Kōrero with Ngahuia Te Awekotuku: Turning Worry into Action

Posted: December 13, 2023Categories: , , , , , ,

Kōrero with Ngahuia Te Awekotuku: Turning Worry into Action

The legendary activist and scholar Ngahuia Te Awekotuku (Te Arawa, Tūhoe, Ngāpuhi and Waikato) offered deep concern about the new government – but also hope about collective opposition to their “rubbish” agenda – in her warm, candid online kōrero with Stacey Morrison.

This kōrero video has been lightly edited for clarity.

We live in interesting times. Last year, Ngahuia recounted, she was driving to the reunion of 1970s Māori activist group Ngā Tamatoa, through “the gentle hills of Taranaki” when she saw what she described as “one of the worst things I ever imagined”:  “there were all these MAGA flags and even the American confederate flag and all these weird symbols of Trump waving around in the pastures and the raupatu (confiscated) lands of Te Āti Awa. […] and it was like ‘what the hell is happening to Aotearoa?’” She saw “really disgusting signage” again during the election campaign as well as a “sense of divisiveness and really intense aggression and the very skilled manipulation of the vulnerable. […] It’s in confusion and chaos that people like Trump and the Weasel, it’s from that environment that people like that emerge.”

Words are Ngahuia’s playthings, and she doesn’t mince them. The “Weasel” is David Seymour, while Christopher Luxon is a “diabolical nincompoop” leading an assortment of “very gruesome right wing reactionary people” and “extraordinary fascists” to power. “For the next three years – and God, I hope it’s only three –  we will be encountering and engaging with the challenge of hatred, hostility, the fearmongering, the sowing of discontent and discord” by the elected government. She assesses that many of the dreams which Ngā Tamatoa helped make true are now “at grave risk of demolition and that freaks me out.”

However. She is heartened by the opposition to the government – the doubling of Te Pāti Māori MPs to four – and her very experience with Ngā Tamatoa helps shore up her hope.

“Dynamic, visionary, wonderful” inspiration from wāhine Māori, quoted by Ngahuia

  • “Don’t be scared, because the kōhanga reo generation are here, and we have a huge movement and a huge wave of us coming through.” – Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke, Pāti Māori MP (Hauraki-Waikato)
  • “[…] turn worry into action.” – Nanaia Mahuta, outgoing Foreign Minister
  • “Te ohonga ake i tōku moemoeā ko te puāwaitanga o te whakaaro.” Te Puea Herangi (Ngahuia’s on-the-spot interpretation: “By coming out of that time of rest, or crisis, or reflection, we make our dreams come true.”)
  • “My beloved aunt Bonnie Amohau, one of the ariki of our tribe, told me at one of my most desperate and asthmatic times on the hockey field: ‘Girl, never give up, never give up, never ever give up’. And I never have and I never will!” – Ngahuia Te Awekotuku

“Even when things are really really bad as they were in the early 1970s, with the energy and the recklessness and the courage of youth, of young people [we made a difference. …] And with the work that we did in the early 70s, late 60s we never lost sight of our faith in each other. [At last year’s reunion], we recognised the love and the energy and the aroha and the strength that inspired and motivated us, and that has never gone away.”

This is happening again. And we can all assist, as “a growing community of allies”: “One of the things we don’t really talk about with Ngā Tamatoa, we did have a whole population of Pākehā allies and [today] it’s in those relationships and the growth of those communities we can make a meaningful way forward.”

Queer Words

Ngahuia also talked about the delight of discovering (at the same time as reo Māori & gay rights advocate Lee Smith) the word “takatāpui”, in the writings of her koroua Te Rangikāheke. “Although in other mōteatea [traditional chants…] there are references to ‘whakawahine’ and ‘whakatane’, which is similar to ‘fa’afafine’ and ‘fa’afatama’. So we’ve always had that energy in our world as people of the Pacific.”

She feels the invisibility of queerness as well as of womanhood. “We don’t hear the word lesbian said nearly enough in this world, and I will never stop saying it because that is who I am, just as I am Māori. […] The ‘L word’ is relegated back into the world of male fantasy and danger, and that upsets me. […] I’ve got a really good label which I sometimes copy and distribute which is ‘drop me in honey and throw me to the lesbians’, and I think that’s a really lovely, cheeky way to say something.”

Ngahuia also discussed her background and her supportive whānau and her name. She used to argue with unnamed “venerables” about whether all the deities born to Papatūānuku and Ranginui were men. As te reo Māori has no pronouns, she says “I refuse to accept that, I refused to accept it as a kid. Tāwhirimātea – winds, storms, weather – is a woman!”

The achievements of the Women’s Liberation Movement which Ngahuia highlighted include women in positions of power in politics (including mayoralties), the justice system and academia – and also the less glamorous establishment of the Women’s Refuge movement and Rape Crisis support.

And she discussed her moko kauae, which she received with 15 other wāhine in 2007, on the first anniversary of the passing of Te Arikinui, Te Atairangikaahu, the Māori Queen, whom Ngahuia reveres as an exceptional rangatira and mentor. “For me in a way, it was a huge decision because [previously] I could literally slide between genders and identities and dress and tone of voice. But out of my sense of being Māori and loving her and mourning for her, this happened.”

Ngahuia then led the creation of a book Mau Moko: The World of Maori Tattoo (2008): “One of our big intentions was to normalise the tattooed face again, and I think we are achieving that.” But still, “I can get into a lift in certain parts of this country and people won’t get in with me. And it’s worse if I’m with one of my male cousins who has a fully tattooed face, people jump out of the lift. So there’s still that sense of fear, of threat.”

Which brings us full circle back to the immediate threat to Māori rights. If it happens, a Treaty-related referendum would be “the most heinous and divisive and crazy policy that could ever be enacted. To introduce an initiative like that would cause immeasurable suffering,” said Ngahuia. But she is also reminded of “something John Key said about another issue: ‘oh no, we’ll have the hikois from hell!’”

At the same time, the vision is not to keep what we currently have. Times are desperate. “I live in a community surrounded by WINZ motels. I have a guy down the road who sleeps on the warm pavement outside the pie shop. You offer him a pie, he doesn’t want a pie, he wants cash. Stopping at McDonalds […] you end up with a very pregnant woman standing in front of your car, refusing to move, and you offer her some of your groceries, and nah, she wants money.

“These things happen to me in Rotorua where I live. This is the reality of our world. I see so many Māori kids who are not part of the privileged kura kaupapa/wānanga/wharekura system, [they’re] in the state schools – what the hell happens to them? If they’re not clever enough, or not secure enough or they don’t have the same address throughout the year, what happens to them?”

So: political action is needed. “It’s about following your heart. […] Sometimes you have to take risks, sometimes you have to do stuff or be there when you know it could be at the possibility of losing friendships, losing contact, losing meaningful parts of your life. […]

“I believe for us now, in this extremely peculiar time in the history, not just of Aotearoa but of the planet, we are reaching a point where we will have to make decisions, we will have to identify our allies and we will have to make that great enormous terrifying step forward. […] Don’t [just] worry, because worry isn’t going to get us anywhere. Turn worry into action and make it work for us.”