June 26, 2010

NEW ZEALAND: Homeless Josie May is Auntie Ethel

WELLINGTON, New Zealand / The Dominion Post / National / June 26, 2010

By MICHAEL FIELD - The Dominion Post

Hawaii's "Josie May", a homeless old woman who cannot remember her name and who has lived rough around Honolulu for a decade, is coming home to New Zealand. But she will return not as a penniless vagrant.

Ethel Helmbright, believed to be about 80, is the last of a once-treasured line of kuia, the granddaughter of a chief who signed the Treaty of Waitangi and the customary holder of a big piece of Tuhoe land in Bay of Plenty.

Until her whanau saw her picture on Stuff.co.nz, they thought she had died years ago.

"One of our lost aunties, what an amazing story," said nephew Peter Helmbright in Opotiki.

"I was telling the young people in Auckland to jump on the plane and go and get her."

Mr Helmbright said his aunt's great-grandfather, Ahi Waru, signed a copy of the Treaty at Te Kaha. Ethel was last of a line of chiefs who had customary title over land – and still held that, he said. "The last time we saw Auntie Ethel was ... 20 years ago."

Niece Colleen Helmbright, of Kawerau, recalled her aunt announcing she was going to Alaska.

She spent yesterday gathering the information to get Ethel home.

"We thought she had frozen in the ice in Alaska," she said.

The family had a house south of Opotiki, where she would be looked after.

"Josie May" has been living in Honolulu, and spent almost a year in hospital in the city.

Because she was suffering the onset of dementia, the only clue to her identity was a New Zealand accent.

The state appointed a public guardian, Peter Petticord, and on Wednesday he issued pictures of her in an effort to get information.

The Helmbright family had no trouble recognising her. Ethel's parents were Reginald Helmbright, a German, and Parekohai Waiariki, who later separated.

In Honolulu, "Josie May" would often talk of World War II. She had been deeply affected when her closest brother left the family to join the 28th Maori Battalion.

He survived, with a decoration for an action in Italy in which he single-handedly attacked three German machinegun posts.

As an adult, Ethel roamed about New Zealand. She has a daughter who is still alive.

At one point Ethel was jailed for theft and was fingerprinted. Authorities are now looking for those prints.

© 2010 Fairfax New Zealand Limited