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First Meetings Korero

The statue, memorial and naming debate.

“What is required of us as a community to make meaningful change out of the ‘statue, memorial, naming’ debate” was the focus of the First Meetings Korero 2020 last Sunday. Rather than look for answers to this debate, the discussion was discursive: the four speakers were invited to share stories from their life experiences that related to the question, and guests had the opportunity to discuss the speakers’ themes. Mark Peters reports . . .

The “story and response” phase of the First Meetings Korero on Sunday afternoon followed Wellington performance director and facilitator Jade Eriksen’s one hour mihi, pepeha, introductions, icebreakers, groupings of people with common interests, and the Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust’s performance of an extract from Turanga: The Land of Milk and Honey.

“Think what might be of interest to bring forward to this place, to these people,” Jade told the speakers.

She outlined for the audience how discussion with the speakers could be framed.

Sport Gisborne Tairawhiti chief executive Stefan Pishief said the angle he would take was one some Pakeha might find challenging.

A long-standing dispute has existed between Macedonia and Greece over rights to the name Macedonia, he said. Large statues of Alexander the Great that had been installed across the country as “a way for hard-line Macedonians to assert their ethnicity” added to the antagonism between the two countries.

Critical to the deal that helped quell the dispute was removal of a number of the statues.

The sentiment, “it’s only a statue/memorial, let’s not get too PC”, was among five myths Stefan said needed to be wiped out.

“What may be a statue or memorial to one person can cause an extremely strong reaction in another. If we can understand and accept that point then we can enter meaningful dialogue about how we can manage this in the future.”

The second myth was based on comments that Maori need to stop living in the past. Anzac Day commemorations have a strong emotional pull, mostly for Pakeha, he said.

“We can’t cherry pick history, selecting only the bits we like to acknowledge.”

Doing things differently

The third myth was the view there is no point switching to the original names for places since people were used to the current names, and the old ones are hard to say.

Stefan’s grandmother’s village, Lexavo, was destroyed in the Greek Civil War of the 1940s but the village’s name would be kept alive for generations, just as the name had been passed down to him, he said.

“Colonisation wasn’t that bad,” was the fourth myth. Colonisation has always had a traumatic impact on indigenous populations and that impact stretched through generations, said Stefan.

The fifth myth was the suspicion the airing of issues from the past was a personal attack.

“We aren’t our ancestors, but we need to acknowledge their actions and how they still still have an impact through till today,” he said.

We might also grapple with an identity we

We might also grapple with an identity we can be proud of, he said.

“There are certainly things worth celebrating. It’s not all black and white.”

University student and Waihirere kapa haka member Tahua Pihema told the audience she grew up with the language and customs of her people.

“It’s been hard for me to prepare for this,” she said.

“When I thought too much about it, it got confrontational.”

While a student at Gisborne Girls’ High she led an initiative to work with teachers and the Ministry of Education to include the Turanganui a Kiwa land war stories in the curriculum. Now a third-year university student of history and education, her focus is to write curriculum.

As a teen she was horrified to learn about the 1865 siege of the pa at Waerenga-a-Hika, and was incredulous she hadn’t previously known what had happened.

She struggled with her emotions as she read a letter from a whanau member that gave a graphic account of largely unknown horrors of the siege, and the exile of wrongfully arrested military leader Te Kooti with a group of Pai Marire prisoners to Wharekauri (the Chatham Islands). The names of people and events in the account had been passed down through the generations. Although some historians in the family had since researched the stories to validate them, people in her iwi already knew them as their history, Tahua said.

“Generations have passed with no opportunity to reconcile,” she said.

“To make meaningful change, tell our babies these stories.”

Many in the audience were moved to tears by Ms Pihema’s story.

“We see you,” said Jade.

Audience members were given the opportunity to have a conversation about the speakers’ korero, followed by an opportunity to share some of those thoughts with the gathering.

“Is it OK for you not to be OK?” asked Meredith Akuhata-Brown from the floor.

“It always seemed to me as a child, non-Maori kept things quiet, non-emotional.”

Three people in the audience assured her they were OK with showing emotion.

Molly Pardoe told the gathering she had lived with an aunt who married a direct descendant of Te Kooti Rikirangi. Molly grew up knowing he was a man of religion, a healer and protector of his tribe. She was horrified during her school years to constantly hear stories that demonised him. The stories she heard from her teachers were in conflcit with what she knew.

Retired lawyer Gordon Webb talked about his great-great-grandparents’ (on his mother’s side) emigration from Prussia to New Zealand, and the nursery his grandfather from his father’s side of the family established in Hastings.

“It existed just on 100 years but on a more significant and personal level, one thing they grew there was kumara plants.

“I grow kumara. I enjoy the connection with that spirituality. Who you work with and what you work for does shape your life.”

He recalled his years at Mahora School which had the motto “piki haere”, keep on climbing. Stick games performed at the end-of-year assembly performance was very much part of the school culture, he said. When his father served as a flying boat pilot in Sierra Leone, the image of a patu featured in the squadron’s insignia. The squadron’s motto was “taniwha kei runga”, the taniwha in the air.

“My father’s connection with the regiment’s motto resonates with me,” said Mr Webb.

Gisborne port took a capitalistic view of its development in 1985, he said.

“If the port eventually goes, the significance of (British explorer James) Cook’s landing and his contribution will still go on. The cone of vision might not serve much utility at the moment but it will still go ahead. I suspect there is a move afoot to remove that cone. There will be a fight if that happens.”

The Endeavour models should be considered in light of the fact they were installed many years ago and they should have been incorporated in the Tairawhiti Navigations Project when it embarked on a historic journey to mark places of first arrivals and meetings, he said.

Gisborne District Council’s consultation process meant the models would be reinstated, it was only a matter of where, he said.

“What purpose is there in denigrating past conduct?”

He cautioned against weighing the past against modern norms and advocated “dialogical memorials”.

“Plaques can be added to new monuments to explain history from a modern historical viewpoint to create a platform for discussion.”

International, regional and community-led development specialist Jill Chrisp talked about her great-great-grandfather Captain Thomas Chrisp’s arrival in Turanganui-a-Kiwi in 1874 and the natural abundance he would have seen. He would also have been aware of conflict between the Crown and tangata whenua that resulted in the deaths of 11 attackers from the Crown and 240 of the adult male population of Turanga.

By 1886, control of this area had effectively passed from tangata whenua to European settlers “determined to develop the economic and commercial interests of the area for themselves and their descendants”.

“Probably most significant for me, and one that sits hard on these shoulders, is as harbour master he was responsible for blasting open the channel to create a harbour for ships coming in and out, and destroying the iconic rock Te Toka-a-Taiau,” said Jill.

In 2001 the late Keri Kaa told her father Michael Chrisp, then Tairawhiti Museum chairman, while he was not responsible for Captain Thomas’s actions 130 years earlier he was responsible for what happened next.

By October last year, stories many New Zealanders were taught about nationhood and the origins of this country were challenged, she said.

She now sees icons of her ancestor and his colleagues in buildings, place names, street signs, monuments and the flag, she said.

“Not only am I offended by the dominant ethnicity of these European men but I am also about the dominance of their gender.”

Things around us are not just icons but the essence of who makes us what we are, she said.

“If what is valued (by how we ‘dress’ our world) does not reflect who we are, our identity is at best silenced and at worst crushed.

“If it wasn’t so important, there wouldn’t be the debates that have been raging about statues and memorials.”

The engagement continuum is made up of information, dialogue, consultation, collaboration and partnership, she said.

“I believe we can do nothing less than work towards partnership. This is not easy at all. It can hurt because it means bringing to the partnership the good things and the bad.

“I believe we have the ability and courage to do things differently. Do we want to?”

People and stories

Before Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust actors performed an excerpt from Turanga: The Land of Milk and Honey, director Teina Moetara outlined some background to the stage production.

“Within 15 years we went from absolute abundance to our backs were broken,” he said.

“When I talk about abundance my abundance doesn’t come from the land producing milk and honey, but people and stories.”

The half-masked actors portrayed archetypes, he said. One of those archetypes represented the 19th century woman who taught girls to be civilised but left Manutuke at its most contentious time.

In the history taught at school, Te Kooti was cast as a bogeyman, said Teina. But it was Colonel Whitmore who led the siege on Te Kooti’s Ngatapa hilltop fortress and was responsible for the murder of about 270 of Te Kooti’s group of escapees.

“More than a million acres of land were ceded by Rongowhakaata,” said Teina.

“There has been an anaesthesia for about the past 100 years.” Most of the show is about who Rongowhaata is today, he said.

“We were going to call it Land of Milk and Honkey. If we called it Milk and Honkey it would deviate — nothing would come out of the conversation.”

STATUES: The divide between a bronze statue (with a few errors) of Brtish explorer James Cook on one side of the First Meetings Korero illustration, and a detail from Nick Tupara’s sculptural reprsentation of Te Maro on the other could be seen to sum up the divergent opinions about public artworks that commemorate some historical figures. Picture supplied
Sport Gisborne Tairawhiti chief executive, Stefan Pishief. Picture by Liam Clayton
Retired lawyer Gordon Webb. Picture by Paul Rickard
International, regional and community-led development specialist. Picture supplied
University student and Waihirere kapa haka member, Tahua Pihema.