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Te Pāti Māori co-leaders Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi in action at parliament (Photos: Getty Images/RNZ; design: Archi Banal)
Te Pāti Māori co-leaders Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi in action at parliament (Photos: Getty Images/RNZ; design: Archi Banal)

OPINIONĀteaFebruary 5, 2023

Magic people: Te Pāti Māori and the power of symbolism

Te Pāti Māori co-leaders Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi in action at parliament (Photos: Getty Images/RNZ; design: Archi Banal)
Te Pāti Māori co-leaders Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi in action at parliament (Photos: Getty Images/RNZ; design: Archi Banal)

Rheive Grey pays tribute to one political party’s unapologetic commitment to markers of Māori identity, from hei tiki to waiata to tikitiki.  

I’m proud to be Māori.

If you’re like me, it’s hard to read that sentence without singing it in your head. That’s either the power of good campaigning, or the power of Rawiri Waititi’s singing voice. Probably both. It was in Waititi’s maiden speech following the 2020 election that he gave an awe inspiring rendition of the Dave Para-composed waiata ‘You’re Magic’, filling all corners of Te Whare Paremata with a bit of Māori magic. It represented an energetic start for Te Pāti Māori, an energy that continues as we inch towards the 2023 elections. It also represented some of what lies at the core of the Māori Party’s ethos – including the unapologetic commitment to Māori identity.

At around the same time as Waititi’s speech I had been considering growing my hair out, hoping that by the time I moved overseas I would be walking around with a tikitiki atop my head. Our ancestors had a deep connection with their hair, with swathes of tikanga and pūrākau surrounding the practices associated with it. But then colonial settlement brought with it the prescribed supremacy of Western hairstyles, and for a long time there was a lull in the practices associated with Māori understandings of hair. This colonial whakapapa manifests itself today in what is regarded as “looking professional”. At my high school we were told to be presentable and tidy. “Tidy” in that context meant prim and proper haircuts accompanied by the rigorous clean shaving of facial hair. This defined my ensuing understanding of “tidiness” even after high school. At job interviews or in work spaces for years after I continued to feel bad for wanting to wear longer head and facial hair.

During James Cook’s first expedition to New Zealand (1769–70), artist Sydney Parkinson recorded the variety of hairstyles and head adornments shown in this composite portrait. (Image: Alexander Turnbull Library  Reference: PUBL-0037-23  Hand-coloured engraving by Sydney Parkinson)

That was until I started to explore more Māori understandings of hair and its practices. I was particularly inspired by a couple of my tāne Māori mates who had committed to growing their hair out, unashamedly wearing their long hair out in “professional” spaces that were usually adversarial to that style. Those friends told me that growing their hair out was about so much more than just a style choice. They said it was about reclaiming the normalcy of practices that belonged to our tīpuna. They dreamed that their children would grow up with the style being normal and widely accepted. I came away from these conversations inspired, and their reasons became my reasons. I have not cut my hair since.

Of course, these practices aren’t enough on their own to make spaces definitively inclusive – they have to be accompanied by a dismantling of the structural level inequities which produce exclusion in the first place. Instead, these personal cultural practices aid in transformation as sources of inspiration, hauora and pride, especially for young Māori such as myself. Whether it’s something as simple as growing your hair out or as complicated as challenging systems of exclusion in the political realm, each require actively standing in antithesis to many of the Western cultural norms that pervade Aotearoa society.

Māori Party co-leaders Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/ Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller)

Like other Māori who choose to embrace practices of our tīpuna, Waititi and the party he co-leads have stood in resistance to colonial cultural norms many times since that historic maiden speech. One of Waititi’s first major disputes in parliament was over wearing taonga Māori such as hei tiki instead of European-style neck ties. Critics said Waititi’s raising of the issue was a sideshow, one disconnected from the real problems facing Māori. However these criticisms missed the wider context of the debate and its symbolic importance. Just like choosing to grow my hair out, wearing hei tiki is not just a style choice. It’s a choice that endorses another way to be. A Māori way to be.

Whether they’re wearing Air Jordans instead of dress shoes or exiting the house with fierce haka after calling out racist rhetoric, both Waititi and co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer have been unapologetically Māori during their time in parliament. This approach has extended well into much of Te Pāti Māori policy over the last two years. The party called for New Zealand’s name to be changed to Aotearoa to better reflect the identity of tangata whenua. More recently, following the resignation of Jacinda Ardern, the party called for the next prime minister to be Māori – a call that ultimately went unheeded.

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi and his Jordans (Photo supplied; Design: Tina Tiller)

Te Pāti Māori has been so consistent with its approach that we do not expect anything less than 100% Māori pride imbuing its political actions and policy preferences. However, the success of this approach as a political strategy is less of my focus here. Instead I want to draw attention to the effect this approach has had outside of politics. Here I return to ‘You’re Magic’, and how the waiata echoed across the motu both as a result of Waititi’s maiden speech and a subsequent campaign by Te Whānau o Waipareira. The way this waiata has resonated is emblematic of Te Pāti Māori’s success in inspiring pride in their indigenous identity among young Māori. In so forcefully embracing Māori cultural practices, the party has helped to create an environment in which current and future generations are inspired and supported to embrace their own Māori ways of being. Personally, the momentum has helped me feel more confident in wearing long hair under the guise of whakaaro Māori, even as I reside away from Aotearoa for the meantime.

As we approach events such as Waitangi Day and Te Matatini, we should keep a keen eye on how Te Pāti Māori looks to continue its use of reclamation symbolism. These events are some of the major forums at which Māori identity and pride are brought to the forefront. There is no doubt Te Pāti Māori will be there at the forefront, continuing to contribute to the magic of embracing the practices of our tīpuna.


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