Catherine Delahunty is a Pākehā and a former Green Party MP. But she hasn’t let go of the various kaupapa that she and her Green (and other) colleagues have been fighting for.
One of those issues is the pandemic proportions of New Zealanders’ ignorance of Aotearoa’s history, especially the matter of rangatiratanga guaranteed by the Crown in 1840 and largely ignored ever since.
Catherine fights that battle, as others have been doing for years, as a Treaty educator — often making an impact, but still not at all sure just how much impact the lessons, the explanations, the debates, and the role-playing have been making on her classes.
Here she is reflecting on this aspect of her work over the years.
I was a child of the 1950s and 1960s when no one we knew ever mentioned Te Tiriti or Indigenous rights.
Our family in Wellington lived in a white, left-wing world where words like revolution, Vietnam, hydrogen bomb and picket line were tossed around the table as we ate our mashed potatoes and sausages and peas. We marched on Parliament Buildings regularly and I was a teenage activist for student rights.
When I was 17 and had a crush on a disinterested young man, I followed him to Te Urewera where he was trapping possums. Suddenly a new world, an older world, woke me up. Groups of horsemen, who didn’t speak English, appeared and disappeared in that endless forest.
I stumbled across a silent marae, Ōhāua, way down the Whakatāne river with its wharenui portraits of tūpuna — among them, women in white dresses carrying guns. Tūhoe shocked me out of my first layer of ignorance.
Then I dropped out and moved to a commune in the northern Hauraki and I started to hear whispers of stolen whenua. I could see the contrast between what we city kids had chosen and the poverty of the tangata whenua. And I started to wonder if we were occupying their land.
Te Tiriti itself hit the headlines in 1978 as Takaparawhau (Bastion Point) unfolded and we travelled to support an event that we barely understood.
But my education and direction really started when the multinational mining companies arrived in a 1980s gold rush — and a rough alliance of hippies and tangata whenua led direct action to stop the mining.
A strong wahine in her 50s with wild hair and a laser-sharp mind pushed us to think about where we were, as well as about what we wished to protect. Whaitiri (Betty) Williams from Manaia came to the organising meetings and laid down the kaupapa of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
She was a sharp, critical thinker and activist. Scary, loving, and fierce. And she literally changed my life. That was a privilege that I should never forget. Or minimise.
She taught me that environmentalism without understanding Te Tiriti and Indigenous rights is racist — and she also encouraged me to start teaching others about Te Tiriti. She was at the hui when a new project, the Conservation Corps, was being set up in Hauraki in 1988, and she made sure that Treaty education was a foundation.
The Conservation Corps was a fresh idea at the time, an experiment in giving unemployed and interested youth some training in conservation work. The plan was not only to get work done on the DOC estate, but also to teach about the environment and how to look after it.
That first Conservation Corps in a Whitianga prefab was the start of my Te Tiriti teaching, working with a group of Māori and Pākehā youth who were hungry to be part of more than rote learning or free labour for DOC. I taught the basics of the Treaty alongside several mana whenua wāhine, inspired by their raw instinct and by Betty Williams.
We handed out the map of Aotearoa and a young girl grabbed a cigarette lighter and burned the edges. Then she ripped it in half and pieced it back together with band-aids. That was her sense of where we are now.
Then a tall, thin boy took off his shirt and the class painted kawanatanga and rangatiratanga words on his chest and back. To help others understand, a young man from Kawerau told us the story of the pipi shell that had cut the umbilical cord in his whānau for several hundred years.
And then there was Dorothy.
Dorothy was a Pākehā who objected to our insistence on pronouncing Māori words correctly. She didn’t see why it mattered. She said she’d been here all her life and had never heard this Māori pronunciation before — and she wasn’t about to change how she spoke.
Driving from my home at Colville across the unsealed 309 Road to Whitianga, I wracked my brain on how to reach her.
I had tried nice and reasonable but she just glowered and sucked her bottom lip. So I started calling her “Dough-Row-Thee”.
After two days of correcting me, and hating me, she suddenly froze.
“I get it. You don’t respect me.”
“Yes. If I don’t try and say your name right, I’m showing disrespect.”
She finally got it.
But not everyone has the authority of a tutor. I learned that, if I was to honour that authority, I needed to be accountable and creative. I made many mistakes.
Once, out of the corner of my eye, I could see an elderly Pākehā man boiling away in my Te Tiriti class. I could sense an imminent explosion, but I couldn’t see how to defuse it. Then he stood up and told his classmates (mainly younger people) that I was manipulating them into a false view of history.
They looked at him curiously, as an artefact of their racist inheritance. And they shook their heads at him. He left the workshop and I felt a failure at the sight of the empty chair, a residue of the rage in the room.
That feeling stayed until Mitzi Nairn gave me some words of advice. Mitzi has been a great teacher and Pākehā anti-racism pioneer. She told me: “You can’t win everyone. Some people are just not ready to hear what you’re saying.”
A deeper concern is people like “Mike”, a young Pākehā who came from the environmental movement and who was a passionate participant in the role-play on colonisation.
He wasn’t prepared to be at the back of the queue when the whenua was stolen via the missionaries, the military, and the mass of migrants. He jumped up to support the rights of the mana whenua. He was ready to take up arms.
But, in real life, I know he didn’t become a Treaty champion. He didn’t demand more of himself and of other Tangata Tiriti. The learning didn’t stick.
This Treaty education adventure has taken me from workshops in the community, in polytechnics and organisations, to being the Tangata Tiriti spokesperson for the Greens for nine years in parliament.
It motivated me and others to lead the changes to the Green Party constitution which committed to supporting the reo text of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, signed at Waitangi — and to supporting constitutional transformation.
Alongside every political change is the need for education and constant reflection on how to best respect Indigenous rights. And now I’m back home in Hauraki, still teaching this kaupapa in a community where most Pākehā barely acknowledge that it’s an issue.
I started this adventure 30 years ago. I tripped over Te Tiriti thanks to Betty Williams and I’ve met a wide range of people all trying to encourage change, whether they call it teaching decolonisation, anti-racism, or Te Tiriti education.
As educators, we’re an odd bunch, especially the ones working outside the institutions, and we have struggled to act with unity. We’re a fringe group on the fringe. We reject the “principles of the Treaty” and the Crown rhetoric. We uphold the constitutional transformation challenges in Matike Mai and Ngāpuhi Speaks. And we agonise over our work as Treaty educators.
So much of our practice is repeatedly addressing the resistance to well-documented facts. Some people just can’t believe that they have been spun a toxic yarn about history. They need us to explain that the Moriori did not come to Aotearoa before Māori. Or that the “once were warriors” history ignores hundreds of years of “once were gardeners”.
They struggle with the fact that sovereignty was never ceded to the Crown, which the Waitangi Tribunal has affirmed but the Crown still denies. They repeat the radio talkback clichés that the Treaty settlements are “a gravy train and a handout”. That the “Maōris” get free scholarships to study. And that some “bad things” did happen but that it’s time for us to be “one people” and look to the future.
Our common goal in class is to give all students a positive understanding of Te Tiriti as the starting point, not as a tokenistic or rigid text. We teach it as a justice and peace-making opportunity, despite the damage and destruction of colonisation.
We want people to understand the actual Te Tiriti articles — that sovereignty was not ceded to the British Crown but that the relationships imagined in 1840 can provoke an ongoing journey to re-imagine the way we can share power in Aotearoa.
We want our students to understand that they live on tangata whenua lands and that they can play a positive role in supporting tangata whenua authority and working to share power. We want to bring them with us through uncomfortable learning of the Treaty breaches. We want to maintain respect for each person.
And it’s not always a picnic.
In a recent online class, all the students, who were obliged by their employer to participate, acted so polite — but then, in the written feedback, one of them wrote: “This is the most offensive workshop I have ever attended.” I ask myself if that is any kind of victory.
I fantasise about being as beautifully articulate and softly compelling as Dr Moana Jackson, or as humble and irresistible as a Mitzi Nairn, as rigorous as Christine Herzog, as creative as Dr Heather Came.
But, in the end, we can only bring ourselves to this task, and try to make sure it’s our best and most open and courageous self who respects all the students.
During the Covid lockdown last year, I taught a Treaty and constitutional transformation class on Zoom to a small group of local people in Hauraki. They requested this learning and they wholeheartedly embraced it. Every Sunday morning for a month or so, we talked and we listened and they discussed how to apply their learning right here in Hauraki, right now.
A 16-year-old from this group has since created a website of resources for Tangata Tiriti. It has the latest videos, references to books and speeches and other websites. The actions of that teenager give me hope for the next stage of our development away from colonisation and towards Treaty understanding and justice.
Betty Williams died last month, in early January. Ever since the tangi, I‘ve been thinking about everything she taught me in the years I learned from her. I drive past the small white whare karakia and the urupā above the bay in Manaia. I wave to her. I say thank you again.
I promise to keep going even though I don’t know if I’m doing that well or if any lasting change is coming through this work.
It’s too soon to stop crying for her. And it will always be too soon to give up on her inspiration. Or not to honour Te Tiriti.
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