Fifty years ago this month, on September 14, 1972, Hana Te Hemara presented a petition on the steps of Parliament calling for reo Māori to be permitted in our schools. It was a radical act that set in motion the modern movement to revitalise te reo Māori.
Hana was married to activist Syd Jackson. Together they were founding members of Ngā Tamatoa and parents to Ramari and Pura.
In this conversation, their daughter Ramari tells Connie Buchanan about her memories of her mum. She says Hana’s passion for the petition was born out of anguish at the loss of her language, and explains why this is the first time she’s talked about her mum publicly.
When I was a little girl on the school bus, going off on school trips, they’d play talkback radio and I’d hear the most horrendous stuff about my mum and my dad. I’d have to listen to such awful things while I was out in my everyday life as a child.
Adults would come up to me and say: “What’s wrong with your father? What’s wrong with your mother?” These were grown-ups talking to a little six-year-old girl. They did it to my brother, Pura, too.
I became very cautious and very selective about who I engaged with because of the extraordinarily bad behaviour from strangers that my brother and I witnessed as children. So, I’m not a sharing person. But to honour my mum and to honour Ngā Tamatoa, I do need to talk — and I’m ready to do that now.
When Mum was near death, she told me that the petition for reo Māori in schools and being a Ngā Tamatoa member were among the most important things she’d done in her life. She was passionate about that legacy, and she still felt that she had so much more to do. She was not ready to go. But sadly, she passed on October 10, 1999, just three months after she found out she was sick.
Quite some time after she passed, I started thinking about how to acknowledge Mum and what she’d done, particularly with the petition, because it was so important to her. The other thing I really wanted to do was acknowledge Ngā Tamatoa — the members and their journey. Then in September 2021, I was re-organising Mum and Dad’s papers and found some interesting documents that inspired me to set about doing that.
I spoke to a few people and told them that I wanted to acknowledge Mum and Ngā Tamatoa and commemorate the 50th anniversary of the petition being presented. But most of them said they weren’t planning to do anything, even though the Ministry of Culture and Heritage had designated the 50th anniversary as a Tier One commemoration.
Some people also suggested that “there are all these men who should be acknowledged before her”. There was a lot of “no, not a woman. And not that woman.” I wasn’t surprised that there’s still a lot of sexism and misogyny out there. I’d watched my mother be undermined and devalued by that behaviour for years.
So, my cousin Amokura Panoho and I decided to set up our own collaboration table to figure it out. I had a conversation with the artist Mr G (aka Graham Hoete) about doing a mural of Mum. He didn’t hesitate and was ready to come on the journey with us, with ideas that reflected Mum’s vivacious personality. Creative New Zealand and Te Kotahitanga o Te Atiawa (Mum’s tribal authority) also very quickly understood what we were trying to do.
Very soon lots of other key people and their organisations joined in, including the Ngā Tamatoa tamariki group, and it evolved into the I AM HANA project.
It will be a really awesome, very vibrant celebration with a range of events in Taranaki — where Mum’s journey in life started, where her heart belonged, and where she now lays at rest.
It was the childhood trauma of losing her language that mobilised Mum to become a founding member of Ngā Tamatoa. She was the seventh of 12 tamariki born in Kaipakopako, Bell Block, Taranaki. Te reo Māori was the language in her home. But Mum had a religious education at the local convent school in Waitara, where the reo wasn’t allowed. It was there that she experienced being punished for speaking her native language.
Well, not only was Mum’s reo taken away from her at school, but also her confidence. She was shamed for her colour, shamed for her weight, shamed for her looks. She was conditioned to be like a Pākehā instead. She was really surprised at how they taught her to be like a Pākehā person, but then they didn’t treat her like a Pākehā person. She was subjected to all sorts of identity challenges.
Mum had to leave school at 12 years old to work and help earn money for the family. So she was constantly having things taken away from her. Her language. Her identity. Her education.
Mum met Dad in Wellington and they were married in Mangakino where Mum’s family lived, in 1961. Dad studied at Victoria University while Mum worked as a toll operator to support them both. Though it wasn’t high-paying work, she still earned a stable family income so that Dad could complete his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science. Mum carried on working in tolls as they moved from Wellington to Auckland for Dad to attend university there. It was there in Auckland that they got among Māori activist students.
Mum really identified with the displacement of Māori who were coming into the city at the time. Their experiences struck a chord with her own trauma. All those things from her childhood fed into why she was attracted to Ngā Tamatoa. She saw it as a really important part of ensuring that what happened to her, and to many others, would never happen again.
Ngā Tamatoa was not a formal entity, it was a movement. The members were united by their collective passion for the restoration of what had been taken from Māori. A lot was done around our kitchen table, at 83 Ash Street in Avondale. That was our home, and that was the meeting place of many great minds. That table is where a lot of big decisions were made.
Because she had to leave school at such a young age, Mum’s education wasn’t the same as Dad’s. But that didn’t stop her. Mum was an articulate, visionary, and fearless woman. She was the biggest driver of the petition for reo Māori to be included in the school curriculum. Having her language taken away at school was what pushed her to the forefront. She did all that organising from her kitchen table.
Mum never really regained her reo. She tried to learn again as an adult several times. She thought it would come back to her. But becoming proficient in te reo was heavily dependent in those times on having other people to speak to, and Mum was immersed in the urban Māori lifestyle by then. She always wanted to regain her birthright, her language — but she never did. She died when she was just 59 years old, so she never finished that journey.
The petition itself read:
We the undersigned, do humbly pray that courses in Māori language and aspects of Māori culture be offered in all those schools with large Māori rolls and that these same courses be offered as a gift to the Pākehā from the Māori in all other New Zealand schools as a positive effort to promote a more meaningful concept of integration.
It was signed by 33,000 Māori and Pākehā. Mum was the one to hand it over on the steps of Parliament on 14 September 1972. By her side were Lee Smith, Rawiri Paratene, other members of Ngā Tamatoa, Te Reo Māori Society, and other supporting groups and kaumātua.
I don’t have any memories of that day because I’d only been born in October the year before. If you see the pictures from the time leading up to the petition, I’m that baby. I was truly a product of Ngā Tamatoa because I was a whāngai entrusted from another member to Mum and Dad. That was how I was able to stay within my culture.
I learned quite early on that what I was listening to at home — the talk about changing the world, making the place better for our people, building up confidence and identity — was very different to what was heard in other homes. Avondale was a working-class neighborhood, and it was largely mixed Pākehā, Pasifika and Māori. Those kinds of issues weren’t on the agenda for the other kids at school that I was hanging out with.
For example, in my first week of school, I was told off for telling kids that the Treaty was a fraud. The school was like: “For starters, what is the Treaty? And why is it a fraud?”
I saw some of the worst human behaviour growing up because of how my family and my whānau of activists were treated. We often had our house raided. People that I knew as uncles and aunts were treated terribly. Both Mum and Dad got dragged through the media, but Mum was treated even worse because she was also a woman.
Mum was very tough, very resilient. But that could only take her so far. She did not like being misrepresented and misquoted. When things were getting quite vicious in the media, it hurt her. She was not only fighting for change in an environment which was not good for Māori, it was not good for women either.
Seeing all of that, I became very cautious of people. Still, to this day, if I want to defend or explain something, I’ll only do it after I take time to figure out if the person is worth having a conversation with.
When I was in primary school, Mum took me out of school. Back then, they didn’t have any reo Māori classes or anything. But they got this group together and used Te Ataarangi rākau method to teach us. Mum and I both went into total immersion. I was the only child with a group of adults, and it was frightening for me.
I went through that process and then I was put back in regular school, which was the only option back then. My reo confidence was very quickly lost again. I found that whole process daunting and never wanted my children to have that same experience.
Today, I understand more reo Māori than I can speak. My reo journey as an adult has probably gone backwards more than anything. In the business environment where I work, it’s just not a language that’s spoken when articulating things in that sector. Still, I feel like I can do better, and I will do better.
During our childhood, Mum was committed to so many kaupapa and she was very busy. Making change in the world was her goal and as children we needed to fit into that. My brother didn’t get to play sport because our weekends were always spent away, at a hui somewhere. That was our upbringing: always at hui.
Then when Mum became a kui, we really saw a different side of her. She’d spend hours teaching her moko to play cards or she’d be out with my son Jacob on the trampoline — this woman in her late 50s jumping away on a trampoline. She was such a fun kui and a more relaxed version of herself. She really enjoyed being a grandmother.
When Mum got sick, I stopped work to take care of her. She was a very healthy person who didn’t drink, or smoke. She walked every day. She ate nutrient-rich foods. She didn’t really eat meat. All these things were part of her very strong environmental principles, and her belief in keeping a clean body.
But somehow something dropped through the cracks, and she developed cervical cancer. From when she found out to when she passed, it was so short. That cancer is vicious. When it takes hold, it doesn’t give you a lot of time to live. So it’s great to see the Smear Your Mea campaign be part of our project.
I think Mum felt robbed. She was such a visionary and she always felt there was more to do. When you look at all the aspects of what she fought for, so much of it was part of healing from her own trauma. She used to have these marae fashion shows. She made sure the models were all shapes, all sizes, all ages. That was her way of healing from being shamed for how she looked.
She would also say: “Where did we get this notion that because we’re wāhine Māori, we must wear black?” She was out to change that one, too. She never wore black and definitely never wore black to tangi. She had people treat her appallingly for some of these things throughout the years. But it didn’t stop her. She was used to that. She almost expected that.
We had the chance for some deep conversations before she died. Of course, she was most proud of her family. But she kept going on about te reo Māori, too. It wasn’t just about the petition itself. It was about the network of people and the collaboration that it required to get there and to make change. It was the journey as much as the destination. She was very proud of that.
Before she was diagnosed with the illness, she was going around to Ngā Tamatoa members to start work on a book. That’s what she was doing before she passed away. She felt there was a real deficit of storytelling about Ngā Tamatoa in history. You couldn’t learn about them in school or anything like that. But the illness was so quick that the book never happened.
There are a lot of the other members who’ve already passed too, and they take with them a huge repository of information and experiences. So part of what I’m doing now is working hard with other Ngā Tamatoa tamariki to pull together what information remains, so we can continue to learn from them.
I’ve experienced a ton of racism through my working career. And alongside that, I’ve experienced a ton of sexism as well. So, while I know things have changed from 50 years ago, on some levels we’re still fighting for the same things.
It’s wonderful that my younger siblings, cousins, and nephews and nieces have been able to start their reo from kōhanga. I just love that. And if my parents were alive today, they’d find it incredible to see the shift from where they were to where we are now. But I know that they would still say: “This is not enough.”
I think we have an especially long way to go with honouring Indigenous women. I’d love to see us do that more, and while they’re still alive, please. Let’s not put them in a queue to be acknowledged. Let them come in a wave.
My mum, along with my dad and all the members of Ngā Tamatoa, fought against incredible resistance to make changes for people like me, and for our children, so that one day we’d be able to be completely ourselves in society.
To me, they are mountains. My mum is my mountain.
To commemorate the signing of the petition, a five-storey mural of Hana Te Hemara is being painted by Mr G on the exterior of the Puke Ariki Library in New Plymouth’s CBD, funded by Creative New Zealand and supported by the New Plymouth District Council. The full schedule of I AM HANA celebrations and events can be found here.
As told to Connie Buchanan, and made possible by NZ On Air through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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