How will history remember Donna Awatere Huata? Saraid Cameron hopes it’s for her feminism.
I spent much of last summer (for theatre-geek reasons) in the New Zealand Women’s Archives, an almost forgotten collection at Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum. It’s an unedited, alphabetised collection of newspaper and magazine clippings and handwritten biographies of New Zealand women; they don’t have to be famous or important to make it into this collection, their stories just need to be written down. This was where I found Donna Awatere Huata.
I remembered her a little. Her name and her sunglasses were in my brain somewhere, along with the famous fraud. There were big gaps.
Awatere Huata started as an opera singer, training with the same teacher as Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, no big deal. She eventually gave up singing when her father was put in prison. Calling it “the lightning bolt to push her into action”, Awatere Huata says it was her father’s imprisonment that led her to study educational psychology and get involved in social activism. In 1984 she published Māori Sovereignty, a book on the cost of colonisation to New Zealand’s indigenous people, which became instrumental in the Māori Protest Movement. She worked as a cultural consultant for various government bodies, before being elected to parliament as a member for the ACT party in 1996.
So: musician, activist, writer, academic, government advisor, politician. And fraudster. Damn.
The more I read, the more Donna Awatere Huata really lodged herself in the “inspo/hero” part of my brain because of quotes like this:
“New Zealand missed its opportunity to have the first working class women’s movement in the world. It was begun by working class women but the middle class movement usurped it. Those working class women had their role sabotaged. It was so divisive, the vitriol… oh the bitterness with which the women treated each other to gain ascendancy.”
From a profile headlined ‘Meet the Feminist Who Roars’ in the Auckland Star, May 30 1979.
I’m used to bringing up class or race in feminism around middle-aged women and having them stare at me like I’m speaking another language. But Awatere Huata was an expert on it more than 30 years ago. She’s quoted in the Are We There Yet? Women and Equality in Aotearoa exhibition, from a 1982 interview where she protests the unique oppression of women of colour:
“Feminists have concentrated on the sex oppression part of it and have fixated on the fallacy that it is possible to achieve goals for women without also making challenges to white supremacy and capitalism. Without these challenges all that is sought are goals that don’t change the system and which are priorities only for the elite who aren’t as oppressed by these powers as others.”
It feels almost impossibly ignorant to not see what happened to Awatere Huata through the lens of what very recently happened to Metiria Turei. Two highly successful Māori women in powerful positions, spending years fighting for those less privileged, committing very different degrees of fraud, but both facing the possibility of being remembered for that and nothing more.
When Awatere Huata speaks at the LATE at Auckland Museum on Wednesday 15 August, it goes a way to proving this not to be true. I am very happy to be working, living and reading at a time where I can rewrite my memories to reflect her more fully.
How did people see you and respond to you when you were writing and speaking about race and class in feminism in 1979?
Very badly. It got so bad. I had mates who I did things with that weren’t necessarily feminists but I would entice them into doing things like going out for a beer and sitting in a pub – even that was a radical action cause we’d be the only women sitting in the bar. So you’d be noticed. And they would find the attention and the body language of the men very intimidating but I didn’t. I just thought this is my place – I have a right to be here so I’m gonna be here. I want to have a beer with my mates. Just ordinary women who happened to be my mates but got dragged along to whatever I wanted to do. I didn’t allow any barrier to be put in my way. I simply was brought up to believe that I had my own power, by both my parents. So I exercised it often.
I got beaten up in the pub after Māori Sovereignty came out so often that I stopped going. And in those days I wasn’t a big drinker. It was like our marae, it was a social thing.
I’m a hedonist and that’s what kept me going as an activist. But even I had to give up that pleasure of going out with my mates. I got beaten up so often by angry Pākehā men, and I have no physical fear but it really did get dangerous for me. And dangerous for whoever I was with.
So what was the reaction? Extreme.
What do you see as the issues and difficulties of the current women’s movement?
I think after the 70s we got a lot better. I think things for women and Māori and for other ethnic minorities improved by the sheer power of – well they call us radicals – but those of us striving for our sheer humanity to be respected. The women’s liberation movement definitely moved things forward.
But where we got knocked back was neoliberalism. It’s knocked the poor, and it’s knocked women, and it’s knocked Māori. We’re so much worse off now than we were in the 50s, 60s and 70s because the economic chasm has grown. And the selfishness of the handful of privileged New Zealanders who hold that power have been allowed to get away with it. So the movement for change can’t be one for just Māori or just women. It really has to be united.
I feel like I’m part of a multitude of our people that have put their hands up and said stop. I realise I also am privileged. They suffered the worst of it. The complete assault to their mana, to their mauri. I’ve never had that. All I’ve had is white racist New Zealand give me a few hidings and assault me and not give me jobs and sack me but it’s bearable because I don’t value them at all.
What was your immediate response to the #MeToo movement?
Really uplifted. I was really uplifted. The feminist movement was very much an upper middle class white American privileged women’s movement. And it centered on the things that affected them: equal pay, abortion, decent child care, middle class issues.
But what it evolved into… I was part of the very first rape crisis centre that was set up on Ponsonby Road. I remember thinking vividly that I must go along to that meeting because this affects Māori women. We need a refuge for women who have been raped. It was all Pākehā, all middle class privileged women in that room but I was there to make sure that in their planning and organising the Māori need was included. It probably would have happened without be being there but I think it might have been slower.
The great things about the #MeToo movement is that it will percolate. It will meander its way through, it will get to the factory floor in 30 or 50 years’ time and it will be women collectively. It will help the poor and it will help Māori women who deal with this. So I was uplifted by that.
Do you think controlled discussions in historically white and colonial institutions go any way to fixing the problems caused by those institutions?
No, not at all. But I loved the approach they took to the exhibition that I’m a part of (Are we there yet?). I loved their consultative way and the humility. I loved the approach that the women I spoke to have taken. I love that it is a celebration of not just the well known, but the people who were there.
I stopped doing media probably ten years ago, but I am honouring the women I met and the work they are doing at the museum.
We need to transform away from museums. The Māori worldview is so much more beautiful than the Pākehā worldview.
How would you like to be remembered?
I’m not actually thinking of being remembered by anyone other than my family. Why would people remember me?
Donna Awatere Huata will be speaking on a panel discussing the #MeToo movement at LATE at Auckland Museum on Wednesday 15 August. Tickets.
The #MeToo movement has inspired countless women, and some men, to share their experiences with sexual assault or harassment through the internet. This LATE we assess the repercussions and reactions that are redefining the sexual landscape and explain how society might change in the process. Join us for contemplation and exchange that brings ideas and people together.
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