We conclude our week-long coverage of the Angus Gillies trilogy Ngati Dread in unhappy circumstances.
Here endeth the Spinoff Review of Books’ week-long coverage of the Ngati Dread books about the Rasta uprising in Ruatoria in the late 1980s, and it endeth badly, kind of bitterly. Thus the headline, taken from an angry email. Don’t you love the smell of racial tension in the morning? Every day in New Zealand is Waitangi Day.
Actually it endeth the way it starteth. A few weeks ago I knocked together a list of the 100 greatest ever works of New Zealand non-fiction, and ran it over two days on the Spinoff Review of Books.
I found room for such masterpieces as Best Bets, A Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand and Outlying Islands, and The Telephone Directory. “Facetious,” grumped Victoria University Press publisher Fergus Barrowman, but he’s always moaning about something. Another response was taken seriously.
A number of people felt the list was more or less really insulting to Maori, that it failed to properly represent great works by and about Maori in the non-fiction field. Spinoff editor Duncan Greive opened the door to an alternative list of 50 works.
Frankly I thought it read like a course syllabus for some university course or other, but it brought an important balance, and included numerous works which shaped the New Zealand mind.
And then Scott Hamilton wandered along, and published his own alternative list on his blog Reading the Maps.
It was lively and exciting, and there was one title which really grabbed my attention – the Ngati Dread trilogy by Angus Gillies. Hamilton wrote, “Thirty years ago a young employee of the Gisborne Herald began to hear stories about a series of strange events in the rough country north of town. Farmhouses and barns were being burned; an independent Maori state had been declared; a headless body had been found on a sacred hill; dreadlocked men were proclaiming a new religion, and citing Te Kooti and Bob Marley as its prophets. Angus Gillies’ investigation of the Rastafarian movement of the East Coast and the Pakeha landowners, Ngati Porou elders, and police that opposed it took him through pubs and courtrooms into prisons and mental hospitals.”
Fascinating. On a sudden whim I decided to devote all of this week to this overlooked classic. I got hold of Gillies, and arranged for an excerpt to run on Monday – it was pretty far-out, an account of a murder and that “headless body found on a sacred hill”. I interviewed him in the revolutionary new journalistic practice of the live email interview, and that ran on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Talia Marshall contributed an incredible piece of writing in her personal essay about the books. Murray Cammick provided a memoir of his strange visit to Ruatoria in 1987, at the height of the Rasta Troubles.
Awesome, all good, except it wasn’t. A lot of people were upset. I should have seen it coming.
Very many interviews – very many interviews that I conduct, anyway – are exercises in politely asking the subject to hang themselves with their own rope. Gillies duly found a nice snug spot for his neck and jumped off the scaffold, thus: “It makes me feel good that I got that stuff down in time. My argument to people in Ruatoria who thought I should butt out was, you might resent me, but trust me, there’s an amazing piece of history here and your children and their children and the generations to come are going to thank me. And I’m not being a blowhard, I believe that.”
I do believe the word “hubris” might apply. Kiri Dell of Auckland sent me an email after the interview was posted. She wrote, “I think what you are doing with this Spinoff series lacks integrity and takes no accountability for the pain and the suffering of the families involved.
“Clearly this whole thing lacks a concern about people and is a focus on book sales.
“Why do white people write about it? Honestly, why? We are not objects who are to be observed like animal experiments, we are living breathing communities.
“This is not your story to tell. It is our story, it is our narrative and we should be able to tell it in our words, from our eyes and hearts.
“Shame on you.”
When cornered, my instinct is always to take the buck and pass it. I replied, “Kia ora Kiri. Mind if I forward your email to Angus?”
She replied, “Yes please.”
She also gave permission for us to publish her email.
Gillies replied, “Hi Kiri, I couldn’t agree more.
“I wanted to interview Chris Campbell when he was alive to find out what made him tick, because all I’d read were the court reports, but I was advised against it and before I got a chance he was killed. I wanted to write the story of Ruatoria after that but my father advised me against it, saying don’t open up those wounds. I listened. Then, nine years after the death of Chris Campbell, Dick Maxwell was killed. The people accused in both cases got off on self-defence. There were numerous policemen who were accused of kidnapping and beating up Rastas at different times and they all were found not guilty. After Dick Maxwell’s death I couldn’t wait any more. I thought someone has to tell this story. When I talked to the Maori establishment, they didn’t seem interested in anyone telling the story of the Ruatoria Rastas. I got the impression the Rastas were an embarrassment to them. So I thought, bugger it, I’m going to have a go.
“Also, I know this piece of history opens up wounds. I hate that. But I believe it’s a story worth telling, even if it opens up wounds. We’re not alive for very long and sometimes you just need to get stuff down before it’s lost. I said at the launch of volume three that I didn’t consider my books to be the definitive story about the Ruatoria Troubles. I hoped that they would just be a useful reference that someone from Ruatoria could use to tell this story much better than I have. Kath Akuhata Brown is working on something right now. She is closely related to the Rastas and I’m sure she can tell a much superior story to my attempt and I really hope she does.
“Sarah Sykes, a very wise woman from Ruatoria, told me that the tipuna were in the room standing next to her while I was talking to her at her home next to Te Poho o Te Aowera Marae near the base of Mt Hikurangi. She was crying and told me that the tipuna were telling her that it was okay that I tell this story. There was a very powerful vibe in the room. Late in the piece I rang Sarah and said, I want to hold a public meeting in Ruatoria where people can hit me with there concerns. She told me, don’t worry about that. She said, I can tell you if you get the go-ahead from Paetene Kupenga (Paetene’s son Lance was killed horrifically by a fellow Rasta) you will get the go-ahead from the community, if you don’t get the go-ahead from Paetene, your books won’t happen. I met Paetene and he told me his side of the story and he gave me the start of a book he’d tried to write about his experiences. I included his writing in its entirety in volume one of Ngati Dread.
“When people talk about the books, they often comment that they like the way I just quote people telling their stories and that I let those stories run. That’s true. The books are mostly people just telling their stories. Some of them are Maori. Some of them are Pakeha. It’s not just a Maori story. It’s a story about the friction between Maori and Pakeha. My role in this has been to collate all the stories and join them all together where needed.
“When I was alerted to your comment, Kiri, I was sitting in Angel’s cafe in Papatoetoe, South Auckland (wearing my Blackcaps shirt emblazoned with the word Aotearoa) with my wife Tui Emma Gillies, the Tongan European tapa artist. I asked Tui to take a photo of everyone in the cafe. I stood up and said, ‘Excuse me everyone, can I get my wife to take a photo of all of us?’
“They said, ‘What?’
“I said, ‘I wrote a book about the Ruatoria Rastafarians and she says I shouldn’t have because I’m white. I don’t know what world she lives in but I want to show her the world I live in. As you can see, I’m the only white person in the room.’
“They said, ‘Okay.’
“The lady with her back to us and the New Zealand rugby tee-shirt said, ‘My daughter’s in-laws are from the Coast. They’re the Walkers.’
“I said, ‘Is that Kate Walker’s family?’
“She said, ‘Yes.’
“I said, ‘The Walkers are related to the Rastas, but they’ve also been a victim to the Rastas.’
“She said, ‘Is that right?’ We carried on talking.”
So there’s that, but there were other responses to the Spinoff coverage, on Facebook and elsewhere, and much of it was angry, and pretty much of it was along the lines of: WTF was whitey doing, thinking they could tell Maori stories?
It’s hardly a new dissatisfaction – the historian Michael King dealt with that exact same issue 20, 30 years ago; it drove him close to despair – but that doesn’t mean it’s invalid. Matters of cultural sensitivity are real and ongoing. Does the pursuit of a good yarn count more than “a concern about people”, as Kiri Dell wrote in her email?
Thus the beautifully written headline, taken from another angry email from another bitter correspondent – “the marijuana zoo”! The writer was Talia Marshall. (Who the hell else in New Zealand is capable of writing, “A bunch of people poking their little sticks into the marijuana zoo to see what funny stuff the Maoris got up to on the coast”? She’s some kind of genius.) She had reservations and felt genuine discomfort about the whole thing; it wasn’t an easy decision for Talia (Rangitane ki Wairau, Ngati Kuia) to write her amazing piece on Wednesday, and for it to be published.
There’s probably some truth in her “marijuana zoo” observation. The excerpt, in particular, was a horror show. The books are, in part, a spectacle, a history of extreme behaviour.
Many felt it shouldn’t have been told. An irony – I think it’s an irony – is that today’s scheduled story was a portrait of Ruatoria as it is now, a considered, positive portrait, which let a little light back in after the darkness of Gillies’s books, but it’s a story which can’t be told. The author changed his mind. He emailed, “Apologies for the inconvenience Steve, but I’ve decided I’m not the right person to write about Ruatoria – not following on from your interview with Angus at least. It should come from someone who has been here longer than me and who is from here.”
Fair call. But it was too late to commission another piece.
The writer made an interesting remark in a subsequent email. I said the Spinoff series this week may well have been culturally insensitive. He replied, “I’ve seen a range of reactions from locals to the Angus interview, mostly negative but some less so.
“I’m not sure it’s culturally insensitive – just basic human dignity insensitive and unethical, it’s really no one else’s story to tell, so if the community doesn’t want to tell it, then leave it alone until they are ready to share it – or not.”
But whose story was it, anyway? Is that the heart of this whole thing, is that the crux of it?
Much of the story of the five terrible years of the Rasta movement in Ruatoria involved a guy called John Heeney, often described as a Rasta leader. He went to jail for his crimes. He spoke with Gillies after his release. The interview concludes the third book of the trilogy. He told him a story to do with Luke Donnelly, who shot and killed another Rasta, Heeney’s friend Chris Campbell, and was found not guilty at his murder trial.
Heeney said to Gillies, “I end up getting a two-year trespass notice from Bella’s Dairy, which is Luke Donnelly’s shop in Childers Road, in Gisborne. I get it because I’m walking past there one day when I’m drunk. I’ve been drinking down the road with the brothers. I’m not pissed but I’ve had a couple. And I know where he stays. And I just write a note and leave it at the shop for him. It just says, ‘The End.’”
The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.