Tia takes up the reins

A picture-perfect setting. Johnny and Tia and the Ngatai Rd paddock. Photo: John Borren.

At Ōtūmoetai College she’s “very blended” – unobtrusive.

But outside the classroom, beyond the school gates, 15-year-old Tia Tane has her “different side”.

It’s her colourful, expressive and dramatic side that even her closest friends didn’t know about. 

She goes through metamorphosis, gets in character like an actor about to take the stage, costumes up with bow and arrow slung across her shoulder, mounts a Pinto called ‘Apache’ and rides with Tauranga’s renowned warrior horseman.

Tia is sidekick to Ngatai Rd’s ‘Johnny the Indian’. And the city streets are their happy hunting ground – riding tandem down Ngatai Rd, from Matakana Island to the Mount, Pāpāmoa and all places in between.

“Half Tauranga knows me now,” chuckles Tia. “That shocked my friends.

“They said: ‘This isn’t you at all’.”

From a story book 

But it is. And Otūmoetai has been buzzing about the new double act.

“Totally awesome,” they said on Facebook. “Iconic locals” and “wonderful – people expressing themselves, adding some colour.”

Tia didn’t advertise the fact because there’s separation in her life – at school is one thing, out of school is another.

And it was six months before a friend recognised her.

“Yes, that’s me,” she chuckled. Seems she quite enjoyed being sprung.

This story actually starts eight years earlier, when I first banged into Johnny.

It was a brief but deeply affecting and enduring moment.

Johnny emerged from the depths of the imagination, from history, from a story book, from the dappled light of McArdle’s Bush on the Waikareao walkway early one Sunday morning.

A Native American chief, via time warp from the 19th Century Dakotas, the Great Plains of America, to Tauranga. Long hair bound by bandana, face and arms daubed with war paint, quiver and bow across broad shoulders, bare-chested, bare foot and riding bare back. An impressive sight.

Johnny and Tia on horseback in the Ngatai Rd paddock. Photo: John Borren.

“Sitting Bull,” he announced.

Of course. ‘Sitting Bull’. I should have guessed.

“Love the look,” I said to the man astride the big bay, the warhorse. “It’s great.” 

“Thank you. Have a good day.” A warrior of few words, and off he clip-clopped. Down the Daisy. A man and his alter ego, a modern day manifestation of the legend who killed his first buffalo aged 10, who destroyed General Custer at Little Big Horn, and the political and spiritual leader of the Lakota Sioux Nation tribes.

A splash of Sioux

Now, 150 years later, Johnny is bringing his own distinctive splash of Sioux to our suburbs.

Johnny is Johnny Dodds – who claims a lineage to the prairies and Native Americans. “My great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side.” He loves the whole romantic notion because Native Americans have the deepest respect for their horses – like the Ngatai Rd horseman himself. “If you respect your horse, if you are kind to them, you will get it all back. Every bit.”

As if to emphasise the point, Johnny draws a big gnarly hand slowly, respectfully, down Penny’s muzzle – ‘Penny’ being Johnny’s ex-racer turned warhorse. ‘Penny’ nudges him back, returns the love, returns the respect.

And what’s delicious about all this, is the solo act has blossomed into a tribe of two. “Love-leee!” sang one Otūmoetai Facebook contributor. “My kids love seeing them. Good on you.”

The new sidekick, Year 11 student Tia Tane, is toying with a career in eco-engineering to save the planet. But right now, she’s riding shotgun with ‘Sitting Bull’.

“My own time pretty much revolves around that paddock, that horse – not completely, but pretty much.” The horse and Tia have become inseparable after Tia was looking for “something to do”.

Mum, Penny Tane, introduced her to a man with a horse called ‘Apache’ that has more quirks than a cat called ‘Socks’.

“I thought my ‘Socks’ had it all, but ‘Apache’s like a child – no concept of personal space, I can be doing nothing interesting whatsoever and she will be in my face... very curious, with her own sense of humour.” Then there’s ‘Apache’s free and wild side.

“Rolling in the grass, prancing in the rain.

“Happy horse stuff.”

Kindred spirits here.

A little 19th Century Native American history on 21st century Ngatai Rd. Photo: John Borren.

With respect 

Next minute, Tia has researched a look, a riding look – a modern outfit borrowing from Native American culture. All the time she’s mindful of not offending. “We never mock.” 

But is it okay to masquerade as Indians? “Yes and no,” says Tia. “I don’t have a definite answer.

“We’ve never had complaints, so I believe it’s okay for now.”

And while Tia is not Native, people do wonder.

“Dad is Maori/Rarotongan and Mum is English so people confuse me for a real Native American.

“But I don’t play on it. If asked, I say: ‘No’.”

When Johnny’s asked if it’s okay to dress as Indians, he simply indicates ‘Yes’.

And did he think Indigenous Americans would be okay with it? Again, ‘Yes’.

“In fact many people think we’re protesting in support of Indian rights,” says Tia. They get a lot of positive response.

“Aren’t they fantastic. Isn’t she wonderful,” marvelled one woman, dog leash in one hand and firing off smartphone photos with the other, as a little bit of Native American history passed down Ngatai Rd.

*Next week, The Weekend Sun visits the paddock – Johnny’s happy place – where ‘Penny’ and ‘Apache’ gaze over Tauranga’s shipping lanes from a lofty and privileged perch. Part Two of our story will feature on page 2 next week.

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