In the past 30 years, Maori activists have accomplished much in New Zealand—Maoris now even have a prominent place in the federal government. Of the 122 members of Parliament, eight are Maori, and several Maori have been appointed to various political positions in the federal government. In a unique political configuration, there are seven seats in Parliament for which only Maori can vote, and of those seven, five are currently held by members of the Maori Party.
There have been many other achievements. There are around 640,000 Maori in New Zealand, (representing maybe one-sixth of the population), and of the country’s more than 66 million acres, the Maori have almost 4 million acres of communally held land. Maori language knowledge has risen from around 3 percent to almost 100 percent, and it’s estimated that at least 30 percent of Maoris are fluent speakers. There are more than 100 language immersion schools, and some 50 tribal communities of Maoris, with various community development corporations and a Maori media empire including radio, print and television.
“We did not get anything without a fight,” Hone Harawira, one of the most prominent Maori activists, reminded me. “You always have to fight to gain.” Harawira is a member of the New Zealand Parliament, representing the Maori Party in New Zealand. (His electorate is in the far north of New Zealand, and includes his home community of Kaitaia.) I met him in 1983, when he came to the International Indian Treaty Council event in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. We became fast friends, largely because I was his most reliable ride—I took him on a road trip through a couple thousand miles of Indian country. In 2011, many years, children, grandchildren, battles and political campaigns later (for both of us), he took me on a road trip through his homeland. It was an honor and a pleasure.
He is still a passionate activist, one of the few members of Parliament with a long arrest record, which he compiled while protesting for the land rights of Maoris and for environmental rights. He also faced a long legal battle because of his support of the South African anti-apartheid movement, but at least that resulted in him meeting Bishop Desmond Tutu. “That was the freakiest experience of my life,” Harawira said.
That story starts in 1981, when he was arrested while protesting the visit of the South African Springboks, that country’s national rugby team. (See the recent movie Invictus, starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman, for a dramatized version of the Springboks story.) Harawira was charged with 96 years worth of felonies, including participating in a riot and assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. “The case went on for a couple of years,” he said. When the date for his trial was finally set, Harawira had an epiphany: He had to get South African Bishop Desmond Tutu to come to New Zealand at the invitation of the Anglican Church to talk about apartheid. Harawira would then request that Tutu testify at his trial as an expert witness. Harawira’s mother was active in the Anglican Church, and she spoke to Tutu.
The trial started. There were 10 defendants, but Harawira elected to defend himself. He delivered his testimony to the jury. As he was winding down, he recalled, “there is a head poking up in the back of the court room—it is one of my colleagues. He nods to me as I am sitting on the witness stand, completing my testimony.” At that point, the judge asked Harawira if he had any witnesses to bring forward. He said he did, and called Tutu to the stand. A short time later, Harawira and his nine co-defendants were acquitted of all charges.
It is now 28 years later, and Harawira is still an uncompromising leader. Here are some of his thoughts on political activism, working within the system and the challenges of representing “rednecks:”
On compromise: “Compromise your strategies not your principles. Be bold in your positions. When governments say, ‘The Maori need to be realistic,’ what they are really saying is ‘No.’ But that shouldn’t make us afraid to say what our people want, and commit ourselves to doing our best to achieve that. If we are not successful, don’t let it be because we let somebody else stop us from daring to succeed.”
On how to best represent his constituents: “I don’t really care about what the rest of my constituents think—I care about what the Maori say. There are another 100 or so members of Parliament who can represent their interests, and they will definitely not represent the Maori interests.”
On literacy: “The Maori people drafted a declaration of independence in 1835. Five years later, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, recognizing Maori sovereignty rights to natural resources and land. At that time, the Maori were more literate than the Pakeha, the non-Native settlers. The treaties were written in Maori, and interpreted in Maori for the people. Today, 100 percent of the Maori are largely bilingual. Maori is one of three official languages of New Zealand—it’s Maori, English and sign language.”
On indigenous people working in mainstream politics: “You can get knowledge anywhere, even from the enemy. If we’re talking about sovereignty and we want to run a country, we have to know how to manage a country. There are concessions to be made, but substantive change doesn’t come through national politics. Not unless your leadership is courageous.”
On the importance of dedicated indigenous seats in Parliament or Congress: “At that level it’s about learning the skills of macro management, rather than bullshitting yourself that you’re part of the government, because the white boys will kick you out.”
On Native Americans who hold political office in the U.S.: “Your energy is spent trying to placate people you don’t like, like ‘rednecks’ in South Dakota. I’d rather represent my tumultuous relations in the five reservations. I’d be happier to represent them than the people of Rapid City. I see that Maori people who hold office with white parties are basically ignored. They are trotted out to do a speech, and then kicked out of the room when the decisions are made. I think we should spend more time building capacity within, rather than externalizing that.”
On future battles: “Maori politics remains an uphill battle to gain more political power at all levels—from grassroots to Parliament. The politics of poverty remains significant in Aotearoa, as well as in the U.S., as increasing numbers of people fall into more desperate economic situations.”
On people who inspired him: “Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Huey Newton and then Maori people—Syd Jackson, Maori Marsden, my mom and my wife, Hilda. When I was young, the heroes—in terms of change for people of color—were black. And they were so far off the planet because of what they were saying, you couldn’t help say, ‘That was cool!’ Ali had that going for him—he was really articulate and if anyone didn’t agree, he could smash them.”