Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi Incorporated (NKII) and was first elected onto the Board in 2013. JB was nominated in his second term as Deputy Chair for the Board, following the passing of Wairoa delegate Rill Meihana in 2017.

JB was raised in Takapau, Hawke’s Bay, surrounded by his koroua and kuia, kaumātua, uncles and aunties, who groomed him in a cultural setting to build his character for opportunities that would come in the future.

“Among many things, they taught me to gain a good education so I can serve our people”

“Through the years, I’ve tried to do those things that will help our people”.

“My goals have always been to strengthen our distinctive culture and language, to drive and nurture education as the forefront of our success, and to seek every opportunity in order for the next generation to prosper and flourish” 

JB had a deep understanding and appreciation of the challenges we face in a changing political landscape. He was crucial in the changing world through COVID-19 and helped many kai mahi/workers, community members both Māori and pakeha, to cope through the changes.

“My upbringing helped me to advocate not just for physical health, but for holistic and spiritual wellbeing”

JB confessed his overwhelming love for family. “The greatest blessing and achievement in my life are my children and mokopuna who I adore”. With his ‘village raised concept’ he also had a much wider circle of whānau that he cherished and who cherished him. JB’s whānau are very special to him and were the ‘why’ to his life and provided him with deep satisfaction as a father and grandfather.

When JB left school he moved to Wellington where he became a qualified Butcher. He went on to Teachers Training College in Palmerston North and soon after graduating, his first teachers job was ‘Head of the Māori bilingual unit at Terrace School in Waipukurau. He went on to work for Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Takapau as the Principal where he co-designed the kura, which gained the kura with an Architectural award. He worked as a senior teacher at Te Aute College for a while, then moved from the education sector into health as the Pou Tikanga for Mental Health at Te Taiwhenua o Heretaunga for a few years then moved into a management role as the Oranga Hinengaro Social and Rehabilitation Manager in the community before being promoted into the Executive Management Team. He spent 12 years with the Taiwhenua.  

Kapa Haka always ran through JB’s blood and from a young age he was trained by the late Piri Sciascia in the Tamatea Arikinui Kapa Haka group. He was honoured to lead Tamatea Arikinui in 1995. He was then approached by Sheree Cotter-Spooner, to be the male leader for Te Rerenga Kotuku in 2005 which ended up being a 12-year journey.  In 2020 he resurrected Te Kikiri o te Rangi as a vehicle to build cultural capacity for his home people and descendants of Te Whatuiapiti. 

JB is one of the first graduates of Tā Pita Sharples, who trained him in Māori weaponry in the early 1980’s which incorporates Māori history, whakapapa, traditional practices, respect, self-discipline and leadership skills.

JB was a trustee on a number of Boards and provided cultural leadership wherever he went.

With such a busy profile, JB hardly found time to wind down and ‘smell the roses’ so to speak. During an exhibition of Toimairangi Art at Te Wananga O Aotearoa, viewers noticed JB’s name on some art work and inquired of JB, where he gets the time to do this mahi. His response was quite inspiring.

“I love expressing myself through art, and this is one of things I love to do, that takes my mind off the busy things of the world, and allows me to nourish my wairua”

“Matua Sandy Adsett is the tohunga in the art world. To work under his direction is a blessing”

JB, shared that he had been nurtured and taught by great leaders like Matua Piri Sciascia in the Kapa Haka world, Tā Pita Sharples in the Māori Weaponry Arts (Te Whare Tū Taua) world, and he was pleased to be taught by Tā Sandy Adsett in the world of Visual Arts.

“These men have influenced my life and I a very humbled”

In the interview, JB shared that a challenge for him and many people today, is finding time to commit to all of the important kaupapa that he is involved with while at the same time, continue to nurture and look after himself.

“I realise time is not a luxury so we need to constantly reflect and refresh, keep our feet firmly on the ground and enjoy all aspects of our lives and most importantly look after ourselves and those we cherish”

JB worked for the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board as the Senior Cultural Advisor and in July 2022, the organisational changes to the new Te Whatu Ora and Te Aka Whai Ora structure, saw him move into a temporary Senior Management role.  


Our condolences and aroha are with JB’s family at this very sad time.

Forever in our hearts and minds, a kind and humble man who always upheld his beliefs and saw the good in others, a man who will be sorely missed.