Haare Williams has been a teacher, pioneer broadcaster, poet, writer, and artist. In a new book, Words of a Kaumātua, edited by Witi Ihimaera and published by Auckland University Press, he tells of his journey, in reo Pākehā and reo Māori, and in poetry and prose. His kōrero with Dale follows along the same path, touching on a few recollections from a long and rich life.
Kia ora, e te rangatira. You’re known for your deep understanding of Māori concepts and history. How much of that comes from being raised by your Tūhoe grandparents?
I think it was the isolation of the Ohiwa harbour and the piece of land that we lived on. My grans, Wairemana and Rimaha, moved to Ohiwa after they were “evicted” from Te Urewera by the heavy-handedness of the Crown.
And that land and their poverty and their alienation became part of their richness. Later, it became my richness as well. They triumphed over poverty and adversity.
What was the best advice they gave you?
When I started school, I was nearly eight. I was too scared to go to school because I heard about the whipping of children speaking te reo. I never saw anyone get whipped for speaking te reo, but I was still terrified.
At first, going to school caused a bit of a trauma. Crossing the mudflats and going through the gorse and blackberry, and then walking about eight or nine miles. That’s if you were lucky. If the tide was in, you had to walk an extra mile around the estuary.
My kuia Wairemana presided over the most powerful fine art of all — the art of storytelling. Ours is a culture gorgeously stuffed with heroes, iconic men and women, young and old. Stories that pre-date leprechauns and Loch Ness monsters, dragons and the Hobbits.
I recall Wairemana taking me to the summit of Hiwarau, a high hill overlooking Ohiwa harbour. From there, you could look out beyond Kutarere and across to Ōpōtiki and Te Kaha coastline. It’s a high view. I don’t know how we got there because I virtually dragged our horse Rusty up to the top.
Wairemana looked out and she said: “All this land used to be our whenua, e moko. Look around you and you will see a thousand tragedies in a thousand square miles.”
And then she made a prophetic statement, one that’s stayed with me.
“One day, e moko, you’ll become a teacher. You might become a lawyer or a doctor. You might even become a politician. But whatever you do, remember, you’ll never be a Pākehā.” Everyone then wanted their children to grow up in a Pākehā way. Speaking English was the norm, the wanted thing.
And she said: “One day, you might have to fight for this land. One day, you might have to die for this land.”
That statement, I suppose, became her prophecy in my life.
At Ōpōtiki College, I failed to gain School Cert the first year, so I went back to school. That was probably the watershed decision I made. It was a life-changer for me. I ended up in Ardmore Teachers’ College. And, in 1955, I, with a handful of other Māori students, graduated with a teachers certificate.
That’s a snapshot of the influence of that little valley in marginal lands. Since we left, no one has lived there. So, I’ve come to regard that place as being infused with tapu. He waahi tapu tera ki te Haahi Ringatū me Te Upokorehe.
You’ve written about that life in your new book Words of a Kaumātua, which is a lovely mix of poetry and prose, in both reo Māori and reo Pākehā. When did you start writing?
The poetry and the prose and the things that I’ve done, I really regard it as serendipity. Serendipity is when you’re in the right place at the right time.
And I happened to be in the right place at the right time.
I was born in Te Karaka, in Gisborne, and I was brought up at Karaka in Ohiwa on the spot where Te Kooti, the Māori freedom fighter, was mortally wounded and later died of his wounds on the 17th of April 1893. Today I live close to Karaka in Papakura.
It was at Karaka, that the kākano, the seed, was planted for what I have become.
The land was on loan to us by Te Upokorehe of Te Whakatōhea. We didn’t own it. That’s a principle of Māori land ownership. We borrow the land from our children and from nature. Like water, we can never own or sell it. We use it, and we put back what we take out. That’s reciprocity: to give, to receive, and to return. It is the principle of koha that defines manaakitanga.
So some of my writing is based around the kaitiakitanga of the land, te tapu o te whenua, the sacredness of the land. Me wairua o ngā mea katoa.
I grew up with the experience of addressing the maunga behind our whare raupo, not as some inert collection of ore, stones and minerals to be mined, to be put into motorways or buildings — but as a taonga, a living entity, emblems of our culture with a living spirit.
Those are the intrinsic things I grew up with. I grew up with te reo. No English. But Wairemana knew three English words quite well: Michael Joseph Savage. My grans were staunch Labour supporters. It had something to do with them receiving te penihana, the old age pension, 10 years after everyone else in 1943.
So serendipity, or luck, has been a part of my life.
That was the case with the 1990 Commission, for example. I’d just come out of a job, and suddenly there was another job waiting. I was handed the task of overseeing the completion of waka — 21 in all — for the Sesquicentennial Commemorations for the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty.
That was a pivotal point, I think, in educating New Zealanders about the Treaty and its importance to New Zealand’s social and political agenda.
I want to touch on a couple of things. Your faith. You’ve always come across as a man with deep spiritual connection. I just wonder what you might say of Christianity and its effects on our people. But also, our people’s merging of whakaaro Māori with Christian principles. We might see that somewhat in the Ringatū faith and others.
Often my grans would look out over the whenua and say to me: “Can you see God’s face on the land?” And then they’d look at the moana and say: “Can you see God’s face on the water?” Then: “Can you see God’s face in the bush?”
And I used to think maybe my grans were witches. I’d say: “No.”
Later, I understood. Their faith was absolute. They were Christians — socialists with a touch of Judaism. My grandfather Rimaha was known as a tohunga of the Ringatū church. Judaism played a big part in Ringatū, the church founded by Te Kooti. Te Kooti was reviled by one half of the nation, yet he was revered by Māori.
So, Ringatū shaped my life, but it was something more than Christianity. It was Māoritanga as well. I think Māoritanga aligns with the universal side of Christianity. Manaakitanga. Kaitiakitanga.
Part of the impact of Christianity was that our people built churches, gave the land, and in some cases, paid for the missionaries to stay with them and be friends.
Yes, Christianity had a huge impact. I frown a wee bit when our women have to sit behind men on the paepae because, to me, that’s a post-Christian thing. We did not have chairs in traditional times, so our women sat around in a big circle on the marae-ā-tea. That was a forum that was inclusive of everyone.
You were a teacher before you became a broadcaster. And your teaching career took you to other rohe — you taught in Tauranga, Taupō, and Mātauri Bay as well.
I went to Mātauri Bay as a sort of idealistic, stuffed-up young teacher knowing everything, and I was brought back down to earth very quickly by a wonderful group of people. Their generosity of spirit was so that I’ll never forget that place. It is my home away from Turanganui and Ohiwa.
At Mātauri Bay, I learned about the power of teaching and education and what it means to work with a community.
As an example, the school published a monthly magazine called Te Karere, the Mātauri Bay School magazine. I wrote the editorials. The children wrote all the stories. Funny stories. One story was: “Oh, we send our aroha to Aunty Agnes. When she went into her drive, the gate post got into her way.”
In one of my editorials, I sent out a note to invite parents in the community to send us wheels: pram and mower wheels. And bits of timber. We were going to have a working bee to make trolleys for the children of the new playcentre. There was no kōhanga reo then.
So, people from Totara North, near Kaeo, and from Kerikeri, turned up in trucks with timber and rejected wheels. One man turned up with a welding tool and made all of these trolleys for big kids and small, and little toys, and a sandpit. The community put on a hākari for them.
Then I put forward a proposal that I wanted to take all of the kids to Auckland for an educational tour, and I wanted them to be togged in uniforms. A blazer and a cap for the boys, and the girls with pleated skirts and white shirts and ties.
Within a month, there was a truckload of bottles coming to the school to pay for the uniform and the trip. We were able to take our kids to Auckland for six whole days.
To me, teaching is about trust. If you trust your teacher, you can do anything. I was really annoyed a month ago when I heard a teacher say: “I’m not paid to love children.” I thought: “What an extraordinary remark.” If you don’t love children, then why are you teaching?
The quality that is an important part of teaching is a love of learning and a love of teaching. To make learning endemic so that every child desires it. No child was ever born to fail.
I think education in New Zealand is one of the best on the planet. But education in New Zealand betrayed Māori kids because it didn’t tell the truth of our colonial history and what our ancestors endured. By the same token, it also betrayed Pākehā kids.
Mātua, I grew up with this cloud over our relationships with our northern people, which goes back to the actions of the 1820s. I wonder if you shared any of that and what your experience was when you were moving around.
Tainui and Ngāti Whātua have nurtured my career and whānau here. When I moved to Auckland, Rua Cooper, rangatira of Tainui, came to my home and said: “We’ll take care of you.” James Henare and Graham Latimer did that at Mātauri Bay as well.
I live in Papakura now, been here a long time, and some of my writing reflects their mamae.
Last week, I wrote this short poem. By George, it’s called.
Oh, weep loved ones for that which you thought lost
The *holocaust you bear is not the only generational cost
Oh woe, woe the loss of taonga yet you hold no rage
Do not despair Ihumātao stands for fortitude and courage
By George, Sir, wine at the altar will not salve your vicious spree
Tis mine now to ransom you as you did ransom me
When will the war against a generous, giving people end
*(propaganda confiscation genocide deportation extermination poverty)
The 11th of July 1863 was when George Grey issued his proclamation to Tainui. Tainui was swept off their lands here in Auckland, Ihumātao, Onehunga, Papakura. All the way to Tūākau and across to the Waikato plains behind Mangatāwhiri.
The British mounted the largest military establishment anywhere on the planet at Pōkeno. The redoubt that was built held 14,000 troops. If you draw a line from the Auckland University law school to Pōkeno, there were 14 redoubts on Great South Road. The intensity of the military presence to push Tainui people out was unprecedented. And the severity of that push is still being felt.
But Tainui were a forgiving people. Pōtatau Te Wherowhero said: “I muri i au, ki a mau ki te tika, ki te pono, me te aroha.” After I’m gone, hold fast to the law of the land, the law of God and that of the Treaty of Waitangi. “Kia mau ki te tika, ki te pono.” Hold fast your faith in God, and your faith that our nation and our government will find sense. The last one is te aroha, respect for each other. And that’s what we’ve done since the earliest contact. We have given manaakitanga.
I was really uplifted when I heard our prime minister speak those words in Christchurch, in her condemnation of violence and automatic weapons: manaakitanga, tātou tātou, te aroha.
You’ve led a remarkable life. You pioneered Māori radio. You were the general manager of Radio New Zealand’s Te Reo o Aotearoa. What stands out for you?
Matiu Rata called me up when he was about to announce setting up the Waitangi Tribunal, and he told me the story of how Norman Kirk (prime minister 1972-74) had asked him for a one-page summary to address the inequality and the injustice that the Crown had brought upon Māori. He told Matiu: “Get that to me by Monday morning at 8.” That was on a Friday.
That one-pager led to the Treaty of Waitangi Act of 1975 that set up the Waitangi Tribunal. Matiu called me because he wanted a Māori journalist to release that story first. And so we broke the story in te reo on Te Reo o Aotearoa.
That was a watershed moment in New Zealand history. It was a revolution. A revolution in Treaty understanding towards justice. A revolution in education. And a revolution in future relationships in New Zealand.
Your daughter Arena has just given birth to your mokopuna. Are you hopeful about the future?
We still have a struggle. It’s manifested at Ihumātao. It is the same struggle we had at Parihaka, when people came from all over the country and parked there, ploughed the land and put their stake in the ground. Yet the Crown, with its heavy hand, pushed them out. It’s happening again now. Ihumātao is a Crown and rangatiratanga issue. Not an Auckland Council issue, or a Fletcher issue.
As for rangatahi, I think we’re riding an ocean of change, a tsunami if you like. I see rangatahi, Māori and Pākehā and other cultures, who believe in New Zealand, who believe that New Zealand can be the most liveable small democracy on the planet.
I see the future of New Zealand in good hands. I see our women, rangatahi Māori women, stepping to the front. We could see two Māori prime ministers by 2040. And one of them a Māori woman. They may both be Māori women.
I see rangatahi forging a way forward, working on climate change issues using tikanga and indigenous knowledge. Climate Armageddon isn’t inevitable, and I think indigenous cultures have the solutions. We have depended on western solutions for too long, but there is a wairua that is inherent in indigenous people — like kaitiakitanga.
I look to our rangatahi with a vision to the future. I have a moko now who is four days old and a grandson who is nearly two. I want them to inherit the best that the world can give them to reach their full potential as kaitiaki of our values.
What a beautiful kōrero, mātua. As we come towards the end of our kōrero, what are some good tools to put in the kit to ensure that we move forward with grace, but also careful consideration, as a people?
I grew up in Kutarere. I grew up in Ohiwa. I was a child of the community. My boyhood years in Te Karaka shaped who I am, what I am, and what I can be for my moko and to their generation.
To me, it’s the passing down of the taonga of words, the taonga in stories, in art, in tikanga, and the taonga of whakapapa. Whakapapa is grace on wings.
I want my moko to inherit the healing power of whenua, moana, ngāhere, and te reo.
Sometimes we underrate the ability of our children to understand, to feel the rhythm, beauty, elegance and the power of language. Yes, birds, trees, and all creatures each have a language, too. He reo to ngā mea katoa.
To my moko Te Makahi Robert and Waioeka Tessa: Haere mai to a world visible and to a world invisible. Welcome to a terrible world, but also a wonderful, wonderful world.
That’s my taukī to all our grandkids. Each and every day, let’s celebrate our children as the taonga of life.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Haare Williams (Ngāi Tūhoe and Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki) has been a broadcaster, teacher, poet, and artist. In 1978, he was the inaugural general manager of Radio New Zealand’s Māori station, Te Reo o Aotearoa. Later, he was the general manager of Aotearoa Radio.
Haare has been dean of Māori education and Māori advisor to the chief executive at Unitec, from which he was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2017. He also set up a joint venture with the South Seas Film and Television School to train te reo Māori speakers as producers and operators in film and television. He has worked closely with iwi claimant communities and was responsible for waka construction and assembly at Waitangi for the 1990 sesquicentennial commemorations celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi.
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