Titewhai Harawira spent her life challenging the Crown, Pākehā and even Māori to do better — to do more to fulfil the promises of Te Tiriti. She was a formidable and fearless presence at Waitangi, but there was much more to her work than her appearances there.
The Ngāpuhi kuia died in Avondale, aged 90, on 25 January this year. And not long before her death, she sat down with Moana Maniapoto for a kōrero about her life and legacy — and why she hates the label activist.
I must admit to being a tad nervous about interviewing Titewhai Harawira. Just as Tīmoti Karetū is the godfather of te reo, the Ngāpuhi kuia has always been the queen of the protest movement.
My abiding memory of Titewhai is watching her on her feet, at Auckland District Māori Council meetings, getting stuck into her mates.
Dr Ranginui Walker and Patu Hohepa. Artists Norman Te Whata and Emily Karaka, Eru and Kiri Potaka-Dewes, Peter Rikys, Atareta Poananga and other movers and shakers, who were all there to disrupt the status quo and challenge the Crown and iwi.
Titewhai didn’t argue the kaupapa, it was always about the how. That’s when she’d get hot under the collar.
“It’s no use us having meetings and talk, talk, talk. Let’s just get on with making the people hear what it is that we want and why we want the changes,” she’d say.
I was a freshie just out of law school, trailing along to hui with my late father-in-law Bob Jackson, fascinated by the nuanced and intelligent debates behind closed doors, led by people with sharp minds, no one chasing headlines or clicks.
And Titewhai was in the thick of it. Fierce, fearless, take no prisoners. Dishing out her death stare. She was a force to be reckoned with.
Just don’t call her an activist.
“Not activist. You know, that’s a Pākehā term for rubbish for our people, when they’re working for the rights of our people,” she told me during what turned out to be the last interview she’d give before her passing on January 25 this year.
My crew and I waited in the backyard of the Avondale house she had lived in since 1952. It was filled with pot plants, tables, giant Mana party banners, and a child’s swing set.
I studied the lawn. I’d heard that buried beneath it were a long line of pets including hens Fattie and Blackie. They had a habit of wandering inside to lay eggs on a certain bed at a certain time. Titewhai believed that if children have animals to care for, they’ll be good to one another too. Even now, one moko takes a rabbit for a hikoi with a harness.
We were beckoned into the lounge. The walls were filled with tīpuna portraits and photos of children. And propped up beneath them were spooky-looking, wide-eyed dolls wearing frilly frocks.
At 90 years old, Titewhai sat among all that with her lace gloves on, hair in delicate ringlets and skin so unbelievably youthful.
She told me that the glamorous appearance she and others like Eva Rickard and Hana Te Hemara presented to the world was calculated.
“We did that deliberately because the media was talking about “they’re scruffy, they’re dirty, they stink, they don’t wash, they haven’t got a job” and all of that. So we said, okay, okay, we’ll get dressed up for every struggle we go to. We’d throw on a fur coat and high heels, and outclass the people that were running the whatever.”
Her very first protest was refusing to be taught Māori by a male teacher while at Queen Victoria, an all-girls school. It was the result, ironically, of strong male role models in her early life.
“My grandfather sent all his girls to Queen Vic to be educated. The boys had to stay home and help on the farm. Lots of people said the women should be at home and doing the cooking. And my grandfather always said, no, the women need to be educated and to choose whatever professions they wanted to go into.
“And my father-in-law was the minister of the Anglican Church, but on a Sunday, he would use the pulpit to talk about what was happening to Māori families throughout the country. And so those are the things that made me strong and determined to carry on that fight that our people were involved in. To honour our Treaty.”
Much has been written about her mahi at Waitangi and during street protests but she also did her thing in boardrooms, courtrooms and at the Waitangi Tribunal. In fact, when nine claimant groups went into mediation with the Crown after a ruling on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (now CPTPP), Titewhai as one of the claimants, loomed over the gathering by Zoom.
“The baseline is rangatiratanga,” she said emphatically. “Sovereignty.”
She also advised us women to close our legs. From her lofty position via video on the wall, Titewhai could see straight under the tables.
During our interview, I reminded Titewhai of one occasion in the tent during Waitangi Day commemorations. An activist from Whanganui may have suggested that one strategy to disrupt proceedings could be to “blow up the bridge”.
Titewhai stood up and dealt to the speaker.
“Don’t be so ridiculous,” she barked. “You are not blowing up that bridge. How will we get across to the other side?”
End of discussion.
I was curious about what seemed like a stunning change in strategy. One minute she was staring down the Crown — and the next, escorting the likes of John Key and Jacinda Ardern to the pae. What was that about?
She recalled that she’d been asked by kaumātua to look after the dignitaries. Her job was to make sure they had a cup of tea, and to guide them to the marae so the speakers could give them an earful about Te Tiriti.
Then one year, in typical Titewhai fashion, she gave the speakers an earful instead.
“I had a big row with the taumata up there by Waitangi, and those Waitangi lot. I said: ‘I bring them to you and what do you do? You talk about your whakapapa, and where you went to school, and they’re not interested. They don’t understand that. It’s just boring. Rubbish.’”
There was a practical, as well as fiery, side to Titewhai. For many years, she worked with the police, behind the scenes, wanting to help transform police culture. That work was the result of her warm relationship with Wally Haumaha, the Deputy Police Commissioner, and informed by her leadership in the Māori Wardens, a flaxroots organisation with a knack for de-escalating potentially tense situations.
She was so proud of how all the movements she was a part of, particularly the ones driven by women, with their tamariki in tow, had made such a difference.
“The women held the line, always. We had our differences over how we were going to solve something. But we worked that through. We didn’t have time because the women had their babies. They brought them to the meetings, they brought them to the struggles, they brought them to the marae. I tell you, they never gave up.”
She also helped set up Te Pāti Māori back in the day, then supported her son Hone when he decided to enter parliament. He split off to form Mana — and then, after a term, was gone. She remains frustrated by the gridlock that parliament represents.
“We’ve never had so many Māori in there in parliament. And we all know that they’re surrounded by party rules and regulations. It’s not an opportunity for Māori to just get together as Māori across the board and decide collectively that this is what would be better for Māori, they’re all separate.”
She reckoned aiming at local government could get us further.
“Realise the strength of local bodies. They make decisions about us every day — where we live, where you walk, how you go to school. Local bodies are powerful because their power happens every day.”
There was a red carpet rolled out for Titewhai at her 90th birthday party. The invite list that night made it clear that she had deep friendships with lots of Pākehā mates, too, who she encouraged to be central to the cause.
“I insisted that Pākehā stop following us and marching behind us and being alongside of us. They had to go and get their families and their peer groups, be it their doctors, lawyers, judges, whatever, to come and understand what the struggle was about. And that’s why I believe we made such a great impression for change. Pākehā came with us and to support the changes. We began to show what governments and local bodies were doing was not right.”
So many hui over the years. Made a difference, though.
“We must never, ever take it for granted that freedom comes to you on the silver platter. It does not. You have to fight for it. And the fact that we’ve got radio, television, a Treaty right to the airwaves, people thought we were crazy when we started talking about it.”
It’s been two months since Titewhai Harawira passed away. As we wrapped up our kōrero, I asked her something that’s often on my mind. With so many crises, and such big ones like climate change, how do Māori decide on a priority? Where do we put our energy?
“Don’t rely on the politicians,” she told me. “Learn how to come together without all the hang-ups — like, ‘Oh, I can’t come over there because I don’t like so and so’. Put that aside and know that the strength is in the people, not in somebody making a policy.”
How would she like to be remembered? I wondered out loud.
“Just as I am. Don’t try and dress me up and pretend that, ‘Gosh, she was nice and just so lovely’. I can be all of those things.”
But what else can you be? I asked.
“I can be a real bitch when it suits me. Yeah, and enjoy every minute of it.”
Titewhai Te Hoia Hinewhare Harawira was born in Whakapara in 1932, the eldest of seven children, with whakapapa to Ngāti Hau, Ngāti Wai and Ngāti Hine. She went to Queen Victoria School and then trained as a nurse. In 1952, she married John Puriri Harawira and they raised 12 children (including several whāngai) together.
Titewhai joined Ngā Tamatoa in the 1970s and was a founding member of Hoani Waititi Marae. She was active in the Māori Women’s Welfare League, on the New Zealand Māori Council for 45 years and was a talkback host on Radio Waatea.
For many years, she undertook the informal role of welcoming and accompanying the prime minister and other dignitaries at Te Tii marae at Waitangi during Waitangi Day celebrations.
Moana Maniapoto is a singer-songwriter, writer, broadcaster and documentary maker, and the host of the award-winning current affairs programme Te Ao with Moana, which screens on Whakaata Māori.
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