During the Covid-19 border closures, Māori-led checkpoints showed rangatiratanga in action.
A new book, Stepping Up: COVID-19 Checkpoints and Rangatiratanga, examines four of these checkpoints in detail, to reflect on how Māori self-determination works in practice for the benefit of all communities.
One of these case studies is excerpted below, with the permission of Huia Publishers and the book’s authors Luke Fitzmaurice (Te Aupōuri) and Dr Maria Bargh (Te Arawa, Ngāti Awa), both of whom are at Te Kawa a Māui, Māori Studies, Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington.
But first, Luke and Maria, along with Dr Carwyn Jones (Ngāti Kahungunu and Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki), a senior law lecturer at Te Herenga Waka, are in conversation with RNZ’s Māni Dunlop about what the checkpoints told us about whānau, hapū, iwi and rangatiratanga.
Māni Dunlop: I wonder if you could start by sharing what it was that led to the creation of this book?
Luke Fitzmaurice: It started as a research project talking to those who ran the checkpoints about what it was like from their perspective.
We’d heard a lot about the checkpoints in the media, but I felt like we’d heard less from those people personally. Aside from that, one of the motivations was that we often talk about rangatiratanga, but it’s sometimes a bit abstract. This felt like a really concrete illustration.
Māni: Why do you think it’s important to have these examples on record?
Carwyn Jones: These are practical examples of rangatiratanga, and by bringing them together to think about rangatiratanga generally, we can learn a lot about how the rangatiratanga sphere and kawanatanga sphere can fit together.
Luke: One of the things we noticed was that everyone had different kupu for what they were doing. Some said rangatiratanga, some spoke about mana motuhake, others spoke about “just getting on with it”.
But there was always this underlying tikanga of rangatiratanga. It can look different in different places, and we wanted to capture that.
Maria Bargh: It was never individuals — it was always collectives of people figuring out what they were going to do and how. It felt like a key aspect of the tikanga.
Luke: Yeah, the people we spoke to didn’t all put the same framework on it, but there was always an active choice to go out and serve their people.
Maria: That’s a key thing about Māori political entities. It’s about, how do we get to a place where we can be “just Māori” doing things our own ways?
Carwyn: It was always about keeping people safe. It was born out of those responsibilities of rangatiratanga — it wasn’t just about rights. People saw a collective obligation to protect their people and that’s why they acted. They weren’t looking for a fight.
Māni: It was a bit of a political football during the lockdown, but did you find in terms of the uptake from the Crown, that they were actually able to be led by communities?
Luke: Yeah, it was a unique circumstance for that. The Crown is slow — communities were able to just act. Those local hapū and iwi decisions were so much faster, and they were able to make a decision that the police and the Crown were ultimately able to agree was good. Nobody wanted to just go and shut down a road. It was about safety and health in the face of a threat.
Maria: Ironically, resourcing sometimes wasn’t the barrier. People just went ahead and stepped up, even those who don’t have many resources. They were unsung heroes putting their own time and resources into this, but it was love and care for the community that made it happen.
Māni: Rangatiratanga feels like something that can work for all of Aotearoa. How do you think these dynamics have played out in the subsequent response?
Maria: Some of this is about trust. The Crown needs to trust Māori. That didn’t always happen, for example with the vaccine rollout.
Luke: One of the frustrations is that it feels like the Crown didn’t apply the lessons from the checkpoints to the rest of the response. The Crown saw these groups step up, but when it came to the rollout, they stopped trusting them. Some of the lessons feel like they were lost.
Māni: Do you think this would have happened under another government?
Maria: I’m not sure another government would have made a difference. They may say different things in opposition, but they often govern similarly. I agree that it’s more about the momentum that is growing with the wider public. With examples of rangatiratanga like this, people start to see that when it comes to local practice in their own communities, it actually works and it’s not so scary. Both Māori and Pākehā. It’s just about looking after people.
Carwyn: I think the police commissioner did well. He recognised these were set up by Māori under their authority and didn’t get drawn in to debates about that. The government can learn from that to be good Te Tiriti partners.
I think society is coming to grips with understanding rangatiratanga and tikanga — and acknowledging that it doesn’t need to be scary. The effectiveness of the checkpoints illustrate that it can really work. For all of us, not just for Māori.
Māni: What was something that really stuck with you throughout this process?
Luke: Probably the massive commitment to the kaupapa from the people we spoke to. There were people on the frontline every single day, even when they were split from their families. There was a personal cost, but it was worth it collectively.
Carwyn: One of the themes that stood out to me was that this was an exercise of rangatiratanga in accordance with tikanga. It seems to be the way people just naturally responded. So, for example, it was community-determined, collectively-decided, for a particular purpose.
Māni: When we talk about ideas like rangatiratanga and co-governance, is this just a good example of how people shouldn’t be so worried?
Luke: Yeah, I think that’s increasingly the case. We’re trying to communicate that this isn’t as scary as the fear-mongerers might make it out to be. I think it’s good to make this a bit more real. Some people might not be sure about co-governance, but they definitely want their lake to be cleaner and their isolated community to be safe from a pandemic. Those things are what co-governance are actually about, and I think when you make it real people are much more supportive.
Maria: Local projects help ease people’s fears. When you think about looking after your local lake I think you’re able to recognise that you don’t have all the answers, and you become more open to realising that other people might have more answers, and different knowledge. It demystifies it.
Māni: Anything else you would want to add?
Luke: For me, it’s that we hear about “iwi checkpoints”, but that wasn’t always accurate. Some were iwi, some were groups of multiple iwi, some were purely hapū, and some were just whānau. None were anti-iwi, of course, but they all took different forms. I think those different localised forms of authority are pretty central to the concept of rangatiratanga.
As Māori we get to choose for ourselves what form that takes, not the Crown, but that hasn’t always been the way things have worked in the past.
Maria: Yeah, I agree. The Crown has shown the ability to do that all the time in dealing with states overseas. Those overseas states choose their own forms and the government handles that just fine. They just need to do the same thing here with Māori.
Māni: There’s this quote from the book that really stuck with me, I wonder if one of you want to read it out to close our session?
Luke: Yeah, I’m happy to do that, I really like that quote as well.
“Standing on the boundaries for your hapū, your ancestral boundaries for your hapū, taking that stand to look after your people and your lands, there’s something quite innate about that. When you physically stand on the front line to look after your mana whenua and your mana motuhake, there’s something quite visceral about it that doesn’t quite leave you. So, I’ll always remember it for that. I think it really brought people together in an important way.”
The following extract from Stepping Up: COVID-19 Checkpoints and Rangatiratanga looks at the actions taken by Ngataki (Te Aupōuri and Ngāti Kurī).
CASE STUDY: Ngataki (Te Aupōuri and Ngāti Kurī)
‘“It was our right as ahi kā to protect the people here.’”
As soon as COVID arrived in Aotearoa, Te Aupōuri knew their people would be at risk. Just as was the case for Te Whānau a Tūwhakairiora, this was informed by an acute awareness of what had happened in the Spanish flu pandemic.
As Niki Conrad (Te Aupōuri) explained, “in the pandemic back in the early 1900s the governent pretty much left our people to die”. Te Aupōuri lost a lot of people to the Spanish flu and they were determined not to let it happen again. They partnered with Ngāti Kurī to set up a checkpoint at Ngataki, 45 minutes north of Kaitaia.
Once checkpoints were established, nobody was allowed in and only people who were already living in the area were allowed to remain. This was a stricter checkpoint than some of those seen in other areas. Even those with whakapapa to the iwi were not allowed through the checkpoint; it was strictly limited to those who lived there. This was a difficult decision for those involved, but they felt the risk of people bringing COVID up north from the major cities was too great.
As Niki explained:
“It was like, ‘we know you’re our whānau, but you’re probably better to stay where you are than come back home here and infect some of our people, our old people especially’. We have so many kaumātua and kuia. That was a big challenge with whānau, because yes it’s your right to come home, but it was our right as ahi kā to protect the people here.”
Food parcels were provided for anyone who needed them, and bulk shopping organised from a supermarket in Kaitaia. Most of this was self-funded initially, with Niki noting that “had we sat and waited for the council or civil defence . . . our people would have been starving”. Thousands of food packs were delivered during the lockdown, which included a lot of food from the area:
“We supplied all the food that we were killing — beef, mutton. We were processing our meat, we had fish, we had pork, milk, butter, all the necessities. All up here. We were going to Pak n’ Save at night, doing mass shopping and bringing it back. We had a team of about five ringing around, ‘what do you need? What have you got?”
Volunteers ran the checkpoint 24 hours a day in three shifts, with three people on each shift. Ideally, there was always one woman on the checkpoint, and one person each from Te Kao and Te Hapua (the two towns in the area covered by the checkpoint). Having a mix of people meant that those working at the checkpoints could choose which of them was best to confront each motorist trying to drive through. For example, sometimes they might try to avoid stopping their own relatives, while other times they might decide that a female volunteer was better able to de-escalate an annoyed male driver wanting to get through.
“We’re not doing it for us, we’re doing it for you.”
The tikanga behind the checkpoint was about keeping people safe. As Niki described it, “we weren’t prepared to let one person come in here for the sacrificing of our old people”. In terms of the source of the authority required to establish the checkpoints, Niki spoke about just getting on and doing it:
“We shut off roads, we shut off camps, we just did it, all under the safety of our people. People were like ‘you Maoris, you can’t do that’. Even some of our own people said ‘you can’t do that’. Well, we’re doing it. And we’re not doing it for us, we’re doing it for you.”
When asked whether this authority was drawn from tino rangatiratanga, he explained:
“We weren’t flying the flags or anything, but we were like, this is what we’re doing, you can call it whatever you like, we’re just looking after our people. I’m not letting you come in here. You may be safe and all that, but we don’t know that, and I will not compromise my people just so that you can come and stand on the beach and have a look around. You can do that any other time.
The checkpoints were authorised by Te Rūnanga o Te Aupōuri, as representatives of the iwi.
“We have a responsibility.”
The strictness of the checkpoint was challenged by some, but the iwi stood firm. There were logistical challenges, people could still travel north via Te Oneroa-a-Tohe (Ninety Mile Beach) but access from the beach inland was still blocked. Niki said people argued they had a right to go to “their beach”, but the iwi stood firm in order to keep people safe. There was a lot of testing from outsiders. Once the government changed the settings to Level 3, the message was “go to your nearest beach, not your favourite”, but there were still people from as far away as Whangārei trying to come further north.
Checkpoint organisers took a relatively hard line to people trying to come in and out of the area. At one point, someone was allowed to go 10 minutes down the road to get some milk, but they didn’t return for several hours. Because it had been such a long time, they weren’t allowed back in, because there was no way to know where they had been. A small number of people were asked to leave after receiving multiple warnings for breaching the rules. Others decided to leave themselves, knowing they wouldn’t be able to return until the lockdown was over.
When exceptions were necessary, the iwi set up their own quarantine process, with whānau who needed to come home being asked to spend three days self-isolating in a motel in Kaitaia before being allowed to travel through the checkpoint.
Beyond exceptions for medical treatment and emergencies, the rules stayed strict. A few whānau were forced to bury loved ones down in Auckland rather than bringing them home as they normally would, because the cost of keeping them in Auckland until the end of the lockdown was too great.
This was hard for both the whānau affected and the hau kāinga up north, whose normal tikanga was to welcome people home with open arms. But, as Niki puts it, “the tikanga of the day was ‘what are we welcoming?’ We’re not being mean, but are we welcoming more harm than good, you know?”
“Just because you’ve got a uniform on . . .”
The relationship with the police was sometimes tense. Niki explained that in seeking to deal with resistance from local police, Te Aupōuri drew on statements from Deputy Police Commissioner Wally Haumaha, who said that the checkpoints weren’t technically illegal. The iwi running the checkpoints in the Far North were careful to label them “checkpoints” rather than “roadblocks”, due largely to those statements from the Deputy Commissioner.
Sometimes it wasn’t actually the police who were the problem. Matt King, who was the MP for Northland at the time but who has since not been re-elected, publicly claimed that the roadblock was illegal and he was being obstructed when he tried to drive through.
But the checkpoint organisers stood firm, refusing to let their people be treated as guinea pigs, as Niki described it. In his view, people like Matt King were just keen to push the boundaries. Some people went even further: on one occasion a motorist even attempted to ram the checkpoint with their car.
Some police officers were actually supportive of the checkpoint. Niki says the District Commander was fair and always willing to listen. On one occasion where two officers were defiant of the checkpoint, the District Commander worked constructively with iwi. Those officers apologised after initially insisting that they could go through the checkpoint without giving a reason.
The position of the iwi was that they shouldn’t be able to go through “just because you’ve got a uniform on” and that the District Commander supported this. This illustrated that the relationship with the police, and the occasional tensions in that relationship, varied, with some officers resistant to the checkpoints and others supportive.
“We did a good thing, the numbers came down and it worked.”
Some of the biggest lessons learned weren’t to do with the checkpoint itself, but with the broader issues of what it means to be self-reliant. Delivering food parcels showed just how much some people were struggling, and the 24/7 checkpoint made them aware of issues they previously didn’t know about. Niki reflected on this, saying that “a lot of this stuff went unknowing until this came along, you know? It’s like, ‘we’ve locked our people in now, this is what domestic violence looks like, this is what drug running looks like’, you know?”
More positively, the experience has made the iwi think more about self-sufficiency:
“We’re looking at community gardens, so if this hits again we don’t have to depend on going down the road . . . We’ve got fishermen right through this district, our land around here is iwi owned, we’ve got 10,000 sheep, we’ve got cows, we leaned on a bit of that stuff. So we learned a bit of stuff like that.”
Throughout the whole experience, whānau both up north and further afield were grateful for the huge effort put in by the hau kāinga. It was a big sacrifice for them during a time of great uncertainty.
Niki spoke about watching COVID spread overseas and not knowing what would happen here: “We were watching America and Europe, and we thought ‘this is going to plague us’. We didn’t know. We did a good thing, the numbers came down and it worked. And I think we did our part in our communities to bring it down.”
Extract from Stepping Up: COVID-19 Checkpoints and Rangatiratanga by Luke Fitzmaurice and Maria Bargh, reproduced here with the permission of Huia Publishers. Available for purchase from www.huia.co.nz. All enquiries to email@example.com
Luke Fitzmaurice (Te Aupōuri) is a teaching fellow at Te Kawa a Māui, Māori Studies, Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington and a PhD candidate in law at the University of Otago. He has a BA in politics and international relations, an LLB, and a postgraduate certificate in Indigenous studies from Victoria University of Wellington.
Dr Maria Bargh (Te Arawa, Ngāti Awa) is an associate professor at Te Kawa a Māui, Māori Studies, Te Herenga Waka: Victoria University of Wellington. Maria has a PhD in political science and international relations from the Australian National University, and a BA Hons in politics and English from Victoria University of Wellington..
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