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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]







ANZAC day, Shane and Māori leadership: do we really need another bloody hero?

A few months ago I had a delightful experience. I got to visit the ramshackle, dusty, grubby and altogether questionable Mad Max II museum in Silverton, just out of Broken Hill in Australia’s Outback. Full of old banged up cars, clothes, models and props from the Mad Max movies I found myself entranced, and seduced again by my teenage memories of Mad Max in all his 80s glory. We found ourselves some DVDs that night, and sitting through some, sleeping through the rest, I realised once again that the past is another country. And that bloody awful Tina Turner song hid some even more awful movie by the time we got to Mad Max III. No, we don’t need need another hero, now bugger off and take your mullets with you. (Don’t know the song? Check out this: )

I found myself humming Tina’s song quite a lot over the past few days as ANZAC day approaches and news of Shane Jones’ departure broke. ANZAC Day and Shane Jones for me, at least, highlight one of Māoridom’s continuing problems, the valorisation of past heroes (such as the men of the 28th (Māori) Battalion, Tā Apirana Ngata, et al) and the search for new (almost inevitably male) heroes to take their place. A sentence from Morgan Godfrey’s interesting recent post on Shane’s departure illustrates this thinking: Maori political history isn’t rich with choice. Telling us to wait for a more “progressive” candidate is deeply offensive. Maori have waited too long for too little. Shane was an opportunity and one many – including myself – were willing to back. He wasn’t perfect, but he was as close as we’ve come in more than a decade to the centre of power. Winston was the last Maori politician to come close to real power. It’s been a century since Maori actually touched it (Carroll as acting prime minister). (

I find this quote interesting because of the yearning it expresses, as Māori wait for a leader to arrive; a leader presumably to lead Māoridom from its current state. Shane, the implication is, could have been such a leader. Thus, a people continues to wait.

Another similar sentiment was expressed by Kiritapu Allan in her blogpost ruminating on Māori political leadership The Maori vote is wide open, but the vote is calling for a champion for justice who is pragmatic enough, and in touch with the pulse of Maoridom enough, to create some excitement about the opportunities that a post-settlement world creates for hapu and iwi.

These posts from young, sophisticated Māori urban commentators echo a cry I hear occasionally, a lament really, that Māori have no true ‘leader’, at least, not one that reach across the divides of class, race, and political affiliation. Since the arrival of Old Testament narratives along with colonisation in the early 19th century many Māori have held fast to the notion that a Mosaic, or a Messianic figure will some day appear to lead Māoridom (Ngā Tiu) out of the wilderness and into the Promised land. There is now a lot of scholarship about these powerful myth narratives in Māori thinking (see Bronwyn Elsemore, Judith Binney, Te Ahukaramu Charles Royal, Selwyn Katene and so on) Māori history and mythology is suffused with heroes grappling with the evils of colonialism. An obvious and influential example are the mythological narratives that grew up around the deeds and the personas of Te Kooti Arikirangi and Rua Kenana, both messianic figures  in the foundation of the Ringatū church (and stories still abound of the forthcoming successor to their legacy). (,_No._4/Myth_and_explanation_in_the_Ringatu_tradition%3A_some_aspects_of_the_leadership_of_Te_Kooti_Arikirangi_Te_Turuki_and_Rua_Kenana_Hepetipa,_by_J._Binney,_p_345-398/p1)

Of course Māori are a heterogenous bunch, and notions of leadership within Māoridom have undergone massive changes over the last couple of centuries. Leadership has evolved from models primarily based on ariki, rangatira and tohunga, to charismatic, transformational leaders of the 19th century, on to leaders affiliated with powerful corporatised Māori interests (trust boards, the New Zealand Māori Council, Māori Women’s Welfare League, tribal rūnanga). (see Katene 2010)

So yes, Māori notions of leadership have changed and adapted to modern needs,but the idea of A LEADER to surpass all, and to tap into the Māori (and national) psyche is a long-lived, powerful and seductive one. This nostalgia for our wartime heroes, this late-blooming nostalgia for what Shane Jones might have become, this apparent yawning gap in Māori leadership begs, in my view, a far more important question: what about those of us who would be knit together by such leaders? How prepared are we as individuals, whānau, and hapū to engage politically with those among us who would lead, to such an extent that such leaders would be bound to do what we require of them?

I would prefer to see less bemoaning the lack of Māori leadership and a focus on ordinary people and what we are prepared to do to create leaders in the first place. Are we prepared to take our whānau down to the ballot boxes on polling days to vote in our local body and central government reps? Are we engaging on Twitter and FB about issues other than what we ate for breakfast? Are we engaged with our kōhanga, our school boards, our marae, our sports committees, making decisions and showing our whānau what it means to make decisions and take the consequences? Are our own actions lighting sparks in the eyes of the seven year olds or the ten year olds in our homes? Are we actually present? Or are we waiting for a fully formed mythopoeic leader to emerge from the mists of our past, cloaked with the benedictions of our tupuna  for us to claim her or him as our own?

Heroes are never what they seem to be, Shane watched porn on the taxpayer. Apirana was sometimes impatient with ordinary frailty, our veterans are and were brave men with feet of clay. We don’t need another hero, because there are no heroes. What we need are active, involved, engaged Māori across the political spectrum to make the damn thing work for Māori. Among us are all the leaders we need. Or deserve.

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