Howard Reti was the first Maori in my life. We pulled into his “Whangaruru Forest Bush Camp and Backpacker” by accident last summer, having just been told by a local woman to leave the spot on the beach where we had parked our campervan. It was private land, she explained, we needed permission, and a couple of metres behind us was an overgrown burial site. Ignorant tourists that we were—we had only moved to New Zealand a few months before—we packed up and left quite subdued and confused. Howard’s joyful company made up for this embarrassing incident. He took us fishing and out to his family’s motu (island). We tasted fresh kina (sea urchin), learned about koha (gifts), laughed a lot and stayed another day.
Three months later I am back, this time with 29 physical education students from Auckland College of Education and Maureen Legge, who teaches te reo kori—Maori movement. During their second year, Maureen takes her students on a “cross-cultural exchange course”. This field trip is unique in the world: only in New Zealand is the indigenous culture incorporated in the physical-education curriculum.
“Many Maori students are embarrassed because they know so little about their culture,” says Maureen as she drives. “And for many Pakeha it is difficult to move in the Maori world. During this week they have a chance to step into their shoes.” She smiles at me. “Don’t forget, though: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
Our convoy of cars winds up a curvy road into dense bush. Every now and then a glimpse of the coast appears on the right. Northland—cows, patched sheds, beaten-up cars, washing and children’s bikes in front of pastel-green or yellow weatherboard houses. Maori land, with the occasional craft gallery and organic farm thrown in. The white van behind us is the Happy Van: the four Maori, three Pacific Islanders and three “soul sisters” within have been singing since they left Auckland this morning. One of them is Nichola, 19 years old and half Maori. “A plastic Maori,” she explains to me later with a self-mocking laugh. The local Ngaiotonga hall—labelled “Ngati Wai Soldiers Memorial Hall” and effectively a marae—will be the students’ hostel and auditorium for the next few days.
Roughly 100 people live around here. On a tree hangs a sign warning us to watch out for cats, chooks and children. Another sign posted outside the local school protests against its closure. Jobs are rare in this part of the country.
Howard, who has just been doing motivational training for a group of long-term unemployed local men, is the facilitator for the course. His theory is simple but effective: get people in touch with their roots, let them feel the force of nature and the traditions of indigenous culture, and they will overcome their hurts and differences. As a former social worker and outdoor educator, he has taken on this task as if it were his natural vocation.
The 47-year-old, whom I last saw shelling oysters, is wearing a neatly ironed shirt with koru symbols over his corpulent puku and waiting for us by the wharenui, or meeting house. The students stand quietly by the gate onto the marae. All the young women are wearing long black skirts. A few locals are standing in the door of the wharenui. They start the powhiri, the formal welcome. Nichola leads the mihi, or greeting, with another student. She seems very nervous, almost scared. It is a powerful ritual with an ancient tradition.
A muscular man in a flax skirt and brandishing a taiaha (spear) performs the wero (challenge). André, the only male Maori student in the class, picks up the piece of greenery he offers and looks into the warrior’s eyes. Nichola answers the call of the women at the door with words that her grandmother has taught her. Her ringing karanga acknowledges the dead, the living and the business of the day. Her hands are trembling—not from fear now but in the movement typical of women when they karanga. Her words are clear and strong in the autumn air. The Auckland girl who loves netball hardly speaks any te reo. It’s years since she was on a marae.
The visitors remove their shoes. One by one we enter the wharenui in our socks and walk to the far end of the big room. I look at the many portraits on the walls. Old men, children, young mothers—all passed on. Every framed picture shows not only a face but a life. I have never seen such a gallery of ancestors before. It’s eerie and comforting at the same time—as if some of those lives hang around us in this quiet, spacious room with its new carpeting.
Each of us is greeted with a hongi. I find it a sincere and friendly gesture, spiritual and intimate at the same time. The brown faces right in front of me are no longer those of strangers. A bond has been formed by this “breath of life”. The speeches that follow—in Maori—are another thing I am not accustomed to. The students sit on the floor and listen to words few of them understand.
It is Howard’s turn to speak about the marae that is his home, and which represents the rivers, the mountains, the land of his people and the spirit of his ancestors. “It’s all in here,” he says and points around him. “Act in a state of reverence, like in a church or a temple. Whakarongo—really listen. Stop everything else. Think about what you say. Even if you don’t understand the words here, they will find a way inside you. They creep into you and grow.”
The student speakers stand up. One of them is Craig, a Pakeha. Following true Maori custom he refers to his ocean—Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour—and his mountain—Mount Eden. The other students get up behind him and sing a waiata they have practised. At the back of the room, a white-haired elderly lady in her lounge chair nods faintly. The ancestors up there in the picture gallery seem to smile. Looks like the students have mastered the powhiri.
We get our bags from the car and transform the inside of the wharenui into a dormitory. About a third of the group have spent a night in such a venue before. One of the aunties of the village hands out pillows and sheets and gives strict orders: “No drinking and eating in here—that desecrates the room. And listen, nobody is going to sit on the pillows, you understand?”
Nichola pushes her mattress against the wall, on which a board reads “Roll of Honour” and is inscribed with 91 names of Ngati Wai soldiers of the two world wars, framed by carvings and a faded picture of Queen Elizabeth. Next to Nichola, Keating unpacks his guitar. He is the oldest student this semester—but not the only one who is a bit dubious about this whole experiment. The 30-year-old admits that he hasn’t much enthusiasm for Maori culture so far. Too much utu, violence and hierarchy, he finds. Love, peace and harmony—that’s more his thing.
“I would really like to find out more about the culture where I come from—the Irish,” he says. Then he smiles an unfathomable smile behind his glasses and plucks a tune.
After dinner there is cleaning up and a bit of relaxed fooling around in front of the sink. Tutavake (or T), Tevita and Jerome, of Tongan, Samoan, Niuean and Cook Island origins, flick tea towels and throw in a song from Samoa.
Back in the wharenui it’s time for the first exercise. The students split into groups—first born, middle born, last born—and discuss these positions in their families. Then it’s Howard’s turn again.
“Do you know what happens to Maori kids at school if there is an older sibling around?” he asks, and gives the answer himself: “They are afraid to speak—out of respect for the older person. So the teachers think that they are stupid or slow.” Howard has 12 brothers and five sisters so knows what he’s talking about. His advice to the teachers-to-be: “You can separate the kids in the class or you can ask the elders of the family for permission so that the younger ones can speak.” Some of the Pakeha students nod, others seem to be at odds with this concept.
Someone points at the varnished, knotted wooden stick that hangs in a glass cabinet on the wall. “Touch it!” Howard says, and takes it out. “And come to the front and hold it while you speak.” He nods in the direction of the framed photograph of a bearded man on the wall. “It used to belong to Father Christmas back there. An uncle of mine. He died in a nursing home in Auckland when he was 60. I brought his body up here and the stick has been here since.”
Renee, another Maori student, takes the stick in her hands and says that it’s a great honour for her to be holding it—one that doesn’t often come a woman’s way.
“There are a lot of strong women out there who speak on the marae,” Howard tells us after Renee has sat down. “They just do it. You can challenge those roles, you know!” He rolls his eyes and laughs.
When the sleeping bags are spread out, he gives us some more advice: “All those people who have slept in here before have left their laughter and their experiences between these walls. I invite you to connect with these experiences in your sleep.”
The lights are turned off. I hear Keating playing guitar as I drift off.
In the morning I am woken by murmurs and giggles. T, obviously gifted in the humour department, has shaved his head. The hefty Polynesian points to the light part of his skull and laughs. “I want to show my white side!”
We all stand in a circle in the early sunshine behind the wharenui. Someone blows into a conch. Then Howard sends everyone off to their wairua spot—a place somewhere on the marae to sit, reflect and look into ourselves. Nichola chooses the bottom of the flagpole in front of the wharenui. “You can feel the mana and pride of this marae,” she writes in the journal that every student on the course keeps. “So many thoughts are going through my head. Tragedies may have occurred here.”
After breakfast we head off into the bush around the village. The group I am with climbs up a hill covered with pine trees. Howard blindfolds André, a fashion-conscious student with a pierced tongue and a T-shirt that reads “Funk”. He twists him around, leads him in zigzags to a tall tree, and lets him touch it and embrace it. Then he leads André back into our circle and says, “Now go back and find your tree. Whakarongo—really listen. Your tree will call out to you.”
What sounds like a New Age greenie game actually works. After 10 minutes of walking about, André hugs the right tree. It’s not a mystery to Howard: “Trees have a korero—they talk. That is why we ask them for permission before we cut them down. We do a ceremony. And for every tree we cut, we plant a new one.”
The next outdoor activity is about feeling Papatuanuku, the earth mother. One after another, the young men and women are covered with leaves, twigs and earth. Cradled in the lap of nature, we look up into the tree tops and feel comforted. It’s an atavistic feeling for some, whereas others notice insects crawling up their legs.
There is more to come: we play “deer and hunters” down by the stream. The students seem to love this challenge—it sharpens their instincts and reflexes.
Maureen, the avid supporter of Maori issues, takes us into the bush. Everyone imagines themselves as a tree, touches leaves, takes imaginary pictures of the green jungle. Tane mahuta, the god of the forest, wants us to explore him with all our senses. Expressing our feelings about it is a different matter, though. “It was like cool and stuff,” is one of the less inspired reactions I hear. It isn’t enough for Maureen. “Please remember what you see,” she insists. “Maori culture is all about oral history. The customs were learned by ear and eye, not by writing things down. I want you to do the same.”
Behind the wharenui, the aunties are giving a lesson about harakeke. The flax plant that every tourist to New Zealand has come across in the form of bags and wall decorations has provided Maori with medicine and clothing for many centuries. Ella George, from Ngaiotonga, tells the legend of Papatuanuku and Ranginui, the sky father, whose grandchild was called Harakeke. “This is how he was born,” says the grey-haired lady as she fixes her gaze on the girls with blond ponytails in front of her. “When you know that flax has a genealogy, a whakapapa, then you look at it differently. You find the right bush, you call out its name, you cut it. And then you thank the plant for allowing you to take part of it.”
When I walk into the ladies’ bathroom, I run into Alesha. She is a skinny, athletic 18-year-old in tiny shorts and earrings. Earlier, she pointed out to me that her ancestors were among the first European settlers of New Zealand. However, she admitted that she knew nothing about Maori and had never had any Maori friends—“It just wasn’t part of our life.” Now she stands in front of the mirror. “Is it really true that you can’t pick flax when you have your period?” she asks her reflection, and pulls a face. “I mean—how crazy is that?” She laughs, provocative but self-conscious, and adds: “As if the flax knows!” A toilet door opens. Nichola comes out and walks straight past her without saying a word.
It is time for the next lesson on the lawn: stick-fighting with Paora Glassic, a muscular fourth-grade mau taiaha warrior. Alesha steps outside, picks up a stick and acts surprised: “Are we girls allowed to do this? Isn’t that what Whale Rider was all about?” Nobody answers her.
Paora, or Paul to the students, explains the deeper meaning of the strikes—the insult, the attack, the naked rage, the bloodshed. “It still happens today,” he says, “but we try not to break any bones.”
Alesha pulls a girlish face again. “But you go to jail for that!” she bursts out. Nichola rolls her eyes.
We practise steps, swirls and swipes until the sun sets. This physical part of Maori culture is easy for the group to embrace.
This evening is Howard’s big moment. “Wait till you see what happens,” he’s told me with shining eyes. “I’ll get them really angry!” His first measure is a neutralizing one, though. “During this discussion, Maori are to be called M and Pakeha P.” He puts a whiteboard in front of the class. “Tell me, what makes a culture?”
He writes the students’ answers down: language, religion, clothing, buildings, food, music, etc. Then he draws two lines. “Which language do we speak in New Zealand—M or P?” he asks. P is the answer. “Which clothing do we wear?” P, of course. “Which festivals do we celebrate?” Christmas—P; Easter—P; Guy Fawkes Night—P. It goes on and on. In the end, there are only Ps on the board. Howard looks at the list, then at his audience. He emphasises every word: “Do you see that there is an imbalance? We are in a crisis. Our culture will only be in the museums soon. It is dying in every angle possible. We don’t have many elders any more, not many speak our language. We are going to be extinct.”
“Like the moa!” shouts one of the Polynesians from the back and giggles. Howard carries on.
“The colonising has not stopped, it is still going on. M has the highest rate of everything negative in this country—disease, crime, unemployment. As hard as we try, we are losing the battle for survival. That is why we need P’s help.”
There is some protest amongst the Maori students. “We are not useless,” Renee says in an emotional voice. “We don’t want that barrier and we don’t want to rely on someone’s help.” Nichola joins her: “I don’t need any pity. I only want the others to be open and aware of my culture.”
We have moved full swing into the discussion. Craig asks: “Why is there a line between M and P? Why can’t our music, our protocol, be a mix of both?” Alesha throws in that nobody wants to wear cloaks any more and live in ancient Maori huts. One of the blond-ponytail girls wonders why she couldn’t join the kapa haka group at her high school—“But I live in Aotearoa. This is my culture, too!” Renee complains that her grandfather had to pay to study te reo at polytechnic—“But it’s his language, which they took away from him!”
Howard follows the exchanges. The more heated it gets, the more he seems to smile inwardly. Now he wraps up the discussion. “Some M live a P life of roses and chocolates,” he says calmly. “Others are drunk or stoned, so that they don’t have to feel anything. Then there are those who want utu. And those who have overcome their anger are healed, can forgive and move on.” His words hang in the air. Keating, the gentle guitar player, has not said a word all evening.
It’s getting late, but Howard isn’t finished yet. The class is divided into the “Uma uma” and the “Yaka yaka” people—fictitious tribes in fictitious times who don’t understand each other. The role-play is a simple but effective and entertaining demonstration of how historical misunderstandings arise.
Everyone is exhausted from the talking, acting and thinking. Before we crawl into our sleeping bags, Howard tells us a bedtime story. “Once upon a time, there was a country with a wonderful culture. The people ate roast beef on Sundays, they wore blue jeans, went to church, sent their kids to uni, lived in houses and listened to pop music. One day, canoes came across the ocean. The men in the canoes stepped onto the shore, looked around and said: ‘Let’s teach them a real language. Let’s show them how to be hunters and warriors. We will burn down their churches and build marae instead. We will take their cars and give them canoes. They can eat huhu grubs instead of roast beef. We’ll take everything from them, but they can hold monthly rock’n’roll competitions which we fund.’”
There is mild appreciative laughter coming from the mattresses. The moral of the story is clear, but what is the solution? “Chase away the colonists? Send them home to their country of origin?” Howard asks rhetorically. “Well, then you would have to drop me off halfway, because I have some Scottish blood in me. And I love hokey-pokey ice cream and don’t want to eat huhu grubs.”
Some of the girls snicker, but Alesha looks thoughtful and tired.
In her wairua spot the next morning, Nichola writes in her journal: “The conversation was powerful but I wonder if any message at all got through to people in my class.”
Keating wears his baseball cap back to front as he wipes the breakfast tables. “I didn’t say anything last night because I wanted to be respectful,” he tells me. “But I don’t agree with everything Howard said. I believe that we are all the same and should have the same rights. Why should I treat M differently?”
Howard is not completely satisfied with last night’s discussion, either. Too many people are still holding back, he finds. Is it because of political correctness—especially with a teacher around—or the fear of being judged by mates?
“If communication stops between us, love stops,” he says when everyone is back inside the wharenui. Then he urges the students: “Please let it all out here on the marae. Like ‘Bloody Maoris get all that money and free education but can’t hold a job, all they do is drink.’” He chuckles. “Let me tell you, we do a lot of P bashing, too!”
Craig, the Pakeha speaker of the first day, comes to the front and takes the stick. “The Treaty of Waitangi is not about protecting a culture, it is about money. If we offer tertiary education and they don’t want it, I feel they just want the money.” When he steps away, Howard applauds him: “Thanks for saying that, Craig!” He really means it.
T, the Polynesian, comes up next. “I am not a P or an M, I am a P.I.!” Everyone laughs. “A treasure has been stolen from the M people, and I feel for them.” There are appreciative murmurs of “Kia ora”, from Pakeha as well as Maori.
T’s friend, Tevita, has a different view. “We are multicultural, we all live here. Why don’t we throw away the treaty and start anew?” No “Kia ora” this time.
Steve adds: “There’s a lot of hurt in Maori people and therefore a lot of reverse racism and animosity. It’s hard for us to move up and help if there is anger pushing us back.”
Howard reminds the Pakeha students that the treaty gives them rights, too. “You have entered into a partnership. It works both ways, don’t forget that.”
The strongest words this morning come from Maureen. She sounds concerned. “I am hearing attitudes of superiority. I am asking you to not think that you are better than someone else. Also, you are not to blame for the past 150 years. But you can take responsibility to make things better for the future. Try and be more bicultural, as difficult as that might be.”
Howard throws in a tune. “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be a Maori, to be perfect in every way,” he sings, hands on his thighs and smiling. “It’s hard to be a Maori, but it gets easier every day…”
We head off to Elliots Beach (Te Pahi) further up the road to digest all this controversial input and have a swim. The aunties come along. They show some of us how to weave flax bracelets. “You have learnt more than you thought,” Ella George tells me after she’s cut the last snippets off my scruffy wristband, and I know she isn’t talking about my craft skills.
I move over to Alesha. “Some things here are totally new to me,” she admits. “I had a hard-out opinion and used to get really annoyed, just from the money side.”
“What exactly do you mean?” I ask.
“Well, I have to pay the student allowance myself; I haven’t been able to qualify for a grant. But Maori people would moan that they are not getting enough and stuff like that. I haven’t seen anything but Maori being unemployed and on the dole—what you see in the media and stuff.” She wraps her arms around her knees and stares out at the waves where some boys are bodysurfing. “Right now I’m confused. Since last night, I can see that the Europeans actually did do something wrong. But I feel blamed when there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m still coming to terms with the whole thing.” She grabs a shell and plays with it in her hand. “I don’t know…” She lets out a little sigh.
Alesha is in Nichola’s group. They practise for another powhiri. It is to take place tonight around the fire.
Darkness sets in. The road through the village becomes quiet; the forest rustles in the autumn wind. Little lanterns mark the path down to the stream. Slowly, we move in a long line through the bush. Nichola leads with Alesha and Julia. Flames glow among the trees. Suddenly, a long howl, almost a cry, rises from the stream. The three young women in the front chant back. Their karanga echoes among the trees. It is redolent of longing, of pride, of past times. We get closer to the fire. Rhythmic sounds are emerging. Around the huge fireplace, a group of male students dance a haka. The light of the flames vibrates on the skin of their naked torsos. Their eyes shine, their arms pump up and down and their hands clap hard on their thighs. Behind them, dark stream water glistens in the sleeping forest. It’s a bewitching sight.
When everyone has sat down quietly around the fire, Nichola bursts out: “I am overwhelmed that you are showing this effort.” Her voice breaks, tears come to her eyes. “This means so much too me. Thank you, Alesha and Julia, for trying so hard!” Alesha puts her arm around Nichola and draws her close.
We all sing a song together. The light of the fire lingers on 30 faces. Everyone looks moved. Time for a korero, Howard suggests.
One of the Maori students who has been very quiet during the past days speaks up. “Tonight you all experienced that you can be touched by this, even when you are not a Maori.”
A young man who danced the haka admits: “It felt great. I really wanted to be a warrior!”
Then Craig gets up. He looks at the crackling branches in front of him. “Tane mahuta is the people and Maori is the fire. The fire can’t burn without the wood. Maori dies when you take the people away.” He looks around. “If you have a spark in you, it can become a flame. You have started a fire in me.” He sits down, slightly flushed. There is a shine in his eyes that I have not seen before.
“That’s really deep,” whispers the girl next to me without a trace of cynicism in her voice.
Day four. Nichola completes her journal: “I was so proud—words cannot explain how proud I was last night of everyone. It was like all opinions, emotions and hurts between cultures were thrown away. We were united. This feeling was overwhelming. No one could take it away from our class.” She writes about Alesha and the others who helped her with the karanga: “The appreciation I had for them was sincere and great, stepping out of their own shoes and comfort zones and into mine and my culture. I couldn’t have asked for anything more from this camp.”
Today is the big test. Can the PE group take over as hosts, as kai mihi? They have to prepare a complete welcome and feast. Howard asks them to appoint a chief coordinator: “Who wants to be me?”
“Can it be a woman?” asks a student.
“It can be a…man,” Howard jokes. He would love to have a woman up there, but because they will be hosting tangata whenua they have to follow the rules. “We have elders coming. Everything has to be extra ordinary. Clear as the moon?” He smiles his big smile.
Craig and Daniel, a deaf student, are chosen as co-leaders. Together with a sign-language interpreter they sit down and start planning. The others take on chores: cutting wood; preparing veges, seafood and meat; smoking fish; making the hangi; practising speeches and dances; preparing gifts and decorations.
In the evening, the old people from the village and some of Howard’s friends and relatives arrive. While the hangi is lifted and the tables are set, I stand with the visitors. Eruera Garland, a distinguished 77-year-old in a suit, points at the dusky hills in the distance and tells me that that is where he went to school on a horse when he was six. “Only the headmaster’s children, who were not Maori, could speak English. When I asked in my language if I could go to the outhouse, I was strapped. I was strapped first before they let me use the toilet.” He reflects for a moment.
His wife tells me how she has enjoyed watching Maori television. It started last weekend and she couldn’t take her eyes off the screen all day. “It’s just fantastic!”
When the powhiri begins, Nichola stands in the door of the wharenui. Two other students lead the guests with their karanga. There has been a fair amount of protest behind the scenes over Nichola’s part. Howard has had to convince the elderly ladies that a younger woman—a half-Pakeha woman at that—should be allowed to take on this traditional, spiritual role. It has never ever happened on this marae before—and it would be hard to imagine it happening on most other marae in the country. “It’s a real breakthrough,” Howard whispers to me when we sit along the wall and the speeches start. He seems excited.
The small revolutionary act doesn’t go unnoticed. A 73-year-old woman gets up from her chair. “I was 38 when I first got permission to do this,” she says. “I was so scared that I could hardly speak! This is really an exception. You are very lucky.” No hard feelings, though. She goes on to praise the students for doing such a good job. “What a fantastic crowd—I can’t get over it! When you are finished with your degree, come up here. We need teachers.”
The tables in the whare kai—the dining house—are piled with hangi meat and crayfish. There is a festive atmosphere. All the guests are happy. Everybody thanks everybody else in lots of speeches. I don’t see Alesha pulling a face when she tastes the food. It’s our last evening on the marae, and it’s a special one.
Before we pack up the next day, self-made gifts are shared around: poems, shells, little pieces of nature art. Alesha receives a big present when one of her mates gets up and says: “I have seen this person grow and learn. For someone coming from a totally different background, this is a big step. It’s not all as easy as it seems.”
Keating, the guitar player with Irish roots, sings a beautiful waiata. Howard Reti’s farewell words are vivid: “Remember us and dream of us. Remember the fire, the forest, the ocean, the marae—that’s us.”
The 29 students get back into their cars. Brown arms are waving out of the window of the white van against the backdrop of lush Northland trees. White-brown-green: a symbol of their future. Nichola and her friends drive towards Auckland in the Happy Van. Back into real life—and nightlife. They want to meet up for a drink in the city in the evening.
Later I hear they performed a ceremony on the dance floor with wero, karanga and the whole lot. A powhiri in an Auckland nightclub? I bet Howard would be proud.