What, really, is a rāhui – and can political parties enact them?

A conversation with waka hourua captain and Treaty educator Tāwhana Chadwick on what rāhui is, and who has the right to enact it. 

Rāhui is an indigenous science that has been gaining recognition in Aotearoa. More recently, political parties and people in government have taken to using the term to describe their policies. This has been met with resistance from community leaders within te ao Māori.

In this interview, I speak with Tāwhana Chadwick about rāhui and what he understands it to mean. Tāwhana is a waka hourua captain with 50,000 nautical miles of blue water experience. He is also a Tiriti educator with a passion for justice.

Laura O’Connell-Rapira: Kia ora, e hoa. Thank you for making the time. To start off, can you tell me a little bit about your background?

Tāwhana Chadwick: Nō Ngāti Kahungunu, Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Maniapoto. I grew up in kōhanga and kura kaupapa. Went to Victoria University. During that time, I was involved with the waka hourua and waka ama community learning about sailing, navigating and mātauranga Māori. Through that I met lots of other Pacific peoples and learned about our shared heritage and whakapapa. My mum is what they call a Pākehā Treaty worker and a lot of my whānau are teachers and so Tiriti work, facilitation and education are all passions of mine.

Based on your understanding, and the lessons that have been shared with you, what is your understanding of rāhui?

I think in its simplest form – without getting into the social, political, economic stuff – it’s a restriction or prohibition applied to an area, space or activity. For example, if it’s around kaimoana, it could be applied to a specific species, how you acquire kai, when and why.

The placement of rāhui is related to events and the whakapapa of that activity, area, species or mahinga kai.

The concept of a rāhui has been gaining traction in the national discourse. I hesitate to say mainstream, because that others us, but like a lot of our mātauranga it has been experiencing a resurgence in public consciousness.

Earlier this year, there was a bit of controversy around the Green Party describing lockdown as a rāhui. I’d love to get your thoughts on who gets to decide when a rāhui is enacted and how those decisions are made?

Bringing in some of my Tiriti knowledge here, my understanding is that governments can’t call upon or institute rāhui. It has to be through hāpori which is defined by me as hapū and hapū collectives, such as iwi.

Rāhui are decided under the mandate of hapū and instituted through rangatira or people who are given rights to be rangatira, by hapū, and so at the end of the day it’s hapū.

What is the tikanga around rāhui?

I think that it changes hapū to hapū, and that’s why this is difficult to answer. Because it’s hapū that decides to enact a rāhui it means the tikanga can be different.

For example, when someone died or drowned in our awa back home there was karakia and official announcements that there was a rāhui – not just through the kūmara vine, but through the media. There would also be an announcement made when the rāhui was lifted.

In modern times, we understand that when someone breaks a rāhui, they won’t be punished in the same ways they might have been. But what we miss is that rāhui are there for the person’s own protection because there could be, for lack of a better word, bad wairua around the area or activity. With kai, for example, if you eat all the fish then there won’t be any left so it’s a practical response.

Recently, the Māori Party have described their proposed ban on immigration as a “rāhui”. As far as I know this policy is not supported by any evidence from te ao Pākehā or te ao Māori. What do you think about the Māori Party using the term “rāhui” in this way?

It’s similar to how I see the Greens describing lockdown as a rāhui: A government institution can’t institute a rāhui. That’s for each and every hapū to decide in their rohe.

Rāhui are based on science and mātauranga. Informed consent by hapū is really important. Otherwise the intention and motivation for the use of this word rāhui gets really lost. Is it just to say that it’s not racist because it’s tikanga?

Given your experience as a voyager, and this policy around immigration, how do you think our tūpuna saw migration?

The first thing I’ll say is that not all of our tūpuna migrated. In the Hawke’s Bay, we have tūpuna who come from the ocean – not from the ocean in Hawaiki, but the ocean in Hawke’s Bay. We have tūpuna who come from this land, and maunga and awa here who are our tūpuna.

But talking specifically about those tūpuna who came from waka, I think they had really different ideas about whenua and moana. Nowadays there are these legal terms like ‘countries’, ‘exclusive economic zones’ and ‘foreshore and seabed’ that are used to define a piece of land, then the piece of land that’s in the tidal range, then the ocean that is within 12 miles of the coast, then the water that goes 200 miles beyond our ‘land borders’.

We don’t see whenua or moana like that. That’s why I talk about Aotearoa being land, not a country. Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa isn’t a body that has a border at all. It goes beyond borders. I think our tūpuna would have seen it that way.

We’re attached to these ideas of moana and whenua but not as a commodity.

One of the things that we do in Treaty workshops is talk about how our tūpuna saw migration. How they saw Pākehā migration to Aotearoa, and also the links we had with the Pacific, including South America.

Our tūpuna instantly perceived the benefits of forming relationships with other peoples, especially around trade. Trading kūmara for chickens, and different skills and artefacts that our tūpuna knew and received from those tūpuna of Peru for example.

Our tūpuna always saw the benefits of forming those relationships. I think we have to go back to the tikanga that are the bedrock of Māori society. Even through colonisation and language loss, some of the longest surviving things, even in the most marginalised Māori communities, are manaakitanga, kotahitanga and whakawhanaungatanga.

I think that works with the Māori Party’s ideas of tino rangatiratanga, mana motuhake, Te Tiriti and Whakaputanga. Those documents along with Matike Mai and our tikanga are ways forward for Aotearoa.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

I think it’s important for us to keep dismantling oppressive systems. The government is a system of white supremacy that places some people on top of others in the ladder of life.

As long as these systems exist, we’ll always come back to these situations where people think it’s OK to debate the humanity of migrants and refugees but it’s not.

This interview has been edited for brevity and readability.



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