Alex Casey talks to Tāme Iti on the shores of Celebrity Treasure Island about his survival skills, reclaiming the mainstream and making that viral TikTok.
You know those funny artworks where Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Elvis and Humphrey Bogart are all at a pub? Earlier this year, lakeside in Wānaka, I saw the local version before my very own eyes. In said scene, Matilda Green was flashing a gleaming white smile for the camera. Behind her, TV host Matt Gibb and comedian James Mustapic were skimming stones on the water. On the shore, Tāme Iti lay on a rock in the sun like a lizard, fast asleep.
At 71, Iti (Ngāi Tūhoe) has become one of the most recognisable faces in Māori activism after he first rose to prominence in Ngā Tamatoa in the 1970s. Since then, he’s delivered Waitangi Tribunal submissions on a blanket, served nine months in prison on firearm charges after the controversial Te Urewera raids, delivered Ted talks and gone viral on TikTok for correcting the spelling of his name on an artwork at Wellington’s posh Museum Hotel.
Iti is also a Laureate award-winning artist, a poet, an actor, a producer, a social worker, a father, a beekeeper, a gardener, a grandparent, and now, in a turn that nobody saw coming, one of the cast members on Celebrity Treasure Island. “I love it here,” he told me after his lakeside nap, nibbling on a little bag of salt and vinegar chips. “I love the space. I love the challenge. It’s not that harsh, apart from the big mountains over there, but I’m not gonna climb those.”
While other unnamed celebrities were clearly already struggling with sunscreen in their eyes and sand flies biting their ankles before the game had even begun, Iti was more than happy to be entering the wilderness. “I’ve got personal experience living in survival,” he said. “I’ve taken a lot of kids out in the bush and it’s a good space there just to loosen up, distract you from booby traps in our society.” He chuckled. “I can see the city guys already have some anxiety.”
Gesturing to the nearby lake, Iti said that is the first place he’ll be looking when it comes to sustenance. “I’m not going to eat the food in there but I can get the food in there,” the vegan explained, talking me through how to use rarauhe as a trap for fish, who are attracted to the scent. “There’s millions of years of creation from the gods all around us, so why would we not explore that? It’s a good challenge for all of us to get out there and check it out.”
One of society’s big “booby traps” he referred to was social media. “There’s a lot of people yelling and screaming and they are all nameless and faceless,” he said. “I still think kanohi ki te kanohi is a really good thing, so we can look at each other and we can feel each other’s vibration and voice.” Still, social media has provided a new audience for his art. He often posts in the early hours, talking and painting at the same time, to reach those on the other side of the world.
TikTok is Iti’s latest artistic platform, which took off in 2022 when he wandered into the Museum Hotel and corrected the spelling of his name. “That was about art on art. Anybody can see and look at that painting and see it’s me. But it’s Tāme, it’s not Tāma,” he said. “We did it right in front of them, nobody questioned what we were doing, then we just walked out with a smile.” It was his son Toi who had the nous to add Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg’s ‘The Next Episode’.
He’s excited to bring that same sense of theatricality to Celebrity Treasure Island. “Life is theatrical, you know? We’re here to create this reality show and we are allowed to be theatrical and bring new different elements to make it fun, make it laughable,” he said. And look out Paul Henry, let’s just say there’s a new top dog hat-wearer coming to our screens. “Oh yeah, I’ve brought all my bowler hats to add something to the place.”
I asked how he felt about walking into the belly of the mainstream media, especially after decades of derision and “fearsome ferals” headlines. “I just kinda laugh at that now. With my kind of profile, people either like me or they hate my guts. It doesn’t really matter,” he said. “I’m also only one of many other people in the history of this country. And I think it’s important for us to challenge ourselves, not just the system, but for everyone to shift their thinking.”
In the wake of his 2022 exhibition I Will Not Speak Māori, a phrase Iti himself was forced to write out hundreds of times at school as a child, he said it is great to see Te Reo normalised on our screens, even in reality TV juggernauts like Celebrity Treasure Island. He’s especially looking forward to using Te Reo in the competition with his teammate Turia Schmidt-Peke. “We are definitely going to use the language, even if just very basic – ‘whakarongo’, ‘titiro’,” he said.
With a mischievous smile, he also revealed it could be an advantage in the game. “We can also both talk without giving things away,” he said, lowering his voice. “We can do it all in Te Reo so they never know what we are doing.” With $100,000 on the line for his chosen mental health charity I Am Hope, Iti said he’ll do whatever he can to win. “It’s something very dear to my soul,” he said. “It’s something that has impacted me and people that I know personally.”
Before the strategy and mind games had even started, Iti had a plan of attack for his team. “I want to be the one at the back giving instructions, because I can see things, knowing the landscape and knowing all of these survival things,” he said. “I’ll have a small role because there’s nine of us, which means nine different thoughts and ideas.” Once they figure out everyone’s strengths, kanohi ki te kanohi, that’s when the plan will come together.
“Because,” the 71-year-old grinned. “We are here to kick ass.”
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