Catherine Delahunty (right) and fellow panellists at the Social Movements, Resistance and Social Change Conference, November 2020. (Photo Kassie Hazendorp)

Catherine Delahunty got a glimpse of what it’s like when tangata whenua and Pasifika are in charge.


I had an experience last year which was a taste of a healthy and just future. I went to the Social Movements, Resistance and Social Change Conference which was held in Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington) and run by a strong rōpū of mainly Māori and Pacific wāhine and two Pākehā.

The one white man was mostly in the kitchen for the whole four days, working hard to keep people fed.

When I walked into the Victoria University campus at Pipitea, I was walking into a different world. The first thing I noticed that made me feel comfortable and happy was cake. There were little stands of baking alongside the many stalls and activities.

Immediately at home with cake, I then noted the craftwork going on around the foyer. There was a tent with a big couch for chilling out — and comfy small sofas and spaces where small groups could chat.

Flowers were everywhere, from the workshop rooms to the plenary panels in the lecture rooms. Flowers and bright cloth and mats. People personally welcoming the newcomers. And lavish meals being provided by amazing community food collectives.

I’ve been to many left-wing and progressive conferences but it was never like that.

Here, as a speaker on one panel and a presenter of one workshop, I was given travel support, koha for being in town, and gifts for participating, in a way that I’ve never experienced before. Nothing was too much trouble for the rōpū looking after this event.

The Social Movements, Resistance and Social Change conference, 2020, “where a stiff academic space could be colonised by human values and warmed into a creative space”. (Photo: Kassie Hazendorp)

The content was also a glimpse of a different world, where a stiff academic space could be colonised by human values and warmed into a creative space. Everywhere, those traditionally without power in western culture were leading through challenge and leading with care and respect.

When Karlo Mila read her poem about the sexual assault of young girls, our lecture theatre of women held our breath and many of us wept quietly.

When Pua Case from the Mauna Kea campaign in Hawai’i spoke on Zoom to her niece Emalani Case and Pania Newton about activism and its responsibilities, we were moved and humbled by her call.

Unsurprisingly, progressive justice politics is not just about what Karl Marx said to Engels about revolution. Here, in the Pacific Indigenous reality, there are deep theories of just decision-making and resource management that we must respect and learn from.

A conference is not a country, but my experience at this one was like a taste of how things could be managed and shared — and where the most creative leadership is coming from.

Pākehā people on social media and in workshops often ask me how they can be advocates for Te Tiriti, although never by way of dual sovereignty. They want a blueprint to be presented to show exactly how it  might work, particularly in terms of how democracy and their interests can be protected.

Few Pākehā people have responded when some of us say that Matike Mai offers us a way forward but that we Tangata Tiriti have to collectively do some hard work. We need to use our imaginations to negotiate a better relationship and genuine power-sharing with tangata whenua.

For so long, Pākehā progressive and left-wing people have had the idea that we have the solutions, based on excellent class analysis and our definitions of revolution. I was raised in that passionate, analytical, and often patriarchal white subculture. I would still credit socialism with offering many essential contributions from the picket lines to the redistribution of wealth.

But this conference reminded me that we’re here on Aotearoa, floating on the surface of the Indigenous map of Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa — and perhaps our role in working for justice is not quite what we’ve assumed it to be.

It feels like we’re overdue to unpack words like “ally” and “accomplice” and what supporting from the back looks like. We have much work to do, but it’s not about our western blueprints incorporating other cultural viewpoints into our overall vision. That’s 21st century colonialism.

A lot more of our people are beginning to realise that social change led by Indigenous wisdom is about how we organise and how we treat each other, as well as what we’re fighting for.

We know that we have a place, as Tangata Tiriti, in the movement for positive change. We’re not going to dump the great ideas of solidarity and justice that we have fought for.

But we’re not the cutting edge of a new vision for Aotearoa. Growing up on the left, I know that we used to think we were.

I have been to left-wing conferences and meetings all my life, led by great and committed people. But, finally, I have seen the difference when tangata whenua and Pasifika are in charge. It’s not just warmth and waiata. It’s living the truth that maintaining the dignity of relationships while overthrowing the oppressive structures is inspirational.

Supreme Court judge Joe Williams rightly called Moana Jackson our Te Tiriti navigator. We need to learn to follow the words of such Indigenous navigators, study the stars from inside our boat, and learn to float behind the vessel that is leading us.


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, 2021

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