We've all seen them.
They stand out in their distinctive black hats and fluorescent jackets as they patrol the streets at night watching over wayward youths. They can also be found acting as security at rock concerts but to many, the New Zealand Maori Wardens Association, is something of a mystery.
The Maori warden concept dates back to the 1860s, designed as a group to curb drunkenness among Maori. The role was formally created by an act of law in 1945, and today there are more than 1000 nationwide governed by the Maori Community Development Act 1962. They work under the philosophy of aroha ki te tangata (for the love of the people).
Reverend Albie Martin is as much a part of the Taranaki landscape as the wardens. He is known around the region for his work as an Anglican minister, most recently officiating at memorials for the three who lost their lives in the tragedy of Paritutu last August. His history with the wardens spans 35 years.
"In 1978 I was invited to speak at an Aotea District Whanganui Maori Wardens' seminar dealing with the subject of alcohol and drugs," recalls Martin who describes his whakapapa as so broad that he feels a kindred relationship with all tribes.
"I was then invited to travel around the country speaking at the invitation of the NZMWA, and it was in about 1983, after much deliberation on my part, that I decided to become a Maori warden."
The road to becoming a warden is not a short one, and your name even goes before a government minister before you may wear the badge.
"An individual is approached first and foremost by their marae, then their hapu and then the iwi. Their name is then put forward and placed in front of their district's Maori warden committee," says Martin.
Their application is then sent to the Aotea Maori Council for approval, and finally their name ends up before the Minister of Maori Affairs.
"Once this has happened they are gazetted as a Maori warden and they receive their registration number, warrant and badge. It is the only volunteer organisation in New Zealand under legislation to have statute obligations," says Martin.
"Once appointed, the duties are as you see in our local and national communities, such as at Waitangi Day. In South Taranaki the wardens also go through the hotels as part of their legal charter, part of the statute of responsibility."
The North Taranaki wardens attended more than 30 events last year, from the Ngamotu beach swim to Womad and they were on duty at the three-day North Island Colgate Games held at the TET Stadium in Inglewood earlier this month.
However, you don't have to leave New Plymouth or wait for a big event to see the wardens at work. As part of the Mellow Yellow scheme, they man the Brougham St taxi stand most Friday and Saturday nights, working with police, the New Zealand Taxi Federation and New Plymouth District Council.
The group is unique in the role it serves on marae around the region. Martin hesitates to use the term "policeman", but he says Maori look on wardens as such, maintaining law and order on the marae and overseeing whatever function is taking place. In fact, the wardens had their roots as "Maori policemen" in the 19th century, operating solely among "native" communities.
Wardens often attend tangi in support of grieving whanau, and may be seen keeping the peace at hui when things get heated. Another duty is to assist and advise visitors to marae of the protocols in place, ensuring proper respect and conduct during their time on the marae.
With their distinctive uniform seen so often around New Plymouth it's easy to think there is an army of wardens in the region, but in fact there are just a dozen active members of the North Taranaki branch, with four others "on the books" unable to fulfil their obligations due to ill health.
Martin says the average age of North Taranaki wardens is "35-plus", but an increasing number of young people are asking how they can get involved. A new initiative to train younger people and prepare them to join the ranks is under way, with three warden cadets being trained in New Plymouth.
"They join at the age of 15 and we mentor them, and by the time they are 19 we forward them on as a recruit for the army or the police," says Martin.
New Plymouth police Sergeant Warren Wipatene (Taranaki iwi), who has been iwi liaison officer in the city for four years, speaks highly of the work done by Maori wardens around the province, especially for a group run on a solely voluntary basis.
"There's a very positive feeling toward the wardens among police, especially as some of the senior sergeants have had dealings with them in the past. We have community patrols and the like and the wardens are a big part of that, and they are treated no differently. There's a lot of mutual respect between us.
"We're really supportive of them and we work with each other really closely. We tend to allow them to do their own thing, maintaining their motto among our people."
The wardens have special powers dealing with intoxicated people and liquor licensing, which were hotly debated in the lead up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup and even described as racist by Prime Minister John Key. These powers mean they can stop bars from serving alcohol to intoxicated Maori and even remove them, but in practice wardens are more likely to call a cab and keep the person company while they wait for it to arrive.
"We don't expect them to do what they are not capable of doing, such as investigative work, but to manage their own kaupapa as it were. They're heavily involved in things like pub checks, they look after people when they're intoxicated and help them get home,"
The respect Wipatene holds for the wardens, is obvious.
"I especially appreciate the effort they put in with such little resources, and really respect them and appreciate the work they do with us. They are all about the aroha toward our people, and we need to support them and keep our relationship going."
For Martin at least, such recognition is the most rewarding part.
Have roots in "Maori police" of 1860s, role formalised via act of Parliament in 1945 and are now governed via the Maori Community Development Act 1962.
Roles include crowd control at marae and public venues, street patrols, security. Work with police when required. Involved in New Plymouth's Mellow Yellow project.
Have power to prevent bars serving intoxicated Maori and remove them from licensed premises. There are about 1000 Maori wardens nationwide, three Maori wardens are active in North Taranaki and three cadets are in training.
- Taranaki Daily News
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