Eru Kapa-Kingi, pictured here, with the rōpū challenging coalition speakers at Waitangi. (Photo: Seb Charles)

At Waitangi this year, much attention focused the coalition leaders’ style of kōrero. Here, Eru Kapa-Kingi questions whether they should have been allowed to stand to speak at all.


Words are powerful. In te ao Māori, words are a greater source of fear than mere physical threats. Words may not penetrate your skin, but they can infect your hinengaro and your wairua.

Nō reira, the question is worth asking: Why do we give breath to words that threaten our world, especially in the only domains over which we as Māori still have control?

I’m reflecting on the week of Waitangi commemorations that has just passed. Along with others from my generation, I made the choice to challenge the decision to permit the government to speak on Ruarangi, the marae of Te Whare Rūnanga at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.

Our challenge was fuelled by the frustration that, time and time again, we allow political leaders who’ve blatantly shown their disregard for tangata whenua (as well as many other marginalised peoples in Aotearoa) to speak on our marae.

My view of pōwhiri is that it’s an opportunity to test whether a group of people attempting to enter your realm of influence are either friend or foe. It’s also an opportunity for robust discussion on social and political matters, based usually on a common goal or understanding.

What then is the point of pōwhiri when your manuhiri have made an enemy of themselves long before they set foot on your front doorstep? When they’ve made it clear that they neither share nor respect the thoughts and aspirations of tangata whenua?

The philosophy behind this government’s agenda is nothing new, but the absolute boldness with which they’ve shown their distaste for Tiriti justice is unmatched. And even when they stand, axe in hand, ready to cut down our rights embedded in Te Tiriti, we still give them the mic and say “take it away”.

Some of this frustration is of course directed to some of my own mātua and whaea who hold the mantle and say what goes at Waitangi. Kia aroha mai e aku whanaunga, mō taku māia. Heoi anō, this movement is generational. We are still part of a collective effort for Māori liberation, but I suppose my generation has a different and more disruptive role, which we’re taking with both hands. Our kaupapa is aimed at this senile government which wants to set a match to all Māori rights.

My pātai is, when it’s clear that any expression of aroha is gone from the hearts of our political leaders, why do we still keep aroha in ours?

This is not a new challenge. Many have taken to their feet against the right of political leaders to speak at Waitangi in generations past, including Dame Whina Cooper and Titewhai Harawira. Both are unrivalled rangatira, yet both faced severe backlash from Pākehā for speaking out, as well as many of their own people. Ka aroha.

At the pōwhiri for the coalition government on February 5, Te Kuruotemarama Dewes, Hōhepa (“The Hori”) Thomson and I brought together a group of young Māori under the kaupapa Toitū Te Tiriti.

And I think we succeeded in making our presence felt and heard.

We got a spot on the marae for our rōpū Toitū Te Tiriti Papa Haumaru after Hone Harawira’s empowering speech. Hone is my uncle and he had us do his haka tautoko because he backed what we were doing.

We forced Winston Peters to sit down during his utterly disrespectful and unfounded rhetoric on separatism and what he deemed to be the new generation’s misinterpretation of Te Tiriti.

And we sang over David Seymour’s equally disappointing but not suprising slurs which claimed that the Māori struggle is one and the same with that of Pākehā, effectively erasing our reality as tangata whenua.

Despite all that, those leaders still got to speak. In my view, that never should have happened. Especially against the backdrop of a looming Treaty principles bill.

National claims it had no choice but to acquiesce to Act’s vendetta against tangata whenua rights in the form of a Treaty principles bill. To save face, the leaders to either side of Act have tried to calm the backlash by saying there’s nothing to worry about, and there is little to no chance the bill will proceed beyond a select committee hearing, let alone morph into a formal referendum.

The reality is, their actions have already created a social referendum. Act’s cynical misrepresentation of Te Tiriti is already stirring up and emboldening a distinctly anti-Māori “debate” on tangata whenua rights in Aotearoa — whether in casual workplace conversations, or comments sections on social media platforms (beware of either, Māori mā). This in itself has severe social repercussions.

We may be spared a rewriting of the Treaty by the formal letter of the law, but the mistrust and misunderstanding of our foundational document enters the psyche of the nation. The majority then holds a social lever on our rights, and we as tangata whenua are completely disempowered to do anything.

If this bill can get to select committee in this political term, what’s stopping it from being resurrected and getting further in another? An alternate reality is being made possible by the government of the day. It is this challenge to our rights which creates division, not the defensive efforts of tangata whenua.

Social debate over matters of opinion is of course healthy. But inciting “debate” over matters of fact is dangerous. That fact being that we never ceded sovereignty. This danger is elevated by the reality that there is no comprehensive and robust education on tangata whenua rights in Aotearoa to combat the ignorance-induced fear of those very rights.

The fact that this artificial debate is being encouraged by those who hold the most powerful positions in the country creates a false sense of legitimacy — as if it must be okay and it must be right. Even though the debate itself flies in the face of what is true and correct.

Words can destroy worlds. But they can also create them. Whether the words are on the marae, part of a select committee process, or in a refendum debate (social or otherwise), conversations about our rights are taking place and we must fight the oncoming waves of ignorance with truth and education.

In the words of Dame Whina Cooper, we must protect what our children hear, see and feel. Whatever words we give mauri to now will eventually live in the hearts and minds of our future uri and will have a profound effect on their inner rangatira. Kei a tātou te tikanga.


Eru Kapa-Kingi is a teaching fellow at the Law School of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland, with a focus on Te Tiriti, public law and intersections with tikanga Māori. He is also a graduate of Te Panekiretanga o Te Reo and has taught te reo in full-immersion environments. He advocates for political change in his role as Vice-President Tāne and advisor for Te Pāti Māori.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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