Atareta Poananga, who died just over a week ago aged 67, was an outspoken and uncompromising champion of Māori sovereignty. It’s important that a new generation knows her name, writes Moana Maniapoto.
Beautiful. Intelligent. Articulate. With a fearless commitment to Māori sovereignty. A formidable mix, especially in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Nothing more threatening back then than a good looking, lippy native wanting their stuff back.
I’d watch Atareta Poananga on the news. There was no Māori TV or iwi radio back then. Pākehā reporters would be coming at her and there she was. Elegant and unflinching. No time for smiles, just wanting to get the job done. To her, it was utterly clear The Machine needed to be dismantled. So Atareta pulled out her spanner.
In another life, she was our first Māori woman diplomat. Atareta suggested it was her growing politicisation which led to her dismissal from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a move she successfully appealed against. She’d go on to refer to MAF as Alien Affairs for treating Māori as “the brown ethnic icing in a culturally-deficient white cake”.
At a conference on colonial heritage, Atareta once described Pākehā as “the product of the riffraff, the flotsam and jetsam of British culture”. She said they needed to hand the leadership of the country “back to Māori or go back to where they came from”.
You didn’t say things like that in 1985. While the 1981 Springbok tour had raised the flag of discontent, and Donna Awatere put it in print with her book on Māori sovereignty, New Zealanders generally kept the dirty washing in-house. But Atareta wasn’t endorsing the myth of our country being one big, happy, melting pot.
Her speech was picked up and reported in The New York Times. Raised in parliament even. And the Minister of Māori Affairs, Koro Wetere, was forced to disassociate himself and his government from her comments.
But this was a decade when Māori were railing against assimilation. Te Ahi Kaa, a group of high-profile Māori nationalists, were pushing the envelope.
Peter Tapsell, a cabinet minister (and later Speaker of the House), told the Times that
Miss Poananga had voiced a truth known by many silently resentful Māori people. “New Zealand Europeans, and I am not saying this in a bitter way, are peasants,” he said. “That is how it is. What we have here is aristocratic Māoris and peasant Europeans. Really, that’s the problem.”
Sidney Moko Mead, professor of Māori studies at Victoria University, spoke of the “Māori push” — the growing assertion of cultural identity and a demand for a broad range of rights that was taking place then.
“We have a reputation for being quite docile,” he said. “Nobody ever heard a squeak from us. Now you see us popping up everywhere. We want a share of that pie.”
Jane Cooper (ex-Project Waitangi) recalls the impact of Te Ahi Kaa when they spoke out, as they did, against Māori “auxiliaries” — those who “reject pride in Māori identity, wairua” while they continue to “seek personal success and acclaim within the Pākehā structures”.
It’s little wonder Te Ahi Kaa were labelled radical activists by some Māori and the media. But it was a term Atareta rejected in 1996.
“We do not want the term radical or activist used to describe us. We are conservatives. We are conserving our cultures. To call us radicals is a put-down. It implies that we are doing something new or different. But we are merely guarding our traditions.”
I’d see Atareta at the influential Auckland Māori Council hui, where I’d rock up as a mate to my father-in-law Bob Jackson. He was a deputy chair to Ranginui Walker. Atareta’s own plus-one was the wonderful and equally clever Patu Hohepa. To me, it was a privilege to be there, like a fly on the wall, not talking — just listening. I’d peek at Atareta. She with the delicate features and never a hair out of place. I always felt like a slob around her.
Once, I was interviewed on television as a young law student and mentioned tino rangatiratanga. Atareta came up at a council hui and congratulated me for speaking out. “Thank you for saying what you did. Not everyone does.”
It was a fangirl moment for me.
Atareta was an education officer for the Northern Clerical Workers Union. Her boss was Syd Jackson, the Māori Malcolm X of our day. The electricity of activism was in the air. The two staunch Māori nationalists worked alongside Willie Jackson and Tau Henare, a couple of gung-ho union organisers who’d both end up in parliament. All four busted a gut on behalf of office workers, 90 percent of them Pākeha and women. There were so many wonderful people in that office. And outside.
During the ‘80s and ‘90s, Māori and Pākehā activists enjoyed a warm and collaborative relationship. Each clear about who should do what. Pākehā groups like Project Waitangi ran decolonisation and anti-racism programmes.
“It’s not our role to reassure Pākehā when our own people are suffering,” declared Te Ahi Kaa. “We have made the decision to rescue our own people. It’s up to Pākehā to challenge racism and we see all too few of them doing it . . . all too few.”
Atareta and Patu lived in a very flash apartment block off Karangahape Road. The walls were full of beautiful works by Māori artists. Patu would laugh about that time he cooked a feed of rotten corn. It wafted through the floors. Atareta was horrified. He was banned from doing that again.
I stayed with them up north once. One morning Atareta slipped gracefully into my bedroom with a breakfast tray — delicate china plates accompanied by a serviette and tiny vase with flowers. A beautiful host.
She enrolled at the Auckland University Law School late in life. She rang me once with news she got an A.
I was impressed. “Congratulations,” I said. “How do I challenge it?” she asked. “I should have got an A-plus.”
“Good God, woman,” I said. “I have no idea. You’re talking to someone who was thrilled to simply get a pass.”
Atareta was educated in Syria and Israel. She came from a military family. After Apirana Ngata called for Māori to be trained as officers, her father Bruce and then her uncle Brian, enrolled at the Royal Military College of Australia at Duntroon. Brian became a brigadier and was in line for Governor-General, but then was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Atareta was named after her grandmother, who was adopted at birth by the prominent Rangitane family of Tamihana Te Awe Awe. So she was related to Ngāti Kauwhata and Ngāti Raukawa leaders.
After heading back to the East Coast to live, Atareta became active on Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Porou. In 2005, she stood for the Māori Party against Parekura Horomia. Gave him a good run, too — 7570 votes to his 9502.
Coasties praised her long and often lonely nine-year fight on the Gisborne District Council. I can imagine her poring over papers late into the night. Her friend Caren Fox, the deputy chief judge at the Māori Land Court, says Atareta travelled two or three times a week up and down the Coast for several years — a journey of nearly three hours one way. On one trip, she wrote off her car.
Atareta was also on the Tairawhiti Health Board and a member of the Constitutional Change Group led by Moana Jackson and Margaret Mutu. Atareta put that law degree of hers to work in the Treaty claims space. That’s an intense and stressful area for any lawyer to work in, more so in 2008. That was the deadline for all historical claims to be filed with the Waitangi Tribunal. The Crown was keen to wrap up historical settlements and move on. Atareta was involved in more than 35 claims, spread throughout the country. The logistics were mind-boggling.
In 2012, the media reported that Atareta was struck off as a lawyer for misconduct relating to that period. The Disciplinary Tribunal, in their deliberations, made it clear they understood she gained nothing financially or otherwise from her transgressions. But they refused to accept a defence of serious health issues. Her supporters are still angry about that.
But her health was deteriorating — and she died last month in the Rossendale Dementia Care Home in Hamilton, after a long illness. A cruel end for a woman with such a sharp mind.
I hadn’t seen Atareta for many years. I mentioned her name this week to friends and family. “I remember her,” they said. “The clever one. Very beautiful. But she never smiled.”
Frosty was the word they used.
But I saw her smile. Her friends saw her smile. Her whānau saw her smile. Her siblings Lee, Kim, Kerry and Jan — they saw her smile.
In fact, when I think of Atareta, it’s the smiling, giggling, madly-in-love Atareta I remember. The passionate woman in a complicated personal relationship, having a tipple on Ponsonby Road with her mates, insisting to me that beautiful lingerie is an absolute necessity for a woman in love — and track pants unacceptable. Laughing with Deirdre Nehua, Merata Mita, Moana Sinclair and Annie Thorp.
And then I remember that striking face staring boldly from that iconic Metro magazine cover and how, at the time, it felt like me and thousands of Māori women were captured in the same image. That she raised our visibility. That she was all of us. That through her we were challenging the world, letting it know that good looking, lippy natives were still here. And we wanted our stuff back.
It’s important that a new generation of “conservatives” hear her name. And to understand that Atareta Poananga paved the way by having the courage to speak out so powerfully at a time when few did. She made a difference.
E te mareikura, haere koe ki te kainga taurikura, ki muri nei o iwi tangi atu ai ki a koe. Moe mai ra.
Atareta Nicole Poananga (Ngāti Kauwhata, Ngāti Raukawa, Rangitane and Ngāti Porou). Born 1952. Died April 29, 2020, aged 67.
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