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'Josie May' key to New Zealand land battle

By Dan Nakaso

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Sep 10, 2010

Ethel May Helmbright, the homeless woman at the center of a mysterious "Jane Doe" case in Hono-lulu, may play a key role in her estranged family's land disputes in New Zealand.

Helmbright, 83, had been a homeless fixture in Waikiki for a decade until she was hospitalized last year, suffering from dementia and unable to give her name.

Her large Maori family in New Zealand says she is the last granddaughter of a Maori chief who signed the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, considered the founding document of New Zealand nationhood.

So once Family Court custody proceedings wrap up in Hawaii, Helmbright's re-emergence in New Zealand could provide a vital piece of her family's right to land around an area called the Bay of Plenty.

"Auntie's the last line of ariki (a person of high regard in Maori culture)," said her nephew, Peter Helmbright, whose late father was Ethel's oldest sibling. "Now the land, all of it, goes to her. It's all about the land."

Ethel grew up milking cows on the east end of North Island and was the second youngest of eight children. After she left for Alaska about 20 years ago, her nieces and nephews assumed that she died.

But after her public guardian in Honolulu and officials at the Queen's Medical Center asked for help in June to identify the mysterious homeless woman known then as "Josie May Bright," her nieces and nephews in New Zealand eagerly came forward.

Asked specifically whether he wants his aunt back in New Zealand because of her potential land claim, Peter said, "No. ... She's my auntie."

Peter works 300 acres of the family's pasture land on Opotiki, just one stretch of hundreds of miles of land the family claims on the east end of North Island.

How much land his entire family controls is just one of many issues involved in decades-old disputes tied up in Maori Land Court and with the New Zealand government, he said.

"It's an extremely complex issue," said Assistant Professor Mary Boyce, a University of Hawaii Maori language expert from Wellington, New Zealand. "For instance, land in New Zealand was eventually given European-style title, but may have been owned by many, many people and subdivided and subdivided and subdivided again amongst lots of people with rights to it."

A family's lineage, known as "whakapapa," would be a critical part of a claim to New Zealand land, Boyce said.

"Going to the Maori Land Court to make a claim for some land, you would have to prove that through your lineage, your whakapapa, and various sorts of evidence," Boyce said.

Ethel's nieces and nephews say that the estranged daughter that Ethel gave up for adoption years ago now wants guardianship of Ethel.

"That put a spanner in the works," Peter said.

The daughter, whom relatives know as "Melissa" and is believed to be in her 50s, could not be reached for comment.

Ethel's Hawaii guardian, Richard Petticord, declined to identify the New Zealand relative asking for custody, but said, "We're happy with who we've identified."

The land around the Bay of Plenty could also provide a key piece of Ethel's successful transition back to New Zealand, said Dr. Kamal Masaki, acting chairwoman of the Department of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Hawaii's John A. Burns School of Medicine.

"The one thing about Alzheimer's disease is it affects the short-term memory first and the long-term memory is affected next, if at all," Masaki said. "People can't remember events from this morning but can remember things that happened 50 years ago. This lady is obviously going to be undergoing some major changes. Bringing up old events may actually help that re-entry process. Seeing places from her past may actually be comforting to her."

If the land around New Zealand resurrects happy memories for Ethel and eases her transition home, that would be fitting to Peter, her nephew.

"Auntie used to work the land," he said. "If the land triggers her memories, that would be nice now, wouldn't it?"

And it could help Ethel regain her place in the world, identifying herself with her whakapapa once again.

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