The crowds listen to the Waitangi Day service from outside the marae (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Waitangi Day without the politicians is the best Waitangi Day of all

Waitangi Day brings together all groups of people, of which politicians are just one, writes Leonie Hayden.

I travelled up to Waitangi with a Ngāti Kahungunu friend, her first time there on Waitangi Day, and my fourth. Arriving at Te Tii marae on Wednesday morning, having missed the leaders’ welcome the day before, we took a stroll around the grounds. The heat was oppressive but there was comfort in knowing wherever you are in Waitangi, the beach is just metres away.

The official pōwhiri was moved to Te Whare Rūnanga at the upper Treaty grounds a few years ago, the whare built by Sir Āpirana Ngata in 1940 that has been deemed a more “neutral” space for political goings on. There were no politicians there at Te Tii that I could see, no press throng. It’s the by Māori, for Māori space. Our time to wānanga with each other, argue, support, sing and learn. There was the usual assortment of delicious food (within 10 minutes of arriving I was happily munching on creamed pāua and fry bread), romiromi massage, stalls selling tino rangatiratanga and United Tribes flags (the must-have accessory for Waitangi), taonga and rongoā. There were families and laughter everywhere, tourists mingling with hau kainga on the ātea and pockets of waiata drifting up over a stereo blasting reggae off in the distance.

We headed into the forum tent, the heartbeat of Waitangi. Inimitable lawyer and activist Annette Sykes was mid-tirade about Māori men who denigrate young Māori women, calling Shane Jones and his ilk a “weed” that is strangling te ao Māori.

She called for te reo-speaking women to be given speaking rights on the pae. “Our people say ‘that’s kawa, only men can stand on the front row and talk’. I say, why do we allow men who speak English to speak over Māori women who speak Māori?”

The panel following was named 250 Years of Colonisation, with the focus on prisons. Former inmate Billy MacFarlane, founder of tikanga-based rehabilitation programme Pūwhakamua, spoke of the difficulties in keeping former inmates on the path to rebuilding their lives. Not because of reoffending but because so many men under his guidance were still being punished for things like being late to probation hearings. “They’re going back inside for minor things because these judges don’t know the progress they’ve made, or don’t care. It’s all punishment and no aroha. And all their hard work is for nothing. It’s twice as hard to stay on the right track when they come out after the second lag, or the third.”

A panel of former inmates talk about the legacy of colonisation and its impact on the criminal justice system (Photo: Leonie Hayden)

The men sitting alongside MacFarlane, sporting t-shirts with the slogan “250 years of bullshit”, shared their stories of abusive childhoods, of perpetuating violence themselves, their time in prison and the hopelessness they’ve felt in the face of the justice system. They talked about finding strength and mana in tikanga Māori and ended with a haka taught to them by MacFarlane, their voices rising up with pride.

A fascinating panel about the Māori economy followed. Head of He Puna Marama Trust in Whangārei and founder of the InnoNative market, Raewyn Tipene, spoke of the need for disruption.

“Everything we do must be thought of, strategically, as rebellion. Even if we have to keep it on the down low.

“I was reading the other day abut how the education system is broken. It’s not. It’s working exactly as it was supposed to – keeping us under control and contained.

“Don’t listen to the linear mindset of how to get wealthy, because it’s not set up for us. I’m not talking about becoming millionaires. I’m talking first and foremost about feeding ourselves, feeding our whanaunga. About working collectively, selling our excess to each other, or bartering. The organic revolution is sitting on our doorsteps.”

Maki Herbert Kaye followed. Kaye is a healer who makes cannabis products; in 2016 she completed a home detention sentence for cannabis cultivation and possession. She spoke of the need for self-determination including ignoring laws that are made simply to punish. “All that [conviction] did for me is strengthen my tino rangatiratanga. I decided I was still going to keep growing, to help my people.”

She said that although medicinal marijuana will be legal from April 1 this year, it will be pharmaceutical grade not the organic product she makes. “It will still cost you $400 to $2000 a month. I provide my services for about $50 a month, and I’ve helped people with cancers, anorexia, diabetes… I’ve taken myself off the benefit, I’m helping my people and I’m helping myself.”

Kaye said she learned how to make medicinal cannabis products online, and encouraged others to use “Dr. Google” too.

Taking a break from the tent, we wandered into a lacklustre presentation by James Shaw at the Sustainable Coastlines tent about a new initiative to plant 30,000 native stems along the Waitangi river (to be fair they were only given a few days’ notice of the launch, but I expected the Greens co-leader to have a much stronger mihi up his sleeve for such occasions). He was followed by a Northland Regional Council representative, and despite the offer of free smoked kahawai, there are only so many politicians mangling te reo I can handle, so we left before it ended.

Kai (Photo: Leonie Hayden)

Down the way, Destiny Church’s rebranded political party Vision NZ were setting up a stall. One of the slogans across the back of the tent said ‘Kiwi land in Kiwi hands’. We didn’t have to wait long to unpack that particular sentiment – “Bishop” Brian Tamaki dropped a number of racist clangers about immigration in a sermon (a sermon!) at Te Whare Rūnanga the next day.

Back out in the market place, we bought ourselves some goodies from Mauri Botanicals – kūmarahou flowers to make tea and oils that help with respiratory issues; a scented oil named Aroha and some kawakawa soap. A hāngī stall called to us, and we ate a hearty late lunch with pūhā and more fry bread.

Back in the forum tent, Tame Iti lead a conversation on Mana Motuhake, speaking to a packed tent about his life and supporting movements like the one at Ihumātao.

Ihumātao leader Pania Newton, who believed a resolution would be announced before Waitangi Day, gave a history of the land protection movement, and talked about her frustration with Māori politicians, such as Peeni Henare, claiming that their hands are tied.

“That’s alright for you to say, you can go back Te Rarawa and you have hundreds and hundreds of acres of whenua. We only have 34 acres left!”

Later, Hone Harawira spoke passionately about Māori men humbling themselves and not speaking over Māori women, a welcome theme that was starting to emerge from the day’s kaupapa.

Weary from the heat but full in heart and mind from a day of incredible kōrero, we headed back to our accommodation – an eccentric cabin on the banks of the Waitangi river with an equally eccentric menagerie of rescue animals (including a calf that knocked over my glass of wine and drank it off the table) – to prepare for an early start the next day.

Jacinda Ardern at the barbecue with James Shaw, Duncan Webb (L) and Dover Samuels (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Before day broke on Waitangi Day, we bundled ourselves into the car at 4.30am to head back to the upper Treaty grounds for the annual dawn service. As usual the whare was packed with national leaders of all stripes, with onlookers spreading out onto the grounds in their hundreds, silent in the darkness, watching on large screens. Prayers were said in English and te reo by politicians, church leaders, civil servants and the heads of police, fire service and the defence force. I understand the desire to include blessings of all denominations in the service, but I imagine visitors to Waitangi must think us a much more God-fearing country than we really are.

To finish, Ngāti Hine leader Pita Tipene, chairman of the Waitangi Trust, paid tribute to the hapū of Ngāti Rahiri and Ngāti Kahu whose ancestral land we stood upon, and impressed on us that Ngāpuhi is a collective of distinctive hapū, and must be approached as such if a settlement and unity is to be found.

He gave a brief history of the carving of Te Whare Rūnanga, and talked about how the wood was taken from Mōtatau, the beautiful whakairo made by carvers from all over the country in 1934. He acknowledged a shared Pākehā ancestor for Ngāpuhi, a commander of the New South Wales 58th regiment who came to Northland and never left.

Like many others over the past few days, he paid special tribute to Treaty Negotiations minister Andrew Little for his whaikōrero two days earlier at the leaders pōwhiri. Little had stood on the pae and spoken in te reo Māori for 10 minutes with no notes, acknowledging both the Declaration of Independence as well at the Treaty and recognising that Ngāpuhi did not cede sovereignty to the Crown. As was pointed out to me by my Ngāpuhi friend, biculturalism has too often been a euphemism for assimilation – a philosophy Māori alone have had to embrace with very little meeting in the middle by tauiwi. Little’s recent interview with RNZ, where he spoke of how nervous he was but how transformed he’s been by his time as Treaty minister, is a satisfying example of the relationship working both ways, and the contribution of te ao Māori to our leaders and Treaty partners.

Finally, in an impromptu act, Tipene gave the last word to Mere Mangu, the new Ngāpuhi rūnanga chair, who spoke only in te reo Māori. Mangu had been heckled by some men for speaking on the pae days earlier at the leaders’ welcome, to which she had staunchly replied: “If they knew my whakapapa, they wound’t have done that.” The service ended with ‘Whakarongo Mai’, a beautiful Ngāpuhi waiata composed in the 1980s by a school teacher about the importance of retaining te reo Māori.

A bag piper played under the flagstaff as the sun rose on Waitangi. Parked in front of the flagstaff was Te Rau Aroha, a small 1930s-era truck gifted from children of the “Native Schools” of Northland to the 28th Māori Battalion. To mark the importance of the Māori Battalion A-Company to the area, a new museum has been opened on the Treaty grounds named after the truck, which followed the young men into battle, providing their creature comforts, their letters from home, and a place to whakawhanaungatanga, whose history I learned about in this touching piece by RNZ reporter Eden Fusitu’a. The museum building is a stunning piece of symbiotic design, with two pou marking the entrance that represent Tūmatauenga, atua of war, and Rongo-mā-Tane, atua of peace.

And with that, the annual prime minister’s breakfast began. Jacinda Ardern and a host of MPs lined-up to serve a barbecue breakfast to a snaking queue of hundreds. Media and cameras jostled for space to get the perfect shot, the prime minister grinning broadly as she dished bacon onto the plates that were moved along by organisers at a spectacular rate. She was ushered away after about half an hour, while Chlöe Swarbrick, Andrew Little, Willie Jackson and others happily continued to feed the hungry masses. We didn’t join the queue.

Thousands of people began to pour into the grounds, to enjoy a day of waka, kapa haka and live music (and more excellent food). Exhausted, we napped for a while, emerging for a huge feast of smoked fish, more fry bread, ika mata, mussel fritters and ice cream.

We spent the rest of the day snacking, swimming and watching the impressive and beautiful synchronicity of the waka in the bay.

Some might call this year’s Waitangi proceedings uneventful, as they have the two years prior. Since the prime minister’s 2018 commitment to spending real time in the area, you could say the atmosphere has become less fraught. But uneventful it isn’t. Anger and protest exist, but more importantly, for me, the discourse is as strong as ever.

Our Māori leadership is more diverse than ever and we are obviously determined to have hard conversations, not just about the government, but also amongst ourselves. About evolving kawa and tikanga, about the colonised voices inside of us. The combination of the joyous and the confronting is what sets hui Māori apart. With community and conversation at the centre, our people are pushing for self-determined transformation because let’s face it, change has always come from within our communities, despite, not because of those with political power. This will always be the strength of Waitangi Day for me.



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