Catherine Delahunty with Kay Robin of Ngāi Tāmanuhiri with whom she taught Te Tiriti for many years. (Photo supplied)

“When tangata whenua share their world with the rest of us, it doesn’t mean we should claim a special insight or position,” writes Catherine Delahunty. “If we do this, we risk being told to stay in our lane.”


When I moved to Turanganui-a-Kiwa to live with my partner, he was working as an archaeologist with a range of iwi. This allowed me to follow him into a world I knew little about. 

We were on the beach at Whareongaonga the day he and the mana whenua moved some kōiwi back from the eroding coastal urupā. We were wrapped in Ringatū karakia from before dawn and until after the ceremony. It was safe and beautiful, and I was beyond humbled to stand there behind the whānau. 

I was privileged to support my partner’s work with Te Aitanga a Hauiti when a mission station urupā from the 1800s was carefully excavated and moved from the school grounds at Uawa to the new resting place, the urupā near the coast.

We climbed Te Kurī a Pāoa a number of times to support the Ngāi Tāmanuhiri noho against the sale of the maunga to an American stockbroker. 

All these experiences changed my understanding of this country, but none of them give me the knowledge or the right to claim status beyond my Pākehā identity. I was privileged to be there in the background, privileged to learn but not to co-opt all that does not belong to my world. 

When tangata whenua share their world with the rest of us, it doesn’t mean we should claim a special insight or position. If we do this, we risk being told to stay in our lane.

Whether you are a high-status academic like Professor Anne Salmond or a community educator like me, we have to be very careful about defining issues of Te Tiriti and racism with an authority that privileged people can project but which the developing tangata whenua discourse rejects as inappropriate and wrong.

So, what does it mean to stay in our lane?

Our lane is just a humble and narrow part of the road, although we often carry on as if that whole highway belongs to us. We Pākehā struggle to realise we’re often in the middle of the road blocking the natural flow for others. 

Even to say that is to risk the swift anger and denial of my people, who don’t see ourselves as a people, let alone one with selfish colonial habits and behaviours — and let alone a problematic identity that we’re keen to avoid.

If I say what I really feel, many Pākehā will claim that I’m stereotyping and generalising, and argue that it’s not okay. But if we look hard in the mirror, it’s an unsophisticated and monocultural reflection glaring back at us. 

Our perception comes from speaking and valuing only one language — and thinking that’s normal and natural. You might be surprised how often students tell me it’s too much to expect children to learn te reo because it’s not useful. Or there’s no space for it in the school curriculum, but there is for French and Mandarin because they really matter. 

Behind this is our sense that the violent suppression of language, the theft of land, and attacks on Indigenous culture is also “normal”. We believe that white lives matter more than the lives of others. And although we know that’s wrong, it’s just so comfortable to be us and to cling to that belief. 

Of course, there are many, many people who are exceptions. There are Pākehā who stay in their lane and help others to thrive, and who are trusted and respected. But they’re individuals, not the majority. 

And the majority rules. I was raised in a culture that thinks a majority vote every three years is the best way to make decisions. If you have the numbers, you win the game. The idea that “might is right” has put us in the driver’s seat and we want to stay there. 

But I wonder how we’ll react when we cease to be a majority? Is Matariki the start of us learning to live in a Māori country? Is co-governance just tokenistic power sharing or a step towards honouring tino rangatiratanga? 

Is the difference between domination and a fair relationship so hard to understand? It gets sticky when Pākehā gain the benefits from their relationships with Māori and then get chosen as the expert on race relations

It seems so much easier for our white world to hear from the chosen expert from our culture than to hear the voices of the Indigenous. So, why is that a problem? Isn’t it useful to address our own people if they will hear us on racism and colonisation? 

Maybe, but maybe not. If tangata whenua tell us we’ve crossed the line into co-option of their kaupapa, we had best listen. 

There’s a great deal of good work to do in our lane. We can have a full-time job challenging ourselves and helping each other deal with our racism and colonial ignorance. 

I’m proud to be part of a small group in the Hauraki rohe where we’re trying to challenge ourselves and share Te Tiriti o Waitangi knowledge. We host an ongoing book-video-podcast group for people committed to learning more than just from a one-off Te Tiriti workshop. 

Most of what we do is encourage each other to speak out and question family members, work colleagues and citizens when we see racism. We’re still unpacking our own default racism as we attempt this. However, I’m proud of the people who bring stories — from challenging a racist real estate agent to challenging friends who want to co-opt Māori names for Pākehā art exhibitions. 

We know that it’s a drop in the bucket but, without the drops, the bucket is dry. We encourage each other to see opportunities to support tangata whenua environmental restoration projects when we’re invited — and we stand at the back of courtrooms behind hapū and iwi who are fighting for their taonga and whenua. 

It can feel very small and slow, but we need to remember that none of this education and solidarity work existed until recently here. And all of it is a response to the strength and tenacity of tangata whenua. 

This work is necessary. A recent conversation with a 16-year-old wahine toa slapped me awake yet again to the daily racism in this country. She told me about the Pākehā girl at school who implied that she was a dumb Māori from a kura kaupapa, and what a shop lady said to her and her cousin when she asked why the white girls didn’t have to leave their bags by the shop door. 

She said she couldn’t wait any longer to be safe in her own whenua. She just wanted to be able to walk safe and free without being harassed by racists. 

If this is to happen, we must get more active within our lane. Our fascination with mātauranga Māori, our desire to show how much we know, is just as problematic as the refusal to respect mātauranga Māori. As Dr Anne Milne has said many times, our approach to pepeha and karakia can be “Māori curtains on a white window”.

From a politician sitting on a table in front of rangatahi to the co-option of Matariki for status or profit, we have work to do. We also don’t need to be experts on the tikanga which doesn’t belong to us. I really hope the days of teaching tauiwi or Pākehā to karanga are long gone. 

We need to be more committed to self-examination as a culture and to the rejection of the covert racism as well as the overt racism. Colonisation is an ongoing project that we must name to reject. We can’t indulge in the romantic view that because race is a social construct it will melt away in the sunshine of our good intentions. 

How will that 16-year-old walk free if we make this struggle about us and our ability to perform her culture? We have to listen to what she is saying. I’m hearing: “Stay in your lane so we can be safe from your racism on the road.”


Catherine Delahunty is a Pākehā activist in environmental, social justice, and Te Tiriti o Waitangi issues. She was a Green MP for nine years and lives in Hauraki. She mainly works in the campaigns against multinational goldmining in Hauraki and is active in the national solidarity network for a Free West Papua. She is a writer and a tutor on social change issues, and a grandmother.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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