The Maori King and royal shyness

08:26, Jul 17 2009

ALLIE LELONG planned to talk to a king on Tuesday but nerves got the better of the 21-year-old Waikato University student and she backed off. "I just wanted to say hello but I was too shy." Funny, then, that Lelong and the king have shyness in common. But she can live with it Tuheitia, the Maori King, is having to learn to get over his.

The same day Lelong chickened out of greeting Kingi Tuheitia, he left New Zealand for one of the greatest tests in his almost three-year reign as head of the Kingitanga movement. He spent the morning his birthday at Waikato University, guest of honour at the inaugural Kingitanga Day designed to celebrate the relationship between the two organisations, and flew to Dubai in the afternoon where he was seeking an audience with the prime minister, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid al Maktoum.

After that comes New York to be part of the formal welcome at the United Nations for former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark in her new position as head of the UN development programme.

It is a visit that is being viewed by many Maori with great pride. It has always been one of the goals of the Kingitanga to forge relationships on an international stage and unify Maori and Pakeha. This trip not only provides that opportunity but also places the Maori King at the forefront of a particularly prestigious world body.

Serendipitous, too, that the New York invitation comes at the very end of a year of celebration for the Kingitanga. Next weekend marks the end of the 150th year since it was founded to end confiscation of land, to maintain law and order and to unite the people. There will be singing, dancing, oratory and feasting at Ngaruawahia's Turangawaewae Marae and a chance to strengthen the bonds of the movement that many Tainui Maori say is simply a way of life.

Outside Tainui, however, for non Maori and those without tribal links, the Kingitanga can seem like an anachronism, its leader a mere figurehead and its relevance surely diminished since Tainui's 1995 raupatu settlement and the eventual strong performance of its business entities.

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But to see the Kingitanga and its monarchical structure in that light overlooks its complexity and the reason it will outlast whoever is chosen to lead it.

Pita Sharples explains it with ease at Kingitanga Day. A last-minute stand-in for his colleague and Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia, he delivers a challenging and commanding speech to a packed lecture theatre. He effortlessly draws the links from the principles of the Kingitanga movement to the establishment of the Maori Party, from the foreshore and seabed debate and on to the fight for guaranteed Maori representation on the future Auckland super-city council.

"It is impossible for Maori to exist without our relationship to the land, mana whenua. We are not of today, we not an an ethnic group, we are tangata whenua. It is something that comes down through generations. I am a holder of that, it is my privilege at that time. We are people of this place."

Mana whenua the power Maori derive from the land is what Sharples says is the essence of Kingitanga and it was what was restored to Tainui with the signing of the raupatu settlement in 1995. It is why he is being so vocal about the super-city structure.

"While it looks impossible, watch this space," he says.

It is not said so much as a warning but as an acknowledgment, or resignation even, that the fight goes on.

"If we don't win, we won't back out, we will still be there to make gains for our people."

The Kingitanga's relevance to the Auckland representation debate is one Charmaine Poutney, educator and founding dean of Waikato University's School of Education, makes in a neighbouring lecture theatre a short time later. And while the message may be the same, the delivery is slightly blunter.

"A new governing body that does not honour mana whenua for the whole region will be another stupid Pakeha bureaucratic organisation that will continue to marginalise others and oppress the poor."

Poutney believes there is much Pakeha can learn from how the Kingitanga operates. She says it is important to recognise the significance of it, not only to Tainui but to other tribes as well.

That model, or ability of the tribal confederations to co-operate with each other, is something she believes Pakeha can learn from, particularly in Auckland.

And it is also one that James Ritchie, professor emeritus and Tainui adviser, explains so eloquently as he traces the history of the Kingitanga.

"What you see is how Maori struggle to find a way in which mana could be recognised without threatening or reducing anyone else's mana."

TODAY THE Kingitanga keeps its lines of communication and consultation open through the poukai system. Poukai are hui held on 28 marae throughout the year. The institution was set up by Tawhiao, the second Maori King, and began in 1884. Hapu celebrate their links to the Kingitanga, pledge their allegiance and engage directly with the movement's hierarchy on issues of the day.

Two years ago the future of the Kingitanga was debated at Pukawa on the the shores of Lake Taupo at a gathering organised by Tuwharetoa, Tainui's closest ally. On the agenda was whether the movement should become involved in Maori politics. There was some desire for greater public advocacy on a national level of major Maori issues outside the parliamentary structure but the lack of public comment from Kingitanga since the Pukawa hui speaks for itself and it can be safely assumed that Tuheitia is keen to follow his mother's example and keep the movement apolitical.

Tainui kaumatua Rahui Papa approves. A Kingitanga historian and organiser of the 150th celebrations, Papa says although the Kingitanga has always been apolitical, it has built a relationship with successive governments throughout its existence.

"The only political role is the building of relationships at the highest level. That should be the door that is open for Maori to express their views."

During Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu's reign, Maori also learned it was essential to separate the Kingitanga from tribal business. Following the raupatu settlement, Tainui almost self-destructed. Finally given the opportunity to manage its own assets, the tribe made a series of poor investments and chalked up multimillion-dollar losses. At the core of the problem was a power struggle between those who saw Tainui's business arm as separate to the Queen and the Kingitanga and those who believed Dame Te Ata's authority was being undermined.

The infighting led to High Court action and severely damaged Tainui's reputation and credibility. Today that argument is consigned to history, Tainui's business arm flourishes alongside, but not influenced by, the Kingitanga.

But that is not to say the Kingitanga doesn't have its critics within Maoridom. There is mounting frustration among some Tainui that Tuheitia, now 54 and having had three years as king, is failing to provide the leadership tribe members say they need.

"It's so annoying, we're getting nowhere fast," says one.

They worry that Tuheitia's absence of ego and abundance of humility makes him vulnerable to exploitation by his closest advisers advisers that tribal members say lack credibility.

"He's honest, I do admire that about him," says one Tainui insider. "But he's got the wrong people around him."

There is also impatience among younger Tainui that Tuheitia be given time to grow into the role. They say three years is long enough, despite it taking much longer for Dame Te Ata to become used to meeting dignitaries and command the genuine personal respect her position commanded.

Papa admits Tuheitia still has a way to go. He is not fluent in te reo. Papa, a language teacher, says he has had worse students; the King is learning. "As far as I am concerned he is doing a sterling job. He is so new to the role and there will always be teething problems."

Poutney believes each Kingitanga monarch has possessed the skills needed for the time of their reign. Tuheitia's love of cars, she believes, is a way for him to reach out to youth, particularly young Maori males.

But if patience and respect may be wearing out in some quarters, everyone agrees the movement is strong.

"We'll just see you at the other end," the critics say, meaning when it comes time to elect a new leader. Whether the Kingitanga remains with Tainui is apparently already being debated by younger tribe members.

That would not only be a break with tradition, but pose a dilemma for Tainui. Tuheitia's son is being groomed as the next head of the movement and is generally regarded as showing a great deal of promise. Although Tuheitia was never regarded as likely to assume the leadership, his son Whatumoana Paki was a close confidant of his grandmother even learning of his father's succession before he did. It is with Whatumoana and younger Maori that the future of Kingitanga resides.

Amid the celebrations at Waikato University on Tuesday, students talked of the movement's importance.

"It provides a platform for everyone to get together," says 28-year-old student president Pene Delaney. "Effectively, it will have a position in the future, which, as a movement, will be able to reflect views outside the political environment."

As Dame Te Ata told her people in 2001 at the 35th anniversary of her coronation, the Kingitanga had been "part of every moment, thought, dream and action. It is as much a part of me as the very air that I breathe. You are not here for me but for it, the Kingitanga."

Sunday Star Times