Prime Minister John Key is set to walk into tribal warfare at Waitangi on Tuesday after moves to sideline Titewhai Harawira from her job of escorting him on to the Waitangi lower marae.
Harawira, a long-time activist and mother of Mana Party leader Hone Harawira, is a divisive figure even among her own Ngapuhi people.
In 2011 the board of Te Tii Marae in Waitangi threatened to ban her, accusing her of being a bully and breaching Maori protocol.
Ngapuhi elder Kingi Taurua said trustees had decided this year it was time for a change. "They had a meeting the other day and they don't want Titewhai to escort the visitors on to the marae."
Marae trustees were appointing their own "kuia of esteem" to escort Key on to the marae. He said Harawira went "ape shit" when told about the plan and her resistance had made appointing a successor difficult.
Taurua suggested it would be kuia Ani Taurua, while trustee Rihari Dargaville said there would be two kuia, including Harawira.
Harawira has no doubt over who would fulfil the job: "There is no confusion. It lowers my mana to even respond to something that isn't true." In other words, it'll be her.
She described Taurua as "the clown who was going to throw me off the Waitangi Bridge a couple of years back".
Harawira's role as the self-appointed prime ministerial escort at Waitangi has rankled marae elders in the past - in 2009, they attempted to replace her with Nellie Rata, the widow of the late Matiu Rata.
Taurua said Harawira physically elbowed Rata out of the way as Key arrived.
"We thought we would give [Nellie] the opportunity of doing that, out of respect for Matiu. But when it came to the day Titewhai objected. When the prime minister came on, Nellie went to greet him and Titewhai kicked her off."
Her history of fighting for the role had made finding a replacement difficult this year.
Taurua said one kuia had agreed - then found out Harawira had objected.
"She said she wasn't prepared to do it now but the trustees told her, no, you will remain there because it was our decision."
Dargaville said the trustees had never demanded Harawira stand down.
"All they are saying is we have put forward our own honourable lady, a kuia of esteem, and she will be there."
He said Harawira had made it clear to everyone "that she will continue in that role. Period".
"She is of the view that she created that position in her own right. Therefore she should hold to that position."
The result could even be two kuia escorting Key.
"We're not here to cause a fight with Titewhai. What we want to do is make sure it's known that when [Ngapuhi] make a decision they mean it. That's why they are sticking by their decision. They're not acquiescing in any way."
Dargaville said the decision to nominate another kuia was the marae's alone and there had been no communication from the prime minister's office or elsewhere that Harawira was an unacceptable escort.
A spokeswoman for Key said it was a matter for the marae to decide who should escort him.
Key's kaumatua, Lewis Moeau, said it would be highly inappropriate for the Government to tell marae elders who should greet the prime minister.
Labour MP Shane Jones said prime ministers were used to arriving to a circus at Waitangi. "I'm not aware of the detail as to who these kuia are other than Titewhai but really the question is which of them is going to give the prime minister the Liverpool kiss first."
- Sunday Star Times
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