Veronica Tawhai: Building hope that there can be change

by Dale Husband
Sun 8 Oct 2017
16 min read
3

One of the pleasures and satisfactions for Dale in the course of doing these Pathways interviews for e-Tangata, is that it means spending time with writers and travellers and teachers and researchers and sharp thinkers — especially thinkers about the big issues in Aotearoa.

With Veronica Tawhai, a Massey University lecturer in Palmerston North, Dale struck the jackpot. She is all of the above. And here they are.

 

Kia ora, Veronica. As you know, in these interviews, we often start with names. So perhaps you’d be kind enough to tell us about yours.

My full name is Veronica Makere Hupane Tawhai. I’m married to James Porter, the wonderful computer programmer from Te Atiawa Taranaki and Ngāpuhi who developed "Papapa". But I kept my name because I reject that practice of changing your surname as a part of women becoming chattels for their husbands — though I did let him know he was more than welcome to take my surname, ha!

My first name, Veronica, is from my Irish grandmother, who was a first generation New Zealander. Her parents both migrated from Ireland and met here. My middle name, Makere Hupane, is one of my tīpuna wāhine from Ngāti Porou. People might be familiar with “hupane” as in “hupane, kaupane” from the haka “Ka Mate.” It’s the same meaning:”Onwards and upwards.”

My people are from Te Papatipu o Uepohatu where our tīpuna Uepohatu lived on the East Coast of Te Ika a Maui, from the foot of our Hikurangi mountain range eastward out to the sea. There’s a group of marae in that area, and I’m definitely not allowed to name just one, so we say "Te Papatipu o Uepohatu".

And what about your mum and dad?

My father’s name is Te Pakaka Tawhai. He passed away in 1989 while he was working as one of the founding lecturers of Māori studies in Palmerston North at Massey University, Te Putahi a Toi. Palmerston North is where he met my mother, Pamela, who’s from the Pākehā Burfield family who originally immigrated from England and settled in Hastings. She’s a Learning and Behaviour Resource Teacher (RTLB).

We lived in two places as I was growing up. During school time, we lived in Palmerston North in a community called Highbury where I, my brothers and little sister were all schooled, and then all summer and every long weekend and holiday we went back to our other home on our family farm at Mahora, just outside Ruatorea.

My mum joined kapa haka at university and tried hard to learn te reo so, after my father died, us kids didn’t really have a choice. We were enrolled in bilingual schools, encouraged into things like kapa haka and supported to know who we are.

I also have tuākana and older cousins who since childhood have ensured we stay closely connected to home and everything going on with our papa kāenga and whenua. We Tawhai are a small whānau and I cherish those ones who still live at home as ahi kaa. They support us ones abroad in the cities to do what we need to do, as well as stay engaged with what’s happening at home.

How old were you when your dad died?

I was eight when he passed away from a heart attack, which is what we know a lot of Māori men die from. His loss is still greatly felt, and one of the many things that his death taught me is the stark difference between what it means to be Māori and what it means to be a Pākehā, the difference being the privileges, experiences and expectations that you grow up with.

My father was in his 50s when he died, and it wasn’t until I was at university that I realised that was quite young. Up until then I thought he’d died of old age, because most Māori men that I knew died in their 50s.

It wasn’t until later that I realised that Pākehā can expect to live long beyond that, and enjoy the privilege of that expectation, which is something we definitely don’t have.

Can you elaborate a bit on Māori disadvantage?

I still live in Highbury, the community I’ve grown up in, and we face the challenges that a lot of predominantly Māori communities experience in terms of social instability and harm. One of the things I’m really worried about at present is P, and last year we had a really young girl commit suicide at our primary school. She was nine.

When you grow up in a community like this, those things can seem normal, but the differences from how others live becomes more stark as you grow older and you become exposed to others. I began to realise that there’s a great injustice when it comes to what Māori communities experience and can expect our lives to be like.

Clearly those limitations haven’t held you back unduly. What has it been in your background that has steered you towards your studies and teaching?

I come from a long line of poltically conscious women on both my mother’s and my father’s side. My grandmother on my mother’s side was branch president of the Social Credit party in Hawke’s Bay, and at one time was the only woman on their national committee.

On my father’s side, my nannies and aunties had lots of involvement in movements like Te Kotahitanga, the Māori Women’s Welfare League and other Māori grassroots community initiatives as well as the Mihinare (Anglican) and Ringatū churches.

Overall, we continue to have a strong presence of what we call wāhine kaihautu, or women leadership, in our iwi — people who guide us and are able to ensure that we know who we are and conduct ourselves accordingly.

Conducting ourselves accordingly from our perspective includes not lying down and accepting things when others are trying to oppress you. Instead, it means standing up and fighting — doing everything you can to uphold what you know is right.

My father’s peers, like Papa Api Mahuika and Koro Dewes, alongside other Ngāti Porou, have also been a big influence. I and other young Ngāti Porou scholars are aware of the intellectual tradition that we come from, and that we must make sure we uphold that. That includes the teachings of our pākeke about our place in the world and what might be the kawa and tikanga that need to be upheld to keep us moving forward.

In the course of my reading, I came across The Long Walk to Freedom which is the Nelson Mandela story and that had quite an impact on me. I’m reminded of the patience needed to effect long-term change. And I’m wondering what writings might have had an influence on you.

In addition to the Ngāti Porou literature that we have from my father and others — which is first and foremost — I’m part of a political education group called Te Ata Kura whose mentors include Moana Jackson and Mereana Pitman. They’re both outstanding intellectuals who’ve not only written, but continue to speak powerful truths to us that challenge us to be better.

They’ve had a huge influence on me. But one defining factor, in addition to their analysis, is that they both stress the importance of action.

When I first met Moana in my early 20s, I was president of the Māori Student Union and I asked him why all our Treaty claims focused on the return of resources such as land, and the acceptance of monies, as opposed to addressing the true problem, which to me seemed to be the taking of political power.

How come, I wondered, no one had ever asked for the return of political power in a Treaty claim? At least, none that I was aware of. His response was: “Yes, that’s exactly right. And when you lodge your Treaty claim about that, I’ll support you.”

I remember getting a big fright and going: “Oh, I didn’t mean that I was going to make a claim!” But, right from the beginning, as well as ensuring that our critical analysis was deeply rooted in the teachings of our tīpuna and pākeke, people like Moana and Mereana have imbued in us the notion of responsibility and obligation to do something when you can — that where we see injustice, we must do something about it. We lodged that particular Treaty claim a few years later.

What role do you feel student politics has in shaping opinion and effecting change?

It’s significant, and what has happened to the student movement today is incredibly sad. It’s one of the lessons that we can take from how widespread and how deep the effects of a neoliberal agenda can be.

We’ve gone from a rowdy, assertive student union culture to voluntary student membership that has almost killed the student voice in our tertiary institutions, because of the service-contract nature of the relationship now in place between institutions and student groups.

It has stilled the voice of independence, advocacy, and protest, because students aren’t willing to protest about serious issues such as fees and the quality of the courses.They don’t want to put their contracts in jeopardy.

All that immense potential to agitate for change at the institutional level has been silenced. And we’re already feeling the effects of losing our tertiary environments as a training ground for future activists who’ll oppose injustice and demand positive change throughout the rest of their lives.

There’s a distinct lack of critical analysis and willingness to protest in wider society now. It’s a tragedy.

What path did you follow in your own tertiary studies?

Right from high school, I’ve been politically minded. And I had wonderful teachers who encouraged me to take advantage of platforms such as the Manu Kōrero speech competitions and leadership roles, such as head prefect, where I could voice and sharpen my analysis and skills.

Then I was able to carry on along these lines by doing a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in social policy and Māori studies at Massey. Under Koro Mason Durie’s leadership, Māori studies, in particular, in addition to te reo and tikanga, provided a strong focus on critical, strategic, positive Māori development.

After I graduated, I moved to Wellington and began what I thought would be a long political career as a policy analyst-researcher in the Ministry of Education.

But within the first six months, Don Brash delivered his speech at Orewa and we had the race-based funding cuts. The people I worked with were walking around like they were in a bomb shelter. Māori initiatives they’d been working on for years were cut virtually overnight as a result of that review.

That’s when I realised I’d made a mistake — that we didn’t yet have the critical mass to be able to make any real changes, let alone prevent further harm by the government upon our people, and that my dreams of a fiery political service career were futile.

So I shifted my studies from political science to political education. Since that time, this is what I’ve committed to. And it’s where I find solace in Te Ata Kura with mentors and friends who suffer and struggle and dream and work together for change.

The first step is what’s called “conscientisation” or the widespread raising of awareness for the purposes of action.

This focus on education is because we lack critical mass and won’t see real changes until we and the wider citizenry of Aotearoa-New Zealand better understand the situation we’re in. There are still multitudes of people we meet in Treaty education workshops who have little idea why the Treaty was signed and no idea what is written in it, let alone how it can be applied.

Once I got my masters degree in education looking at political education in Aotearoa, I was invited to apply for a lectureship here in the department my father had helped establish, Te Putahi a Toi. I was 27 and it’s been through that role and the support of Bob Jahnke (our past head of the school) that I’ve been able to engage to the degree I have in Te Ata Kura’s community work — as well as travel and do my PhD research here and overseas.

Much of that study has been looking at conscientisation in colonised countries. Looking at what might be the best ways of teaching about those really difficult subjects such as colonial violence, oppression, and the need for a return of political power and constitutional transformation.

When you’re offshore and look back at te ao Māori, how do you think our situation is perceived by international eyes?

Lots of communities I spoke with overseas had no idea of the struggles for us here in Aotearoa. They didn’t realise there was a problem because Māori are such a huge part of the country’s national image projected in areas like sport and tourism.

They’d assumed that Māori were running the country. So it came as a shock when I’d explain that we’re a politically oppressed minority, that our language is still at risk of becoming extinct — and that we suffer the full range of effects of colonisation in health, justice and so forth.

I’d say: “Yes, we do have a number of initiatives such as kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa, the development of kaupapa Māori health services and so on. But these are under constant attack.”

So my impression was that other indigenous communities do look to Māori for, if not leadership, then examples for how they might pursue their own development. But many of their communities are well advanced.

I’m not one for comparisons when the peoples are so distinct. Part of the tikanga I’ve grown up with is that you don’t do that, as everyone has their own distinct mana. So there’s no need to compare.

But, for example, in the Native American Indigenous communities where I was hosted, their practices in health and wellbeing in terms of karakia  — by way of singing, dancing and drumming to commune with their ancestors — are simply amazing.

Seeing and taking part in certain ceremonies and experiences has led me to ask this: When, for example, we have a karakia at the start and end of meetings, to what degree are we truly trying to invoke the presence and guidance of our ancestors?

And to what extent are we trying to connect with what Kui Rose Pere calls the "divine spark"? Do we actually do that? Or is it more a plastic dial-a-karakia? That’s something I‘ve challenged myself to think about.

While sometimes the international community might look towards te ao Māori and think we might be going well, the reality is that we lack political power, and the social indicators point to the poor treatment we’re getting. What are some of the issues where you think we aren’t faring well? And what should cause us national shame?

Beyond the central issues of poverty, homelessness, mental health and the environmental crisis, there’s a real issue with our failure to recognise racism and white privilege. White supremacy is entrenched where there’s a belief in Aotearoa that the only logical way to do things is the Pākehā way. And there’s a refusal to acknowledge the racism in that.

We can’t even acknowledge when racism is blatantly in our faces. For example, there was a news item earlier this year about a school in southern Taranaki that had their tino rangatiratanga flags ripped down and a massive swastika made out of tyres put in the middle of their field.

Someone or several someones went to a real effort to do that. Yet the headlines, even on Māori news, said they were “unsure if it was racially motivated”. Come on! There’s a swastika in the middle of a field — what do we need? A brown body swinging from a tree for us to recongise it for what it is?

Not recognising racism means that we’ll keep seeking solutions that aren’t going to help us. The root of many issues is a deeply entrenched prejudice against Māori rights, Māori values and Māori culture in this country, and a sense of supremacy about what colonisers brought here instead.

Until we address that, we’re never going to move forward. That includes wider New Zealand and, sadly, ourselves. This is what Moana Jackson teaches us, and that it includes racism and prejudice directed against any Māori notions of how we could be politically organised and make decisions as a country.

We know that the current system has never served Māori well. We have only to look at our history to see that good governance has never occurred for Māori, despite the few gains that have been hard fought for by Māori and a small number of allies. And yet there is still this obsession with things the way they are.

The whole idea that Māori are doing so much better than indigenous people overseas is part of that. When I went overseas, I saw that that’s simply not true. In terms of wairua, in terms of self-healing and being connected to your place in the wider universe, many overseas indigenous communities are fine. They are fighting colonisation, are connected to their lands, and know strongly who they are.

The notion that Māori are more privileged than indigenous peoples overseas is entrenched through things like “we’ve got the Māori seats”, or “Māori is an official language”. And “Oh look: We have kura kaupapa." Things like that.

But that conceals the decades of struggle that our people have gone through to get those things in place. And when you render those things invisible, what it tells people is: “It’s because we’ve got a fabulous political system. We’ve got a fabulous government that actually delivers things for Māori." Even though we know that’s incorrect.

So the question must be posed: “Who is well served by this idea that Māori are doing so much better than indigenous people overseas?” Well, the hierarchies that are put in place by the colonising system are well served, that’s who.

The illusion that we’re doing great, and the pressure to be thankful for what we have, keeps us passive in the face of ongoing colonial oppression. This is instead of demanding and wrestling back what is our birthright — wrestling back the authority and control over our own lives and lands and communities and resources.

If there’s a significant difference between ourselves and indigenous communities overseas, it’s our numbers. Some of the places I visited overseas have an indigenous community of maybe one percent of the overall population.

Back here, there are people arguing that we’re going to be fine because Aotearoa will be “browned” in terms of numbers by 2030 or some such date. But that’s a dangerous suggestion because, obviously, if we’re not conscientised, then we might as well not be brown. Right? We’ll be brown people who’re thinking and acting like non-Māori and carrying on with colonising, destructive behaviour.

Given the way our education system operates, there’s an intergenerational ignorance that’s perpetuated in Aotearoa — and our young people aren’t exposed to the realities that you’ve touched on. Are you in favour of our schools putting much more focus on the Treaty and our history and the impact of colonisation and what we might call civic studies?

Civics education is where you focus on structures and processes. That would include things like the Māori seats and Māori electorates, how they work and the Māori Electoral Option. That’s really important, but I would argue that we need more than just civics.

We need a comprehensive citizenship education programme here in Aotearoa. That would include why the Treaty was signed, how “equality” is experienced by different citizens in Aotearoa-New Zealand, a study of the history of colonisation, of the oppression of Māori rights, and of the struggle by Māori to be able to live as Māori. This would lead on to different scenarios for future governance, and the constitutional options that we have before us.

One of the things that Moana Jackson stresses, however, is that even before models and structures and considering what things might actually look like, we must build hope that there can be change. That’s the challenge because so many of our people are stuck in everyday survival.

For many in wider New Zealand, there’s just no comprehension that things might or could be different. Instead, there’s the belief that the way things are is normal and natural.

That’s what they call hegemony and it’s what we need to fight and overcome. It’s the deeply entrenched white coloniser view that the way things are might be unjust, but they can never change.

But they can be changed. And we must have hope in the dreams and aspirations that our tīpuna had. And never forget the multitude of struggles they endured. Or that they never gave up in their fight to ensure things were better for us. That is the legacy running through our veins that we must respond to and continue to honour.

For me, that is the reason why a distinct citizenship education in colonised spaces like Aotearoa is so important. What I know from my last 10-15 years working as a political educator is that those stories about what our tīpuna did for us are a spark that ignites the hope of our young people.

My belief, therefore, is that citizenship education must be embedded in the experiences and aspirations of this land. Right here. Not overseas. Too often we look overseas for educational or health or justice models whereas, instead, we need to look at the histories and the experiences and the aspirations rooted in the land where we live.

That’s all the inspiration and all the hope that we need to be able to make Aotearoa a better place for everybody. Māori. Pākehā. Recent relations immigrating here. Everybody.

I’m encouraged by our young people. And I know you’re dealing with a lot of them. But what do you make of their minds and attitudes as they’re coming through?

We’ve made lots of progress in terms of te reo, kapa haka and ensuring that our rangatahi know and are proud of who they are. The differences are noticeable between my age group — I’m 36 — and today.

Twenty years ago, many people were just starting to become a little bit proud of who we are, but there was still some shame about being Māori and there were many young Māori I knew who just didn’t want anything to do with Māori culture.

These days, many more of our young people are definitely proud of who they are. They mostly have access to te reo and engage in kapa haka. There’s also been a huge revitalisation in tā moko and in waka voyaging, and so forth.

But we’re failing to prepare them for the racism embedded in our society. We’re seeing young people leave school proud of who they are, but being absolutely shocked by the prejudice they then experience as young Māori adults out in wider society. We then see all the flow on effects in their health and well-being.

We aren’t armouring them with an understanding of things like racism, oppression, consumerism and the environmental destruction. And how they can be resisted. And how to strategise for liberation and transformation based on the love our tīpuna had for us and that we should have for each other.

Instead there’s this idea that all we need to do to fix the world is feel great about ourselves, and while that’s important, that’s not right.

As Mereana Pitman teaches us, great change is often born from great pain, collective pain based on our love of what has been lost or what is being denied us.

Kia kaha tatau!

 

© e-tangata, 2017

Love what we do? Support us in our mission to strengthen the Māori and Pasifika voices in New Zealand media.