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Papatūānuku, Pan, and a lonely kid in Christchurch

Papatūānuku, Pan, and a lonely kid in Christchurch


I was a funny kind of kid. A lonely one, even. While I had older brothers, they were teenagers — too old to hang out with me. And I had few friends. I look at my own kids now and marvel at their ability to let new children into their lives. To not be as hesitant and aloof as I think I probably was.

Yet, I missed connection with others. I remember going to the house of a girl I went to school with for some reason I no longer recall. She lived several doors down from me on Papanui Road in Christchurch. It was Christmas time — they were wealthy and had a real Christmas tree. I’d never seen one before. I was nine, I think.

As I left their house, I remember having this sense of yearning for something. Connection. Belonging. Pine-scent, maybe. So I hid in the bushes of their long, sweeping driveway and pretended I lived there. Eventually, the girl’s mother came out and saw me. She told me in a gentle but very firm voice to Go Home.

Yeah. No wonder I didn’t have many friends.

I can blame some of my loner tendencies on a period of a couple of weeks around the same time when I had scarlet fever and rubella together. I was bedridden for a while, and someone, perhaps my Pākehā nana, gave me a copy of Thomas Bulfinch’s Age of Fable to read. Well, I had nothing else to do. So I immersed myself in this book, written in 1855, telling the stories of Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology.

This, not any church, not Māui or Tāwhaki, or any of the stories of Māori mythology, introduced me to images and ideas of the divine. I read and reread that book many times. The language, so dense and allusive, gradually became clearer and clearer to me, and more and more beautiful.

I read about Prometheus and Pandora, Cupid and Psyche, the Sphynx, Orpheus and Euridyce. Thor, Phaeton, and Pan. I imagined a world peopled with these creatures. I think these stories made me feel a little less lonely.

Each story in that book included snippets of poetry from famous 19th century English poets. Here I got my first taste of Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, among others.

After the story of Pan, the goat-footed god of woods and fields, flocks and shepherds, there sits a poem by Barrett Browning. This poem broke my heart, and it still does. The Greek and Roman old gods, she told my nine-year-old self, had been swept away, and something new, Christianity, had taken their place.

     By your beauty, which confesses
     Some chief Beauty conquering you,
     By our grand heroic guesses
     through your falsehood at the True,
     We will weep not! earth shall roll
     Heir to each god’s aureole —
     And Pan is dead.

     Earth outgrows the mythic fancies
     Sung beside her in her youth;
     And those debonair romances
     Sound but dull beside the truth.
     Phoebus’ chariot-course is run.
     Look up, poets, to the sun!
     Pan, Pan is dead.

She was triumphant — I was desolate. How could this be? These gods and goddesses had … died. Replaced by something that meant nothing to me, at least back then. They had left me with nothing to imagine.

Sensitive kid, I was.

I was reminded of this sadness that I felt as a lonely kid when I was challenged this week by a young woman to explain how I, as a Māori woman, forty years on from being that lonely kid, could still profess to be a Christian and yet acknowledge atua Māori, and wairua Māori, as I do.

I don’t have any particular issue with that. Personification of nature and culture as Māori aspects of the creation is not difficult for me, or for most other Māori Christians I know. I had to learn to be Māori in my teens and twenties, long before I learned to be Christian, and those personifications and understandings came with the territory. Bishop Don Tamihere has spoken about this tension/not tension, and I’d recommend a read of his whakaaro.

But this conversation has reminded me of just how present ngā atua Māori remain in modern Māori life and practice. Of course, they are in pōwhiri and tangihanga, as we cross the boundaries between tapu and noa, between the realm of Tūmatauenga, god of war on the marae ātea, and Rongo, the guardian of peace inside the wharenui.

I expect to hear Rangi and Papa acknowledged in whaikōrero. I expect to hear our dead being acknowledged and then farewelled again beyond that impenetrable curtain, to the night, to Hine Nui i te Pō, the great goddess of death.

Reference to these denizens, however we conceptualise them, tells me we live still, as a people of shared language and concepts. Not all of us understand and use those concepts equally or with the same degree of importance or respect, but they do comprise a shared knowledge.

And then there is the use of atua Māori as emblems of political identity and survival. I’d say that, of all the atua Māori, the unparalleled atua of Māori political identity has been Papatūānuku, the earth goddess, partner of Ranginui, forever separated from him by Tāne Mahuta, forever yearning for connection again.

While Papatūānuku was spoken of in 19th-century Māori oral literature, only very rarely, as a physical earthen foundation point, she is now more often granted her own personality and actions. An early example of focus on Papa as a political emblem is provided by Hone Tūwhare, in Papa-tu-a-nuku, which was inspired by the Māori Land March of 1975.

     We are stroking, caressing the spine
     of the land.
     We are massaging the ricked
     back of the land
     with our sore but ever-loving feet:
     hell, she loves it!
     Squirming, the land wriggles
     in delight
     we love her.

Then there is the poetry of Roma Potiki:

     i am Papatuanuku
     giving them completely i hold strength in its upright form –
     my base maps the pattern of mottled life,
     rain and rivers.
     when the rest is gone
     you will know me –
     you who press on my skin
     tread the body you do not recognise.
     with my face made of bones
     my stomach eternally stretching
     i need no definition
     i am Papatuanuku, the land

Largely silent since the creation of the natural world, and always spoken of by others, in modern Māori poetry and art, Papa was able to speak for herself, no longer just one of two. This new voice accompanied the upsurge in the consolidation and recreation of a viable political iwi identity, of Māori sovereignty — tino rangatiratanga.

Instead of the eternal Rangi and Papa, the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s gave us a new coupled image: Papatūānuku and ngā atua Māori in a nurturing and embracing relationship on the one hand — and rootless tauiwi bent on destruction of the land on the other.


     You worked hard
     raping the belly of Papa
     slashing fern
     exposing inner fertility
     burning seeds
     raging fires
     across brown breasts
     – greed
     aborted tapu
     rooting ancient coverings
     bringing to Aotearoa
     ragwort gorse
     and new words:
     lazy black Hori –
     sowing money crosses
     across barren earth
     stripping Papatuanuku bare
     stamping your queen’s head
     on the land
     You worked hard.
     We are working,
     Covering our naked mother,
     Regenerating the earth,
     Nourishing with love,
     Unclasping greed shackles,
     Reshaping body beauty,
     Singing growing songs.
     Working still.
     (Hinewīrangi Kohu in Ihimaera, 1993)

In the fight for recognition of the foreshore and seabed, Sean Ellison and Angeline Greensill retold the story of Papa and other atua Māori before the Waitangi Tribunal in 2004:

Tangaroa still embraces Papatūānuku. Ranginui still embraces Papatūānuku. The foreshore is the space where one can clearly witness the movement and exchange of energies, and the preparation, bustling and adaptation made by the divine influences of the gods as they perpetually seek to express the inherent universal balance and harmony, one with another, within the ever-changing reality of the physical world …

Jessica Hutching, Rose Pere, and Tagan Paul, among others, have also identified Papa as the protector and progenitor of mana wahine:

Mana wahine is uniquely Māori in that it is grounded in Papatūānuku, with roots in tikanga Māori. Māori women, who form the fibre, are at the centre of this approach.

Papatūānuku is also the vanguard of climate change action and care for the environment. She has been co-opted, too, in national party political strategy focused on climate change and environmentalism. In 2008, a vote for the Māori Party could be described as a vote for Papatūānuku. Papa makes it into the Māori Party constitution, just as she was included in the Mana Motuhake manifesto more than 20 years earlier.

Kaupapa Māori is the foundation of Māori culture and is derived from this Māori world view. Growing from within the kaupapa are our tikanga, like the trees that spring from Papatūānuku. The tikanga are the policies, practices and organisational structures of the Party that are aligned to and consistent with the foundation kaupapa, and will benefit not only Māori but all those people who lay claim to this country as their homeland. (Māori Party Constitution, ratified on 20 February, 2016.)

In 2017, lawyer Kingi Snelgar argued for legal recognition of Papa:

Things like Papatūānuku as a concept should be recognised as part of our legal framework. And, if we’re going to flourish as a human race, we need to embrace our indigenous thinking and not rely on individual, corporate minds.

In July this year, an idea was publicly announced to erect a massive pou of Papatūānuku in Auckland, at Wynyard Point or Bastion Point. The role and authority for Ngāti Whātua in supporting the idea, pushed by Ian Taylor and Animation Research Ltd, has now been hotly disputed.

The idea caused a bit of a stir, not least because the pou is intended to speak to, and for, all New Zealanders, not just to Māori.

For others, perhaps, it is jarring to think of an enormous pou of Papa rising above the earth. What are we supposed to do when we utter, or hear, those words, “ki a Papatūānuku e takoto nei, ki a Ranginui e tū ake nei” — to Papatūānuku lying there, to Ranginui rising above — referring to the separated nature of our modern world, with earth and sky forever apart? Do we now say, “ki a Papa e tū mai nei”?

But, really, the idea is not all that startling when we see it as just another moment in more than a century of the development of Papa as a focal point, a personality, and a presence that serves to underscore and protect a broad Māori political identity.

Time will tell what happens with that pou, and whether we will ever see Papatūānuku as our great “statue of liberty”, rising from her very own … ground.

Perhaps it doesn’t really matter in the great sweep of Māori cultural history.

From person to person, and from collective to collective, amid conflicting ideas of the divine and the transcendent, Māori exercise very different conceptions of what atua Māori really are.

And yet, such differences fall away. In short, we have imagined and recreated, in our modern and various understandings of Papatūānuku, our very cultural survival.

So, unlike Pan, Papa is not dead. She is not a quaint cultural artefact overcome by the brute force of modernity, who left us bereft and lonely. Our poets still sing of her — looking not to the sun but to the ground on which we all stand


Beyond the Bubble ep 2/2!

Beyond the Bubble ep 2/2!

Yay, part two of the first ep of our web series is up. Things get a teeny bit testy as Dion, Wendi & Maryan consider if we really can be certain that laws enabling euthanasia will have no effect on people who are vulnerable or even suicidal. How do we balance hope of a good life with the right to die, particularly for younger people? Watch & share whānau…

Beyond the Bubble: conversations across the divide. Ep 1/2!

Beyond the Bubble: conversations across the divide. Ep 1/2!

Something a bit different on this blog, episode 1 of a new web series I have been involved in. The topic of this first ep is euthanasia and assisted dying. Various people get exercised about the issue, but civilly so, including Wendi Wicks, Dion Howard and Maryan Street. Big issue, lots to say, we only get to some of it here, but better than a kick in the head as my Mum would say. My oath! Please watch here and share!

Kia ora!

Why is God and sexuality so bloody difficult?

Why is God and sexuality so bloody difficult?

Content warning. This column may contain half-pie, untrained theological musings, so will probably be bad for your health.

Sometime after my 30th birthday, I gave in. All my life, there has been something I recognised, if I truly slowed down long enough to listen to the world around me.

Francis Spufford describes one of those moments of recognition in Unapologetic:

It feels as if everything is with light, everything floats on a sea of light, everything is just a surface feature of the light. And that includes me. Every tricky thing I am, my sprawling piles of memories and secrets and misunderstandings, float on the sea; are local corrugations and whorls with the limitless light just behind. And now I’ve forgotten to breathe, because the shining something, an infinitesimal distance away out of the universe, is breathing in me and through me … someone, not something, is here.

And, despite the long and depressing history of colonialism around the world that I was very well aware of, and the torturous history of the relationship between Māori and the various Christian denominations that arrived in this country, I became a Christian that year.

Or, more accurately, I took my first wobbly Christian steps then. It is taking me many years to work out what being a Christian really is. I started attending an Anglican church, and there I remain.

Ah, church. The ultimate programming tool, right? Why bother? I could just go down to the beach to talk to God (whatever I perceive that to be) and feel good.

The god of sunny days, waterfalls, and puppies is not a very demanding atua. In fact, I can mould that kind of entity into anything I need it to be. I could have a permanent spiritual mascot with all the right political beliefs and all the right cultural characteristics, and I would always be right and never be wrong. My faith need never be on the “wrong” side of any political, cultural, or moral issue ever again.

Why then choose a belief system that imposes any kind of orthodoxy, one not birthed in tikanga Māori, for example? The simple answer that any door-knocking God-botherer will tell you, is the Person of Christ, the guy who died on the cross and was resurrected, cracking the universe into “before” and “after”.

The framework is secondary to the Person. But without the framework, most of us haven’t a chance of seeing the Person at all.

Actually, what many people, including many Christians, don’t get, is that Christianity doesn’t impose a rule book as such. No Leviticus memes to live by. No clean and unclean divisions of behaviour and objects. No “good Christian” check boxes that we can fill in and then face the unknown future confident that we have Done What We Had To Do To Get In The Club.

Well, hang on. That’s not quite true. There is a paragraph or so of stuff Jesus chucks out there that we are supposed to do, mostly cribbed from the Ten Commandments, but missing a few.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. (Mark 12:30)

“‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honour your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’”(Matthew 19:18-19)

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

So really, it’s all there in the last bit. We are to follow. To direct our feet and our lives, and our innermost beings, towards Christ. Along the way, we are to shuck off those things that would divert us from that journey. Apparently, that’s how you become perfect.

Except following perfectly is bloody well impossible. Thanks, E Hoa.

According to the stories Jesus told, and the life he led, we have to give up those material things that matter to us, like status and money. Turn the other cheek to those that abuse us. Feed the hungry. Love the outcast. Forgive every bastard that does us wrong. Go after the sheep that has strayed. Risk everything for the child who has let you down and probably will do so again tomorrow.

And, above all, love.

And WE HAVE TO MEAN IT. There’s no getting away with going through the motions, because the light behind everything knows us.

And so we fail.

And fail again.

And fail again.

Christianity is a religion of failures and dropkicks, hypocrites and losers, because most of us are goodish, but not one of us is good enough. We all know this regardless of belief, right?

Every one of us breaks things, be they relationships, promises, principles, or other people’s bodies. On one level, admitting the truth of this is terrifying, and goes against everything we think we know in this modern world.

Our failure is not softened by our individual skill set and general awesomeness, nor by Tony Robbins or inspirational posters with sunsets and cats and little quotes that say things like: “You are the best YOU you need to be right now!”

Self-improvement, while it can and does help us Do Life, will never mean we stop breaking things.

We will always break things.

But that hononga, that deep connection between all of us who break all the things, is also immensely comforting. We are never alone, thanks to the whanaungatanga of the fucked-up.

We will keep breaking things and each other and we will still suffer. But if we keep turning back to God and acting accordingly, we are rescued from our broken state again and again. And we are loved no matter what.

But Israel Folau reminded us that Christianity includes the notion of judgment. Furious struggle over what counts as brokenness (“sin”) and as turning back to God (“repentance”) and as following Christ (“righteousness”), has caused, among us inadequate humans, exclusion and bigotry and countless deaths over many centuries.

Sexuality, cultural practices, cultural autonomy, the rights of women to their own bodies, the rights of slaves to freedom — all of these things have proved, and still prove, to be battlegrounds. Human sexuality is just the most recent of these.

At one level, judgment is pretty easy to understand. We do it all the time ourselves, discerning what is the right thing from the not-right thing. We can only “judge” something properly when we know enough about that thing or that action.

I am judged right now by God because I am utterly known right now. There will also be judgment to come. I don’t know what that looks like. But now, or then, everything I am is known, good and not — regardless of my careful construction of who I would rather the world see “me” to be, that construction that secrets away my overuse of porn many years ago, my tendency to lie to myself, my subterranean arrogance.

It doesn’t matter what that “thing” is. What matters is that it draws me away from following Christ.

One of my favourite passages that explains how our “things” get in the way between us and God comes from Jane Eyre. This 19th century novel by Charlotte Bronte is often thought of as a simple, if wonderfully told, love story. You know, poor smart girl meets rich man with a dark past, they fall madly in love, and are about to tie the knot when she discovers he has a wife locked up in his attic all along. As you do. She flees, and realises in retrospect that her obsessive love for her would-be husband was the problem

My future husband was becoming to me my whole world; and more than the world: almost my hope of heaven. He stood between me and every thought of religion, as an eclipse intervenes between man and the broad sun. I could not, in those days, see God for His creature: of whom I had made an idol.

Heterosexual love here was the broken “thing”. Jane and Mr Rochester did eventually marry, once they got each other off their idolatrous pedestals and put God back in the centre of their lives together. (Don’t hold your breath for this aspect of the story to appear in any BBC production).

So is homosexual practice itself one of those “things” that prevent any person from living a Christ-following life? The short answer is of course it can. Anything in the human condition that may be bad, benign, or even a positive good, can morph into “an eclipse [that] intervenes between man and the broad sun.”

“Ah!” say the eagle-eyed scriptural traditionalists, “you are copping out. What about Romans 1: 26-7 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11?” Indeed. We can’t gloss over these kinds of passages or wish them away, although there are way more passages condemning poverty.

The Romans reading looks back to the old story of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as the quintessential story of Screwed-up Humans Who Lost the Plot And Forgot God:

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

Verse 24 is the important one, actually. The sexually immoral behaviour stems from the worship of the creature (themselves) instead of the creator. The behaviour is a symptom of wrongness, not the cause.

So what about the Corinthians reading:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers — none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

Drunkards, thieves, and those who pursued sexual immorality in all its forms are to be treated the same. Sexual immorality was a big deal for Jesus, too. Merely looking at someone wanting to commit adultery with that person is enough to knock you off the path (Matthew 5: 27-28). He never mentioned homosexuality, but he made his position clear — sexual immorality would get in the way of those who follow Him.

Many orthodox Christians, I think, would probably say that there is, in these verses, a clear condemnation of homosexual practice, even though it’s no more serious or trivial than any other behaviour. Being habitually drunk is just as sinful. Therefore, homosexual practice (and by extension, for many, homosexuality itself), on this view, is one of those “things”.

For me, though, the question is not “what are the forbidden behaviours we must not do”? Remember, this is not a rule book.

Perhaps it would be more fruitful to identify the sexual behaviours that bring us closer to God. We know covenantal relationships do: marriage, for example, that places Christ at the centre of the relationship. Sexual practice within the context of truly covenantal relationships then becomes rightly irrelevant.

The very notion of the possibility of same-sex covenantal relationships is relatively new (in the context of a 2000-year-old religion), hard, and confronting. And one day it will need to be faced, despite the existence of Matthew 19, Jesus’ condemnation of adultery:

“Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Traditionalists assert that all arguments end here. Marriage simply cannot be between men or between women. On this view, God cannot “join together” same sex couples. ‘Nuff said.

The Anglican church in 2014 affirmed that traditional definition of marriage. And yet, the 63rd General Synod (flash word for church parliament) of the Anglican Church in New Zealand and Polynesia, will decide the church’s position on the blessing of same-sex relationships in New Plymouth in May.

The vote is not about allowing gay couples to marry in a church. That debate for now is closed.

What is offered is whether church blessings of such gay relationships can take place in this corner of the worldwide Anglican communion. To cut a long story very short, a recommendation has been made that bishops may authorise the use of:

a service blessing the relationship of two people, regardless of their sex or sexual orientation where the minister has satisfied him or herself that the relationship is loving, monogamous, faithful and the couple are committed to a life-long relationship.

Nothing about this blessing would be compulsory for Anglican clergy. The rights of members to take different positions on same sex relationships would be preserved.

Nevertheless, and regardless of the definition of marriage, this would be a clear step towards recognising that all couples can enter into covenantal relationships, and therefore that sexual orientation and sexual practice are not merely, by definition, “things” that get in the way of the journey to follow Christ.

Whichever way the vote goes — and the smart money appears to be on the approval of such blessings — people will be torn. And some, if not many, will walk away. The 85 million-strong Anglican church worldwide will probably experience some degree of schism as other countries wrestle with the very same issue.

And we, the equally broken, will continue to break ourselves and each other, until we return to the road we must travel, and whatever that requires of each of us.

Ka aru mātou i a te Karaiti

Tui, tui, tuituia mātou

Tuia ki te tumanako

Called to follow Christ

Bind us together

Bind us in hope.

[Please note this article has also been published on E-Tangata.

Something about stories.

Something about stories.

One evening, a few months ago I found myself sitting on the couch opposite my son.  We were both filling out a Harvard University online test, testing our unconscious biases.  These tests , which make you hit specific keys in response to images of faces and words, are fun, and maybe not very accurate. At any rate, it turned out that I had a moderate unconscious biases against African-Americans and women. Oh bloody marvellous. All my carefully nurtured social liberalism and bleeding heart centre-leftism (with dashes of deep orthodox conservatism, truth be told) was rent asunder and I was left with the fact that, underneath it all, I remain a bundle of automatic reactions I can’t control. As are we all, I guess.

My son though, showed a moderate unconscious bias towards African-Americans. He couldn’t be bothered with the gender test and loped off to play Fortnite with his teen male mates, but still, he gives me hope.  A hope that something in his growth and development, and in the images and people that he sees around him in his teen world has gifted him better soil in which to nurture a more open view of people that look different to him.

Perhaps my (almost) relentlessly Pākehā-centric upbringing in 1970s Christchurch gifted me a different kind of soil. One that grew me into a person who has had to learn to not be afraid of difference. Hell, let’s not beat around the bush, of course it did. It took years of very conscious effort for me not to be afraid to walk into a room full of people darker than I was. Despite my strong matriarchal upbringing and all-girls state education it took years too, to realise that male leadership and breezy male authority in all matters are not written in the stars. I still have to fight to over-compensate, even today, the day I turn 48, for my own simple sexism and racism.

I think background is one thing, but also what really matters are the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we hear or read. When I think back on the stories I immersed myself in as a lonely bookish kid, they were the staples of what I imagine a 1960s English childhood would be: Famous Five, Secret Seven, Billy Bunter, the Hardy Boys, Bullfinches’ Greek myths, Narnia, Corrigan, and the occasional AW Reed story. My imaginary friends all had English accents and said “My hat!” a lot. We watched a lot of Queen’s Christmas Messages when I was growing up.

My movie memories are largely the black and white and sometimes colour ones I’d watch with my mother on Sunday afternoons while she did hours and hours of ironing. I just don’t remember, in the main, any stories with brown or black faces, unless they were the occasional Louis Armstrong or Sidney Poitier moment. I don’t remember female book heroes either (except for George in the Famous Five and Lucy in Narnia). I lived in a Pākehā visual bubble, with occasional Māori guest appearances from Prince Tui Teka and Billy T James. There was simply no narrative of Māori life that I ever saw until I was an adult, and my own post-urbanisation family story was simply too remote to create images in my head.

Things are different for my boy and I think his assumptions are different. He knows, very early in his life , where he comes from and that he is Māori, which is just how it is. The predominant mode of visual story surrounding him is still a Pākehā one, but Boy,  Dark Horse are (boy-centric) stories that he will watch again and again, even as he pretends to do his reo Māori homework for school. Neither film reflects his own life really, but to him, they are just normal stories, just part of the Great Story of Everything. Perhaps his openness to diversity won’t last. Who knows. Part of my job is to make sure he continues to see the world outside the bubble we have no doubt created for him.

So ever since he heard about this year’s Māoriland Film Festival up in Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga country in Ōtaki from 21-25 March he’s been keen to go. Actually he’s not that interested in going to the movies of this festival, in its fifth anniversary year, the ‘most significant indigenous film festival of the southern hemisphere’, according to the blurb. To him, stories made by and about Māori or by and about other indigenous peoples perhaps don’t sound all that different to anything else, really. I think he wants to go because he’s just never been to a film festival before; his uncle and aunty run it, and his Aunty Hinemoa will be down from Auckland. That’ll do. What more do you need?

So after work today (Friday, as I write) we’ll drive in. There’s a doco on late this afternoon, Defending the Fire, that promises to be a layered look at what we mean when we speak of a ‘native warrior’. Maybe we’ll sneak in to catch some of the Ookie-Spookies short films, perhaps the one about the Stállu a Sámi monster who is an outcast in society (Slincraze Stállu) or about a young Aboriginal tracker hunting down criminals on the Australian Western frontier (Blight).  

Actually we’ll probably dine out on ‘Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, a feature documentary about the role of Native Americans in popular music history. The funny thing is that this movie will no doubt be revelatory to me, but not for my seriously musical son. My guess is, he’ll be utterly unsurprised that there has been such an extraordinary Native contribution to popular music. He’ll just enjoy the tunes, and effortlessly add this information to what he already knows is normal. We probably won’t be there for the closing day on Sunday, but the programme, with 100 movies in total, is full and rich right up until Sunday night.

Knowing my luck and his personality, my son will probably declare himself absolutely bored at some point and go find somewhere to hang out on his phone, while I’ll continue to bask in images and sounds different to the ones I grew up with. Normal, but enhanced, transmission after all, then.

[This post has already appeared in a very slightly edited form on E-Tangata.]

The marae and the long shadow.

The marae and the long shadow.

The kuia and I trade calls, our voices wreathed in the morning mist. The house before me, rooted in the earth, pushes up against the grey sky, creating space for us. The group advances with me. We pause. I remember my mum — two years passed. Her throaty chuckle echoes in my mind. Tears fall, again. We move on across the marae ātea.

The last of the calls fade into the air, and we shuffle into the house to find our place, our seats, trying not to be seen but still wanting to see. We negotiate parking spaces; we sit. We watch our breath floating on the air, we listen to the heat pump on the back wall straining to warm the winter void between carvings, weavings, people.

They sit, in the darkened corner, the four of them. An old, lean man with a piece of paper in his hands; a younger, slightly rounder man, both on the front bench. On the back bench sits the silver-haired kuia, smiling at no one in particular. The blonde girl perches off to the side. Knees pointing to the direction she really wants to take, as if she has been press-ganged into these cultural duties — while she was on her way to work, to her mate’s place, to anywhere but here. Yet here she is.

Facing them, we sit. Our single speaker holds his smartphone in a tight grip; the words to his whaikōrero glaring from its tiny screen. Like me, he’s been practising in the car on the way up. Women sitting around me hold pieces of paper, creases bisecting the words to our single waiata. In this pōwhiri it seems okay not to know things off by heart. No shame, but also little quarter given. What must be done must still be done, depletions and dwindlings be damned.

Tikanga, the Correct Way to Behave, carried us along in our willing conformity. Above all, the house holding us within it cannot be left to speak for itself.

Each kaikōrero stands and speaks as they must. As we all need them to. They pay just the right deference to God and gods, to land, to water, to sky, to us and to all our dead. Words ebb and flow between us, some of them in English. When the time comes, we join to harirū, to “how-do-you-do”. Our 25 souls to their four. Us and our heavy footsteps on their marae and in their whare. Within the hour the four leave us, and we fill up their space with noise, chatter and our business.

In the two warmth-filled days I spent there it was hard to shake off the sense of foreboding I felt when I looked around me. It felt as if this place were under a shadow, ever-lengthening across our landscapes, falling over many of our marae.

More than 770 traditional marae complexes like this one, usually incorporating a wharenui or whare rūnanga (meeting house) and marae ātea (ritual space outside the house), are embedded across Aotearoa, at least 743 of them in the North Island. Dozens more pan-tribal complexes have grown in cities.

These documented structures don’t tell the full story of our marae-claimed lands. Many of the traditional complexes are likely to be still unknown to researchers, given that there are more than 1300 marae reserves registered under Te Ture Whenua Māori Act 1993.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, these often tiny built spaces are increasingly vulnerable to demographic change. As kaikōrero and kaikaranga in remoter areas decline in numbers, some paepae, or speaker’s benches, simply empty. In some places, too, the karanga is no longer heard.

We have known about this danger for a long time. My awareness of the lengthening shadow has been further provoked in recent weeks by a worrying series of events. A month or so after I returned from the marae hui, Bruce Stewart died at his beloved Tapu Te Ranga marae in Island Bay, Wellington. An extraordinary man with a vision to match, Bruce left his people to remain as kaitiaki of an urban marae, hewn by hand out of recycled and scavenged materials, dug into the hillside.

Haere ki ōu mātua tipuna.
Haere, haere,
okioki ai . . .

That marae is also vulnerable, as a result of a fraught relationship with the Wellington City Council and with some in the community. Building-compliance demands hang heavy on this idiosyncratic, 10-storey structure, described by council spokesman Richard MacLean as a ‘death-trap’. Parts of the complex have been closed up and barricaded off from use.

Almost a year before Bruce’s death, his son Hirini acknowledged the shadow lying over their marae:

It’s the proverb he always told us — those who build the house are built by the house. And so all those people will come down with the house, if it comes down.

Well. We all have much to lose if our houses come down. The marae complex, no matter how plain, enables the iwi, hapū or urban collective to have a point of foundation in the world, by affirming the links of the people with ancestors, land, guardians and waters. The spaces of the marae ātea and the whare rūnanga make us cross thresholds: between the worlds of the living and the dead; between descendants and ancestors; between this world and other worlds. If such places can survive demolition, that is. For the very earth within which marae are embedded has been shifting and seething.

Rū ana te whenua.Whati ana te moana . . .

From 1 July 2017, every wharenui or whare rūnanga has been counted as a “building” under the newly amended Building Act 2004, unless it can show that it is a “building used wholly or primarily for residential purposes”. Arguably, most marae whare are not usually wholly or primarily places of residence, so will likely have no exemption under the amended legislation.

Exemption from what, you ask?

Local councils will need to determine whether such “buildings”, including marae complexes, are earthquake-prone. If they are, the councils will issue notices requiring seismic work to be done by a deadline of the council’s choosing. Given that at least 70 per cent of existing marae structures are estimated to be over 50 years old, the number of marae needing work done could be large indeed.

In brutal summary, marae deemed earthquake-prone will need to be upgraded or replaced, or face demolition. While marae complexes must be safe for all people, the potential financial, spiritual and emotional costs are likely to be huge, if not insurmountable, for poorer Māori communities.

In early 2016, the MP for Te Tai Tonga, Rino Tirikatene, unsuccessfully sought an exemption for marae under the Act, and tried to draw parliament’s attention to such complexes being more than mere buildings:

[In] te ao Māori a wharenui is more than just a building. It is representative of our tūpuna. If we look at all the various parts of a marae, they are the parts of the body of our tūpuna, so there is more than just a bare-boned, inanimate-type object that we are referring to in this legislation. I think that is what this legislation fails to do — it fails to address the extra spiritual meaning that is applied to buildings.

Other events have also prompted me to sense the shadow over our marae and their futures. During 2016 and 2017 there has been unprecedented coverage of the role of marae complexes as the providers of welfare and emergency assistance to anyone in need. Such media stars have included Takahanga marae, which helped people after the 2016 earthquakes in Kaikoura, and Rautahi marae in Kawerau, which opened its doors to flood victims after the April 2017 Edgecumbe floods, among others.

There were Te Puea and Manurewa marae, housing the homeless in 2016 and 2017 as an emergency extension of government services in response to the housing crisis in Auckland. Marae complexes have become, more publicly at least, centres of emergency welfare. These activities push the marae beyond their usual functions.

In something of a cruel irony, the new building laws may stretch further, to these marae, too. Councils will identify and prioritise “buildings” likely to be used for emergency accommodation. Such buildings are more likely to be assessed earlier. If they are found to be earthquake-prone, such marae will be required to have the remedial work done more rapidly. Marae such as those I have just named could well be “rewarded” for opening their doors to those in emergency need by being subjected to even greater scrutiny and earthquake compliance requirements than other buildings.

There was generous public praise of the marae which helped their communities in times of need. But praise is a fickle creature. During the same short passage of weeks in which Bruce Stewart passed and the new legislation was enacted, Awataha marae in Northcote, Auckland, became the focus of an unprecedented political attack. The attack showed not only how Māori institutions and people can easily become political pawns, but also how marae can end up out of sync with their own communities.

In the run-up to the 2017 general election, the Labour Party established a scheme to attract young people from overseas to buy return tickets to New Zealand, so that they could participate for three months in an internship scheme that would give them valuable electioneering experience.

The scheme got too big for its boots, and the decision to house the interns at Awataha, an urban marae not designed for housing such a large number over such a long period of time, caused an outcry. Marama Fox, Māori Party co-leader, compared the interns to “slaves”. Some media described the marae itself, and the temporary sleeping structures it put up, as “slum accommodation” and dubbed it “the sweatshop marae”.

Although subsequent reports downplayed the culpability of the marae, mud sticks — and filth sticks even longer. Awataha marae faced reputational ruin over a situation for which they were largely not responsible. It is a well-known axiom among Māori that any marae that abuses visitors will lose its own mana and become dusty from its own neglect:

Tangata takahi manuhiri, he marae puehu.

In fact, Awataha had already been the target of street protest weeks before the internship story broke. Some Māori, represented by Te Raki Paewhenua Māori Committee, felt excluded from the marae, which was designed to be used as an urban foundation point for local Māori communities.

They claimed that the marae was instead hiring itself out to other groups, severely limiting the use of the marae for tangihanga and other cultural celebrations and commemorations of local Māori.

While it is anyone’s guess how this long-simmering stoush will end, it is certainly true that a marae cannot, and perhaps should not, stand if the home people don’t support it.

The threat of disconnection between people and a marae leads me to yet another June 2017 event that forms part of the shadow in my mind’s eye.

This time, the story occurs in Greystanes, Sydney, Australia. Three organisations — Ngā Uri o Rāhiri Inc, Te Aranganui and the Sydney Marae Appeal — had the dream of establishing a marae complex on leased land at the Hyland Road Reserve in Greystanes. Like all attempts to realise dreams, it took a lot of time, energy and fundraising — and then, at the last hurdle, the local authority, the Cumberland Council, rejected the proposal, seemingly without a backward glance. In the sometimes cruel and bloodless language of power that erases years of hard work, it was simply:

Moved and declared carried by the Administrator that Council:
1. Abandon the current process relating to the proposed leasing of the subject land.

The main reasons given were (broadly speaking):

  • lack of sufficient cultural connection between the immediate area and the local Māori population
  • issues of due diligence
  • questions about the amalgamated groups’ ability to fund the project.

Those backing the project disagreed. For now, at least, that dream sleeps.

This was not the only marae project in Australia. There’s one in Melbourne, one in Western Australia, and probably others in the pipeline, too. It is hardly surprising, in a way, that such plans are afoot. From 2006 to 2011 the number of those recorded in the Australian Census as having Māori ancestry grew 38.2 per cent, from 92,912 to 128,434. Historian Paul Hamer reckons that Māori in Australia now comprise at least 18 per cent of all Māori.

Tā Mason Durie reckons that this kind of development was bound to happen. As he points out, there are already overseas marae. I presume that he is referring to places like Hinemihi in London, and the highly successful Aotearoa village at the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu in Hawai’i. It’s just the next step in what Tā Mason calls “sustaining the Māori Estate”.

Marae have been constructed in overseas countries where significant Māori communities now reside and as global travel increases, it is likely that overseas marae will be part of a world-wide network of marae, some based around hapū, others around communities of interest, and others still around global travellers who seek to retain a cultural anchor in an otherwise assimilating environment. — Ngā Tini Whetū: Navigating Māori futures

And certainly Māori have spread overseas. For example, Māori have had a couple of centuries of deep connection with Parramatta in New South Wales. In 1811, while staying with Reverend Samuel Marsden, Ruatara established a small farm near the banks of the Parramatta River (originally the territory of the Burramattagal clan of the Darug people).

Marsden, having purchased the land, used the area to set up (briefly) a Māori seminary, supported by other Northern Māori rangatira such as Kāwiti Tiitua and Hongi Hika. This area is known still as Rangihou. Tūpuna are reportedly buried there, and if there were to be a place with a strong claim for a marae, quite possibly this is it. Accordingly, those trying to establish the marae at Graystanes sought to show connection between that project and those historical roots at Rangihou, a mere 8 kilometres away.

And, surely, setting up a marae complex deep in overseas soil can make sense, right? Maybe. Except… it doesn’t quite feel right. In particular, I wonder about the cost to the indigenous peoples of Australia of Māori creating such permanent foundation points in that country.

I was astonished to find no mention in the Greystanes proposal’s heritage report of the original Darug peoples of the area. While the proposal had the oral support of David Williams (of the Holroyd City Council Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Consultative Committee), a Bundjalung man from a different tribal area to the north-east of the Darug in New South Wales, there were no publicly available accounts of other Darug support for the proposal.

This absence of a Darug voice troubled me. I know that my own knowledge is imperfect: perhaps those conversations never took place, perhaps they did. Regardless, the notion that marae complexes should be embedded in Australian soil disturbs me. When we dig into that soil to create places or points of belonging, no matter how well we think we have consulted with indigenous peoples, that soil is not ours and will never be ours.

When I raised a similar issue recently, one woman responded by saying, “Māori migrated to Aotearoa and built our marae there… never were we trees to plant ourselves in one spot. A marae is more than just the land it stands on.”

That’s true. And we know from the settlement process that long-standing claims and cross-claims to land and mana whenua are still being quarrelled over today. But I don’t think that history allows Māori or any other people to ignore and therefore to denigrate the peoples belonging to other lands that we would like to live on.

This doesn’t mean we can’t be Māori on that soil. How can we not be? We should guard and protect and develop our cultural expressions, even in little ways. But perhaps we should be careful to resist the tempting call to entitlement. Like birds drawn and fooled by the hunter, we might just end up in the pot.

E kore e rongo, he manu ka pakia pepetia.

The shadow that has troubled me over the past several weeks won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

Some of our marae are cold, and some of our houses have been left to speak for themselves. More will now struggle under the threat of earthquakes and the financial, spiritual and emotional burden of compliance, and the changes to tikanga such compliance might require. Urban marae are increasingly agents for social change and yet also pawns in political point-scoring, and some run the risk of moving beyond the reach of their own whānau.

And sometimes our people overseas are caught in the no-man’s land between needing to be Māori, and needing to belong to overseas places, but being ever the manuhiri on the soil of others whom we should not supplant.

For many of us the carved gate, the barely glimpsed tekoteko or the peeling paint on the side of what looks like a shed barely warrant another glance. Perhaps the very word “marae” conjures up fond memories of a school visit in decades gone by. Perhaps these places only exist for us in the abstract, in the absence of an invitation across that threshold. For others of us, marae might re-ignite fears, memories of felt exclusion.

Regardless of our connections or otherwise, this marae-studded geocultural dimension of New Zealand society needs attention, protection, words and warmth. Like the language, marae may not survive as we currently know them, unless more of us tread them, sleep in them, call on them, fall in love in them, declaim and weep for them, and maybe even stump up our readies for them.

And thus, just maybe, we can push the shadow back.

This essay is extracted from The Journal of Urgent Writing 2017 edited by Simon Wilson, and published by Massey University Press, 2017 (RRP $39.99). Also published, with permission, at E-Tangata.

 [Image: ko Moetonga te whare tupuna, ko Te Rokekā te waharoa, e tū mai ana ki Wainui (Ahipara)]

Rā Maumahara…Just what are we really commemorating?

Rā Maumahara…Just what are we really commemorating?

This post also features, in a slightly edited form, on E-Tangata.

I have a jaundiced memory of going to ANZAC day parades when I was an Air Training Corps cadet in 1980s Christchurch; events that were dreary, cold and ill-attended. Small crowds would attend, outnumbering the veterans, but not by very much. I remember a few more over the last couple of decades in Wellington as attendance at such services has swelled, and as solemnity has deepened. And always, my throat would tighten, and my vision would blur with unshed tears. There is something very powerful in these observances – perhaps it has been a deep sense of belonging to same old tapestry as everyone around me – a warp & weft stretching back innumerable generations. But then, I’m a sucker for solemnity and ritual that creates meaning, even if the meaning is not always true.

And I’m not the only one. This State-sponsored national identity-making now reaches an ever-increasing cross-cultural emotional crescendo at such times every year, even if only temporarily. In our secular society Anzac Day observance has surely replaced, for many, the public role once played by churches. On this day above all, commercials stop in the morning, we stop, we bow our heads, reflect, and sometimes we even pray. In a country where the bare majority no longer holds Easter Sunday or Good Friday sacred, ANZAC Day has become perhaps the national sacred day of the year.

This phenomenon seems to be a welcome antidote to the usual self-induced and frankly, deliberate, historical amnesia of the majority – that any New Zealand history becomes a focal point of civic ritual is good.  On the other hand the strength of this relatively recent shiny narrative of togetherness has served to hide other less known and perhaps less palatable parts of our history.  For longer than any of us now on the planet have been alive we have paid no national attention to the blood spilled and the stories dug into our own landscape and buried in our own shared genealogies from New Zealand Wars, that tumultuous and bloody period of civil war, hard on the heels of the Musket wars of the 1820s and 30s, that periodically convulsed large swathes of the North Island between 1845 and the mid 1870s.

Officially at least, that has now changed and the 28th of October this year marked the first official day of national commemoration of the New Zealand Wars, the new ‘Rā Maumahara’, the date also marks the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1835.  Conversations and advocacy only apparently began in 2010/2011 to expand local commemorations, such as for the Battle of Ōrākau, to a nationwide event. Such efforts concluded successfully when Leah Bell and Waimarama Anderson and 12,000 others presented a petition to Parliament seeking the establishment of a national day of commemoration of the the wars in 2015. While those efforts were successful, the wars are still not to be included as a compulsory subject in the school curriculum.

As a part of Rā Maumahara  the Ōtaki community has the current opportunity to rewatch the 1998 New Zealand Wars documentary series over the course of several weeks at the Māoriland Hub. Watching this series again has reminded me that just as much as our ANZAC story, the land wars too gave rise to a powerful set of stories that has done much to eradicate or twist understanding of Māori history in this country beyond the truth.

Here’s one small example. The first episode of the series deals with the Northern War, comprising a series of battles, including Puketutu, Ōhaeawai, and Ruapekapeka, kicked off by Hone Heke felling the flagstaff four times at Kororāreka in 1844-5.  the end result of which could not arguably be seen as a decisive and true Imperial/British victory over the Māori. What this war did do, was provide a petri dish for the development of colonial and Imperial propaganda. Governor Grey was able, after Ruapekapeka use new newspaper media to claim that he and the 1300 Imperial troops (aided by some 400 Māori allies) had brought peace and safety to the North. The reality was different. As the settler F. E. Manning put it in 1846:

“… anyone to read Despard’s despatches would think that we had thrashed the natives soundly whereas really they have had the best of us on several occasions. I really begin to think that it is perhaps all a mistake about us beating the French at Waterloo. I shall always for the rest of my life be caution how I believe an account of a battle.”

So should we all be. In the year 2017 when ‘fake news’ made Collins Dictionary’s Word of the Year, it pays to remember how quickly wars become as instruments of propaganda.

One aspect of the accounts of the Northern war is the extent to which this particular conflict was a war of symbolism. When Hone Heke was chopping down the flagstaff he was, as is obvious, attacking the flag itself as a symbol of British sovereignty. It therefore matters, when peace broke out, that the flagstaff was not re-erected by the colonial regime at all, as the missionary Henry Williams noted:

“The flagstaff in the Bay is still prostrate, and the natives here rule. These are humiliating facts to the proud Englishman, many of whom thought they could govern by a mere name.”

It wasn’t replaced until 1858 when Kāwiti’s son Maihi Paraone Kāwiti erected ‘Te Whakakotahitanga’ which stands still.

It also matters that Grey and the rest of the ‘government’ of the day didn’t punish the ‘rebels’ as was to happen with increasing ferocity in other land wars. Simply put, in the 1840s there probably wasn’t the kind of deep infrastructure and buy-in from Northern Māori that could enforce any such punishments. It took many decades to persuade Māori, eventually, of the relevance of new courts and other legal institutions, including Parliament, to Māori life, a project not complete arguably until the late 19th century, or even well beyond. The Northern wars reveal something of the mere beginning of that mission. Subsequent wars reveals even more.


There’s a scene at the end of the movie Utu that says something very profound about the nature of the conflict that those Wars conducted over law, including tikanga, that I never noticed in all the other times I have seen it. If you haven’t seen this film, by the way, find a way. Essential bloody viewing.  Have a read of Danny Keenan’s excellent essay here on the way this movie tells the story of our ‘reel’ history as opposed to our ‘real’ history.

In summary, the story is set in the 1870s, at the tail end of the major conflicts of the New Zealand Wars. Te Wheke (Anzac Wallace), who had been fighting with colonial troops  comes upon his home village, shortly after it’s been attacked by the Armed Constabulary.  Te Wheke commences a campaign of destruction and murder of Pākehā settlers. The Armed Constabulary then pursues him assisted by Wiremu (played by Wi Kuki Kaa). Anyway…to the scene in question. Imagine, if you will….

Te Wheke faces a supposed court-martial at the very end of the film. He has been captured by the Constabulary. He is being ‘tried’ for his crimes. Proceedings take place by firelight, in the bush, in the back of beyond, in the wops. Five people are present who want to deliver justice upon Te Wheke, the prisoner.

First to step forward is Corporal Jones, the last ranking officer standing; the young man who believes he has, in 1870s New Zealand, the authority and might of The Law behind him. He believes that he, of everyone present, has the right to execute Te Wheke. Except…he doesn’t. Not out here. In this wild place he’s just a callow youth in a grubby uniform.

Matu (played by the extraordinary Merata Mita) then claims the right, by way of utu, to execute Te Wheke because he beat her cousin Kura to death. Then Williamson, the farmer (Bruno Lawrence), steps forward to claim the right to avenge the death of his wife caused by Te Wheke.

There is an impasse, so many competing claims to ‘rightness’ and due process of ‘law’. Until Wiremu steps forward, removes his cap and reveals himself to be the brother of Te Wheke; shocking all but Te Wheke himself. One by one he discounts the others’ spurious claims to authority. The corporal, he mused, was Kura’s lover, and thus has no standing,  no impartiality and no privilege of position. So much for him. Matu’s claim is spurious, she’s not even a member of Te Wheke’s own tribe, and a woman to boot. Williamson, as the wronged husband similarly could be no bringer of justice to Te Wheke.

Instead the only person with a legal claim to execute Te Wheke was Wiremu himself. Te Wheke had created a circle of death that could not be resolved by Te Wheke alone, or any exercise of spurious colonial law. Only Wiremu could break the circle. Blood of Te Wheke’s blood, with no hatred or grudge, but with mana sufficient to see Te Wheke take the final journey of all spirits, only someone of Wiremu’s mana and bloodline could uphold his brother’s mana, and bring matters back to equilibrium and completion. The two hongi. Wiremu carries out the execution, as was tika, correct in law. Equilibrium returned for that moment;  and credits roll.

This is one of the few scenes I can recall in any New Zealand movie that teases out so subtly and truly, the nature of the conflict of laws between Māori and Pākehā, albeit through the lens of a Pākehā director and scriptwriter. A conflict that was, as much as anything else, at the heart of the New Zealand wars.


So as we grow into our annual civic commemorations of the New Zealand Wars; what exactly is it that we will be commemorating? Whose understandings, which symbols, which meanings will rise to the top in this new civic project? I would hope that we could commemorate the Wars with a degree of understanding about the ambivalence and multi-layered complexity of these conflicts. There can be no safe and singular interpretation and we should resist the temptation to create one. These Wars were not a simple matter of good vs evil, our ancestors come from all sides of the blood shed.

Kia maumahara.


[image courtesy of Arteis]







What if the Crown is also Māori?

What if the Crown is also Māori?

A slightly edited form of this post has also appeared on E-Tangata.

Symbols come in many forms, tangible and the intangible. They tell us stories we may not even be aware of.

Here’s one. I work in a beautiful building. It is a building that breathes and moves about me. Occasionally, as I walk down the halls or the stairway I feel surrounded by a soft golden glow, created by the sensory fusion of kauri finishings, scroll-shaped corbels, the curved window bays, and sombre carpeting. Mostly, I just feel harried and inadequate, so I forget to marvel at this hand-wrought architectural icon.

“Icon” is the right word because these Old Government Buildings in Wellington operate as a transportive symbol; walk through the doors, and whether or not you are aware of it, you are carried to an era of history that consolidated New Zealand as a colonial nation. Built in 1876, the year provincial governments were abolished and a central government established, this place was the seat of administrative power. This building tells a simple surface story of a young nation finding its way, but the deeper and truer story is of Pākehā power and claim surmounting the messy, contested, and uncertain history of several peoples.

So I walk the victors’ halls. As a law lecturer I now teach aspects of the legal system that upholds that deeper story, as those halls now comprise Victoria University’s law school. You will see no koru, no tukutuku, no whakairo. There are Māori and Pasifika spaces tucked away, if you know where to look, fragile and lovely, retrofitted exceptions to this narrative of solidity and permanence.

Most of us who work and study in this place don’t pay attention to this one-sided battle of stories, and fair enough too. We have our lives to get on with and futures to imagine. It’s our building, we use it, we inhabit it for a brief time (or maybe for a long time) on our way to somewhere else.

Let’s not overthink things, right?

In the pre-election maelstrom you might have missed a pretty insignificant story. I nearly did, bewitched as I was by Jacinda, Gareth & Marama et al (not always in that order).

It was a little item on the TV news (and in the Christchurch press) in mid-September about people lining up to see inside the new $300 million justice and emergency services precinct, including the police watch-house and cells.

Thousands jumped at the chance, with the queue stretching down Lichfield St all morning and into the afternoon. […]

“It’s quite unreal really, definitely a different experience,” one said. “The kids love it which is great.”

They’ll just be hoping this is the only visit they’ll have to make to the police cells.

Somehow this event pierced my election-induced fog. I paused, wondering if I had heard it correctly. I waited for the punchline, or the ironic comment. There was none. This little unimportant story symbolised something larger. Apparently in my hometown thousands of happy people queued for more than an hour to see the inside of a legal system they accepted was theirs but was not designed to hold them.  To such people there is right, as well as rightness in the process and the outcome of law. Law is normal, formal, probably a bit absurd and creaky, but part of the natural order of things.

Five days later the almost exact opposite occurred, also at the symbolic level. In celebrating Māori language week a police car decked out in te reo Māori decals made its debut in Papakura, Auckland. The response was, shall we say, mixed:

“Been to Ngā Whare Wātea today and the kids were all over it. It was fantastic, they had a great time,” says police officer Ivan Tarlton (Ngāpuhi).

However, not everyone is smiling.

Khylee Quince, “Waitangi Tribunal earlier this year, only five months ago, makes recommendations about the Crown breach of Treaty relationships and Treaty duties, particularly active protection in relation to Māori and the terrible disproportionate rates of Māori offending. This is the first we see from the Police in response to that, so particularly poorly thought out strategy in my view.” […]

Julia Whaipooti of the youth-led rights organisation Just Speak is one who expressed concern.

“Putting a kupu Māori on a Police car doesn’t seem to form part of any strategy towards reducing the number of Māori we have entering and being processed in the system at disproportionate rates. It’s like having a pōhiri to come into prison. Putting a Māori name on a police car doesn’t do anything to address the issues.”

Similar feelings had been expressed months earlier when the Department of Corrections launched a new haka to find new recruits, in part as ‘a challenge for Maori to step up and accept the role of being a change agent working as a Corrections Officer’. Others saw such symbolic developments as ineffective bandaids to the vast problem of Māori hyper-incarceration.

The haka and the Māori design on the police car were symbolic, of a powerful story just as powerful as that represented by my workplace: Māori could only be subject to the legal system, never owners of it. Māori (most, not all) will never have unthinking ownership of Crown or government institutions. Most (not all) Pākehā New Zealanders, in comparison assume exactly such ownership.

An example from my own work-life I have blogged about before of daily and undramatic reality that underpins such symbolism. Every year I have a similar kind of student visit me, and we have a version of the following conversation:

‘I’m having trouble with my lectures. I just don’t get it.’

‘OK. What are you finding so hard?’

‘I don’t understand what the lecturer is saying. I write everything she says down. I read it, again and again, I highlight the words, and I write it out again and I still don’t get it.’

‘OK. Show me some of your notes.  Right. Do you know what this is [pointing to ‘Cabinet Minister’]?

‘Not sure’.

‘What about this [pointing to the word ‘statute’]?

‘Not sure about that either.’

‘How about this [pointing to the word ‘Parliament’]?’

‘I know where it is, I just don’t know what it DOES.’

This student may have already struggled with the education system, but not necessarily. She may well be a B student in her other subjects, but the ideas behind words like ‘statute’, ‘Parliament’ and ‘Cabinet Minister’, for the moment at least, defeat her: she has never, in her life, come across them before in a way that enabled her to understand them. Perhaps she didn’t come from a family where politics or voting, or even the news, were discussed, where Western ‘law’ was ever really thought of as something beyond ‘what the police do’.

This student is Māori, but her lack of exposure to the most basic ideas of Western ‘law’ don’t stem just from ethnicity, as I have also had these conversations with Pākehā, although far more rarely. She merely falls on the difficult side of social and educational history: like many other Māori in tertiary study (including me and my brothers) she is the first of her family to study at Uni, the first to study law. She has no template to follow, and for whatever reason school did not prepare her by introducing her to the ideas underpinning our institutional structures. Right now she has absolutely no confidence that this will ever be her world or her tool; how can she? She cannot even describe it yet. Our general system, our Law in all its manifestations is alien and abnormal; an animal to study behind safety glass; a poisonous exotic.

Strangely enough for those who do have that sense of ownership of our general legal system, Māori law has become the alien; the museum exhibit, the quaint but useless curiosity.

And yet there are signs that this kind of rigid dualism in thinking is outliving its usefulness.

There is a sentence in the reo section of the Wai 262 Flora and Fauna report that hit me upside the head one day in 2010, and I have repeated it many times to myself ever since.

Fundamentally, there is a need for a mindset shift away from the pervasive assumption that the Crown is Pākehā, English-speaking, and distinct from Māori rather than representative of them. Increasingly, in the twenty-first century, the Crown is also Māori. If the nation is to move forward, this reality must be grasped.

The Crown is also Māori. This extraordinary statement is at once surely true and surely incapable of being true. When exactly does reality collapses into one possibility or the other, I wonder? Acceptance of the notion that the Crown is also Māori requires reaching beyond the idea of simply negotiating better Māori space, or better concessions for Māori, or a Māori seat at the table. Such a notion requires the development of unthinking assumption that the table is Māori to start with; that the Old Government Buildings are to be understood to be as much a Māori, as a Pākehā construct.

A few weeks ago I was one of the moot court judges for the internal Māori moot at Te Herenga Waka marae; a competition where Māori students put arguments before judges in a mock court setting. Of the six mooters, four of the students mooted in Māori. Each of them was able to move fluidly between an unconscious ownership of the legal system and of tikanga Māori, and a blistering critique of the same systems. Just one small symbolic and up-ending moment of something better. There are other such moments waiting to coalesce.

In truth I doubt the Old Government Buildings can ever really be understood to be as much a Māori space as a Pākehā construct, even if we did add whakairo and other symbols of Māori ownership to it. I’m looking for the day when more Māori can walk through the doors with their culture intact, and are indeed transported: not to an era of colonial power made manifest in which they are an exception to an unwritten rule, but simply to a place they own. Unthinkingly.

Turning off the tap? Righting water wrongs

Turning off the tap? Righting water wrongs

A lightly edited version of this post appears on E-Tangata.

One of the things I’m really enjoying about this election season is how many cats are being thrown among the pigeons. Not all of the cats are welcome, or wanted, but they are making things interesting. One of those cats (although he’ll hate this description, I’m sure) is ol’ Gareth Morgan, that Pākehā curmudgeon who doesn’t give two stuffs for anyone’s sensibilities.

Morgan asked a bloody good question during the recent party leaders debate on Māori Television. First of all he got everyone’s dander up for baldly stating that only kaupapa Māori parties should stand in the Māori seats. While Kelvin Davis was dealing with a mild case of apoplexy at this presumptuousness, Morgan then went on to illustrate why he thought the Māori MPs of major parties were inevitably compromised in their representation of Māori voters. He asked this of Labour’s deputy leader:

[Gareth Morgan, accompanied by pugnacious finger wagging]: “What are you gonna do…hey Sunshine! What are you gonna do over water?”

[cue applause.]

“This is actually really important…what is Labour, what is Kelvin Davis gonna do, when the Labour Party says nobody owns the water and WE all know MĀORI OWN THE WATER.”

[cue quite rapturous applause.]

[Kelvin Davis, only several minutes later when the furore had abated] “…we have said that Maori have interests in water, we agree with the Waitangi Tribunal and the Water Forum in that we need to sit down and work out what those interests are with Māori…”.

Sitting down and talking in the future about the extent of Māori rights to fresh water is something, I guess. But one senses all kinds of bets being hedged in that response.

Morgan is right to raise the issue of Māori ownership of water. For this election water really matters, and not just for Māori.

So much so, that one of the first things Jacinda Adern did as the new Labour leader was to announce a new policy: a Labour-led government will charge royalties on water taken for irrigation and bottling. Cue successive rounds of (a) pearl clutching or (b) airing of valid concerns (depending on your perspective) from farmers and commercial water bottlers.  This policy taps into a growing sense of outrage throughout New Zealand that water bottlers are profiteering off the back of one of our prime natural resources, and been doing so quietly for years – fee free.

Māori have appeared cautiously welcoming of the policy, although the Māori Party has been somewhat cynical,  warning of foreshore and seabed-style unilaterialism under Labour that will impact on Māori claims to water.

To be honest, Māori water rights do comprise a multi faceted and labyrinthine issue. If I start thinking about them too much my left temple starts throbbing. But I think it is worth illustrating that Māori, as might be expected , are subject to different kinds of  injustice that require tailored political and legislative solutions that are simply absent, as yet. So bear with me, for this necessarily brief foray.

Let a single story stand in for the whole.

Such a story has been unfolding about 20 kilometres east of Whāngārei at the base of Whatitiri Maunga in Northland. It’s a story about water; the water of Porotī springs and its peoples, the hapū of Te Urioroi, Te Parawhau, and Te Māhurehure. This story has been in the making for many, many years.

The waters of Porotī are special. They have, according to their peoples, life-giving qualities; the waters are clean, they support important mahinga kai, such as watercress, kewai and tuna. These waters are also used to bless and purify those who need it, in times of trauma, illness, and spiritual need.

There is no dispute about the special nature or importance of these waters; nor as to whether Porotī Māori have retained sufficient connection with the water to have some degree of right to the water. In 2012, the Waitangi Tribunal has found for Porotī Māori (and other claimants to freshwater) that the Māori proprietary right in water guaranteed by the Treaty was ‘the exclusive right to control access to and use of the water while it was in their rohe’.

But that exclusive right has been of little comfort to Porotī Māori. So far, at least.

The ability of the hapū to manage and protect the Porotī springs has been stymied by many things, not the least of which has been the current government’s steadfast refusal to accept that any person, let alone any Māori, can own water.  The famous Red Book puts it this way (at p103)

…the Crown acknowledges that Maori have traditionally viewed a river or lake as a single entity, and have not separated it into bed, banks and water. As a result, Maori consider that the river or lake as a whole can be owned by iwi or hapu, in the sense of having tribal authority over it. However, while under New Zealand law the banks and bed of a river can be legally owned, the water cannot. This reflects the common law position that water, until contained (for example, put in a tank or bottled), cannot be owned by anybody. For this reason, it is not possible for the Crown to offer claimant groups legal ownership of an entire river or lake – including the water – in a settlement.[emphasis added]

Chris Finlayson, the Attorney General is very fond of p 103, and the Supreme Court affirmed this position in 2013, accepting that the job of the Crown was not to reverse its position on the common law, but to recognise those rights albeit in a way that falls short of recognising true property ownership.

So no one owns water. Until you collect it, that is. We’ll see how this affects the people of Porotī shortly.

Another factor that has prevented Porotī hapū from being able to protect the springs includes the application of the Resource Management Act 1991. The RMA includes provisions that are supposed to provide recognition of Māori interests. Professor Jacinta Ruru gives a great account of such protections, along with other water governance issues here.

In short, when formulating district and regional plan rules and guidelines, and issuing resource consents, decision-makers have to take into account several matters to enable Māori interests to be protected. For example:

  • Section 6(e) says that all persons exercising functions and powers in relation to managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources must recognise and provide for matters of national importance, including the relationship of Māori and their culture and traditions with water. This sounds great, but is just one factor of ‘national importance’ among many to be weighed up in making such decisions.
  • Under section 7(a) of the RMA all persons exercising functions and powers in relation to managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources shall have particular regard to kaitiakitanga. Again, it is one of several factors that must be considered.
  • And then, under s8 all persons exercising functions and powers under it, in relation to managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources, shall take into account the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

These provisions are supposed to create a set of protections for Māori, but in the case of Porotī Springs though, they have not amounted to much.  The Porotī people cannot prevent the springs on land which they own from being tapped.

You see, they can only control access across their own land, where the springs reside.

That’s why in 1971 the Whangarei district council drilled into the aquifer only metres upstream, on the edge of the hapū land, to draw for town supply.

Subsequent decades saw the council sell the bore to a private company (New Zealand Spring Water, formerly known as Zodiac Holdings), who then set about plans to sell the bore and to establish a 3600sqm bottling factory. They received the necessary consents to take 3-5 million litres annually, by way of the bore, and there has been nothing, so far, that the Porotī hapū have been able to do about it, detailed in this report by Paul Hamer. As he observes:

In 1960 the hapū controlled access to the springwater through the trustees and the Maori Land Court, and local farmers and the school applied for the right to draw water. Today, by contrast, the entire ‘available resource’ – 19,000 m³ per day – has been allocated to others for the next three decades. The relationship of Porotī Māori with the springs is regarded as one of the best examples in the country of a Māori proprietary right to water, and the Waitangi Tribunal has upheld the basis of Māori claims to the ownership of freshwater. The consent authorities, however, have steadfastly refused to be influenced by such considerations.

In allocating water consents, decision-makers have consistently ignored or underplayed Porotī concerns, and the Porotī people cannot stop the water being taken because they don’t own it, and even in possession of a recognised exclusionary Treaty-based right they can do nothing because the water is simply taken beyond their hapū boundaries anyway.

Maybe the RMA is simply the wrong mechanism to protect water. Mind you, occasionally things can go right, such as in the past couple of weeks, when an application to take millions of litres of water from a South Waikato source has been put on hold. In that case the Waikato Regional Council said the local Raukawa iwi were “affected persons” under the RMA and required their consent for the operation to go ahead.

Some would say also that the pressures faced by Porotī are being replicated all over the country beyond only Māori communities. Solutions must, therefore, meet the needs of the most, not merely the needs of the few. Such a majoritarian pressure is increasingly intense.

But only Māori are subject to Treaty-based obligations, such as kaitiakitanga, required to be exercised over bodies of water such as rivers and springs which, like Porotī are taonga. Arguably, the loss of water in these circumstances and the loss of ability to enforce unrecognised rights create different and new degrees of grievance. Such loss and breach requires specific solutions.

Recent developments can offer some hope for the design of such solutions. For (a very brief) example, the RMA was amended this year to provide for new agreements, called Mana Whakahono-a-Rohe, as mechanisms for iwi participation in local government decisions. The Freshwater Iwi Leaders Group has endorsed these new agreements, and is continuing in discussions on water allocation models.

But the pressure on Labour, or National, to craft solutions to the problems of water taking and water rights that meet the needs of the many over the needs of the (relative) Māori few will remain intense.

And Gareth’s question should lose none of its bite for any Māori in government by the end of September.




Breaking Bad Law?

Breaking Bad Law?

[An edited version of this post appears on E-Tangata.]

In the opening moments of the 1970s my father left my mother and followed his elusive business dreams to Australia. I have read several letters between the two of them, hurt and angry exchanges, and in all of them she asks him for financial assistance to raise their three children. He sent her a few payments, and eventually the letters and payments ceased.  At some point my mother went on the new domestic purposes benefit for sole parents (well, new in 1973). She stayed on that benefit until I left school, and then she shifted to the DPB woman-alone benefit, and on to superannuation. She was a beneficiary for about 41 years.

During that whole time my mother remained alone. She had offers of marriage but turned them down in part because she did not want to be beholden to richer men. Ironically the State support represented independence for us, despite all the rhetoric about reliance on benefits creating soul-suckingly dependent beneficiaries. My mother taught me about fighting for independence precisely because she was a beneficiary. She did not have to find succour from, or be exploited by, other people, just to survive.

I grew up watching her account for every 1c and 2c piece in our household budget, writing in little notebooks that, over decades, grew to fill drawers in the wall unit in the smoke-yellowed dining room. (And yes she was a beneficiary that smoked, and drank, and we never went hungry, m’kay?) She earned extra money by taking in boarders.

Our mother was deeply concerned to ensure she never overstepped her earning boundaries, and that she never found out where our father had gone, after those early letters stopped coming, so she could honestly report on the benefit forms that she did not know where he was. I clearly remember her actually putting her hands over her ears at one point just so she could not hear us discussing where he was living. ‘Sydney somewhere’ was the most specific fact she allowed herself to learn about him.

In this current period of time, dominated as it is by partisan breast-beating over the speeches, actions and inactions of Metiria Turei, some people might be tempted to use my mother’s story of law-adherence as some kind of moral lesson and counterpoint to Metiria’s.  Don’t. She was not a beneficiary saint or sinner. She just was who she was; she is no paragon or flag-bearer for anyone or anything. Her status as a beneficiary neither enhances nor degrades her moral character and more than her driver’s licence did.

She chose to adhere to the laws of benefit eligibility. And I wonder if it might have cost her dearly to stay alone, as she did, until her death in 2015. She was a gregarious person who shunned many relationships and became quite isolated in her later years. I’ll never know whether she might have been different had she not considered herself bound by such laws.

The only usefulness of her story in the public arena is maybe to prompt discussion about change. Her story is not an end in itself, and never should be. One one further thing: it highlights that the relevant laws in her case have, from their very inception, been doomed to be broken.

Well, to be honest, that is a pretty trite statement. All laws only exist because someone out there will want to break it and do the thing she’s not supposed to do, or fail to behave in the way she is supposed to.

But humour me…and forgive me if you have heard this one before. Instead of looking just at the end result of a given law, it helps to see why it is exists in the first place.

In our heavily targeted benefit system, widows’ benefits and domestic purposes benefits uphold the long-standing social presumption that a husband would, as the primary breadwinner, support his wife and children in the usual nuclear family formation. To be eligible to get a benefit under the Social Security Act 1964, therefore, an applicant must not also be receiving significant financial support from someone else standing in for the missing husband. Applicants must be effectively unsupported if the State is to provide that missing support and effectively ‘step into the shoes’ of the absent husband, or the person who should be providing such support.

The gender-based language has gone, but the absence of support requirement remains. Widows, single people formerly married people, formerly de facto people, must now all be in the same unsupported boat to be eligible for sole parent support (now under s20D of the ’64 Act, formerly known as the DPB sole parents benefit).

If these people do get into a new relationship they must not cross the line into emotional commitment and financial interdependence with another person. To do so would mean they are receiving support from that person. If they do, they must inform that the State of that change in circumstance, be income tested and accept the consequence, including the probable loss of the entire benefit.

And even if eligible, these people can lose some of their benefit if they fail to, or refuse to, name the other parent or to file for a child support assessment under the Child Support Act 1991. And if you thought that was some new neo-liberal rule, ah nope. It has been around since at least 1936, and even earlier, when some deserted wives were able to claim a widow’s benefit provided they could not find the husband who deserted them, and they filed for the earlier equivalent of child support.

Effectively these prohibitions uphold a general rule against resource-pooling designed to ensure that no-one is better off with State support than others would be without it.

In my view these rules shepherded or perhaps forced my mother into a solitary life that I don’t think she really wanted. In many ways she was acting against what we as humans usually do. Regardless of financial circumstances, people try and create bonds and relationships with others. We are social and we need each other. Yet compliance with the laws in this kind of case sets up a stark choice for the sole parent:

  • either live alone with no substantive contact with a romantic partner that crosses an imaginary line into emotional commitment and financial interdependence, and accept support from the State;
  • OR enter such a relationship and lie about its existence, accepting support from the State;
  • OR confess the relationship and lose eligibility.


It has amazed me, the extraordinary rhetoric that has swelled in the wake of Metiria Turei’s politically-driven account of her own circumstances in the early 1990s. In particular there has been a broad presumption in the public discourse that the laws that applied are either morally good or morally bad and that by breaching or adhering to such rules people like Metiria and my mother somehow reveal their moral character.

Sometimes morality and law does coincide and it is right that we should punish or promote certain behaviours as a society, if only to discourage others from doing bad things or to encourage others to do good things.

But let’s not fool ourselves that any law is a guide to the human heart.

I generally try not to kill people. That may reveal that I’m not a habitual murderer, but says nothing else about who I am. I regularly break other kinds of laws, or regulations. Over the years I have smoked and ingested drugs, I have trespassed, driven carelessly, assaulted people, sat on a kai table, used obscene language in a public place, walked over someone’s legs in a wharenui, and transgressed all sorts of lines of decency. I’m sure the list goes on and on. My mother used to get me to buy her alcohol and cigarettes after school. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t supposed to do that.

Not one of us leads a life in which we break no law.

By the same token there no point in pretending that any law is neutral. Laws are created in their cultural and political context. While the laws prohibiting resource-pooling appear gender neutral, they are enforced primarily against women and far more rarely against men. The benefit laws reflect a presumption that people live in nuclear families and can therefore struggle to deal with the notion of whāngai (Māori adoptions), for example.  This context doesn’t make the laws moral or immoral, but can lead to consequences that enforce a particular societal structure or view of that structure.

Māori are well aware of the oppression of seemingly ordinary laws that undergird the structure of a society that was never designed with Māori in mind. We ought not forget that Māori survival and social progress in this country has depended in part, at least, on Māori flouting laws; such as pulling up survey pegs, or  occupying land that laws said were no longer theirs, holding so-called illegal protests, and the like. We owe our law-breaking tūpuna a debt of gratitude, in many cases.

Nor am I drawing a false analogy between politically necessary lawbreaking by some in important parts of our history and the actions of genuine benefit fraudsters. I’m not a fan of benefit fraud (for example), and there are people who have been rightly punished for it.  But there is merit in identifying where  laws can set people up for inevitable failure, or have, with the passage of time, created social problems that can only be solved with sufficient political will.

I think our heavily targeted, morally directive welfare system is replete with laws that encourage failure, non-compliance and moral self-absolution.  We need policies that will incentivise law keeping rather than law breaking.

And we don’t need to be distracted by the current storm of moral one-upmanship that helps no one and clarifies nothing.



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