A tete-a-tete with Titewhai

18:59, Feb 10 2013
Shades of activism: Titewhai Harawira says Maori get the benefits of being a Treaty partner ‘‘because we fight for them’’.

A conversation with Titewhai Harawira doubles as a lesson in how to speak to women, how to conduct an interview and how to do better research.

At 80, she is physically frail. She moves slowly with the support of crutches. But her ability to strike fear into people is undimished.

"I'm a big fan of young people, and I am a big fan of correcting things. You need to learn how to speak to the older women," she admonishes during our 30-minute interview.

Stand by me: Titewhai Harawira’s role of escorting prime ministers at Waitangi has created interesting dynamics, such as making Helen Clark cry and this year’s row over accompanying John Key.

A lot of people pass her as she walks around the Waitangi grounds. Most - nephews, politicians, journalists, Maori and Pakeha - stop to embrace her tiny frame and kiss her on her cheek, out of love and respect. Others hide in fear.

Beneath that delicate exterior, she still has the bite of an activist that has spent time in prison and brought politicians to tears.

"I refuse to be intimidated by anybody," she said, her tongue as sharp as her body is weak.


Her response to Ngapui kaumatua at Waitangi's Te Tii Marae, Kingi Taurua, who described Harawira as a bully? He's a "wimp" who needs to "grow a backbone".


Titewhai Harawira is directly descended from two Ngapuhi chiefs, Patuone and Nene, who signed both the Declaration of Independence in 1835, and the Treaty of Waitangi.

She has raised nine children to be proud of their ancestors and their Maori heritage at a time when it "wasn't always sexy to be Maori".

She would show up at the children's schools to ensure their Maori names were being spelled and pronounced correctly.

"It was necessary for me to enforce a safety barrier around my children so that they would feel comfortable about being Maori and having a language to be proud of."

But this pride can quickly descend into vanity. She demands lipstick and refuses to remove her sunglasses for the photographer.

Asked about the degree of fame she has established over a lifetime at the front of Maori politics, Harawira laughs. "Darling, a degree? Haha. A degree, darling, come on."

It is this apparent arrogance that has detracted from a history of involvement in some of the most important social causes and achievements for Maori over the past half century, with Harawira accused of intentionally putting herself and her image before the needs of Maori.

The most recent farce over who would escort the prime minister on to the marae was labelled a selfish sideshow to the real issues and celebrations of Waitangi Day.

Prime Minister John Key targeted Harawira in his annual Waitangi address with comments as thinly veiled as Harawira's delicate lace gloves, complaining that Maori activism and protest distracts from the real issues and detracts from the celebration of our national day.

"There remains a small but vocal few who are sometimes apparently unable or unwilling to see the world through any lens other than that of Maori disadvantage," Key told a room that included Harawira.

"Those headline-seekers know they will get much more attention by being flamboyant and negative than they will by being considered and positive."

But Maori activism is not only a long part of Maori history, it has been a necessity in achieving change for Maori social outcomes. And Harawira was a major part of the most divisive moments of New Zealand history and the most important developments and rejuvenation of Maori.

"John Key would not know what the hell hit him in the early 70s at the height of our protests. Those were the times when the changes to policies and the recognition of Maori were made," she said.

"We get benefits as a Treaty partner because we fight for them."


Harawira organised the 1975 land march from Te Hapua, Northland, to Wellington to protest the alienation of Maori land, famously led by Dame Whina Cooper.

She travelled to South Africa where she met Nelson and Winnie Mandela.

She went to the Netherlands to request the Dutch government reclaim the name New Zealand in order to allow the reversion to a Maori name.

Harawira travelled to the Privy Council in London to fight for the protection of the Maori language.

She has fought against Maori protocol for women's rights on the marae.

She has been a member of the New Zealand Maori Council for 45 years.

When Tariana Turia defected from Labour to form the Maori Party, Harawira put her hand up to stand for the Te Tai Tokerau seat, now occupied by her son Hone.

"These things have not come about because we have had a sympathetic government, even though they talk about the Treaty of Waitangi and it being a foundation document for this country. That struggle for the recognition for our rights continues," Harawira said.

"Over the last 45 years, nothing has changed. Not unless we fight for it."

She resents the governments' (past and current) financially based solutions to the issues of the Maori underclass.

Although Key says Treaty stimulants are the "biggest stimulus on the horizon" that will "financially empower iwi", Harawira believes the approach neglects the real problems faced by Maori and the real obligations of the Treaty of Waitangi.

"The Treaty has been reduced to a document that we've got to give those Maoris a dollar for then it will all disappear. Well it won't. The injustice continues."

Money will not solve an education system, health statistics and housing situations that continue to be disastrous for Maori, Harawira said.


But, how will history remember Harawira? Her achievements are constantly clouded by their reciprocal controversy.

Her lauded work with Maori health initiatives will forever be overshadowed by her nine-month prison sentence in 1988 for beating a psychiatric patient and fracturing his skull.

The 1975 land march was divided by a Harawira-led, two-month occupation of the Parliament grounds, from which Cooper disassociated herself and which was used by Prime Minister Robert Muldoon to quash the protest and its demands.

Her fight for women's rights will best be remembered for Harawira making Helen Clark cry, when she refused to let a Pakeha woman speak on the marae.

This past week's peaceful and relatively productive Waitangi will best be remembered for her tantrum over who would escort the PM on to the marae.

Although she recognises John Key's abilities as a leader - "Key makes some very clear decisions on a whole range of things," - the compliment is not reciprocated.

In the prime minister's eyes Harawira "is a nice enough person and a reasonably gentle old lady" preoccupied with media headlines.

She says she has no regrets and no plans of relinquishing the fight for social progress for Maori. And she knows her whakapapa will carry the fight in her name.

Her daughter Hinewhare heads Sir Owen Glenn's inquiry into New Zealand child abuse and domestic violence, a problem disproportionately affecting Maori.

Her son Hone, a politician by trade but "activist by nature", has followed in her radical and controversial footsteps and was arrested last year at a protest against the relocation of state housing in Auckland.

"Apparently, no other politician has been arrested for political action since 1951 at the waterfront lockout. I am proud that my arrest is part of that history," he said.

He attributes his political ambitions for Maori to the example set by his mother.

"She is the most powerful woman I have ever met, Maori, Pakeha, or anyone else.

"Her courage, her strength and her ferocious commitment to justice for Maori bolster me for the challenges I face every day," he said.

Sunday Star Times