Annette SykesIn this interview with Dale, Annette Sykes keeps pointing to the inspiration she has had from many others — fighting, in various ways, to regain the independence and authority that Māori have been deprived of since the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

But, especially in more than 30 years as a lawyer, she has been an inspiration herself as a fearless, restless, formidably intelligent, and articulate advocate for, and defender of, Māori rights. Now in her mid-50s, she’s at the peak of her powers.


Kia ora, Annette. I wonder if you would paint a picture of your life as a little girl — and of the people around you in those days?

Sure. I’m the child of a Ngāti Pikiao-Ngāti Makino mother, whose working life was that of a school teacher. She was Hilda Te Hirata (nee Whata) Sykes. My father, a Pākehā farmer, was Cecil Francis but known by everyone as Jack Sykes. And I have a sister who has become a leader in commerce.

Also, as we were growing up, our household included a number of cousins who my mother nurtured over the years. We had an ever-increasing and fluid whānau life. My mother was a contemporary of Ranginui Walker at teachers’ training college. And, interestingly, my father’s ancestors fought for the Crown, as part of the Militia, against my peoples of Tūhoe and Ngāti Makino.

It was an unusual relationship for our family — and certainly one that concerned my grandmother (Tawhitoariki Morehu) who was the daughter of Mere Vercoe and Morehu Te Kirikau. My grandmother, without a doubt, was the single most important figure through my early childhood, so her opinions on bi-racial marriage mattered to me particularly at a time when Māori and Pākehā society were coming to grips with that.

I know my grandmother had a long, long think about the relationship that grew between my parents because my people of Ngāti Mākino were one of the few tribes of Te Arawa who had our lands confiscated between Ōtamarākau and Matata, where much of the conflict with the Militia and the Crown soldiers had occurred in the early 1860s.

My peoples of Tūhoe, Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Mākino suffered rapes and other unmentionable atrocities at the hands of the Crown at that time. This is all written up in the CNI (Central North Island iwi) and Eastern Bay of Plenty claims reports of the Waitangi Tribunal. So, for my mother to fall in love with one of the farmers who’d been given soldiers’ land grants at Ōtamarākau was something hard for my grandmother to get used to — and it has certainly shaped my thinking too.

My grandmother had an interesting life. She was dux of Queen Victoria School in Auckland — and she had a child to George Nepia (the famous All Black fullback) after moving to Dannevirke. After her Queen Vic days. My mother’s oldest brother, the late Kawana Nepia, was George Nepia’s son. Her parents wouldn’t permit George to marry my grandmother.

So she came back to Rotorua and there was a union between both sides of Lake Rotoiti when she married Pirimi Whata, who was a descendant of the hapū Ngāti Kawiti Tamateatutahi at the foot of our maunga Matawhaura. My grandmother’s mum was a Vercoe who had been brought up at Maketu and it is through this line that my connections to Tūhoe are cemented.

You can imagine, with that background, what a huge influence my grandmother was. She represented New Zealand in hockey at the same time that George Nepia was an All Black. She wanted to be a lawyer but, back in those days, she wasn’t permitted to, so she became a legal secretary and, ultimately, she was a minute secretary for her father (Morehu Te Kirikau) and her uncle (Te Reiwhati Vercoe), when he was part of the group that set up Te Arawa Māori Trust Board.

She was a major influence on me from a very young age — making me learn the ways of the Pākehā, while holding steadfastly to her strong views about land confiscation, and the need to restore our rights.

For a long time, I didn’t live with my parents. I lived with my grandmother in Rotoiti. My mother was an assistant principal at a Kawerau school — and my dad was farming in Taneatua. Then, when I was about six, we got a home in Kawerau, and that’s when I moved in with my mother. My grandmother lived with us for a time following the passing of our koro, Pirimi.

And I suppose that’s where you did most of your schooling.

Yes, that’s true. But when I was 16, I got a scholarship to go to the United World College of South East Asia in Singapore where I did an International Baccalaureate and where I became head girl/chairperson of the whole school.

Among my contemporaries who also won scholarships were David Cunliffe, who was a United World College student in Canada, and Jillian Anderton (Jim’s daughter) who became an opera singer. She was with me at the UWCSEA in Singapore. Mamae Wikiriwhi (who has married and settled in Norway) was another to win a scholarship. She went to the United World College of Atlanta in Wales.

Waka Nathan (an All Black in the 1960s) was on the panel who selected me. Winning a place in the school was a big deal partly because it meant a scholarship worth $US26,000 per year. And here I was, a girl from Kawerau College, competing against students from a number of much more affluent schools.

Then I had a summer vacation at Cambridge University and was looking at whether I should go to there for summer school. But, while I was there, I met John Rangihau and others who warned me that I’d end up like a potato — all brown on the outside and white in the middle. So they encouraged me to return home. And I came back in 1979 to Wellington, to Victoria University.

That was right in the middle of the Māori language struggle by great advocates like Koro Dewes, Ruka Broughton and Te Reo Māori Society. There were other radicals of the period: Kathy and Whaimutu Dewes, Joseph Te Rito, Robert Pouwhare, and Lee Smith — people quite often forgotten about in the retelling of the language struggle. And, of course, there was one of my idols, Syd Jackson — and Hana, his partner at the time — at the forefront of the direct action strategies.

Those introductions to the need to restore te reo Māori as a living part of the nation certainly shaped my thinking initially. Most people don’t know this, but I never started off doing law. I actually came back to do a Bachelor of Commerce and Administration with an economics and politics major. And it wasn’t until the Springbok tour in 1981 that I decided that wasn’t for me — and I switched to a double degree in law.

Next, I moved from Victoria to Auckland University because the topics at Victoria didn’t have any Treaty of Waitangi focus whereas, by this stage, Jane Kelsey and David Williams had a foothold at Auckland University. I came there in the aftermath of the engineers’ haka incident and it was then that I joined the Māori women’s movement.

I became a part of a group called Te Amorangi who included wonderful advocates for women’s rights, like Margie Hohepa, who’s now a doctor, and Caroline Morgan, who’s Tuku’s wife. She was a huge advocate for the kōhanga reo movement and her mum was a major influence too.

Then there was Donna Gardiner, Damiane Rikihana and Aroha Harris who’s now a pre-eminent historian. So we had a great group. And a great time. All of us falling in and out of love during those days too.

We were part of the movement who were the architects of initiatives like Te Ohu Whakatipu in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. And we were advocates for decolonisation workshops up and down the country. Our role in co-ordinating and organising significant protests like the Hikoi ki Waitangi in 1984 and in supporting the first Hui Tane for Maori men were also great moments for us.

We were also part of the vanguard of people who were pushing for a marae to be established at Auckland University. And we were among those who occupied the registry at the University to make that point. I need to stress, though, that the action was not (as I have heard some romanticise) undertaken by many. Most nights there would be about 8- 10 of us sleeping in the garage next to the university’s registry building. And we’d convert the adjoining public areas into a marae during the day.

We managed, through that activism, eventually to persuade the university council to set some land aside and establish what is now the beautiful Waipapa marae. Hone Willis and Rangi Chadwick (sadly now deceased) were two of our contemporaries without whom this action would not have been able to grow wings and fly.

It’s a remarkable building, isn’t it? I expect that it prompts some special emotions when you’re there.

I just feel a huge nostalgia. And it always makes me feel younger when I walk on to the marae because of the vision that we had to knock down the soldiers’ wall, a stone wall, that is located on the Auckland University campus. We felt it was a symbol of colonial oppression. And we were so grateful to Ngāti Whātua for giving permission for that to happen — and for the house to be carved by Paki Harrison with all the knowledge and love that only a great tohunga whakairo can bring to create a physical presence for great imaginings to be born from the Māori mind.

Since then, we’ve had the space to gather and mourn our people, such as Nin Tomas last year, and I feel like, rather than just studying Māori, we now have our tikanga as an integral part of the university.

Annette, I suppose that, as a 16-year-old heading across to the United World College in Singapore, you already had an understanding of the way the political system had suppressed Māori.

Very much so. There was no way, when I was at school, that I could have ignored what was happening to Eva Rickard in Raglan or to those occupying Bastion Point. And Merata Mita was a big influence as one of the extraordinary teachers at Kawerau College. This was in the 1970s and she was already arguing for Māori television and the need to refocus curricula so film and film-making were an integral part of our course.

And, with her, we didn’t just sit in the classroom learning Shakespeare. We went out, for example, on to the Kawerau College football fields, and we filmed ourselves being Portia. That’s what Merata did for us. I loved her because she challenged conventional thinking — and she encouraged me to travel and to embrace her reality that we didn’t have to be dominated by “westernism” in our life choices.

I was really lucky growing up as a young woman in Kawerau too. There was a huge, middle-class, burgeoning, workers’ movement when I was there. The poverty that I see in Kawerau now just does not reflect, at all, the town that I grew up in — where Māori and Pākehā co-existed and where there was an understanding of the need to reclaim and assert te reo Māori for my generation because we were surrounded by mountains of knowledge who lived there. Like the late Monita Delamere and Te Wharekaihua (Willie) Coates and many other leaders.

You could go to the mill in Kawerau (“Uncle Tas”) and all you’d hear was te reo o Tūhoe floating through the rafters. All of the foremen were from Tūhoe and Tūwharetoa. It was just a great time to be there. And then, when you see what privatisation has done since the sale of state forests and the sell-down of key assets, well then your politics become very personal.

For me, when I see people I love who can’t even afford food or who’re struggling to find work in a place that once was a thriving cacophony of change and well-being for all Māori and Pākehā, well … that brings a crashing sense of realism about why you have to fight for change for our people.

There’s been a journey for you as well with te reo Māori. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Yeah. I had a grandmother that spoke to me in te reo. My mother and her brothers and sisters conversed solely in te reo in our kainga in Rotoiti and in Kawerau. But I wasn’t raised as a fluent speaker. There was the colonising influence of a Pākehā father in our home and also an education system that saw no place for it. Then, when I went overseas, I learned Malay and I was more fluent in Malay than in Māori when I came back to New Zealand in 1979.

But you couldn’t go to Victoria University at that time, when Koro Dewes was there, and not make a commitment to the reo. And there was an absolute on-going commitment to the reo required with the likes of David Rangitauira and Huirangi Waikerepuru offering their time to impart the precious language to us.

Then, with Chris Winitana and Aroaro Hond (who were my first flatmates in Mt Cook when I returned from overseas) both studying journalism, it wasn’t long before we all enrolled at Wellington Polytechnic for wānanga and total immersion courses.

I compare that with the kind of grammatical approach to learning that I was taught in my Stage One papers at Victoria University and Auckland University. There is no comparison. One approach comes from Mars the other from Venus. Believe me.

As I’ve grown older, I’m glad to see that the legacy from Huirangi’s courses is part of our three whare wānanga: Raukawa, Aotearoa and Awanuiārangi. The two approaches, mainstream and kaupapa Māori, were, and are, just so different. And I believe that we should be making the kaupapa Māori approach compulsory for all Māori, if not, all New Zealanders.

The sadness for me is that, when I started using te reo with some fluency and some confidence in written form, there was a lot of resistance to it becoming a natural part of  our lives. That’s what I found in the places I worked – and in the courts.

That’s why, in my last year at Auckland University, I did an honours paper on the reo Māori bill, which I drafted and which, I think, formed the basis of what, eventually, became law. I was under the tutelage of David Williams who encouraged us all to imagine what might be and to develop policy approaches to achieve that. My imaginings then, I’m happy to say, have found some substance now.

My first job had been working in the New Zealand Council for Educational Research with Richard and Nina Benton. We did a Māori dictionary and we collated the statistics around the dwindling populations of fluent speakers in the Ruatoki, East Coast and Tai Tokerau communities. So there were those influences on me in my journey of advocacy for te reo –  as well as my innate passion for change.

I often recall what Eva Rickard used to say: You can have all the ideas in the world, but they are nothing without the courage of your convictions to implement them in the most hostile situations.

I was a workaholic back in the day. Between the ages of 18 and 22, I don’t remember sleeping too much. I remember wanting change and spending a whole lot of time writing. And I had great contemporaries — like John Tamihere who I found to be one of the most challenging intellects at law school.

He and I used to sit not too far from each other in the back row. John had already done a degree, I think, with straight A’s in politics, and he had this particular view of the world that challenged my traditional view of tikanga Māori. He was one of the few who made me understand the need for tikanga Māori to adapt or risk being frozen in a time and space – and becoming irrelevant.

I knew JT was going to be an adapter of Māori culture right from the get-go. In hindsight, I’ve had to take my hat off to him because of the things he talked about, and the passion he’s had. Like marae in urban centres. And wrap-around support for urban communities that were disconnected from traditional communities. And the failure of the urban Māori status to match the traditional Māori status – and thereby providing an unjustifiable basis for discrimination between and among Māori.

These were ideas that he seeded while we were at university and he’s gone ahead and brought them to bear in the institutional reality of Māori policy-making and life — while I was seeding and then working on other ideas including the need to reclaim te reo Māori.

We both had a passion for change. And we and others had support from some really dynamic individuals. For instance, Hone Kaa spent a lot of time with us at university. James Henare, Rob Cooper and Rua Rakena came down to teach us the Treaty. Mira Szaszy was always around us. Patu Hohepa and Ranginui Walker too. Those mentors were just dynamic. And they planted all those seeds for on-going change. I look back now and I wonder if, in part, it was their own kind of succession training.

But I have to especially thank Eva Rickard and Mira for instilling their values and courage. You can learn all the things you want at uni, but you’ve got to find the courage to make them happen. And those two women were my greatest influences in finding courage to face adversity and confront the sexism of our patriarchial structures.

We’re aware, of course, that many indigenous peoples have been colonised. Not just Māori. And there have been many writers, here and overseas, recounting and analysing those events. So I expect you’ve kept an eye on what many of them have been writing.

Yes. I’m an avid reader. Merata introduced me to African writers early, like Chinua Achebe, the author of All Things Fall Apart. And she opened our eyes to a whole world of indigenous wisdom. So I wasn’t just reading Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace. When we were studying English, Merata opened our eyes to those other worlds.

For instance, when I was 15 and 16, we looked at Pablo Neruda, a great Chilean poet who wrote about the brutality of separating indigenous peoples from their lands. Then there was Donna Awatere’s Māori Sovereignty which shaped my thinking significantly too.

We had huge arguments with her about the economic sovereignty approach to reclaiming power rather than a Mana Māori Motuhake approach centred on territorial sovereignty and reclaiming resources and lands

And there was also Bruce Jesson, a great Pākehā man, who I adored when I was at university, and who, sadly, like Syd Jackson, passed away too soon. Bruce’s writings in the 1980s influenced my thinking around how we must pursue constitutional change if we’re to marry the fight over the inequality for workers and the poor, with the desire for indigenous self-determination.

Jane Kelsey has been another influence. Few people have been aware of this, but Jane’s thesis was on Māori sovereignty. And David Williams, also at Auckland University, was writing perceptively about the law and indigenous movements. Their thinking and writing helped me a great deal.

Then I discovered beauty in my own iwi. I found a lot of the work of Te Rangikaheke absolutely inspiring, even though he was fighting for the Crown a lot of the time and was an intimate advisor to the Governor, George Grey.

Tikao was another powerful and conservative thinker from the Maori world. Tipene O’Regan often refers to the book, Tikao Talks — and that is one of the great pieces of literature for me, because of the way he could see that the purchases of land were disconnecting us from our traditional places. What for? For wealth to go to corporates. And that hasn’t changed too much in 200 years.

And the last one, of course, is my own Makereti Papakura, who was a famous guide here in Rotorua. She wrote the first book on tikanga Māori and that challenged my thinking. She talked about traditional marriage and divorce and how, although the sexism of our world in Te Arawa had been a barrier to her, she’d overcome it. And she went on to become the first Māori scholar at Oxford University. That kind of stuff influenced and fascinated me because the scholarship around these matters had been started so long ago.

Repeatedly, there has been the observation that yesterday’s radicals are today’s conservatives. But perhaps that doesn’t apply to you.

Well, actually, we are, and always have been, conservatives. It’s just that others label us as radicals. It is an essentially conservative claim to want our country to be Māori. And I recall a comment which I heard from Bishop Manu Bennett and which has been repeated by contemporaries of his, like Charles Bennett and James Henare. It’s about the name for our country – and I heard them all say this in varying ways:

“What did we call Aotearoa before it was named New Zealand?

And they’d say: “Ours”.

I’m firmly of that philosophy. But, sadly, it’s the strategies to maintain that conservatism that are becoming less strident and more participatory. It really concerns me, for instance, that we have a number of Māori in focus groups who are working on development strategies determined by the Crown’s view of what is good for Maori.

So I see hard-fought rights being undermined. An example is what’s happening with Whānau Ora. It should be standing side by side with MSD, the Ministry of Social Development. Whānau Ora shouldn’t be fighting for the peanuts it’s getting. Instead, it deserves some of the billions going through the MSD which is creating a huge bureaucracy, and still isn’t changing the circumstances of our people.

I don’t hear too much strong advocacy — apart from, mainly, the urban voices — for the resources we need to be able to meet the needs of our people. But the next generation of Māori activism is certainly coming through. Young rangatahi voices are asking for parity in outcomes for Māori in work and education.

I’m inspired, too, by the fact that there are now 500 Māori lawyers and Māori law students. We had a Māori women’s caucus the other week and about 200 of those 500 turned up to prioritise our own needs and pathways of excellence. And they’re thinking about moving out from Te Hunga Roia Māori (the Maori Law Society) unless there’s something radically done to address the questions of pay equity and the representation of Māori women in the judiciary and elsewhere.

So the radicalism is still there. It may not be publicised as well as it was when the world was gazing on us protesting in the 80s and 90s. But we have numbers now. When I started law, there were about 30 Māori lawyers. At this year’s hui-a-tau, there were over 350 Māori lawyers. That’s been the progress in less than 25 years. So we have to take our hats off to those who have facilitated that. They’re the teachers in communities from kōhanga, kura kaupapa, and whare kura right through to mainstream schools. If we’re going to measure success, then we need to measure those efforts and praise that success.

But we also need to work out what more we have to do to effect more change. And we should look to the heights.

My own mantra, partly borrowed from James Henare’s whakataukī is this: You can aim for the mountain – and just get to the mountain. Or you can look to the stars, imagine what should be – and then put those imaginings in place.


© E-Tangata, 2015

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