Titewhai has been a battler — and a formidable one — for much of her long life.
She has a Ngāti Hau, Ngāti Wai and Ngāti Hine whakapapa. And, as the mother of eight children (including Hone) who've been taught a thing or two about social justice and Treaty breaches, her influence — and that of her tūpuna — are likely to carry on for some time yet.
Here she talks with Dale, mostly about her early days.
Kia ora, Titewhai. A great many New Zealanders know of you through your courage in speaking up on behalf of Māori rights — especially over the last 40 or 50 years. But we don’t know much about your early life as a girl up in Northland. I wonder if you can tell us something about those years.
Tēnā rā koe, Dale. First of all, my name is Titewhai Te Huia Hinewhare Harawira. I was a Nehua from Whakapara, north of Whangarei, and my grandfather, Hone Pani Tamati Waaka Nene Nehua, was the person most involved with my upbringing.
He lived at our family home with my mum and my aunties. All his children had farms in Whakapara. In fact, he owned most of Whakapara. He was a very astute business person and was able to provide well for his family.
He sent all my aunties, and my mother (Hinewhare Turikatuku Ruiha Nehua) off to Queen Victoria School to be properly educated. To Queen Vic here in Auckland, in Parnell. And the boys had to stay home and help on the farm.
In those days, you know, the practice was that the girls learned to sew, to knit, to set the tables, and run around after people like servants. That’s what was happening to women in those days. But my grandfather always believed in the equality of women and men, and that’s why he sent all his girls off to Queen Vic so they could see there was a better way of life for them as women.
At our home in Whakapara, the name of our whare is Raupuriri. My grandfather had planted all these puriri trees from the main roadway down towards our whare, and hence the name of our whare.
On our farm we hand-milked the cows and we had separators that you turned by hand to get the cream and the skim milk. It was a hard life, but a good life.
I went to the Whakapara Native School and, when my grandfather took me up there to enrol me, he gave very strict instructions to the teachers that, if they had a problem, they were to talk with him. There was to be no punishment at all for me no matter what the situation.
Each year he made it his business to come to the primary school and make sure that what he had laid down was always being carried out. But the sad thing was that I saw my cousins being punished. Being strapped. Having their mouths washed out with soap for speaking te reo Māori.
And that sowed a very sad seed in me — a resentment that has never left me about the way our people were treated. About the way that our people were forced to leave our Māoriness outside the boundaries of the primary school.
Even though some of the teachers were Māori, they had no option but to follow the rules that were laid down by the ministry to get rid of the Māori language at the schools. I saw this happening for myself. My grandfather told me all about it, too. And so did Mum and my aunties.
They all talked about the way that they were punished and isolated as Māori children — and about what little resources were given to the native schools to teach the Māori students.
I grew up seeing what a wonderful way of life we had within the whānau with my mum and aunties — and yet, outside of that wider whānau, life was just so stark for Māori.
Then along came World War II, and that meant our farms were taken over for the soldiers to go on their manoeuvres and train and practise their drills before they went overseas. Not with guns though. Just with ti-tree sticks.
I saw all of that, and I saw the change in the attitude to us too because, all of sudden, our Māori people were number one. Pākehā were saying: “We need you. We need your support. We need you to enlist.” They were coming around talking like that.
And my cousins, my beautiful cousins, they all enlisted in the army, navy, or airforce. And, as they progressed through their training, they’d come home on leave in their uniforms, looking so handsome and lovely. I looked up to them and I loved them so dearly.
You kind of forgot that they were going away to this war, really someone else’s war. And I’d hear Mum say: “Why, all of a sudden, do they want us? You know, it’s not our war. Why are we being asked to enrol?”
But, despite all of that, they came together. Our whānau, our cousins, our aunties. They all came together to support those of our families who had enrolled. And I saw the old people, the old kuia saying: “You must come and be blessed. You must come to the water and be blessed before you go. And you must do all these things so that you will return safely home.”
What it meant, though, was that, when the men went off to the war, the farms were left for the women to run — and that was really something. Then there were the meetings, because our home was always a place for people to gather, even though we had our marae.
People always came to Raupuriri to meet and talk with my grandfather about their concerns. How the farms were running down. How Māori Affairs was giving them truckloads of manure when they really didn’t know whether they needed it or not — and there was just the women and children left to spread it and try to run the farms.
Eventually, a lot of those farms were taken off them by Māori Affairs and given over to Pākehā farmers. And, when my cousins came home, those farms had already been allocated out to Pākehā — to Pākehā soldiers returning from the war.
There were meetings with Māori land courts, and all of those things. But to no avail. Those farms didn’t come back to us and so our people began to drift away from home — down to Auckland for jobs.
I saw all of that. And I understood it, too. Even though I was very young, my grandfather always took the time to explain things to me because, well, I was the oldest grandchild and spoiled and loved by everybody. And I loved everybody in return.
But, as well as explaining so much to me, my grandfather kept diaries, writing in them every day. In the morning and then again at night. That’s how I learned to read — with my grandfather teaching me to read his diaries. He had beautiful handwriting. Beautiful English. And beautiful Māori.
And that’s how the seeds were sown for me to stand up and begin to fight for the rights of our people. All that background from my grandfather as well as the land court sittings and the discussions about the fate of the farms and the families who’d run them.
Kia ora, Titewhai. You’re renowned for the fighting you’ve done for justice for Māori. But I wonder if you can recall your first protest action.
Well, that was at Queen Victoria. I’d heard about the school from my mum and my aunties and how wonderful it was. And they dressed beautifully — they were ladies. But they were really strong women, too. They knew how to roll up their sleeves and do the farm work and all of that stuff.
Yet, if they were going to town, they dressed in their very best with hats and gloves and handbags and beautiful shoes. And I used to think: “Wow, if this is how you turn out by going to a school like Queen Vic … ” And, because they talked about what had happened there, I looked forward to coming down to this all-girls, Māori school.
But, when we came back after the first term, our tutor for Māori was the headmaster from St Stephen’s, the boys school out at Bombay. And I thought to myself: “This isn’t right. Why have we got a male teacher here at an all-girls school?”
So I asked our principal. She wasn’t very happy with the question. But I asked it anyhow. And I decided that, if we’re sticking with the headmaster from St Stephen’s, I’m skipping that class. I’m just not going.
So I was made to stand in the corridor. And, at a later stage, I had to do some polishing in the corridor and then the chapel, including the cross.
The principal told me that would be the way for me to learn not to question authority. But all it did was make me feel stronger about not wanting to progress with anything Māori. Anything. Until I went home.
Then she wrote home to say she was going to expel me. And my mum wrote back and said she’d support any decision I had made for myself and that she wouldn’t accept that I be expelled. So that didn’t happen. But that was the first time, Dale, that I took a stand on something where I felt strongly.
Following on from that Queen Vic experience, you became one of the strongest advocates for our reo. You’ve championed the rights of our young people to learn te reo Māori, and that kaupapa has been a very important part of your mahi throughout the course of your life, hasn’t it?
It still is. And we have made some progress over the last 45 years or more. Yes. We do have a few more Māori who are fluent in te reo — thanks to the efforts Māori have made to develop kōhanga reo, kura kaupapa, and all of those things.
Most of us in Ngā Tamatoa who were pushing for more support for te reo Māori didn’t speak the language ourselves. And there was that feeling that if you didn’t speak Māori, you’re weren’t Māori.
And we were told: “You’re young. You’re women. Who do you think you are?” And often we were treated really badly by our people. On our marae. Thrown off our own marae. Told we had no right to be taking our concerns out into the public.
But all we were doing was putting out what our people were talking about in the whare, in the tūpuna whare, up and down the country. Reflecting the concern about our reo. Taking that kōrero out into the public arena and doing it our way. With placards and banners and leaflets and things.
It was a tough job. A huge job. But we got 30,000 signatures on that petition to present to parliament in 1972. And that’s meant progress, but there’s still such a long way to go.
That struggle on behalf of te reo Māori has been just one of many battles in your life. But you’re also a mum of eight kids, all raised to have a firm sense of social justice and to look at the world through a Māori lens — which is something that you’re very proud of, no doubt. And you gave Māori names to all of your children. That wasn’t easy at the time when yours were born, was it?
Not at all. I went nursing when I left Queen Vic. So, I’m a qualified nurse. And, at that time, you were doing all the things in the hospital. You weren’t just sweeping the floor and being an apprentice. You just got in and learned as you worked each day. Learning what to do in the different wards. Like the TB wards or the maternity sections. Right across the board.
But my time in the maternity ward led me to deciding that I’d never go to a hospital, any hospital, to have a baby.
It was disgusting the way in which women were put up in iron leg straps to have their children. That’s what I felt because I’d learned our way from my aunties. They trained me about childbirth. About death, too. They trained me in all of these things.
So I had all my babies at home. I said to my husband: “You make the babies — you deliver them. Come on. Here. This is what you do. This is what’s needed. Okay?”
And so, we had them all at home — for that reason.
And they’ve all got tūpuna names and I say to them: “You can have nothing else in the world, but you’re blessed to carry a tūpuna name.”
Ngā mihi. Finally, let’s touch on yet another of your roles. That’s as a broadcaster. And, before that, as one of those fighting for Māori to have some broadcasting rights.
Naturally, Dale, I’m really happy that we’re able to broadcast and kōrero to our people through the airwaves because it wasn’t an easy path to get to the point where it was acknowledged that Māori had rights to the airwaves.
Initially, we were laughed at when we talked about Māori having any ownership rights to the airwaves. So we had to go to the Privy Council again.
And that’s a reminder that Māori must never forget that we’ve had to fight for everything that we enjoy in this country. Everything. Nothing has ever been given to us on a silver platter. Never. We have fought for everything that we enjoy today.
They talk about how Māori have special privileges. But we don’t have any special privileges. We are tangata whenua and we have a Treaty that says we have a right to these taonga. And the Pākehā have a right to look after their own people. Not to rule over us.
Be very clear about what the Treaty says and what He Whakaputanga says. The Pākehā have a right to look after their own people. And we have a Treaty right to the taonga our tūpuna left to us.