Four years ago, there was an unprecedented Chinese presence at Ōrākei marae. And that event lingers in my mind as one that other iwi and ethnic groups in New Zealand, including Pākehā, would do well to think about – and perhaps emulate.
The idea of a pōhiri and festival came from Pita Sharples, who’d worked in the Race Relations Office in the 1970s but who, by this time, had become the Minister of Māori Development.
A number of armed robberies and home invasions had left new Chinese migrants feeling fearful of Māori people, and Pita felt something was needed to show the best side of Māori culture to those who hadn’t had much contact with the Māori world.
That idea blossomed into the Taniwha and Dragon Festival on April 27, 2013 with Ngāti Whātua welcoming the Chinese community of Auckland on to Ōrākei marae to formalise a relationship between the two cultures.
During the pōhiri, the kaikōrero on both sides recounted the long-standing ties between Māori and Chinese families through market gardening, for instance, and sometimes the shared experience of racism.
The festival afterwards highlighted common aspects of Māori and Chinese cultures — the significance of tīpuna and traditions, of taniwha and dragons, community dance, kite-flying. And, of course, food.
Ngāti Whātua had enthusiastically supported the idea of the festival, and they’d reached out to Chinese community leaders to begin months of planning.
I was working for Pita at the time, and I got a bird's-eye view.
At times it seemed the production could get bigger than Ben Hur. When the Chinese side realised how strong the kapa haka was going to be, they decided to bring on their longest dancing dragon, which required especially skilful dancing in tight zig-zags so it could fit on to the crowded marae ātea.
There were also delicate diplomatic discussions about the level of government involvement on each side because, while Pita was a minister and the Chinese wanted an equivalent, the whole thing was meant to be a community event – an occasion when people could get to know each other personally.
As it happened, it all turned out really well, thanks to Ngāti Whātua's experience in hosting big events like this – and also to the support of Te Puni Kōkiri and the enthusiasm of the Chinese community.
It was an eye-opener for me. I was amazed to realise that so many Chinese people had never heard of Ōrākei marae and didn't know where it was.
Of course, that was the point. They were honoured to meet the tangata whenua on their home ground, and to explore the magnificent carved ancestral meeting house Tumutumu Whenua. I could see that the pōhiri gave the Chinese manuhiri a new sense of belonging, through formal recognition of and respect for their culture and traditions.
Ngāti Whātua were in their element, extending magnificent manaakitanga to their manuhiri with grace and power – rangatiratanga in action.
(All this was a dramatic contrast with the dark days of the Bastion Point occupation 40 years ago. That felt like a last stand, an all-out struggle for survival which an oppressed and divided community eventually won through courage, determination and principled behaviour – other aspects of their rangatiratanga which inspired their supporters and eventually overcame the government.)
The planning took time because there was a lot of learning for both sides. With a high level of mutual respect, and a healthy desire that neither side would be outclassed by the other, everyone wanted to avoid any possibility of misunderstanding or offence.
On the Chinese side, especially, there was a complex communications job of explaining the kaupapa to a diverse community – some long-term Kiwi, and some recent immigrants, and bringing them together as a united force.
On the day, several thousand people turned up – a big crowd, but manageable.
Given the history of this area, the joyful gathering on the Ōrākei marae was a positive and powerful way for tangata whenua to assert their mana.
I hope that in time the idea gets taken up again.
The master plan was that this kaupapa could be repeated in various ways. In Auckland, different ethnic communities could be welcomed to Ōrākei, or to another marae perhaps. And a similar welcome could be extended by tangata whenua in other areas.
Then, eventually, we will get to the nub of the issue – the white elephant in the room. To me, the big beautiful question that this kaupapa poses is: Where do Pākehā fit in?
Now I know there are Pākehā people who would love this experience, but they don't like the idea that they should be manuhiri. They feel their families have been in New Zealand for generations, and may have lived in Māori communities and have ancestors who spoke Māori. They certainly feel that they belong here, and they should probably have some role in welcoming newcomers.
I am a newcomer, Australian-born but raised here in complete ignorance of Māori culture, and lacking any understanding of what tangata whenua means. As an adult I have learned to speak Māori and been deeply involved in Māori politics – but as an individual, not as a representative of 'the Pākehā people'. So where does that leave us all?
On a marae, we can’t become tangata whenua until we, as a Pākehā community, have come through the waharoa, through the front gate, participated in a pōhiri, explained who we are and why we’re here, and been embraced by the tangata whenua at a cultural level.
At present we’re in the anomalous position of people who have come on to the marae “around the back” – and we’re lurking in a cultural limbo.
To me, our situation won’t be resolved until we go back outside (culturally speaking) and come on again through the front gate as manuhiri, acknowledging and accepting the special status of tangata whenua in our local community.
In our speeches, Pākehā should probably explain what we have to offer tangata whenua. Obviously, there has been a huge contribution to the emergence of Aotearoa as a modern, developed, democratic nation.
But there is no way to gloss over the costs of colonisation that tangata whenua have borne with tremendous patience and sacrifice. This sort of acknowledgement is the essence of a pōhiri.
The thing is that this process opens a door, literally and figuratively, through which we come together as one. Tangata whenua are involved in huge projects, such as Treaty settlements and economic developments – and, through respectful engagement at a cultural level, both sides could gain so much.
Treaty issues are, by and large, local issues, and any differences or misunderstandings are best discussed face to face at a local level. A pōhiri establishes the relationship on a sound footing and sets up a process for dialogue.
If Pākehā do accept an invitation, I suspect our community leaders will face some special challenges in the planning. It's to do with the importance of the individual in Pākehā culture, and our cultural values around leadership and decision-making. In my experience, Pākehā leaders often have difficulty in securing a consensus and getting the whole of our community to act in unison. If we can achieve that, just once, it will have been worth it.
I'm up for the challenge. How about you?