PR consultant Ben Thomas has been spending time in te rohe pōtae o Te Urewera. Here he reports back from Te Uru Taumatua, the Nāi Tūhoe tribal authority, on how the iwi is utilising resources, and its community networks, to respond to the Covid-19 crisis.
I was lucky enough to spend the months between September and December in Waikaremoana working for Te Uru Taumatua, the Nāi Tūhoe* tribal authority, and seeing first hand how Waikaremoana, the iwi organisation and Te Urewera Board’s kaitiakitanga of the former national park (now its own legal entity) was going up at the lake.
I’ve been back in Auckland for a few months now. I planned to be back in time for the Book of Mormon at the Civic theatre, and for the International Comedy Festival, but instead I was back in time for the Covid-19 lockdown.
On the first episode of Te Uru Taumatua’s new podcast, Kōrero Kaputī, chair Tāmati Kruger discusses how Tūhoe has responded to the crisis in level four. I was asked to reflect as an outsider (and former Crown official) on how I thought an iwi response compared in a crisis to my experience with government responses. (I definitely recommend having a listen to hear the inside word from Tāmati.)
A lot of attention in the mainstream media has been paid to iwi establishing checkpoints around their areas of interest to ensure that non-essential travel is not taking place. But not too much attention has been paid to the essential role of iwi in responding to the crisis among their people: an extra layer of protection between whānau and the state.
Māori are particularly vulnerable in a pandemic: having a much higher mortality than Pākehā during all recorded pandemics and epidemics in New Zealand, as well as lower life expectancy and on average much higher rates of disadvantage across most social indicators.
In a crisis, one of the most important things to get through is coordination. As the government has said, there is no shortage of food and essential supplies right now – that’s why we have been warned over and over again not to panic buy at the supermarket. We won’t run out. If everyone shops normally, there will be enough toilet paper and hand soap and canned food for everyone, and there won’t be bare shelves on the days when people who need it do their shop.
However, it’s a different story for people who are living in remote communities, or who can’t organise transport – or who can’t risk leaving their homes even for a short time because they are especially vulnerable to Covid-19, such as the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.
Supermarkets have strong supply chains across the country, but not the last mile to people’s homes. Tūhoe, through Te Uru Taumatua, has scale and relationship with supplier that means that it can negotiate ongoing supply chains for necessary provisions, including PPE, in a way that individuals, and even villages, may find difficult. And through the tribal authorities of the four traditional valleys, it knows who needs what and can arrange distribution around the rohe, including remote enclaves and towns far from the nearest New World.
In towns and cities across New Zealand, neighbours have distributed forms in letterboxes for residents to identify themselves and ask for assistance. This is a great community-minded initiative, but it relies on having neighbours willing to go that extra step – and it shows up that many people do not even know their neighbours at all. It’s something to envy that Tūhoe communities already have these networks that can get the information about who to help directly through to whanaunga who are organised to help. Te Uru Taumatua delivered 400 care packages the day level two was announced, to settlements deep within Te Urewera and elderly people living remotely, and has since distributed grants to help people struggling with reduced income pay power and internet bills, as well as organising heaters and hot water bottles.
The local infrastructure and resources of communities in the rohe has also helped establish greater resilience for this and any future crises, such as medical centres and the Te Tii complex in Ruatāhuna. Sadly, while lockdown is in place, Te Tii’s cafe can’t serve $8 breakfasts, but having readily available petrol, a medical centre and wifi/cell coverage helps connectivity with whānau elsewhere. These projects all benefited from sharing experience and resources as an iwi – building on the learning and skills gained during the creation of Te Kura Whare and Te Kura Whenua.
In the same way, the government has a huge amount of money and resources of its own to deal with disasters. It is very good at doing that at a large scale, and terrible at doing it on a community level. Iwi can bridge the gap. The iwi means there is a single point of contact for both Oranga Tamariki to make sure that at-risk Tūhoe tamariki are kept safe but placed in Tūhoe homes for lockdown, and for Tūhoe families to report problems and seek assistance.
The iwi structure is not just a very useful way to organise help from outside, but also an important focus for how Tūhoe can help each other. National services are overwhelmed right now. Calling the government mental health services or Healthline may result in waiting for hours to talk to a human. So Tūhoe has established its own confidential listening service for those struggling during lockdown with mental health issues, domestic violence or addiction – manned by people who know the local circumstances while also having the scale to help.
The iwi structure is unique to Māori in New Zealand. It’s an incredibly effective way of connecting the resources and services that government and big suppliers have with the communities, whānau and individuals who need them. That’s so important during a crisis like this. At a time when we are all being asked as New Zealanders to pull together, it seems to me as an outsider a source of comfort and security knowing that you are already part of something with each other.
*The g in the “ng” sound is dropped in Nāi Tūhoe dialect
Ben Thomas is a public relations consultant, and his clients include Te Uru Taumatua, the Ngāi Tūhoe iwi authority.