Since Te Pāti Māori began making their presence felt in the politics of Aotearoa, there’s been no shortage of personalities with a distinctive style. Think Tariana Turia, Pita Sharples, Hone Harawira and Te Ururoa Flavell who nailed the party’s first four seats in 2005. Then Marama Fox joining Te Ururoa in parliament for three years in 2014. Next, there was John Tamihere going to bat JT-style in last year’s comeback election — and Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer making it in as MPs.
There’s been colour and style as well coming from the succession of Māori Party presidents, starting with Whata Winiata, and then Pem Bird, Naida Glavish and Tuku Morgan. Three years ago, Che Wilson took over — and, in this conversation with Dale, we can see that he brings his own approach to the role.
Well now, Che Philip Wilson. I’ll lay a bet that your first name came from a rebel from Argentina.
Yes. Your money is safe. It’s from Che Guevara, who played a part in the Cuban revolution. Dad loved his politics — and Mum loved his looks. When Mum was carrying me, they went to a movie about him, and so that’s how I got his name.
Philip is after my godfather, Philip Maniapoto, from Waingaro.
I don’t carry a Māori name because my two oldest siblings have them, and one of them got sick. It was said to be a mate Māori, a Māori sickness, so my parents didn’t want any more Māori names after that.
What can you tell us about your folks?
They have nine kids of their own, and they also took in a bunch of whāngai children before I was born. After I came along — the last of the nine — they welcomed nine more whāngai brothers and sisters. Our house was a railway station, and I loved it.
Dad (William Wilson) was from Karioi, between Ohakune and Waiouru, and Mum (Vera Mareikura) was from Ohakune. Both of them from the local iwi: Ngāti Rangi, Whanganui Nui tonu, Ngā Rauru, Ngāti Apa, Tūwharetoa. And Dad’s also from the Taihape tribes of Mōkai Pātea.
If you’re from one side of the mountain, you’re also from the other side, and then from all the rivers that come out of those mountains, too.
I was raised in Ohakune, in a Māori Affairs home. Our family moved there when sibling number seven came along.
Dad came from a farming family. My nanny and koro had farmed their whānau land, and Koro had a shearing contract and did market gardening, too.
My mum was raised on her marae, which is in Ohakune itself. Her father died when she was eight, and she was raised in a prophetic movement. Mum’s grandfather, my great-grandfather Te Mareikura Hōri Ēnoka, was a recognised Māori prophet with Rātana.
So, I was privileged to be raised — particularly on Mum’s side — with the prophetic movement. Their tikanga was part of our everyday life, but because we lived in town, we were considered “the Pākehās” of the family.
Dad was a carpenter, who then worked in a pulp mill. And, in his last years, he ended up in the bush. Mum was a preschool teacher aide.
Often, they didn’t know how to help us kids — but they did know that, if we got a good education, we could give our kids more than what they were able to give us.
That was always their key message to us: Make sure you give your kids more than we’ve been able to give you.
Kia ora, Che. And did you have a good education?
Well, I was a naughty kid. I would swear and punch anybody who looked at me funny. Including the teachers. And I bit the dental nurse’s fingers.
But for some reason, the teachers took an interest in me, and that made a difference. I could’ve easily gone another way. Then, when I was 11, I stopped playing bullrush with my mates on the marae and started going into the wharepuni, where the olds started to teach me.
And when I was 12, I was put through an initiation. Then it was speech competitions like Manu Kōrero, and Rotary, and school debating, and all of those things.
We recently opened a Massey University marae in Wellington which, before that, had been the polytech marae. When I was 14, I’d spoken on that marae. My elders had got me to speak at home before that, but that was the first time I spoke outside our rohe.
That journey opened up so many doors — and not only to my own elders within Whanganui Ngā Rauru, Ngāti Apa. But because different kaumātua around the motu knew the people who’d taught me, they in turn gave me access to a whole range of kōrero from around the country. And they entrusted me with it.
At times you come across as a young bloke with an old head on your shoulders. And that’s part of your story. How did your siblings react to you taking senior roles even though you were the teina of the whānau?
As the baby — that’s the word we’d use — I was bloody spoilt. Not with material things, but with a shitload of love. So much love. Heaps of tautoko.
My two older brothers were never interested in playing the role which I took. Mum spoke to them, and they both said that they were happy for me to do what I had to do. They live in Australia now, but they’ll come home when they need to. And my sisters have always been by my side. I’ve always been supported.
I’m also the baby of my generation. I’ve got first cousins who are touching 70, so there’s a massive age difference between me and them.
We were losing so much, and four key kaumātua invested a lot of time into me — Mum’s oldest sister (Joan Akapita), Mum’s younger brother (Matiu Mareikura), Mum’s first cousin (Rangitihi Tahuparae), and Dad’s aunt (Te Uta Murphy-Peehi). So, even though I wasn’t raised by the old people, or by my grandparents, I spent a heap of time with old people.
That’s given me strength. That’s given me the ability to discern, and it’s given me relationships which have taken me around the world.
Tell us about some of those travels.
Two of my uncles travelled around the world for different kaupapa Māori, whether that was for the exhibition, Te Māori, or to retrieve taonga or bones. And, because they’d done all that stuff, I suppose it was almost normal for me.
For example, my teachers had been to Hawai’i, to the re-dedication of a temple — the Heiau e Pu’uokoholā, Kamehameha’s temple. They went there in a group of tohunga from Aotearoa to support our cousins. So, I’ll go back to Hawai’i every couple of years to maintain our relationship with the people there.
My wife and I also lived in London, for a time. When we came home, the British Museum had me returning to do work there. I’ve also worked in the United States, China, South America — all because of the teachings that were handed down to me.
As a young guy, you were involved with the repatriation of kōiwi (bones) or mokomokai (tattooed heads), weren’t you?
I haven’t done any repatriation of kōiwi myself, but I have been part of conversations around that. And because of the relationships I built, I was able to take people from the British Museum around Aotearoa to talk to some of our institutions — some of which are very snobbish. But I don’t care about that, as long as we can get our tūpuna home.
I had a wairua experience at the British Museum when we went to open the Enlightenment Library there, and all of these “curiositites” from Oceania were on display.
I led the karakia. And, as we went in, you could feel the old people wake up and embrace us. But then these haututū Māori — they’d asked for the cases to be opened so they could lay greenery — these haututū Māori picked up some of the taonga that were in the cases, including a nguru (nose flute).
And two people told me that before the pū and the nguru had even hit their lips — or their noses — the instruments had started to sing. Started to make their own song.
I just thought that was our tūpuna saying: “Thank God you’ve recognised us. Thank God you’ve come to give us warmth.”
I’d written a waiata for this opening. It’s one of only two that have ever been composed for the British Museum. The other was by Mozart. So it was pretty cool to hang out with that fulla.
The skills you display can be weighty taumaha, and people who are not as good as they need to be can be found out. Has this knowledge ever felt like a burden to you?
It never bothered me — until I was 23 when I said: “I’m sick of this shit.’’
But that lasted just three months. I’ve learned to work through the challenges. Fortunately, I married a woman who, like me, was surrounded by old people — and therefore, our values are the same.
You’ll often get my sisters and my female cousins thanking Missy — but never me — “for allowing him to be with us”. Because, you know, many couples struggle. I’m not saying that we haven’t, but I do have the support.
I also have some key rituals. For example, Mum and Dad always taught us to wash our faces with cold water, morning and night.
Mum and Dad didn’t explain that. Well, Mum told us that, if we do this, we’ll have good skin — and she’s got amazing skin at 81. But later, I learned from my teachers that cold water helps you to maintain your tapu.
I’m not talking about being sacred. I’m talking about how it keeps your senses aware. And because your tapu is also your uniqueness, it keeps you conscious. Because the moment you use wai wera or wai pū mahana, hot or warm water, you then relax into a noa state.
I probably need to do more exercise. But, in the last couple of years, I’ve gone back to gardening. I gardened throughout the whole election campaign and, in a stressful situation, that’s what kept me tapu.
I’m also a talker and, as a family, we eat together at the dinner table. A few times each week we’ll do a circle with the kids and we each share what we’re grateful for, who we helped and what our highlight was.
That also helps you articulate your emotions so that you can manage what a Hawaiian friend calls “the cacophony of modernity”, the bloody noise that assaults our lives.
And I sing. I sing because singing helps to calm my farm.
Thanks for sharing that, bro. So let’s talk politics. Because here’s this young fulla with oratory skills and knowledge of whakapapa and tikanga, and you emerge as tribal leader. What would you say about your tribal political life before we start talking national politics?
Well, the old people always said you tell people everything, everywhere.
You never wait for an advertised meeting. So, if you’re at a tangi, you lay the kōrero down. If you’re at a birthday, you lay the kōrero down. Because the moment that we wait for an advertised meeting, we’ve just fallen into Pākehā ways.
If we’re making sure that we lay the kōrero all the time, we’re not hiding anything. If there’s one thing about our people, they can quickly tell who’s spreading the bullshit.
And when you just share the kōrero and you’re open about the challenges, or even if you’ve made a mistake, they respect that. Even when they might not like you.
If you’re being pono to them and treating them right — when you do that, they’ll see whether you’re being genuine or not.
Kia ora. The Māori Party looked as though it might have fallen away. But no. Now we’ve got two representatives. What did you see which encouraged you to put your hand up and say: “I’ll do what I can to continue the momentum?”
I’m a politics major — politics and international relations at Victoria University. One of my lecturers was Nigel Roberts, an architect of MMP for New Zealand.
So, I understand the political landscape and I could see the massive moves that the Māori Party could make.
And even though I was living in London during the foreshore and seabed march in 2004, I sent my 50-quid cheque back to New Zealand to enrol in the Māori Party. I always was interested in standing for politics one day, and Aunty Tari (Tariana Turia) wanted me to take over her seat.
But in the end, Missy and I decided against that. I thought: “Well, if I’m not going to stand, then how can I contribute?”
So, I agreed to picking up the role as the party president. We were in a terrible situation. Winston was the only one who’d ever been able to change history and get back in. Half my mates thought I was crazy. But when you believe in having our own independent voice, you’ve got to fight for it.
I believed, and a lot of other people believed, too. And we got there.
Now that you’ve got two members — and popular ones in Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer — what messages do you think the Māori Party is sending to our rangatahi, Che?
The importance of believing in who we are. The importance of standing up. It could be said that all of the big fights have been had, but there will be new ones.
And if Debbie and Rawiri can model standing up, and continuing to stand up, then that’s an awesome example for our rangatahi.
Tariana championed Whānau Ora, and now that’s embedded in our country. And we’ve just had news of a Māori Health Authority which looks like extending the Whānau Ora kaupapa. What did you read into the announcement?
For too long, I’ve avoided the health stuff because I’ve felt the bureaucracy is being fed more than those in need of help. But on the face of it, it’s a really positive move, a courageous move — and the devil will be in the detail.
So, we have to just wait till that’s out.
The Māori Party’s in for the long haul as a contributor to the political landscape — but how long will you steer the ship? Have you ruled out completely the possibility of standing yourself?
While my kids are still at school my focus is my babies. They’re in year 9 and year 11. Missy took the weight during their first eight years — and I promised her that the next eight years is my job.
So, I’ve got to hold to that promise. Focus on my kids, and contribute not just to the Māori Party, but to te ao Māori in whatever way that I can.
What are three of your favourite things in life?
Hmmm. Singing is my soul food. My family. And travel. I’m a Jack Nohi. I’m inquisitive and I love to learn about different places, cultures and languages.
Do you think that we, as Māori, have a role to play in First Nations kaupapa globally?
That’s how a lot of our Indigenous brothers and sisters already see us. We have a lot to offer, mainly because of our legal standing. But that can also make us a bit arrogant when we go to international Indigenous gatherings.
The key thing, though, is that we should continue to learn from others.
Thanks, Che. As we wrap up our kōrero, I’m detecting a significant change in attitude from non-Māori New Zealanders towards some of the things that we hold dear. I’m wondering whether you sense a shift, too?
I’m excited by what tomorrow brings. Because if you look at Ihumātao, as an example, you had so many people from different walks of life there in support.
And as we embrace te reo Māori, as we embrace kaupapa like Matariki, it’s taking us all on a journey where we’re starting to indigenise Aotearoa.
That’s a bloody cool thing to do, because there’s no other place in the world where that can be done.
I can see now what Rangi Walker used to talk about — that race relations will be sorted out in the nation’s bedrooms.
I never used to like that phrase because I came from a place where you’ve got to marry your own for the culture to survive. But I can see that where there’s been intermingling, there’ve also been benefits.
So, as we go forward, we can be proud about that.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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