A group of Māori women wearing pare kawakawa, wreaths of kawakawa leaves on their heads as a sign of mourning.
Image: Phil Walter/Getty

Leading us through loss

The leadership shown by tangata whenua at every national disaster and tragedy should be recognised and honoured by all of us, writes Catherine Delahunty.

I do appreciate having a prime minister who is capable of expressing decent, human emotions when tragedies descend on us. It’s a sadly low bar that she rises above. We live in a world where ridiculous “strong” men leaders are destroying communities and the earth with nil emotional intelligence. However, the leadership in this country that is always guiding us through loss is not one person. It is tangata whenua. Everywhere across the motu and every time there is a tragic event we are the beneficiaries of their cultural strength, their practices that ground people in love and sorrow in ways that are healthy and powerful.

I have experienced this on a personal level when my best friend and her two daughters were killed in a horrific accident. We were stunned and broken but tangata whenua wrapped their strength around us. They honoured our friend and they helped us through a nightmare. So too with larger tragedy, be it the mosque killings or this disaster at Whakaari. Tangata whenua bring their spirituality, their aroha and their rituals to help everyone, to honour everyone and to uplift the unthinkable into a collective moment of love. This is more than generosity, this is the authority of the people of the land whose obligations to both place and people are maintained to everyone’s benefit.

Humans need collective support when we are grieving – we need to see that we are not alone and that we are connected. Those of us who have experienced tangihanga and the church funeral know that both have a place, but for me tangihanga has been the more profound opportunity for healing. When we fully enter grief with full support, we can more fully reenter life. This process is tried and true and builds so much more than making a space to farewell the dead.

This week I have again felt so much respect for tangata whenua from a number of hapū and iwi who have led families suffering violent loss, who come from overseas as well as Aotearoa, in rituals of respect. That respect is not only for the human suffering but for the deep relationships they have with Whakaari. It might be good to listen to their advice about future relationships with this entity many of us have not known or understood as an ancestor.

Alongside acknowledging the profound leadership through loss that we experience in this place, we should also acknowledge the authority of tangata whenua. Not just in ritual but in rights, not as stakeholders in some national narrative but as sovereign powers with whom the Crown must negotiate. We would all benefit from following such spirit and respect into that long-overdue negotiation that Te Tiriti o Waitangi sought to embody.

While we flail around with our tired, colonial power and control issues, tangata whenua will continue to manifest their cultural obligations and cultural strength, and there is much we could all learn from that positive tenacity. In holding grief and in offering healing, they are the tuakana, and that is just the beginning.


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