Challenging the status quo. The Māori Language petition was presented to Parliament on September 14, 1972, spearheaded by Hana Te Hemara. (Photo: Ministry of Culture and Heritage. URL:

The path to a better future means always challenging the way things are right now, writes Tainui Stephens — and the past shows us how.


I was politicised by the language and liberation movements of the 1970s. That awakening prodded me to find my own brand of activism, to make some kind of worthwhile difference to the world I lived in.

I was asking the question an old whakataukī asks: He aha mōu mō te kōtahi? What can you yourself do?

When I started my career in television, I knew I was going to tell stories, but I needed to know how to pick the best ones. Television is a powerful medium. You get to speak to a whole society. You‘re meant to inform, entertain, or uplift your audiences, but personal taste and even personal inability might stop you from doing a good job. From there, it’s a short one-way trip to irrelevance.

I needed a strategy for choosing the best Māori stories to be told.

When I was learning about production, VCR technology was new. We could now record TV and watch it over and over again. I had many stacks of VHS tapes with shows that inspired me. One of my favourites was a documentary about the English television genius Dennis Potter. He wrote provocative dramas that dared audiences to consider our humanity in bold new ways.

In Blue Remembered Hills, Potter had adult actors play children who were playing adults. In one stroke, he demolished the gap between child and adult. It was a breathtaking creative risk and spoke to me of the artistic power of television. He was so subversive and so eloquent. He gave me a clue for the strategy I was looking for, and said it in a way that I’ve remembered all my life: “If you don‘t have an alert awareness of the past, then you‘re being complicit with the orthodoxy of the present.”

It was a flash way to say: “Know who you are, and don‘t think inside the box!”

To be an activist requires busting the comfortable bad habits of the status quo. Complacency is the enemy of progress. I felt that Māori television should intrude upon the present. We had to make sure that the histories of our people were at the heart of our programmes, but we had to excite our viewers with new perspectives and ideas.

It‘s not hard to find stories that can challenge the status quo. The Māori people themselves are a roiling swirl of thought, action and results that achieve just that. They themselves are the story.

In my first year as a reporter with Television New Zealand, there were three special events that our small Māori team filmed and broadcast. Each event told a story that destroyed a specific status quo and changed things forever. We simply covered what was happening at the time, and told people about it.

In the early 1980s, it was accepted that most Māori were ignorant of their own culture. Visionaries like Kara Puketapu and Hirini Moko Mead saw art as one way to battle that chronic lack of interest. Te Māori was the first international art exhibition to be created and curated by Māori. All the works were precious masterpieces from the past. Iwi themselves were amazed that such storied taonga were very much alive and present.

After a stupendous opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Te Māori toured the US and came home three years later to more huge crowds. The exhibition made news everywhere, not just for the splendour of the art, but because it was clear that Māori were sophisticated citizens of a modern world who could easily live alongside their traditions.

In 1984, Māori Affairs minister Koro Wētere called a hui taumata, a gathering of elders and leaders from all tribes to consider the best way forward for Māori economic development. Social inequalities, unemployment and street kids were big issues at the time.

In his words of welcome, Koro said: “The legacy of the status quo will see racial strife and social breakdown such as we’ve never seen before. The next decade is the make or break period for our people.”

In that decade, significant advances were made in education, health, justice and historical Treaty claims — and the culture became the number one priority, especially the language. Te reo Māori defined our thinking and our progress in all areas.

Of equal importance was a return to the mauri of the tribe to define new ways of operating and managing change. A revival of whānau, hapū and iwi functions saw a gradual devolution from government to tribal structures. We needed those tribal organisations badly when the excesses of economic liberalism demanded creative new solutions.

One of the emblematic aspects of New Zealand’s constitutional status quo was shattered in 1985 when Archbishop Sir Paul Reeves became the first Māori governor-general. Although the role is largely symbolic, Sir Paul gave it Indigenous heft — with much glee. He liked to laugh as much as he loved to preach. He was very happy that he and Lady Beverly could bust out the Government House mattresses for any Te Ātiawa relations who popped by for a hui and a sleepover.

In that first year, I could see we had access to wonderful stories that would challenge convention, but I also needed a process to tell stories in a Māori way. I was reluctant to make Māori values my guide, because I knew too little about them to use them safely. I couldn‘t allow myself to be misguided by my own ignorance.

In the end, I found my guide to working in a Māori way with a set of principles that I discovered in the world of kapa haka. They were principles of management and getting good work done. Every kapa haka requires an extraordinary amount of resourcing, organisation and, most of all, love. The leaders of all my kapa were astute men and women with loving hearts. I was witness and participant to the successes of their leadership. I trusted them.

I define the core principles of kapa haka management as the KKK: karakia, kōrero and kai. The team has karakia together, with a sense of humility before something greater than all of us. Everyone in the team engages in honest kōrero to ensure the goals and the mahi are understood and achieved. When the mahi is done, the kai, the treats and the thanks are enjoyed by all.

Over the past five decades, one of the greatest of our stories, for which we’ve made many television productions, has been the struggle to save our native tongue. I see that ongoing journey as a triumph of strategy and principles.

In 1972, television cameras captured Te Ōuenuku Rene‘s karakia as he led Hana Te Hēmara and the reo Māori petitioners towards the seat of government. The challenge that was placed on the steps of Parliament was in the end uplifted less by the politicians than by iwi themselves. The actions of that day led to five decades of determined kōrero among the believers, and the reo started to flourish once again.

This year’s 50th anniversary commemoration of the petition and the progress we’ve made was cause for kai and celebrations everywhere.

The reo Māori petition and every learner and speaker of the language since September 14, 1972, has overturned one of the most damaging status quos suffered by our people. The time before was a long era when both Māori and Pākehā believed the language was going the way of the moa and the huia.

There is now a new mood upon the land. The Māori language is here to stay. Māori television and film are everywhere. The tribes are on the move. The next 50 years must see access to the language provided for the many Māori children who don’t yet go to kōhanga or kura.

If we don’t achieve this, I see a new status quo evolving, where speakers of the language become a new elite.

It’s the comfort and the will of the elites in any society that define and decree the way things are going to be — until someone who dwells outside the comfy box comes along with a different story and demands to be heard.


Tainui Stephens, of Te Rarawa, has been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling Indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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