Being a negotiator for any iwi on a Treaty of Waitangi settlement isn’t for the faint-hearted. The Crown negotiators don’t bring a lot of aroha to the discussions. Not a lot of understanding either of the 1840 deal and our country’s history. Or, if they do, they’re aware that their political bosses – and most of those who put governments into power – wouldn’t be too thrilled by any settlement that was a genuinely fair go. That would seem like generosity running wild. Or it soon would be, once the mainstream media cut loose.
Fortunately, for more than a generation, there’s been a wave of fresh Maori talent coming into the law profession. And some of those young men and women know a Treaty breach when they see one. Here, Dale Husband talks with Willie Te Aho who has made a specialty of arguing the case for iwi.
Willie, you’re known for having a very sharp legal mind – and for being one of our foremost Treaty negotiators. But that wasn’t a path that looked too likely when you were young, was it? As I understand it, you could’ve gone down quite a different track. Maybe even been a gangster?
I could’ve been, to be honest. I’ve got four brothers who have been in the gangs. One still is. That’s the pathway they chose. But when my grandmother died, the rock in their lives was gone. She had been such a big influence on them. And when they lost their rock, they congregated with others who were equally lost. That’s how they came to take the path they went on.
Had I not received the support, after my grandmother died, from my koroua, Major John Waititi, and his wife, Matakuariki Allison, I could’ve gone the same way as well. But there have been touching times when my brothers, in a quiet way – in a way that they’d never say publicly – have said to me: “Bro, we’re proud of you because, although they can attack our name, they can’t put us right down. You’re the one that keeps our name up there.” So there’s a whanau feeling, and I’m representing them all in what I do.
I wonder if having those connections with gang life has been beneficial for you, in a way, because it gives you an understanding of how some people in our community become marginalised – and it gives you an appreciation of the good even in those who are much maligned.
Absolutely. I should explain that I ended up with my grandmother, Iritana Stirling, because I’d been made a ward of the state until I was 20. And being a ward of the state, and having whanau that were going through challenging situations has led me to appreciate the need to fight for the underdog.
It’s also led me to having what some may view as an arrogant attitude. Not bowing to anyone. Not respecting anything, in particular the Crown or Government. I guess that came from my early days when I was going through the system and seeing the struggles that my immediate whanau and others went through. So a lot of those things have had a positive influence on my life.
Just out of curiosity, were your brothers with the Mongrel Mob or Black Power?
With the Mongrel Mob. Gang life through the Hawke’s Bay, Te Tairawhiti, was predominantly the Mongrel Mob – and my brothers drifted that way. We saw that first-hand in Hastings. As a teenager, I got to see and understand the trade in “bullets” and “pounds” in the drug scene. But, to a large extent, I was protected from the uglier side of that world – although, at times, I saw one of my brothers brawling. And I went to see him in hospital when he’d been blasted in the back with a shotgun. Those were the kind of things I saw in my teenage years and early 20s. And it gave me more resolve to stay on the pathway I was on.
What about before all that? Could you tell us something about the family you came from?
Well, I was born in Hastings and grew up in Haumoana. My dad was Jack Black Te Aho, who unfortunately passed away in 1976. He hailed from Hastings and Wairoa and Iwitea. And he was part of that rural drift following the jobs in the meat-works. He met my mum, Roma Swan Stirling, and that led to my three older siblings – and me, the youngest of the boys.
But my dad and mum both married again, so I have siblings, including twin sisters, from those other relationships. So my connections are to Hastings and Ngati Porou and Te Whanau-a-Apanui as well as to Ngai Tahu (through the Stirling family) and also to Ngati Kauwhata (through the Durie family).
You make no distinction between brothers and half-brothers/sisters?
Nah. I don’t make any distinction. I look on them all as my brothers and sisters with no distinction about who their mother or father was. That’s the way I’ve rolled with them for the last 48 years.
Have any of them followed in your footsteps workwise?
They’re jacks of all different trades, some legal and some illegal. They’ve pursued what they see as important to them. For instance, my younger brother, Stirling, does a lot of rangatahi work in the Hawke’s Bay area, in a challenging community. He works with some of the children who come through the gang cycle. I’m very proud of his work. He doesn’t deal with the multi-million dollar issues that I deal with, but he deals with issues that are real and have a day-to-day impact on our whanau. My older sister, Vi, is the same. She’s very active in the Manutuke and Turanga communities in Gisborne.
It’s important to me that our whanau are doing what they love. Those were the principles I got growing up with my grandmother, Iritana Stirling. She was very staunch with the church and staunch with our tikanga. But, more importantly, she was one who loved people being happy because being happy meant you were enjoying life. My life has been about going to where the love is and doing things that you’re passionate about. Same with my siblings.
I understand that you ended up going to school at Hato Petera over on the North Shore in Auckland. How did that come about?
When my nanny died, us kids could’ve been put back into foster homes. But Major John Waititi and his first wife, Matakuariki Allison, put their hands up and I was raised by them in Raukokere. They were my aunt and uncle but I consider them my koroua and nanny. They took some of the hard urban edge off me that I’d learned in Hastings – and they infused it more with aroha and patience. I still grapple with the whole humbling environment that they encouraged. In the work I do, I’m inclined towards a more aggressive style than what was natural for the old fulla, John Waititi. But I credit them with my going to Hato Petera.
When my aunty died, John married Judy Clifford, who was then the principal of Queen Vic Girls, and she had a profound effect on my life as well. That led on to me being an AFS (American Field Service) student in the States. So I had the learning experience of setting off for Oregon and the Warm Springs reservation. That all helped to point me towards university.
Back in your school days, I’m told you had some success in public speaking. Many people find that quite daunting. But you must have developed a lot of confidence in your reo – and in your ability to overcome any fears about facing an audience.
I’m not fearful now, although I have been. But that got started simply because I was told that I was to do whaikorero. In those days, you did what you were told. We lived in a culture where we didn’t know you could say no. So I did the fourth form speech competition at Hato Petera College – and then went down to Wairoa to the Manu Korero competition. That meant I saw Derek Lardelli win the senior Maori trophy (Pei Te Hurinui), and Darrin Apanui win the junior English section.
Then, the next year, I participated. It was Piripi Munro who taught me the skills – and he was a hard taskmaster. I had to practise morning and night and in front of people with doors opening and closing so that I could learn not to be distracted. There was no better than him in terms of training people to speak. He was a Korimako winner himself.
But there were other people who nurtured me and helped me get to the level where I was able to win the Pei Te Hurinui trophy in 1981 and 1982. In that first year, it was Aunty Pae Ruha who gave me a kaupapa, a female perspective on land and death. And Purewa Biddle was a big help the following year. Then, in 1983, Awanui Timutimu was outstanding and I came second to him.
Your next move was to go off to Auckland University and study law. And you developed a reputation for being very assertive and challenging as a lawyer. They are traits that, I assume, have been really valuable. Who lent you a hand in that development?
When I was doing the Manu Korero contests, I used to go and perform in front of my koroua, Eruera Stirling, my grandfather’s older brother. When I got UE accredited in 1982, I went over to see him and I said: “I’ve been accredited UE and I’m going to go to the Air Force.” I’d studied all the papers that would get me into the Air Force.
But he said: “No. Who are you going to help up there? I’d like you to do Law.” It wasn’t something that I set out to do. It was something that my koroua asked me to do. I could see that he saw in me the ability to do a lot of things that he hadn’t been able to do, or complete. I reflected on that and, in 1983, I did another year of school and started changing my subjects to align more with law. Then I did my AFS year in the States and, in 1985, I started at university doing a Bachelor of Arts and a Law degree. I completed that in 1989.
So, firstly, I credit Eruera. And, secondly, I’ve had some outstanding influences on my life and career in the field of law. One is Chris McGuire who was my first real boss when I worked in his law firm in Parnell. He’s now a District Court Judge in Rotorua, a man of Irish descent who worked hard and played hard – and I really enjoyed learning from him and his wife, Heather.
Another person who influenced my style of doing things is my relation John Tamihere. He’d seen me speak in the 1981 Manu Korero. And then, when I was at university, he tracked me down. Actually, he wrote on the whiteboard one day in 1987: “Willie Te Aho. If you need a job, give me a call.” So I did. For holiday work. I worked with him firstly at Maori Affairs where he was the district solicitor in Manukau.
I learned a lot of things from John. Many people say that my style is very similar to his. I think I know where the limit is, whereas he becomes a nutter at times. We laugh about that and he says the same about me. He describes me as sometimes going into a “feral space”.
Through the years, I’ve learned and adapted lessons from various people that I’ve worked with. Priceless experiences. Such as Auntie Ruby Gray who was the chair of Ngati Whatua Orakei Maori Trust Board when I got out of law school. And Joe Hawke. Those people are absolute class and I was privileged to be able to work with them. Right through to the people that I still represent.
What has given you the most satisfaction in the last 20 years of treaty settlements?
Seeing our people happy gives me satisfaction. There are some jobs I’ve done where I haven’t been paid, or been paid less than I’m due. But that becomes irrelevant when you see the joy or tears of our pakeke, when they’re signing a settlement or hearing the third reading of the legislation that cements their settlement.
Those moments for me are gold. They make it all worthwhile for me because it is a stressful area. Some say that I’ve been effective. But there are others who describe me as a sell-out. And those on the Crown side would describe me as being unreasonable. In this environment you have to learn that this is all about the people – and, when the people are happy, you’re justified in what you do.
And what about those Crown negotiators?
Well, they’re being squeezed to give as little as they can. Whereas, as a negotiator for iwi, I’m being squeezed to get as much as we can. So there is a clash. And there are emotions. What I try to do is encourage the officials to separate the show from the person. The show is that we’ve got to attack and we’ve got to assert in a range of different ways. But, at the end of the day, from a humanity perspective, I acknowledge that, actually, we’re all people.
I can happily shake hands with the Crown representatives at the end of the negotiations, and years later, too. But I see some of them who couldn’t stand me then, and who, in later years, still can’t stand me. I want to put the mahi to sleep and move on because you don’t want all that trespassing on your mind space forever. Your mind space needs to be a preserve, set aside for happy and good things.
And, speaking of the happy and good things in your life, what can you tell me about your wahine?
The three best things in my life are my wife, Linda, and my two boys, Hikitia Te Rangi Tioriori and Tane Aruka. Linda is a Papa from the Maungatautari. She is Ngati Koroki Kahukura and she also has Ngati Mahuta connections.
Hikitia is named after Hone Hikitia Te Rangi Waititi (Major John Waititi) and also Wally Tioriori Papa, my wife’s father, an excellent role model and influence on my life. So my first son carries those names – and he carries them with pride.
My younger son is Tane Aruka who bears that name from his Waikato side. I went to my first son’s birth and I intended going to my second son’s, but there was a hui in Auckland and I thought the birth would take ages, like the first one did. But, while I was away, my son was born. Linda’s older sister, Ata (Ataahua), rang me and said: “Your son is born – and we’ve named him.” I didn’t have a say, but I’m very happy about the choice. Tane is a place on Maungatautari and Aruka is a place at Taharoa on the west coast.
The boys are the joys of our life.
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