Philip McKibbin remembers a man who dedicated his life to realising our Treaty partnership.
Sir Pita Sharples remembers his old friend Harry Dansey well. He was teaching taiaha classes for prisoners – a new concept back in the ’70s – when Dansey said to him, “I used to do a bit of taiaha.”
Sharples was sceptical, “’Cos everyone makes out they know how to use the long club, and they don’t.” So to prove it, Dansey grabbed the taiaha, did a forward roll, and landed on his feet, ready to strike. “I was surprised, because he was such a peaceful man,” he laughs. “I went home and nearly knocked myself out trying to do it!”
Today, the name Harry Dansey is largely forgotten. Dansey – or Te Tānihi – didn’t only articulate a positive vision for Aotearoa New Zealand; he embodied it. As historian Michael King wrote, “Nobody else I have known – Māori or Pākehā – better exemplified what I like to think of as New Zealand virtues.”
Dansey saw himself as a ‘translator’ – an ambassador for Māori. In a television interview he gave in 1972, he explained his motivation: “Beyond it all is the conviction that it is essential for the harmony of us all here in New Zealand that we should understand each other, and, in particular, that the Māori view should be known by the rest of New Zealand.”
Dansey (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Arawa, Ngāti Raukawa) was born in Auckland in 1920. His father was of English and Māori descent, his mother’s ancestors were English. During the 1930s, the family moved back to Whakarewarewa in Rotorua. It was there that Dansey learnt about te ao Māori with strong encouragement from his parents. In the 1940s, he met and married his wife, Te Rina (Lena) Hikaka of Ngā Ruahine Rangi. And in 1943, he joined the Māori Battalion. He served in Egypt and Italy, eventually rising to the rank of sergeant. His time among Māori from across the country added to his education, and it was here that he polished his reo.
When he arrived back in New Zealand, Dansey began a career as a journalist, working as a writer at the Hawera Star, and later with the Rangitikei News and the Taranaki Daily News where he was also a cartoonist. In 1961, he moved to Auckland to join the Auckland Star as a writer specialising in Māori and Pacific Island affairs. His former colleague Paul Smith recalls Dansey telling him that he had been interviewed for a job at the New Zealand Herald. The editor at the time, “leaned back in his chair and looked at him and said, ‘But we don’t hire Māoris’.”
Smith, an Anglo-Indian journalist who named his daughter Dansey, enjoyed working with him. As a cadet, he gravitated toward Harry, who was “a nurturing presence,” and read his columns regularly.
“They were columns of hope, really,” he says. “Harry was, in print, probably the only person who was explaining Māori to Pākehā,” Smith explains. His role as ‘translator’ extended beyond his journalism to his other writing. He contributed to numerous publications, including the Māori magazine Te Ao Hou and The Māori in Colour, a book which aimed to introduce te ao Māori to the general reader.
As a young adult, Dansey furthered his Māori education in Taranaki during the time he spent with his wife’s family. It was there that he learnt about Parihaka, which would become the subject of his successful play, Te Raukura: Feathers of the Albatross. He was naturally curious, and his son Rangi remembers being told that sometimes the elders wouldn’t answer his many questions, because he was an outsider. “But he had ways of doing it,” he smiles. “He’d go and talk to my grandmother, I think, and she’d tell him.”
Dansey was a model citizen. From 1971, he was an Auckland City councillor – Dame Catherine Tizard recalls that his influence helped her to maintain mana as the first female mayor – and he held numerous public offices, including as a member of the trust board of Ōrākei Marae. In his personal life, he often found himself challenging, and sometimes even changing, the status quo. His sons remember him having “a rip-roaring argument” with AMP because they wouldn’t let Māori take out life insurance on children – a policy they changed after that.
Although Dansey was familiar with the Pākehā world, he was rooted in te ao Māori, and he was deeply engaged with the issues of the day. Chauncy Stark of Te Whānau-a-Apanui worked with Dansey as a journalist at the Auckland Star, but he had more to do with him later when he was working at the Race Relations Office. “He was a very popular guy,” Stark recalls. He was passionate about Māori issues, but he was impatient with those who he believed were “stirring things up” – like Syd Jackson, Pat Hohepa, and Ranginui Walker. “You would never have called him a radical,” he says. Dansey thought there was a different, gentler way of doing things, although his views started to change over time. If he were around today, Stark speculates, he would have admitted that the activists had made progress.
Dansey’s biggest influence was at the Race Relations Office. Prior to that, he had been working for then-Minister of Māori Affairs, Mat Rata, assisting with public relations in the Norman Kirk government, but after six months, he was appointed Race Relations Conciliator. When he started, he said, “I will move without fuss or publicity – and, if need be, uninvited – into areas where I decide action by the conciliator is justified.” He brought a clear-sighted optimism to the job. He told the Woman’s Weekly in 1975 that among New Zealanders there was a lot of goodwill and common sense, but a lack of knowledge. “But I would rather have the goodwill than a lot of knowledge and no goodwill.”
It was widely held that the Race Relations Act “lacked teeth”, but Dansey believed that if his office had to prosecute, then they had failed. The reason the Act didn’t emphasis punitive measures, he said, was because it was designed to promote conciliation. In an interview with the New Zealand Herald in 1976, he addressed the argument that prejudice should be prosecuted. “Prejudice, however justly it may be criticised, is opinion. If it is not translated into action, then the proper course would seem [to be] to try to change the opinion, not to punish the person for holding it.”
As Race Relations Conciliator, Dansey used his experience in journalism to ensure that important issues reached the general public. An issue that emerged during this time was the influx of migrants from the Pacific Islands, and their treatment as a cheap source of labour with little regard for their needs or the many struggles they faced. As Stark remembers, “We all had to adjust to the fact there was a third group now. There was the Māoris, the Pākehās, and now Islanders. So he was part of that adjustment at the Race Relations Office.”
It is hard to imagine now, but until then race relations in Aotearoa New Zealand had focused almost exclusively on Māori and Pākehā. A note Dansey made for a speech, ‘Race Relations in New Zealand’ which was given to the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1964, is illuminating: “Other races are not of great significance in the national make-up: Asians, Africans, Chinese. But one other important group – Polynesian Islanders – [is] a quickly growing part of the community of which cognisance must be taken.”
In 1977, Dansey was asked by the Auckland Star to comment on the recent appearance of newspaper advertisements in “Polynesian languages”. When asked if he thought this would continue, he replied that he believed it would and told the interviewer, “It is a process of which I entirely approve.”
He explained his position: “The New Zealand into which I was born well over 50 years ago has gone forever. It is likely that by the end of the century one in every five New Zealanders will be of Polynesian or part-Polynesian ancestry, using the word “Polynesian” to include Māori. I have no desire to change the process and even if I did, I know no way of doing so.”
As a “part-Polynesian”, he told the NZ Listener, he regarded Pacific Island people as his kind of people – “but deep down” he said, “my view is that we all belong to humanity.”
Sharples worked as the Executive Officer at the Race Relations Office. He recalls that it was around this time that people started to ask what they were going to do about Māori gangs. “I thought that was a fair comment, ‘What are you doing about the Māori gangs?’,” he says, “because they were Māori, they were killing people, and people were scared for their safety.” The gangs back then were not like the ones we have today, he explains – there were vendettas and gun fights, and conflicts would sometimes involve 50 to 100 members. Dansey was intimidated by these men: “They smelt, and they were big and abusive to anyone and everyone.” Still, he took a conciliatory stance. In an annual report to parliament he said: “Māori society generally abhors the violence of gang activities but exhibits strong feelings of support and aroha of its kinsfolk gang members.” He viewed the work schemes that his office established to address gang violence as one of its successes.
In 1978, the Human Rights Commission was established, and Dansey’s role as Race Relations Conciliator changed, and he became a Human Rights Commissioner. Although he felt he was having a positive influence on race relations – his major accomplishment, he would say, “had been to get so many people who were in dispute to shake hands and recognise the other fellow’s point of view” – the work was challenging, and it had a personal cost. He was affected by the intensity of the hatred that sometimes surfaced, and in the months leading up to his resignation, he confided to Smith that he was finding it difficult to remain tolerant given the intolerance of some of the complaints his office was handling.
All of this came to a head in the infamous ‘Haka Party’ incident of May 1979, when a group of engineering students staged their annual mock haka and were attacked by a group of young Māori who called themselves He Taua. Dansey wasn’t a pacifist, his sons explain – after all, he had fought with the Māori Battalion – but he recognised that violence would not promote positive race relations. “Violence be damned!” they recall him saying. “When it’s directed toward a so-called ethnic end it’s utterly unacceptable,” he told the Auckland Star.
Dansey died of a heart attack a few weeks after he retired, in late 1979. His sons believe that the stress of his role contributed to his ill health. He was widely mourned, and his contribution to race relations in Aotearoa New Zealand celebrated. In his obituary for Dansey, Judge Michael Brown of Ngāti Kahu, Te Aupōuri, Te Rarawa, and Ngā Puhi commented:
By respecting his two cultures and achieving, not without considerable and persistent effort, a fluency and familiarity in both he gave us a glimpse of what is possible. He showed us how this nation could draw on truly national and sadly neglected resources.
I first encountered the name Harry Dansey when I was a student at the University of Auckland, where he had once lectured. I was interested in Parihaka, and when I found a copy of Dansey’s play Te Raukura in the General Library, I started on a path that would lead me to learn about this remarkable man. When I searched his name on the internet with the aim of finding out whether he had written anything more on that peaceful Māori village, I read on Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand that, “He held the belief that New Zealand society would develop its own culture, drawing from the strengths of both Māori and Europeans.” I was intrigued by this – mainly because it seemed so starkly at odds with the culture that, 40 years later, we’ve actually received. It seemed so optimistic.
I asked his sons whether or not they thought we had made progress towards this ideal, and they said that we have. “I think he’d be smiling,” Rangi tells me. “’Ka pai!’ he would say.” They point to the use of reo Māori in everyday conversation – words like “whānau” and “hapū”, and phrases like “kia haka” and “kia ora”. Te reo can be heard on the radio, and we have a government–funded Māori television channel run by competent, educated Māori – “and it’s just accepted”. On top of this, we’ve had Māori governors-general. “Dad would be so pleased with that sort of stuff,” Rangi tells me. “He strived to do that and got knocked back all the time.” Paul Smith agrees. “I think Harry was right,” he says. “We are evolving.” He would be pleased about what this optimism has led to – but he might also be concerned about “any, sort of, push for separatism or cultural dominance of one sort or the other, because Harry seemed to be about balance and bringing the two together.”
Sir Pita Sharples offers a different perspective. There was a debate, he says: “Is Māori coming or going?” And Dansey was always on the affirming side. “He always saw the positive side of things, and he had this belief that the best of both worlds will come through, which is quite amazing, really, cos Māori just thought, ‘You dumb Pākehā, you just don’t know about us and our world.’ Harry saw the two cultures and thought they would find their way, and Māori things will become part of New Zealand culture. And I guess they have, to a certain extent. But it’s the extent that’s in question at the moment.”
Sharples says that while Māori Television is a step in the right direction, it isn’t enough. “It might be evidence of progress, but it’s pittance compared to having control of your language and your way of life and your own values coming forward.”
Chauncy Stark also questions the extent of our progress: “There has been progress, it’s gotta be said. My own family has doctors, lawyers. My son has a BCom and MBA from London. We’ve got entertainers, we’ve got this and that. But we’ve also got a whole group of people that seem to have got left behind.”
He says there is a lot that Dansey would have approved of – for example, he would have thought that Treaty settlements are a step forward. Still, “Harry’s dream that it would be all one culture is not there yet. I don’t think so, anyway. But there has been a lot of progress.”
Dansey recognised that the face of Aotearoa New Zealand was changing, and he felt this change at a very personal level. He identified as a “karanga rua” – a person of mixed heritage – “one who hears two voices, understands both, and respects both.”
He believed that everyone who makes their home in Aotearoa New Zealand belongs here, and he held the controversial view that we, as peoples, must integrate. He knew that many Māori dislike the word “integration”, because they associate it with obliteration. But, as he put it, “integration is inevitable, it’s an irresistible process of evolution.”
Significantly, Dansey viewed being “part-Māori” as a strength in this changing society. In a speech he delivered in 1964, ‘The Role of the Part-Māori in New Zealand Society’, he discussed the many thousands of New Zealanders who were of mixed heritage. “I have seen it so often,” he said, “that I would almost suggest it as a truth that as the ties of blood and circumstances lessen, the intensity of devotion to Māori causes tends to increase.”
independent journalism happen!Find Out More
Part-Māori, he argued, are in a unique position to be ambassadors for Māori. Not only is the part-Māori generally familiar with the Pākehā world, he explained, but one of the great strengths of Māoridom is that it “claims and is claimed by part–Māoris [sic] as if racially they were of full Māori descent.” For these reasons, he believed that part-Māori are in a strong position to promote understanding between our peoples.
It is interesting to reflect on how this view of Dansey’s may have developed. Eric Ramsden wrote to him in 1947, quoting Sir Apirana Ngata: “Dansey is showing the mettle of the rising generation of Māori youth.” Ramsden cautioned the young writer not to forget his European heritage:
But don’t forget the Pākehā that is within you. No Māori has risen to any real distinction in modern times without it. No, not even Ngata himself. In the course of time we will get out of these racial compartments and show the world a new and distinct type – the real New Zealander. The latter has not emerged yet. There must be more infiltration of the blood.
Today, of course, there are many thousands more New Zealanders who identify as Māori, and many of us explicitly acknowledge our mixed heritage. I, for example, am of Pākehā and Kāi Tahu (Kāi Te Ruahikihiki) descent and, like Dansey, I view both dimensions as integral to who I am. As our peoples become more integrated, and as more of us come to identify as Māori, we might use this strength to create the unique culture that Dansey imagined for us, by ensuring an understanding of te taha Māori and working collectively to bring all of our cultures together for the benefit of tātou katoa.
Love The Spinoff? The best way to support us is to join The Spinoff Members. For just $2 a week you can help us hire more journalists – and receive a FREE copy of our first book.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.