Thursday, 25 June 2020

Two years living with Maori activists ...

In which John discovers how much he doesn't know

At the end of my degree, I moved into the headquarters of the Maori brown panther movement, Nga Tamatoa, and my education really started.

The house, a rambling old Victorian villa, was perched at the top of the Dixon Street steps in Wellington. A wooden totem pole, or manaia - phallic, upright and weather-beaten, stood on the front lawn. Next to my room on the first floor, lived Hiria, recently arrived from Tuhoe country in the depths of the Urewera range, fixedly watching TV all day. In an ironic mirror of my own journey, she was wrestling, through the television, with this alien European culture she had been plunged into. Fluent in Maori, she struggled to understand my English.

Potiki centre, JC far right
Her boyfriend, the Maori singer and poet Brian Potiki, posted cryptic poems on the wall of our upstairs hallway each week, in the elegant calligraphy of black ink.

He gave me three novels which revolutionised my view of the world: Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude; John Fowles' The Magus, and Yukio Mishima's Spring Snow. I suddenly saw that literature didn't have be exhumed from the dusty morgue of Eng Lit, but could be magical, wild, and contemporary.

Below me, on the ground floor lived Tiata Witehira and Liz Marsden. Liz was the matriarch of the household, a kuia descended from the first missionary, Samuel Marsden, and she sternly convened the monthly meetings of Nga Tamatoa in our living room, next to a huge web off-set printing press. The press was weighty, black and red, and smelled faintly of machine oil.

It was tended like a massive inert pet by Mark Derby, eccentric and ecstatic, a man who boasted like Potiki that he never wore underpants, and he used it to print off classics of left-wing literature, like historian Dick Scott's account of the 1951 waterfront lockout in Auckland, '151 Days'.

Prior to our moving in, the house had been home to a Black Power motorcycle gang, who had driven their bikes up and down the capacious hallway, and left large oil stains on the floor.

Dun, characteristically unclothed, at Parliament, 1976
Dun Mihaka, when he wasn't being hosted at Her Majesty's pleasure in Mount Crawford Prison, would often be crouched in our living room. He wore shorts in the middle of winter, exposing massive kauri thighs - but never the muscular naked buttocks he displayed to Prince Charles and Princes Diana at Wellington Airport in an insult or whakapohane that gave him international notoriety (and put an indelible curse on their match).

Dun had about him an intense, pugilistic manner, and he was the only visitor I felt genuinely fearful of.

After his return to Mount Crawford we would go to watch his occasional appearances in the Supreme Court on Lambton Quay, where he would defend himself from the dock against charges of assaulting prison guards in rambling, oracular monologues.

He was invariably found guilty.

Tom Scott's famous cartoon of Dun's whakapohane
The most gentle, charming person who ever graced our hallway, was Tamati Kruger, a magnetic, laughing 21 year old, who became the leader of the Tuhoe tribe, and their Chief Negotiator in their watershed $170 million settlement with the Crown in 2012. His good nature shone off him like a beacon.

One of his quotes:

"Tuhoe love to fight first and then get down to business later. They test a person's character and resolve by getting them frustrated and angry to see how they operate under pressure, what their humour is like and if they think themselves precious and pious. That way they judge their usefulness."

Others called to the high council meetings of Nga Tamatoa, to discuss the Maori occupation of Bastion Point in Auckland, and the attempt to reclaim the Raglan Golf Course, were Eruera Nia, always sporting a copy of U.S Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver's 'Soul On Ice' and the film-maker Merata Mita who when she stayed with us, brought a retinue of impossibly handsome German movie makers, Gerd Pohlmann and the Strewe brothers, who with Merata were making a documentary on the historic Bastion Point occupation.

In volley-ball games played on the street outside our house, the Germans cleaned us up, because of their height, athleticism, and because, well, Germans have a certain clinical attitude to these things that our disparate, anarchist household simply couldn't match.

Merata Mita: queen of Maori film-makers
Merata made the defining movie of the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand, Patu! which when I saw it in a London cinema two years later, had the entire audience on its feet, cheering and weeping.

I was nearly evicted from 143 Dixon Street - not because of some failure to understand the take of the Maori activists - but because of my stereo speakers, which I had constructed out of two massive stolen concrete drainpipes, and which stood two metres tall on their ends in my bedroom.

Having grown up in a family of classical musicians, I would play J.S. Bach through these colossal improvised speakers late at night, and at the prodigious volumes that 23 year olds believe everyone wants to hear.

One night, the matriarch of the household, Liz Marsden, who was heavily pregnant at the time, stood at the top of the stairs and screamed at me to: 'Turn down your degenerate Western music.'

There ensued a furious argument on the merits of the Western musical tradition, with the two of us shouting at each other over the deafening sound of the Brandenburg Concertos. Within an hour, Liz had gone into premature labour with her first child, and had to be rushed to hospital. It was my facetious suggestion to her white-faced partner, the brawny rubbish collector Tiata Witehira, that they name the baby after me, that nearly got me the bum's rush.

They were a motley bunch, the Nga Tamatoa crew, but I had no illusion that history was not being made around me in that strange, hybrid household, full of laughter, ferocious debates, and occasional tears.

There was something about the place, and its eccentric energy that attracted the most unlikely people.

One night, the violin prodigy, Donald Armstrong, now the Concert Master of the NZ Symphony Orchestra, a slim nervy man, was playing a Beethoven sonata in our living room. Also improbably, Murray Chandler, at the time the world's youngest international chess master at 16, moved in for the summer of 1977. At the annual Dixon Street party he played a 'simul' with fifteen different players on a trestle table outside while blind-folded - and beat all but one of them.

But what struck me generally, was the good humour of the Maori I lived with, despite their revolutionary understanding of what we had done to their land, their mana, and their history. Everywhere in Aotearoa, Maori had been driven into marginalised, and often poverty-stricken communities, and the Maori renaissance was in its infancy.

Although I had grown up only a stone's throw from the site of the first Maori Parliament, established in 1917 at the Rukamoana Marae in the Waikato, I knew nothing of its history or significance.

The Parliament, which was modeled on the House of Commons, was set up in response to land confiscations after the Land Wars in the 1860s, a time when more than two million acres of prime agricultural Maori land was confiscated by the government. In my ten year's of education in Morrinsville schools, its history was never mentioned.

Until I moved into 143 Dixon Street, I, like most other New Zealanders of that era existed in a state of what can only be called 'militant ignorance'.

My first response, after I realised how deep was my ignorance, was anger.

And after that, a growing humility and sense of shame at what had been done to the indigenous culture of our land. This was a very visceral demonstration of the truth that the victors write the history books - and it lead me to a deep distrust of the official version of events, and ultimately, into a career as a journalist and writer.

It was another ten years before the NZ Court of Appeal under Sir Robin Cooke made a momentous decision in favour of Maori in 1987, recognising the systematic alienation of Maori land, and paving the way for hundreds of millions of dollars of compensation to be paid to the tribes.

What I realised at 143 Dixon Street, with a sense of shock, and dawning gratitude, was that these Maori had shattered the notion I had of the identity of my own nation; of its history and of its much-vaunted 'fairness'. In doing so, they brought about a determination to do what I could, however insignificant, to help change things.

This lead me to spend three years working with Maori as publications and media manager at the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, and then in 1993, I was privileged to help set up Mana Magazine, the first four colour glossy magazine to celebrate the emerging Maori cultural renaissance.


  1. Interesting, John, thanks . Stephanie

  2. Great tale. I enjoyed it from Hiria and Brien and felt the same once I started to understand how different the world I had been presented with was from that of my brother-in-law Bill Barber, Sandra lees brother, although we grew up as neighbours, our parents socialized together dressed in sequins, furs, suits and Brylcream.

  3. Kia Ora

    I have to correct you on something.Liz Marsden is first cousin to my father.The Marsden family are from the Muriwhenua and Hokianga. They are not descendants of Samuel Marsden.

    1. Kia ora Haunui. I recall Liz telling me in 1976 she was descended from Samuel Marsden. Could I have got this wrong? Nga mihi John