In a community meeting room in Hawke’s Bay, five wāhine Māori gather for a Tiriti o Waitangi workshop. They’re all leaders in a place where it’s not easy for Māori women to be leaders, writes Shelley Burne-Field.
In the local community meeting room, there are four other wāhine sitting around one end of a long, rectangular table. I’m in awe of each of them — but one in particular. I check my phone and I’ve missed three text apologies. With one minute to go, I realise there will be a few no-shows. My stomach pinches.
I move the crystal water jugs and glasses . . . and then move them again. This nervousness sucks, so I pick up and unwrap a yellow Fruit Burst from a blocky pile on the table. The sugar buzz and a cool breeze from the air conditioner keep me from running out of the room.
I feel out of place here. I’m too mouthy. Too academic. Also, not Māori enough. Not mana whenua. Displaced Taranaki and Fa’atoia diaspora. But I have good intentions. I’m confident in my heart. I’ve accepted that it keeps a kind beat, and I’m proud of that. So, I try to help. Especially the people who live in this place: Tamatea, in Central Hawke’s Bay.
The women in the room are all leaders, even though this is not an easy place for wāhine to be leaders. There is a conventional Westminster model at the local governance level. One of my close friends became the first Māori mayor and the first female mayor in our district’s history. Apart from her, I was only the second wāhine councillor ever to be elected. Go us. But it can take a toll.
I reach for a serviette to wipe the anxiety from my brow. And thank God that the air conditioner is on so low.
Then, one beautiful wāhine shivers beside me, rubbing her thin arms. She brrrrrs. She is stunning. She must be 60 but looks not a minute past 45. I admire her elegance, and also that she’s worked her way around the world in corporate jobs. She oozes efficiency. You want her on your team.
“It’s freezing in here,” she says. “Can we turn on the heat, bub?”
“Okay,” I croak, already knowing I’m about to sweat a river.
But it’s Araraina who is the “one in particular”. She is 30 years old while the rest of us cover the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I’ve known this young wahine most of her life. Coached her primary school netball team. Know her whānau. I played netball with her amazing māmā whose strength and mana will always remain a legacy. It’s been a year or more since I last saw her. I forget that she’s 30, not 15.
I’m interested in these women. We all live in Tamatea, at the southern end of Te Matau-a-Māui, and we’re waiting for the presenter of a Tiriti o Waitangi workshop. A couple of us have stuck our heads above the parapet and tried to organise a support group for local Māori women. This is our first meeting.
We’re sick of male bullshit — both brown and white. It’s exhausting for wāhine to be pushing against the patriarchy simply to have a voice. Especially in this place, this rohe, which has a hidden Māori history as well as a hidden history of colonisation —and with so many stories just beginning to be told.
I don’t think I’m the only one in the room sick of well-to-do Pākehā do-gooders in our rohe. These hoovers occupy our space, and steal airtime to support flashy fixes for “troublesome” Māori issues that only look good on paper. They won’t make the slightest difference in the long run. They are time and resource eaters. When they’re sipping Pinot Gris in their 80s, we’ll be dead. They can never see through our eyes. Ever.
The gorgeous kuia opposite me has beautiful eyes. They twinkle as she strokes her hair. I notice her hands. The skin is soft and brown. Her nails are polished, matching the rest of her. She has mana. Her opinion matters. She is a combination of fierce and nurturing. And quick. My God. Quick.
The last person in the room is a local wahine I’ve heard of but never met. She’s well into her 60s, but with such youth in her heart that I can’t quite call her kui; we feel like contemporaries. She also feels kind. She says she knew my mum from netball and always liked her. She offers condolences for my loss, all those years ago. I like her immediately. She’s funny and down to earth and she’s wearing a comfy polar fleece. Damn, I wish I’d worn home clothes rather than a polyester work tunic. It doesn’t breathe well.
The presenter arrives. She is Pākehā — a bone of contention when we were deciding who to choose for this exercise. But she is well-known to all of us. She was married to whānau, so she’s whānaunga. It’s a strange feeling to be taking instruction from a non-Māori person about Māori things. It feels wrong, somehow, but she feels right.
She asks us what we want to learn. This is new. I’d thought it was going to be a set lesson. The same-old, same-old.
Araraina obviously thought so, too. “I’m sick of doing Te Tiriti workshops,” she’d murmured in my ear when we embraced at the start. “It’s not us who need to change.” I agreed. I was sick of learning the same stuff, too. On hearing that we could choose the topic, my young friend almost gave a whoop.
“Can we hear about the perspective of wāhine at the time? Weren’t there some women chiefs who signed Te Tiriti?” she asked.
I’m surprised, and then shocked at my surprise. Of course there’d be wāhine rangatira at the time, though I’ve never learned their names at any school. As an adult, every Tiriti course I’d attended in Hawke’s Bay was led by men.
There were 13 wāhine signatories to Te Tiriti o Waitangi. We learn some of their names: Ana Hamu, Ngāpuhi. Ereonora, Te Rarawa. Te Marama, Ngāpuhi. Imagine it. In a changing Aotearoa where a Roman view of women as chattels was gripping minds.
Most signed with a picture of their tā moko kauae. I imagine the cut of the swirls, the flourish of loops, the depth of the quill pressing into the parchment. For others, it was a dark, purposeful cross mark. This is me. I matter. My whānau matter.
Araraina tells us about one wāhine rangatira who was denied the right to sign. When her tāne was instead given the option, he refused and replied: “I am but her right hand.”
The story makes sense to us. The support of tāne who are close to us. We’re older. Experienced. We’ve had our share of men. Fallen in love. Learned the hard way. Married some. Forgot others. Put up with most. Their support can lift us, but we also know who looks after the whānau in our communities. It makes sense to us that wāhine toa were leaders and decision makers, military strategists, nurturers and influencers back then too.
Now our presenter is speaking about the WAI 2700 Mana Wāhine claim. The what? The discussion makes my heart flutter, and I can hardly catch my breath. When did this happen? What is this? It sounds profound.
“Didn’t you know about it?” asks Araraina.
No. I learn that Professor Linda Tuhiwai-Smith sits on the Waitangi Tribunal panel. I learn that their investigation is looking at the denial of the inherent mana and iho of wāhine Māori — and at the systemic discrimination, deprivation and inequities we’ve experienced as a result.
Holy shit. In the next breath, I learn a new word: ūkaipō.
“I love that word so much,” I whisper to Araraina, leaning back on its stacked pillows of meaning. Ūkaipō. The source of sustenance. The source. The whenua. The whenua feeding the wairua. The pēpi drinking from the breast. Mother. The pēpi drinking from the last. Homeland. Home. Belonging.
“I know, right?” she replies. “It’s beautiful.”
Something has changed. I feel like the rangatahi. I see this young wāhine now as an adult.
She’s no longer that cute half-serious, half-grinning rangatahi demanding that teachers pronounce her name correctly at primary school and at the local college.
“My name’s spelled A-R-A-R-A-I-N-A.”
She’s carried that confidence with her. She balances easily between the various generations around the table and holds her space with purpose. She has grit and iron bones, forged in caring for her dying māmā, in guiding her whānau, and in her work leading our people. She has the armour you grow while working in spaces that don’t value females, or Māori, or honesty, or strength.
Araraina works at the coalface in healthcare every day, with patients and staff. She’s not a sook. She battles institutional racism every day, as well as the lack of resources, trust, and deer-in-the-headlights despair that comes with it.
During the break, we talk about the sorts of things brown women who work in mainly white professions and systems talk about. About how hard the fight is. About how ignorant and racist some Pākehā managers are. About how ignorant and frustrating some Māori managers have become — and how they give in to the master-servant relationship.
We talk about how capitalism and neoliberalism are still infiltrating our institutions — even the kaupapa Māori ones.
We talk a lot about access to healthcare in our area. Our little rohe is rural, spotted with small villages and bigger towns, marae and hidden history. A wealthy overcoat lies over the rippling hills, rivers, and productive plains, though too many pockets of poverty are sewn in. Maybe five years ago, there were 1000-plus people who didn’t have a GP in the area. Many of our new generations of whānau and whānaunga aren’t signed up to a doctor, or none of their family have ever been signed up. Or they’ve been recently turned away because the local GP’s books are closed.
Araraina knows this stuff inside out. Whānau she’s worked with have had zero dealings with the health system throughout their entire lifetimes. No doctors. No clinics. No hospitals. It’s not that they have unfailing health. There’s just no “in” for them.
She tells me about two injured adults who never went to the hospital because they thought they had to pay for services. From wherever they got their information — they thought our health system was just like the US. No one has ever talked to them about primary healthcare. These two injured people had more access to Grey’s Anatomy than to our own health services or information.
Araraina had helped them, just as she helps so many others on the daily. “And they make me do shit Te Tiriti workshops,” she says, and rolls her eyes.
The rest of the workshop flies by. Three generations of local women breathing the same air, with similar hidden histories and challenges. The air conditioning unit is blowing furnace hot air now and even my thin e hoa is sweating. It’s Araraina who notices and acts.
“Geez, it’s too hot in here, Aunty. I’ll turn the aircon down.”
Kia ora for your solutions, Araraina. For taking action. Take care of yourself. Working to change systems can take a toll. But we know you’ll smash it. We’ve known you since you were little — and you’re ready.
We are but your right hand.
Shelley Burne-Field (Fa’atoia, Sāmoa, Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Rārua, Pākehā) is a kaituhituhi from Te Matau-a-Māui Hawke’s Bay. She writes articles and creative non-fiction as well as short stories. She is an alumni of the Master of Creative Writing programme, Auckland University 2020, and also Te Papa Tupu mentoring programme. More of her writing can be found here.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.