Tame Iti and Moana Maniapoto did some reminiscing not long ago in the course of an interview for Moana’s weekly TV show Te Ao with Moana on Māori Television.
There were plenty of laughs, as you’d expect from two people who’ve run into each other over the years — allies at times, and strong critics of a Pākehā establishment yet to make a serious commitment to the Waitangi deal in 1840.
Tame, a Tūhoe now in his late 60s, brings his memories of his brushes with the law, including his work and theatrical stunts to highlight the racial injustices still rife in Aotearoa. Moana, a talented interviewer, writer, songwriter and singer is up to speed with his inimitable style and past.
Tame’s CV has no hope of fitting nicely into one interview. But this kōrero may give you an insight into one of the more recognisable and adventurous characters of our time.
Tame describes himself as colonised, although he stood four times for parliament (unsuccessfully). He’s at home in Te Urewera but equally so on Ponsonby Rd. He’s a kaupapa-driven “artivist”, but his tactics can get him offside, sometimes even with his own. He has worked tirelessly alongside rangatahi, the troubled and addicted, yet, in 2007, police investigated him under the Terrorism Suppression Act.
The truth is Tame Iti is a chameleon. He’s also a teetotaller, vegan, cyclist and doting koro — and a former radio DJ with a thing for house music.
I’d met Tame over the years through different protests and mutual friends. But the first time I really got to know him was when Tame spent a week in our Ōtāhuhu house in the late 1990s. That was hot on the heels of a valuable Colin McCahon painting going missing from the Waikaremoana office of the Department of Conservation. It sparked a nationwide search, not just for the painting but for those suspected of taking it . . .
Kia ora, Tame. Most people know you as an activist, although I reckon artivist is a better fit for you. But not many people know about the wrestling skills you brought to your activism career.
Our Pāpā gave us the opportunity for either rugby or kapa haka. I took up kapa haka, but I also took up boxing. Being a short-arse, I got bullied hard by people. So I had to learn how to move, to look after myself.
I was taught by a kaumātua that fought in the Second World War. His name was John Black. We trained in the old church in Tāneatua.
I’m an interior decorator by trade, one of the recruits of John Rangihau. Trade training was a government policy in those days. We used to glaze windows, do scaffolding, wallpaper, colour schemes. I did about three years of that.
When I went down to the South Island to train, I ended up doing wrestling. I like wrestling ‘cause the moves are like an old fighting strategy from our world, te ao Māori.
And I had my first fight with a team from the USA. I was working towards the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch in 1974. I used to do curtain-raiser bouts for John Da Silva who was a professional wrestler. I really loved it.
You had a stage name, didn’t you? What was that?
Oh, I don’t wanna say. It was just dumb.
It was what?
It’s a dumb name.
Oh, come on, tell me.
Yeah. Yeah. Māori Boy!
You’re the most visible face of Māori activism. What was the first protest you ever got involved in?
At school. When the principal of the school said: “I will not allow you to speak Māori on my school grounds.”
How did you protest?
By refusing to — he kōrero tonu i te reo i ngā wa katoa. (Continuing to speak Māori all the time.)
Where was the school?
And you weren’t allowed to speak Māori?
It wasn’t a Māori school. It wasn’t a Tūhoe school. It was all about how to be loyal to the state. You either write ”I will not speak Māori” one-hundred times on the blackboard, or go around the school grounds, with the wheelbarrow, picking up all this horse shit and sheep shit.
You’ve also been a painter, which you’ve been doing since you went to an art therapy workshop in Canada back in the 1990s. Why painting?
Well, I always loved art. I remember attending the Ralph Hotere exhibition in Hamilton. All the poets and writers would get together — and they’d get on the vino and whiskey and all that.
I’d keep away from those guys. Couldn’t keep up. They were pretty hardcore. I guess, for me, art is kei roto koe i tō ira atuatanga. It’s a platform that I use to put my whakaaro or to provoke some thoughts and create conversations.
When I look at your art and at some of your actions, you’ve made big, theatrical statements.
Yeah. Life is theatrical. We do that every day. When we had the Tūhoe Embassy in Tāneatua, the group decided that they would create this eviction notice:
Those that are residing on stolen property, we are giving you a whole year to vacate. For further information, please contact your local MP. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
Lot of talk on talkback radio.
I remember one time when I was singing, and I pulled you up on stage. We were singing “Treaty” and you came on with the New Zealand flag, right? And then you stood on it. And I was thinking: “Hell . . .” Because my dad was out there. An ex-soldier.
I understand. I understand their patriotism. But it’s not about them. I guess it’s about finding a way to provoke a kōrero. Yeah. I guess that’s what I do. It’s finding the pathway.
There was that time you shot the flag. Was it a New Zealand flag?
I rung the guys. I said: “Can you please go and look for a flag?” They couldn’t find one in the $2 shop. The only one they found was a New Zealand flag made in Taiwan. But the target was not the New Zealand flag. It was the Union Jack.
What did you shoot, though?
The Union Jack on the New Zealand flag.
Okay. Gotcha. What happened after that?
There was a big debate about that. I think I kinda got convicted for it. Annette Sykes took it to the Court of Appeal and then they threw it out.
Geez. You’ve kept her busy, haven’t you?
Painting has been a recurring theme, eh? Can you explain to me the action around the McCahon painting? The one that went missing from the DOC visitor centre at Lake Waikaremoana in 1997?
That’s a tricky one. Well, that Colin McCahon painting went for a ride somewhere in the Urewera. I guess that was a response to what had been happening during that period of time. And so, I just participated in the return of the Colin McCahon. It was a matter of navigating my way in the mist.
And having a chat with the kiore who’d taken it, and checking in with him and saying: “Better take it back because they’re hard on my back.” Especially ol’ Ding Dong Bell. They came over with a warrant to search my house. Of course, they didn’t find anything, but I ended up locked up for kidnapping and firearms.
You stayed in my house and we closed the curtains. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. All I knew was that you were hiding.
I had instructions from my lawyer to go away. So I ended up in the boot of a car for a couple of miles down the road. And then I lay in the back of someone else’s car and I finished up at your place.
You had recently got your moko, and that was really important. You inspired a movement to reclaim tā moko. And I was so inspired, I wrote a song about it, and recorded it, while you were parked up with me.
What inspired you to get the moko?
It was really a response to the gangs putting their fists and the dogs on their kanohi. We needed to do something about that. We had some conversation among ourselves in Rūātoki and talked to the kaumātua. He aha o koutou whakaaro e pā ana ki tēnā momo āhua? (What are your thoughts about that sort of thing?)
And they said: Oh, waihotia. Leave that alone.
There was the kōrero. And I said: Well, are you saying, waihoa ngā waiata mōteatea? Ehē, ehē. He taonga tuku iho, pēnei i roto i ngā waiata mōteatea. (Are you saying to leave behind our traditional songs as well? No way. Tā moko is a treasure passed down to us, just like our traditional chants.)
Well, we didn’t have any moko artists in Tūhoe at that time, so we talked to a tattoo artist. He was a little bit mataku about it. I said I’ll go and see the fullas down the road, the people that have got the kōrero and the knowledge, the carvers.
We talked to them and the artist was a lot more relaxed. So, straight after I done the moko there, there was a kaumātua from Waimana who rang up and he got his. We initiated and created that space for our taonga and the rest is history.
I took you to the recording studio to sing on my song “Moko”, and brought you home. And, one day, there was a knock on the door. You went out with your friends and then I never saw you again. You got arrested.
Oh yeah, I did too.
Annette Sykes came around to pick up your bags.
How many times have you been arrested?
Can’t count. A few times. But I’ve only been incarcerated once. That’s the 2007 one.
[Tame’s mate Te Kaha was later convicted and sentenced to community service for the theft of the McCahon painting.]
I remember you telling me in my kitchen that you went to China during the cultural revolution, which was a very brutal time and very controversial around the world. What did you learn over there that you brought back here?
I read quite a bit about Mao Zedong and Karl Marx because I thought that maybe those guys would give me a better understanding. I thought the enemy was blond hair, blue eyes and white skin. But going there changed my whole thinking. Actually, it hasn’t got nothing to do with the colour of your skin and your eyes.
It’s a class thing?
It’s a political thing.
So, what was the main point that you were trying to make with Ngā Tamatoa?
Having a voice, I guess. That was a time when racism was really out there. If you went to places like Christchurch, it was really difficult to find a place to stay because of the colour of your skin.
I don’t know if you remember when we’d go to the movies, and everybody had to sing God Save The Queen and everybody had to stand up. We would stay sitting — and I remember the guy behind us going: “Excuse me. Excuse me. Please stand.”
You know how we responded? We ended up having a fight.
The police raids on Tūhoe
In 2007, the police conducted Operation 8, alleging Tame and 17 others were running a military-style terrorist training camp in Te Urewera. Roadblocks, raids and arrests followed in October of that year, in Tūhoe settlements and elsewhere.
It was a traumatic time for your people. What were you actually doing?
I was doing stuff there in the ngāhere for many years, as a detached youth worker. It was about bringing people together. And, of course we ran around with guns. Nothing wrong with that. Having a conversation. Having a kōrero. But we already knew they were spying on us.
You knew about them, but you were still doing it?
Well, there’s nothing wrong with what we were doing.
Would you change anything?
Nothing wrong with it.
Was it theatrical?
It was a very expensive theatrical performance.
You had lawyers involved. You ended up in jail.
That was paranoia. They were making up stuff. About plans we had for killing people in our community. That we were planning to do some crazy thing. But that’s not us.
The only charges that stuck were firearms-related. And for that you spent two years in Waikeria Prison. What stuck out for you when you were in jail? What did you observe in there?
Young people? Lots of young people in there for a long time.
Many people were surprised and shocked by what happened in Christchurch, the terrorism attack. Were you?
Yes, it was terrible. But what was also terrible about it is that they were busy watching everybody except those people who were a huge threat to our society.
You once did some T-shirts “Colonised AF”. Would you describe yourself as colonised?
Yeah. We’ve been colonised for the last 200 years. We just have to take ownership of that. A lot of our people are in denial about that, but we need to accept it because we buy their petrol, we buy their butter, and we pay our taxes. We’re part and parcel of that system. We need to find the pathway so that one day we can let it go.
There was a big conversation recently around statues of George Grey and other colonisers. And some people said: “Oh, just lop off all their heads. Toss them all away.”
Yeah. I think they need to be removed, and put somewhere else.
I’m not too sure. Maybe on the way to a wharepaku?
Yet you stood for parliament a few times.
Who did you stand for?
Eva Rickard, from the Mana Māori Party, was the one coming to my door saying: “Come stand with me.” I wasn’t too sure about that because I remember Syd Jackson telling us: “Don’t vote, don’t stand!” You remember that?
Yeah. Don’t vote. Don’t vote. Next minute you’re standing, Hone stands, Tariana stands . . .
I supported the kuia, but I know I had no chance of getting into parliament. That’s not what the issue is about. It’s about having a platform and finding a way to get the politicians to support our initiatives.
If you look back at the things that you were fighting for, can you see movement?
Yeah, the movement has gone backwards. But I do see the changes in attitudes and behaviour and particularly last year with the apology from Stuff.
Your face was part of the apology because of the way you’d been misrepresented in the media.
Well, they did a lot of that in the 1980s and ‘90s. And, when they were running me down, they were running us all down. I’d have to turn the radio off.
Another positive, perhaps, has been the Tūhoe settlement in 2014. What’s it like post-settlement? Is it all it’s cracked up to be?
That’s a real challenge. Pai tēnā patai. That’s a good question. All the iwi throughout the motu are going through that. Iwi bureaucrats, which I got issue with, drifting away from the main pool of whānau and hapū, and creating a new empire within Māoridom. So we need to find a way that we can navigate, so we don’t end up becoming another coloniser, internally.
I remember Syd Jackson saying that being an activist took up a lot of his energy — and he had regrets about maybe not putting enough time into his kids and family. How is that for you?
It’s the same, you know? You have to catch up with your children a few years later, and patch it up. It doesn’t help your relationship when the movement, the kaupapa, is what you believe in.
Reckon you’re a better koro now?
I think so. I try to be.
When you look back at everything that you’ve done — and you’ve done a lot — what do you see as the connecting thread or theme for you?
Good question. I think that we see things and we hear things. A lot of people just walk away. They don’t deal with it. They turn a blind eye to what they see. I’m not that person.
Te Ao with Moana, hosted by Moana Maniapoto, is on every Monday at 8pm on Māori Television. This is an edited transcript of an interview which was aired last week.
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