“Believe in a bilingual, bicultural, collaborative Aotearoa.” Denis O’Reilly and Tame Iti at the Featherston Booktown Karukatea Festival last weekend. (Photo by Lucia Zanmonti)

An uplifting weekend in the small provincial town of Featherston, Wairarapa, has given Denis O’Reilly more reason to feel hopeful about Aotearoa.


Imagine arriving with your hoa rangatira at a grand country house in the Wairarapa where you are being billeted for the weekend. The house in this case being Longwood, the home base for the Riddiford family, English settler-farmers, until World War Two.

Having risen from the ashes of a previous house built in the “Scottish-baronial style”, Longwood was rebuilt in neo-Georgian form. It’s been described as “a competent essay of English elegance”. It has 40 rooms, 16 of which are bedrooms, and was once serviced by a staff of 13.

My hoa rangatira Taape Tareha reckons that, back in the day, the only way her whānau would have got through the door would’ve been as staff.

Longwood, Wairarapa. (Supplied)

Anyway, there we were, finding ourselves initially in the library alongside other curious if not bewildered guests, none of whom previously knew each other, as if in one of those murder mystery scenarios. I won’t betray any confidences, but it’s hardly likely that in any other circumstances I’d be sharing a late wine with Dame Susan Devoy or breakfasting with Linda Clark.

There were 77 of us, Aotearoa’s literary provocateurs — writers, poets, thinkers, luminaries and polymaths, who’d been gathered in one small provincial New Zealand town, Featherston, as presenters in a festival led by the irrepressible Peter and Mary Biggs. Celebrating books and stories and ideas.

Take it a step further and engage the 77 in an intense programme of spoken word performance, argument, and divergent thinking, and then let them socialise.

That’s fun, and I can attest, having been a participant in the Featherston Book Town Karukatea Festival 2024. There were 39 events at the festival, and they were all sold out.

My role was to have an “on the couch” kōrero with my tuakana Māori, Tame Iti. Crikey, even at 9am on a Sunday morning, 250 people paid $20 each to listen to Tame. His kōrero was uplifting and hopeful about the future of our nation, Aotearoa New Zealand, and the fruitful collaboration between tangata whenua and tangata Tiriti.

The tone of the festival had been well set on the Friday night at the fish’n’chip supper under the supervision of MC Liz Mellish, with a kapa haka concert delivered with gusto by Featherston’s tamariki.

Have no fear of the current attempt to marginalise and minimise te reo Māori. The waka of the reo set forth long ago with willing and committed kaihoe, and these youngsters are proof.

Here were the kids of the Wairarapa: little blond, blue-eyed farmers’ children, bespectacled Asian youngsters, stocky little Pākehā, giving their all in the haka, and young Māori and Pākehā girls confident in themselves as they swayed in the rhythm of waiata-ā-ringa. They managed oriori and mōteatea, and even a protest song “Ngā Iwi E!”

The tamariki received a standing ovation, partly due to their performance, and partly because they filled the audience with hope and belief that the disrespectful and demeaning politics of the present will fade like mist before the sun of our nation’s culturally adept youth.

And all this was reaffirmed in a pōwhiri at Papawai Marae the following Saturday morning. Speaking on behalf of the manuhiri, Warren Maxwell commenced his whaikōrero with the whistle-song of the huia, poignantly transporting us to precolonial times in a visceral experience of what once was, reminding us through flute-like melody of what we must retain in the present for the children of the future.

Paora Ammunson shared the unique story of Papawai, using the “Māori book form” — cultural literacy represented in kōrero, carving, and tukutuku. In a demonstration of Māori application of modern technologies, Paora related the story of the Māori parliament, using powerpoint photographs to illustrate the narrative.

Paora told us about Thomas Rangiwahia Ellison of the New Zealand Native football team and how the seminal national rugby jersey was blue in colour with a gold fern. Because the fern was visually indiscernible, the jersey colours were substituted for black with a white fern.

The redundant blue jerseys were given to the local rugby club, and, by the way, Paora advised us, Carl Hayman, the former All Black and author of Head On (a treatise dealing with the impact of head injuries incurred through the game we love), would be excusing himself in a moment or two because he was due to present playing jerseys to the team of young men gathering on the marae ātea.

What an uplifting weekend. Believe in a bicultural, bilingual, collaborative Aotearoa. Tame Iti sent me a text yesterday suggesting that he and I get on the road visiting small towns like Featherston with the tangata whenua, tangata Tiriti kaupapa and the proposition that “it’s okay to be Pākehā”.

E tū, Aotearoa.


Denis O’Reilly lives at Waiohiki in Hawke’s Bay where he chairs the Waiohiki Community Charitable Trust. He is a writer, social activist and consultant.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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