Hone Harawira and the Maori Politic
I met Hone Harawira 28 years ago in 1983, when he came to the International Indian Treaty Council at Phillip Deere’s in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. We became fast friends, largely because I was his most reliable ride - taking him on a road trip for a couple thousand miles through Indian Country. Since then, he’s been back a couple of times, most recently at a training session for Natives running for office, sponsored by the Wellstone Project and coordinated by Kalynn Free. In 2011, after decades and many children, grandchildren, battles and political campaigns between the two of us, he took me on a road trip through his Aotearoa. It was an honor and a pleasure. What follows is excerpts of our conversation.
Hone Harawira is a member of the New Zealand Parliament representing the Maori party in New Zealand. His electorate is the far north of New Zealand, including his home community of Kaitaia. Of the 120 members in Parliament, some 20 are Maori, with a number of Maori appointed to various political positions in the federal government. In a somewhat unique political configuration, there are seven seats for which only Maori can vote in the national parliament. Of those seven seats, five are members of the Maori party and two are members of the Labor Party.
In the 30 years of recent Maori activism, much has been accomplished- use of the Maori language rose from around 3% to almost 100%. In fact, an estimated 30% of Maoris are fluent speakers. Maori infrastructure is prominent and includes over 100 language immersion schools, and some 50 tribal communities of Maoris with various community development corporations. A huge Maori media empire of radio, print and television capabilities exist. Political appointments in federal agencies reiterate the success of the last 30 years, as well as the Maori political power as members of parliament. There are around 700,000 Maori in New Zealand, representing nearly one-fifth of the population. Of the 66 million acres in the Country, the Maori have 3 million acres remaining as Maori land.
“We did not get anything without a fight. You always have to fight to gain,” Hone Harawira reminds me. Indeed, that is the case.
Harawira is a seasoned activist, one of the few members of Parliament with a long arrest record for protesting- for land rights of Maoris, environmental rights, and in support of South African Apartheid. “That was the freakiest experience of my life,” Hone tells me of his meeting of the South African Arch Bishop, Desmond Tutu. It was 1983 and Hone had been charged with 96 years worth of felonies, including two charges for participating in a riot and four charges of assault with intent to create grievous bodily harm. There were ten others charged in this same instance and many others charged for protesting. It was a result of the South African Springboks coming to play Rugby at the height of the Apartheid (For more, watch the recent movie Invictus- starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman who portray a version of this story).
“We opposed the charges but the case went for a couple of years from 1981 to 1983. In those two years, my defense lasted maybe 45 minutes.” The date came for the final trial in 1983. Hone has an epiphany at this time; South African Bishop Desmond Tutu has come to New Zealand to talk about apartheid at the invitation of the Anglican Church. Hone decides to request Desmond Tutu as an expert witness. No one thinks that is possible, but Hone believes. It is Hone’s mother, Titifie Harawira who is active in the Anglican Church. Titifie goes to speak to Bishop Tutu. So, there the 10 defendants sit in an Auckland courthouse, all facing major felony charges from protesting the apartheid team. Hone has elected to defend himself. He testifies in a jury trial. He now recounts, “Then, there is a head poking in the back of the court room, it is one of my colleagues. He nods to me, as I am sitting in the ‘dock’ (the witness stand) completing my testimony.“ The Judge turns to Hone and asks if he has a witness to bring forward. Hone Harawira calls Bishop Desmond Tutu to the stand. With Desmond Tutu’s testimony, the delegation of primarily Maori and Pacific Island protesters are acquitted of all charges.
It is twenty-seven years later and Hone Harawira is an uncompromising member of Parliament, a leader in the country.
Hone On Compromise: “Compromise your strategies, not your principles. Be bold in our positions. When governments say, ‘Maori need to be realistic’. What they are really saying is ‘no,’ but that shouldn’t make us afraid to say what it is our people want and commit ourselves to doing our best in achieving it. If we are not successful don’t let it be because we let somebody else stop us from daring to succeed.”
On Representation: “I don’t really care about what the rest of the constituents think, because I care about what the Maori say. That’s because 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, with the assistance of British advisors in 1835. Five years later, the treaty of Waitangi was signed recognizing the Maori sovereign rights to natural resources and land, while also recognizing British governance over the rest of the country. At the time of the signing of the treaty, 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, the Maori are largely bilingual while only an estimated 10% of the rest of the New Zealand population is bilingual. The Maori live with greater language skills than the majority of New Zealanders. “Maori is considered one of two official languages of New Zealand, Maori and sign language. English is an assumed language.”
On Indigenous People in Mainstream Politics: “I tend to think that…it adds knowledge, but you get knowledge from anywhere, even from the enemy. I learned how to manage at a macro level. If we’re talking about sovereignty and we want to run a country, we have to know how to manage a country. I see that there are concessions to be won, but substantive change doesn’t come through national politics. Not unless your leadership is courageous.”
Comparing Native Americans in Political Office with Maoris: It’s challenging for Hone to think of Native representatives in state legislatures like South Dakota. “Your energy is used trying to placate people who 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 Maori people who hold office with white parties [and] they are basically ignored. They [get trotted] out to do a speech or a performance, and then they kick them out of the room when they make decisions. I just think we should spend more time building capacity within, rather than externalizing that.”
On the importance of dedicated Indigenous seats in Parliament or Congress: “If there are only four, at least you know there are four voices in the Senate which are clearly [Indigenous]. As their voice is heard, other [Indigenous peoples] say, ‘Yeah, that’s my man.’ At that level it’s about learning the skills of macro-management, rather than [lying to] yourself that you’re a part of government because the white boys will kick you out.”
On Inspirational People: “Mohammed Ali, Nelson Mandela, Huey Newton and then Maori people, Sid Jackson, Maori Marsden, my mom and my wife, Hilda. When we were young, the heroes in terms of change for people of color were black. They were so far off the planet because of what they were saying, you couldn’t help but say, ‘That was cool’. And what Mohammed Ali had going for him, he was really articulate and if anyone didn’t agree he could smash them.”
On the Future Battles: Maori politics remains an uphill battle. There are constant efforts to gain more political power at all levels - from the grassroots to the parliament. The politics of poverty remains significant in Aotearoa (as well as the US), as increasing numbers of people fall into more despairing economic situations.