What DOES Wāhine Māori Leadership Look Like?

Reflecting back on this year, I’ve been asked a lot about the role of Wāhine. More than other years, and perhaps, in reflection, it’s in times of adversity that we all start to question what are our roles, and how do we value each other.

It has not been a difficult question to answer, for the most part. During lockdown, it was easy to see that in the vast majority of cases, Wāhine were leading the community safety checkpoints, protecting families and elders where police resources just couldn’t extend. In the marae, Wāhine were organising and packing our food parcels. Online, Wāhine were leading innovative education programs. As always, in times of upheaval, Wāhine have stepped up, instinctively – not waiting for permission or guidance, but just doing what needs to be done, for the greater good.

During our elections, here in Tairawhiti, we were spoilt for Wāhine leadership. Elizabeth Kerekere, Meredith Akuhata-Brown, Kiritapu Allen, Meka Whaitiri, Heather Te Au-Skipworth were all fine candidates who held strong track records of leadership in different ways for our region.

Candidates committed to te reo – The Gisborne Herald
L-R: Meredith Akuhata-Brown, Tracey Tapsell, Kiritapu Allen, Elizabeth Kerekere, Heather Te Au-Skipworth, Meka Whaitiri

And once the votes were tallied it was revealed that Debbie Ngarewa-Packer would enter parliament, alongside Rawiri Waititi, marking the return of the Māori Party into parliament. This past week the nation was put back in their seats by her maiden speech – a term which, with its inferences of youth and inexperience, completely underserves her searing account of the historical injustice meted out by that house. A notice, delivered directly into the belly of the beast, that her service in that space would stand for no less than a complete reckoning, and power shift.

The nation was rightfully moved, both her and Rawiri Waititi’s statements reminded us all of exactly what can be said in the absence of general party constraints.

In the Greens, Marama Davidson moved into the role of Minister for the Prevention of Family and Sexual Violence, as well as the Associate Minister of Housing with Responsibility for Homelessness. My heart smiles when I consider this, as she is the one minister whom a number of us have seen sit and hang out with our homeless, on the street, and share her meal with them, and treat them with dignity, call them by their names because she knew them and they, her – at all times of the day or night, without a camera in sight. In two areas where we fair amongst the worst in the OECD, the work before her will be significant and I believe nobody could do this like she will.

In the Labour Party, we have seen Wāhine Māori ascend into pivotal ministerial roles – Kiritapu Allen is our new Conservation Minister. Her boots-on-the-ground approach to serving her East Coast electorate will no doubt serve her well in what is a deeply contentious role, supporting the care and restoration of our precious natural heritage that is, in many spaces, facing imminent, permanent, loss.

Importantly, we saw Nanaia Mahuta ascend into the coveted role of Foreign Affairs Minister, the first time that seat has been held by a Wāhine Māori – and she has committed to bringing her perspectives as a Wāhine Māori to her role, and she certainly has the illustrious diplomatic heritage to do just that.

It is a fascinating time for Wāhine Māori leadership in parliament – which makes it an important time for us to consider – what does Wāhine Māori leadership LOOK like as a leadership model?

For just as Indigenous leadership means so much more than a particular ethnicity and job title – so too does this mean so much more than being a Wāhine Māori in a leadership role. We don’t have to look far for examples of women in history that have upheld the patriarchy, of Māori who have upheld Imperialism, or indeed of Wāhine Māori who have upheld both.

So what DOES Wāhine Māori leadership look like in its own right, then? This is probably something we could run an entire conference on (and that would be a pretty amazing conference to go to) – every woman would have her own response to it and I feel like I could write all day, but today I just want to explore three fundamental areas: change, relationships, and healing.

Everything I have been taught about Wāhine scripts us to initiate, and navigate change. We are the doorways into this world. A woman’s cry is the first thing you hear coming into the world, and it is what helps to lift the spirit from the body when you leave. You enter under the auspices of Hineteiwaiwa, you leave into the embrace of Hinenuitepō. Our bodies are constantly shifting and changing, along with the lunar cycle. Ceremonially, our karanga opens channels for ancestors to join us in our gatherings. We can shift a space from sacred, to accessible, and back again. The power of women helped to prepare our fighters for battle, and played an important role in safely reintegrating them back to the community. For this reason, in our customary carved art, you will most often see women carved on spaces that function to transition someone from one state to another. Over the door lintel of an ancestral house, or along the side strakes of a waka taua (war canoe). It is fair to say that we were not only acknowledged for our dominion over transition, but celebrated for it.

lintel | British Museum
Tairāwhiti pare, c1800

This aspect of Wāhine Māori leadership is particularly pertinent for us now, for multiple reasons. Times are always changing, and while I don’t favour the word unprecedented, certainly our current generation has never faced such existential crises as climate change, and COVID-19. These issues both call upon us to facilitate radical change to our societal functions at a local, national and most importantly global space. Both climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic are traceable as consequences of patriarchal imperialism. We will not overcome them by preserving the patriarchal imperialist structure. It will take the distinctive Wāhine Māori leadership trait of navigating change to facilitate the radical shifts required of our political and economic systems, for us to survive.

It is estimated that in the coming decade, water scarcity could displace over 700 million people, and this will only get worse. Water cycles are becoming increasingly disrupted, and the impacts of this cannot be overstated. As the irreplacable basis for crops, food systems, sanitation, basic health – it really is life. It is, in particular, a realm of life that women also hold dominion over. We are the original bearers of the most sacred of waters. We are the first oceans of life. Every person on this planet has been nourished within the saline waters of woman. Aquacide is a fundamental assault on human rights, on women’s rights, on childrens rights, on the rights of the unborn and the rights of the planet and for all these reasons, Wāhine Māori leadership is necessarily characterised by opposing the commodification, commercialisation, and pollution of waters.

It is a common misconception that internationalism is a virtue of colonialism, one of the “gifts” bestowed upon, apparently, backwards and insular Indigenous peoples. Yet 3000 years before Europeans even knew the Pacific was here, my ancestors were crisscrossing this ocean, establishing themselves from Samoa to Rapanui and beyond, gathering together to teach and learn at Taputapuatea, intermarrying, establishing trade relationships and forging moana dynasties. And do you know who it was that was forging those relationships, and navigating those seas, and negotiating those trade deals? Wāhine. Our moana history is resplendent with Wāhine leadership across all of those arenas. Many colonial anthropologists famously cut these roles from their own accounts, either unable to comprehend them, or finding them too unpalatable to record. These are usually the same ones that have tried to diminish our own superior voyaging and scientific expertise. Yes our own genealogies speak to the matrilineal descent of mana whenua. While our whale riding ancestor Paikea is rightfully remembered and celebrated in song, haka and art – it was his wife Huturangi who held the mana over vast tracts of Te Tairawhiti through her own illustrious genealogy. Interestingly, Huturangi travelled to Aotearoa inutero, carried in the womb of her mother Araiara on board the waka Nukutere, captained by her father Whiro (known in Hawai’i as Hilo). Araiara herself also land here on Te Ika a Maui, and thus we know that Araiara herself was a voyager, moving between Te Tairāwhiti and, amongst other places, Hawai’inui.

I raise this now because I have spent a lot of time thinking about our relationship with Hawai’inui. Hawaikinui. An ancestral homeland with which my home Tairawhiti holds an intertwined destiny. A counterpoint in a story that started with our Atua, and includes Maui, and Araiara and Whiro, and also includes Te Maro, and James Cook, and Kalaniopu’u, and now includes RIMPAC, Pohaukuloa, and the HMNZS Manawanui.

Please do read this excellent piece by Dr. Emalani Case on NZ participation in RIMPAC.

There are multiple relationships that call for reconfiguration right now but most definitely our moana nations are, from a Wāhine Māori standpoint, most urgent. Our relationships across Te Moananui a Kiwa exist across genealogical, ecological, economic, linguistic, cultural, as well as geographic dimensions.
This region, so ironically called “The Pacific” by imperial expansionists, ironically sits within a fraught geopolitical context of North Korea and China on one seaboard, and the USA/Canada on the other. For hundreds of years now, colonising powers have strategically positioned themselves throughout our ocean continent, so that now we now reside as a series of tactical targets on a much larger chessboard. In the center, we have Hawai’inui, home to multiple military zones, where the US military bomb sacred sites every single day, and where, every few years, the world’s largest naval war game program (RIMPAC) plays out involving naval crews and vessels from multiple nations. It, too, largely revolves around blowing up moana spaces, a process that wreaks ecological, cultural, and spiritual devastation – and this year, during a global pandemic, against all pleas, the NZ government still sent a naval research, the HMNZS Manawanui, to participate in the war games.

Upon returning, it moved to its new home port of Tūranganui a Kiwa, with no consultation or invite. 250 years after a Crown naval research vessel, the Endeavour, arrived uninvited on our shores captained by James Cook, in the face of a year of saying that they had listened to our pain, the Crown sent another naval research vessel to station itself, again uninvited, on our shores. 240 years after our relations on Hawai’inui put pay to the naval invasions of our moana region, Aotearoa are still sending invaders their way. It appears our homes of Hawai’inui and Tūranganui a Kiwa are intertwined across time in a cyclical, ominous relationship.

All of this of course exists across the broader backdrop of Pacific militarism – an issue inextricably tied into human and ecological rights abuses. An issue that places so many of us at threat, through military testing, through sexual slave trade, through sexual assaults, through tactical targeting, and all, largely, in the interests of colonial powers.

Again, Wāhine Māori leadership cannot serve to maintain the patriarchal status quo. The state military is the most extreme and overt manifestation of imperialist might and we must always question: why, and for whom? Why must our military forces participate in exercises that so flagrantly ignores Indigenous and environmental rights? Whom does that serve? Whom does that ignore? Whom does that privilege? Wāhine Māori leadership cannot stand at once for wāhine and Indigenous ideals, whilst contributing to imperial militarism. If we cannot call upon our Wāhine Māori scripting for forging change to make a stand against this, in our own moana, it begs the question, what do we stand for, and where do we stand for it.

Our planet, our ecosystems, our people need healing. We are in the middle of the largest human health crisis in living memory. It is easy to forget this, here in Aotearoa while COVID rages overseas worse than ever before, but we are not safe yet. Economically and socially, we are staring down a very turbulent immediate future and it will require great navigators of change, it will require the fostering of relationships, it will require community cohesion, and it will require a lot of healing, for a long time. The trauma of this period will be long lasting and multi-dimensional. It will require divergent thinking and proactive leadership. It will require the kind of healing leadership that Wāhine are famous for: just doing what needs to be done.

At the base of my skull I have a rugged scar, a reminder of this characteristic carried by my own mother, who, after I fell backwards through a plate glass window at the age of 4, scooped me up, rushed me to the bathroom, cleaned the wound, plucking the glass out, and sewed up the wound. So many times (like the recent checkpoints) I have seen how Wāhine Māori have instinctively seen what needs to be done, and simply go about doing it. So I want to finish on this small, but powerful story. A couple of weeks ago our own community was torn apart by a quadruple tragedy. I won’t go into the specifics, but it was the kind of tragedy that could irreparably rend a community in two. I was heartbroken for my community, and heartbroken for my own whanau too who had, at the same time, lost my young cousin to suicide. The loss in our small community was so profound, I wondered what could be done to help. They say that it is in our darkest hour is when people shine the brightest, and it was during this time that I saw some of the most incredible Wāhine leadership rise to the surface. My relation, Ani Pahuru-Huriwai, called for counsellors, for artists, for tohunga tā moko, for massage therapists and storytellers and they came, and for nearly two weeks they made themselves available to our community, children, friends, parents, teachers, to receive healing, to join in ceremony or to just sit and listen. When I finally returned home, she held ceremony with me as well to help with my own healing. I have never seen community-wide healing rolled out before, and while much healing still remains, what I saw happening over that week left me in complete awe and reverence for the healing that Wāhine leadership can bring.

I have heard so many times this year “we want to change, but it’s a slow ship to turn”. What I’ve come to see is that the ship will turn as fast as the person at the helm wants to turn it. The only thing standing in the way of radical change are those who seek to preserve the patriarchal, imperialist structures that we have become accustomed to. If you are not going to seriously consider what is it about your leadership that is distinctively Wāhine Māori, then how can you rest assured you are not simply propping up the patriarchy? If you are not interested in using your innate, hereditary scripting to call in the radical change that is required for future generations, for sacred waters both fresh and marine, for whakapapa, for relationships and for the whenua, then what does the whare tangata stand for?

We are in interesting times, times of great challenges, times for radical hope. In spite of the pervasive presence of colonialism, the strategic positioning of Wāhine Māori in pivotal roles in parliament provides us with crucial potential. Furthermore, the uncompromising political leadership of Wāhine Māori, Wāhine Moana leaders outside of parliament, in local, national and international spaces such as Margaret Mutu, Annette Sykes, Dayle Takitimu, Julia Whaipooti, Ani Pahuru-Huriwai and Emalani Case provide us with important compass points to remind us of exactly how we can wield our passion and commitment as Wāhine Māori to bring exactly what is needed forth, for our people, right now, kia ora ai te mauri tangata, me te mauri taiao.

Mauri ora.

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