Tina Ngata: “If we’re not describing what true justice looks like, then justice will be described by oppressors.” (Photo: Qiane Matata-Sipu/NUKU)

There’s a cost to speaking out, as Tina Ngata well knows. She saw that when her father, a policeman in South Auckland at the time, took a public stand against the injustice of the Dawn Raids. And she’s been experiencing it too, as an articulate and unflinching commentator on the continuing injustice of colonisation, on Indigenous rights, on the climate crisis. There’ve been death threats, hate thrown at her. Not that she dwells on that, in this kōrero with Dale.


Tēnā koe, Tina. It’s a pleasure to have a kōrero with you for E-Tangata. Maybe we should start with you sharing your whakapapa lines and telling us a little about your upbringing.

Kia ora, Dale. My name is Tina Ngata and I’m from Ngāti Porou. My hapū are Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Hinerupe and Te Whānau a Tūwhakairiora, towards the northern end of the Ngāti Porou rohe. Where I live right now is Matakāoa, which is very rural, very isolated, and which is where my whakapapa lines are from.

I have some whakapapa connections up north as well, in Ngāti Whātua ki Kaipara, but my home and heart are here in Ngāti Porou — although I wasn’t raised here. My father, Piniha Tamauahi Ngata, was a police officer at an interesting time, throughout the years of the Dawn Raids, when we were in South Auckland. We lived in Ōtāhuhu and Māngere, and we left there when I was about eight.

Those years were difficult for Dad, and there were times when he’d refuse to carry out the orders that he was given. He was a sergeant, and certainly didn’t feel comfortable passing those orders down to the men in his team.

He became despondent with the direction things were going with the police, and he started pointing out how deeply racist the policies were, and what a difficult position they were putting the police in, particularly Māori and Pasifika police.

He left the police force and took everything to the media and exposed the racism of the time. But that didn’t come without consequences for the whānau — and there were pretty hard times.

But one thing — a momo, I guess — that I felt was strong in my father, and that he had from his lineage as well, was a strong adherence to justice and fairness and standing up for what you see as being the right thing. I strive for those types of characteristics in my life as well.

Eventually, we moved over to Australia. Every time we’d come back to the East Coast, I was always like: “This is my home — I know I’m gonna wind up here.”

I never had aspirations to stay anywhere else, but just to work my way back to coming home to Matakāoa.

That pathway included a fair amount of travel, figuring out what my contribution would be, and then study. I studied social sciences, arts, public health, research, and Indigenous studies and researching holistic approaches to health. Particularly hauora Māori and how it relates to hauora taiao, which became a passion of mine.

I’ve been back on the East Coast for eight or nine years now, doing some contract work for my hapū and my iwi, and doing health and environmental research and planning, but also Indigenous rights work and advocacy as well.

And how’s it been for you, being back home?

It’s incredibly challenging. I’ve never felt more accountable — and even though people consider isolated places sleepy, I can say I’ve never been busier.

All that said, it’s the most rewarding work as well. I feel like I’m finally working in a way that contributes back to the gifts I’ve received by virtue of my whakapapa.

Tina’s father, Piniha Tamauahi Ngata, speaking to the Auckland Star newspaper in 1976. (Photo supplied)

A clipping from the Auckland Star, 1976.

Do you feel that your dad’s attitude has been vindicated by the recent Crown apology to the Pasifika people for the racist behaviour of the police at the time of the Dawn Raids?

My father passed away in 2010. I think if he were still alive that apology would’ve meant a lot to him. It definitely meant a great deal for Mum, because she knew how big it was for us in our lives, and it brought back many memories. It was a difficult time for her over those years.

But what then disappointed me was that, less than a fortnight after the apology, you had this déjà vu moment of Pasifika whānau being asked for their passports in order to receive the anti-Covid vaccine.

That really made me reflect on how deeply ingrained and almost compulsive the colonial instinct is, and that, even when the government has a measure of insight and good intentions to do right, it still reverts back to this deeply colonial, racist behaviour.

In terms of schooling and mentors and influences, could you point to any particular people or kura where you developed your sense of justice, human rights and environmental advocacy?

It came more from my whānau than school, although the move to Australia also had an impact. We spent time in Queensland in the 1980s, and, at that time, Queensland was off-the-scales racist. I can’t say I enjoyed my time there, and I’ve never gone back.

But some of the friendships I still have were forged out of being in one of the few families of colour in the community that we were in, in the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. There was another Māori-Sāmoan family there, and I’m still close friends with my schoolmate from that family. There was a Thursday Islander family and an Aboriginal whānau as well, and we became friends because of the way we were treated.

I remember at school, when you walked on a square of concrete, the other children would declare it had “black germs” and that square was to be avoided all day. When you walked onto a verandah towards class, the children would yell “black germs” and run off the verandah. That sort of thing. Being called all kinds of racist slurs was very normal.

It was explicit in a way that might sound shocking today, but I suspect that, even then, people wouldn’t accept that being described as racist behaviour. No doubt it would have been excused as “kids being kids”.

I guess that experience of being exposed to extreme racism at a young age certainly shaped me. But I think adherence to ideas of justice and fairness is something that I saw very strongly in my family, in my father and my mother.

These ideas around justice don’t sit separately from the ideas of the environment. And probably my advocacy for the taiao (the environment) stems from my perception of it as a great space of injustice, one of the primary sources of injustice, particularly for Indigenous peoples.

Looking at injustice against Indigenous peoples lends itself to looking after Papatūānuku as well. Indigenous perceptions don’t see those things as separate from each other, as they are in western society.

It’s always been interesting to me when people ask: “Well, what are you? A human rights advocate or an environmental rights advocate?” And, from an Indigenous lens, the two are one and the same — which is why I’ve quite happily and easily moved between those two worlds.

Tina (centre) with her father and sister.

The western ethos seems more about profiting off Papatūānuku than coming from an ethic of stewardship. Can our expectations accommodate that western ethos, or must we rally against it?

We’re getting to the heart of the problem, which is that the western ethos has dominated how we respond to these issues. That ethic consistently deprioritises the wellbeing of Papatūānuku, and even the wellbeing of each other, to the forces of profit and power.

This is why, for so many years now, I’ve been researching the Doctrine of Discovery — those early papal laws which embedded the principle of justifying the abuse of Papatūānuku and justifying the abuse of people for the dominant interests of profit and self-interest and the hoarding of power.

Those things have never gone away, even though they’ve morphed into other forms, such as the imperial expansion of the monarchies of Europe. The same ethos has been embedded in an economic framework, so you have corporate empires and corporate imperial expansion operating under the same entitlement.

The ultimate value for these entities is profit and self-interest and exploitation as opposed to the wellbeing of Papatūānuku and wellbeing of each other.

This ethos that we’re talking about has a specific whakapapa of its own that requires healing, and it’s very difficult to heal that part of that whakapapa when the ones who are in power are addicted to it — even though, ultimately, it’s going to harm even themselves.

It’s a long, hard journey to get people who are addicted to short-term benefits to see the long-term harm they’re doing to themselves and to future generations. And to get them to think intergenerationally and understand collective and interconnected wellbeing when that’s not natural to the western ethos. Likewise, understanding the value of interconnected wellbeing with our environment which, again, doesn’t come naturally to the western ethos.

It’s a healing journey, and I’ve had discussions with psychologists and psychiatrists about the western ethos being almost a compulsive disorder.

When you look at the way that pans out for climate change, we’ve known that we’ve been on a trajectory hurtling us towards a disastrous scenario for future generations, for well over 30 years. Yet we’re emitting more greenhouse gases than ever.

So, you have to ask: “Where are we going wrong if we’ve known the problem for 30 years?”

We’re still intent on being the architects of our own demise. We’ve just seen that at the COP26 gathering in Glasgow — commentating the demise, but not actually doing anything about it. There’s something unwell about that, because you’re ultimately disregarding your own harm and the harm of your own future generations. We really do need healing.

Pākehā models. How important is that to address? Can incremental change, perhaps towards a Māori health authority, or changes to Oranga Tamariki, end the subjugation of our people, the legacy of colonisation?

It depends what day you ask me, Dale. There are some days when I think back on when I was born, in 1975, which was the year of the Treaty of Waitangi Act. And, since that time, we’ve seen the inception of kōhanga reo, the kura kaupapa movement, the reo Māori Act, the Treaty of Waitangi Amendment Act, the real birth and surge of the Māori economy, the various hui taumata, and the investment in education and research, which saw the emergence of incredible leaders, including Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Graham Smith and Ngahuia Te Awekotuku.

And now we have an entire new generation of amazing leaders, along with the Māori media. It’s incredible when I think about the advances that have been made by our people in just over my lifetime. When you consider this progress, given the brutal and dehumanising history of colonisation, it’s an amazing testament to the gifts and strengths of our people.

But, at the same time, I get frustrated because so much that remains to be addressed could be fixed with a simple decision, and that decision really is around constitutional transformation. It’s hard not to get impatient with a system that has the ability to enact justice.

That’s been clear to Māori for so long now, but even clear within the Crown system since 2010 when the Waitangi Tribunal found that the signatories of the Treaty did not cede sovereignty. So the delays around constitutional justice for Aotearoa continue to be a source of frustration.

Particularly when we present ourselves on a world stage as being a progressive nation which is, apparently, very kind in its politics and has progressive relationships with its Indigenous people.

We’ve had to fight tooth and nail for our progression, both inside and out of the system — for due representation, for a pathway towards justice and wellbeing. The credit for that does not go to the western ethos or colonial governments. The credit for that goes to the strength and determination of our people.

Tina’s father and uncles, putting down a hāngī. (Photo supplied)

How much influence or strength do you think we as Māori give to or derive from global First Nations? Because we have shared challenges, don’t we? What would you say about our role?

In terms of rights movements internationally, the global Indigenous justice movement is second in size only to the LGBTQI movement. There are 500 million Indigenous people around the world — we’re roughly four percent of the global population. Our territories cover about 20 percent of the planet’s surface.

Within those areas, we protect 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. And that’s just on land. Indigenous people are ocean people as well. Our ocean territory is an even larger expanse.

The last time I checked, Indigenous-managed forests sequester 33 times the global annual carbon emissions of the planet, even though we are only on a fifth of our original land mass. Imagine the climate gains we’d have from getting our lands back from colonial governments.

So, there’s much to be gained from the Indigenous movement, and we certainly get a lot of strength from each other.

I greatly miss the annual gatherings at the Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues. It’s a place where we manage to come together, where our brothers and sisters of the global Indigenous village share our struggles with each other, listen, and also forge alliances.

But we haven’t been able to have that gathering for two years because of Covid. I’m worried about a number of my Indigenous brothers and sisters, who I just don’t hear from anymore. Some are living in countries, such as Brazil, where all we hear is second or third-hand accounts that Covid has ripped through their communities and that there’s no support for them.

I was especially disappointed when misinformation and disinformation started to circulate last year and some of our people were saying: “Oh, it’s not even real. It’s a conspiracy.”

I understand not believing the government, but these are our Indigenous brothers and sisters who are providing first-hand testimony of how it’s ripping through their reservations.

It was those testimonies for me that hit home in the early parts of last year. Look at Indigenous people in Brazil, in Columbia, in Mexico, in Canada, in Australia, the Sami in Europe, and you see the same outcomes of children being forcibly removed from their households, of women being assaulted, and men being hyper-incarcerated — and the same education outcomes, economic outcomes, and social outcomes as well.

It was always reasonable for us to assume that, should Covid arrive, we would suffer the same consequences.

With the Covid situation, the arrogance of the colonial mindset still exists. What have you made of the shortcomings in our government’s approach to vaccine rollouts to our people? Is that another example of the colonial mindset?

It is. But, you know, it’s too easy to point the finger at individuals, when this is a complex system that’s been built around the process of colonisation.

The government was founded on the assumption that it was right, legitimate and necessary to colonise Aotearoa. The system has grown into something of a behemoth, with all of these interconnected parts, but they all have a whakapapa that ties back to racist assumptions.

That’s why you shouldn’t take a piecemeal approach to addressing colonial entitlement, the colonial mindset. Even when people understand Te Tiriti or Treaty principles, they’ll still come back to this compulsive behaviour of believing that the colonial government has the ultimate authority to make the final decisions on any matter. They still come back to this idea that Indigenous people need colonial oversight — this paternalistic idea that also derives from the Doctrine of Discovery.

The idea that we need to be parented conflicts with the idea of true partnership and the ideals of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. That’s why it’s going to take nothing less than constitutional transformation to be able to realistically set our sights on justice.

Until then, we’re trying to hold back the tide, and we’re just tinkering with the edges of the problem but not dealing with it at the heart.

At the whare in Matakāoa, with her pou tokomanawa and tipuna Te Aotaihi. (Photo: Josie McClutchie)

You’re a prolific writer, and you’re also a powerful speaker. I know it’s an age-old practice, the power of the pen, but how important is it that we have thinkers who are writing and speaking out?

One of my favourite sayings is a quote from Theodore Parker, repeated by Martin Luther King Jr: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I do believe that. In general, society leans towards justice, and the vast majority of our storytelling tends to support ideas of justice.

But at the same time, if we’re not describing what true justice looks like, then justice will be described by oppressors, and that can be a dangerous and undermining tool. So, I’ve always felt it’s important for us to clearly articulate what the trajectory of justice should look like for our people, and to articulate for ourselves our vision of justice.

The more articulate and unyielding we are in our description of justice, the more we’ll be able to move in that direction as a society. It requires a measure of faith that society is even interested in justice, but I do see that.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers, Tina?

Yeah, there is. I think now, more than ever, we’re facing the kind of large-scale impacts on our people that, in my generation, we didn’t have to face. We have never had our very survival challenged in the way our tīpuna did — they went through that, and survived so that we could fight different battles. We could focus on things like our reo and our sports and what-not because we didn’t have to focus on survival.

But colonial forces and the forces of inequity are pushing us into some real dire straits right now.

Regardless of where we sit, we have to strive for those ideals of kotahitanga and aroha and manaakitanga and of all our tikanga. Without those important tikanga of the manawa, of the puku, we’ll only be chasing a mirage of rangatiratanga.

I think, in the months ahead, as we see more and more distressing news about Covid in our communities, these values of aroha and manaakitanga are going to be more important than ever for us, so that our mokopuna can have the kind of conversations that you and I have been having today.

(This interview was edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2021

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