Stephanie Gibson, Matariki Williams and Puawai Cairns and their new book, Protest Tautohetohe. Photo: Supplied.

Signs, songs, stumps, symbols: A history of protest in Aotearoa in 350 objects

New book Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance explores our history of protest through objects symbolising the power and lasting legacy of activism in New Zealand.

From Hone Heke cutting down the flagpole to the 1981 Springbok tour protests, New Zealand has always been a country of activists. Movements led by Māori, by women and by children continue to shape New Zealand’s community and policy, and have made us world leaders in areas like women’s suffrage. A collection of objects become the markers of every movement, and Stephanie Gibson, Matariki Williams and Puawai Cairns have collated some of the most important, most beautiful and most confronting of these into Protest Tautohetohe, an illustrated history of protest and activism in Aotearoa.

Gibson and Williams (Tūhoe, Ngāti Hauiti, Taranaki, Ngāti Whakaue) spoke about four objects in the book and their significance to Aotearoa’s rebellious history.

Flagstaff stump, circa 1840.
 Auckland Museum.

Stump from a flagstaff cut down by Hone Heke, 1840

Williams: He’s deliberately taking aim at a symbol of power… Māori saw quite quickly how Pākehā were using flags in terms of showing their dominance over the land. We know flags are raised to show authority, so you will see with some of the early religious movements that flags also became a way of saying ‘this area is Paimārire.’ It’s an action to say no, you do not have authority in this area. Your symbol of authority? We will cut it down. 

Even though he is using an axe I would still see this protest as non-violent. It’s not against people and at the same time there were wars going on which were inflicting violence on people. Taking to a flagstaff is taking to the symbolism that they’re trying to impose. It was never explicitly linked to the action that is also covered in the book with Mike Smith [felling the tree on] One Tree Hill. He did that because it was a symbol of a new power asserting itself in this landscape… 

It was another response or resistance against a further oppressive law that’s been imposed on the country, which is the Crown determining the rules for how Treaty settlements can play out into the future, which is a further infliction of their power.

Women’s Suffrage Petition, 1893. Produced by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Photo: Mark Beatty, Archives New Zealand.

Woman’s Suffrage Petition, 1893

Williams: It was incredibly physical and it required probably thousands of hours of physical labour. You had to be able to get around territories, knock on doors, staff tables in the street, and it was all very time consuming. It was a very community-based and social form of protest but took a lot of effort, thousands of hours. 

Gibson: It was a very convincing result, physically. The book is about the material culture of protest, so the suffrage petition of 1893 is a beautiful, convincing piece of material culture. There was so much energy put into those pieces of paper in the way that they were all glued together and wound around a broom handle, which I always thought was ironic.

The object itself has so much presence. It’s a very important material object about effort and belief and passion and determination and the object is the focus of that and it’s incredibly powerful. An online petition, it’s digital, you can’t feel the weight of it. Even if it’s got a million signatures you still couldn’t feel that weight.

‘My Old Man’s an All Black!’ record, 1960. Recorded by the Howard Morrison Quartet and La Gloria Records.
Purchased 2001. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

‘My Old Man’s an All Black!’, 1960

Gibson: The Howard Morrison Quartet was hugely popular, everybody loved them and that was a Māori band. It was very clever of them to pick up on repurposing an already famous song, ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’, which was popular anyway, and they repurposed it very cutting, biting lyrics, but it’s sung so fast and so happily that you probably, at first hearing, don’t realise how barbed it is.

Williams: That’s how music is used as well, getting music into those spaces because singers are popular or beloved and so all of a sudden the music is on the airwaves or they’re playing live. I was listening to a podcast and they were playing Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, she was singing to white audiences. Nina Simone, when she sang ‘Mississippi Goddam’, [her first civil rights song], she was singing to the same [white] audiences as she was singing her other songs. You get hit with these lyrics that hopefully tell people how they are complicit or how they’re supporting something that is very oppressive and racist.

School Strike for Climate Action placard, 2019. Made by Hazel Cubis, 2019. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

School Strike for Climate sign, 2019

Gibson: There seems to be at the moment a particular zeitgeist and it’s driven by young people, which has been a really exciting thing to see how well mobilised young people have been over the last few years. They’re actually creating that movement and getting people out onto the street on certain days. What we’re seeing is very well-organised, very mature people leading those experiences and those events. 

They are picking up the baton from earlier protest movements that worried about the climate and worried about the planet and a long history of environmental protest in this country. They’re taking the torch forward.

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It also seems very inclusive. People are being very inspired to join in and it’s not just young people. People are coming together and it’s been a catalyst for this intergenerational stuff, people are taking their children along.

Williams: When we went along to the School Strike for Climate, the amount of people who would stop and talk to each other because of the signs, they spark a cool conversation… It creates this other level of community beyond the purpose that you’re out there marching for, and provides a bit of comic relief, as well. 

Gibson: And it also catches the eyes of media, so people need to be quite savvy when they’re out there marching, you need to be documented for posterity by the media, so the better and funnier the sign the more likely you are to catch their eyes. I think that’s really important.

Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance is on sale now.


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