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In 1984, having made it all the way from Ngāruawāhia, the hīkoi to Waitangi was stopped just south of their goal. Police barred the bridge to the treaty grounds; only a delegation could proceed. The answer was definitive, an extension of the kotahitanga (oneness of purpose) movement that had brought the different groups together: “All of us or none of us.”
No one crossed the bridge that year, a moment captured on film by Gil Hanly, but, as the exhibition Disenchanted Prophets — Matakite Matekiri shows, such moments were symbols that extended far beyond the physical.
Gil Hanly. Raglan kuia (female elder) and activist Eva Rickard (in headscarf) and other prominent Māori radicals lead the protest march on Waitangi Day 1984.
The exhibition, on display at the Waikato Museum until April 23, is an initiative from the recently opened Te Kōngahu — Museum of Waitangi. Focusing on protest, it draws from the work of four Pākehā photographers (Mark Adams, Bruce Connew, Gil Hanly, and Ans Westra) and one Māori photographer (John Miller, of the Ngaitewake-ki-te-tuawhenua, Uritaniwha, and Ngāti Rehia hapū of Ngāpuhi), seeking to trace the legacy of Waitangi, the treaty it’s home to, and the protests it has galvanised.
In a world saturated with images, it can be easy to gloss past them, but the pull that the room effects is one that speaks to its poignancy, both in terms of the images themselves, but also “the living protest” that their collection forms. There is mana here, sacrifice of the realest kind.
The exhibition documents the changing face of protest at Waitangi, showing a side rarely covered by mainstream media — not only moments of confrontation but also of intimacy, the community that drives them. In Bruce Connew’s photo from the 1984 hīkoi, walkers stretch, karate-style, on the side of the road, equally serious and self-deprecating. Another, by John Miller, shows protest group Ngā Tamatoa (Young Warriors) and their supporters in 1972, sprawled in front of the wharenui at Waitangi. The next year they would wear black armbands, call the Treaty a “fraud,” and have footage of their clashes with police broadcast all around the country.
However difficult these encounters, they have paved the way for much of what we see today.
In 1940, at the centenary Waitangi celebrations, the government spoke of pride and unity, and newspapers referred to the Treaty as “the foundation of nationhood.” Not everyone felt the same. Despite having helped build the 30-metre long waka that was launched as part of the celebrations, Ngātokimatawhaorua, Waikato rangatira stayed away, and esteemed statesman Āpirana Ngata noted, “not everyone had something to celebrate.”
It wasn’t until 1947 that the day became an annual event, with the navy erecting a new flagpole at the Treaty site. The first naval ceremony is notable for its absence of Māori. The following year there was one Māori speaker, and, as time passed, increasing Māori participation — although not always on the organisers’ terms. A continuing emphasis on the idea of “one people” provided an ideal platform for Māori to protest the shortcomings of what had been promised — and while Brash and co. may feel differently (a position that one can’t help but feel is deliberately blind), Ti Tiriti has never been about erasing difference.
In 1973, a bill was passed renaming the sixth of February New Zealand Day. Although later overturned under Muldoon, the move, led by Labour MP Matiu Rata, was intended to separate celebrations of growing nationhood from issues surrounding the nascent Waitangi Tribunal. It was hoped that this separation would eventually build support for Māori Treaty rights.
The 1974 celebrations, then, were to acknowledge New Zealand’s multicultural history and, with a royal visit on his hands, Prime Minister Norman Kirk planned a two and a half hour extravaganza, complete with New Zealand’s flag replacing the Union Jack, singing, dancing, and the (bizarre) pantomime of a giant moa laying an egg where the Treaty was signed. While the Herald couldn’t decide if it was “imaginative pageantry or tasteless vulgarity,” protestors were more sure. Alienation of Māori land and the broken promises it represented had yet to be acknowledged, let alone addressed, and it wasn’t until the 1975 hīkoi led by Dame Whina Cooper — Te Rōpū Matakite (‘Those with Foresight’) — that the issue reached the level of national consciousness.
One photo from the exhibition, by Ans Westra, shows a group of protestors, Māori and Pākehā, outside the Treaty House grounds in 1982. In the background stands a line of bobby helmeted policemen; the protesters seem barricaded together. There are two visible signs. The first says: “AKE! AKE! AKE!” — echoing the famous call from the battle at Ōrākau (“E hoa, ka whawhai tonu mātou, Āke! Āke! Āke!” | Friend, we will fight on forever, forever, and forever!). The second is more colloquial, but no less relevant. It reads: “NOT ONE MORE BLOODY ACRE.”
Another photo, by Gil Hanly, from Waitangi Day 1986, shows protesters facing off with police on the street outside Parliament. The focus that day was “Pākehā Responsibility” — reminding me of a paragraph written by Tim Shadbolt in the 1972 photobook by Ans Westra, Notes on the Country I Live In, just as valid today as it was then:
“I know […] that everyone is a decent joker at heart. […] It’s just that because man lives under systems we have to treat each other according to our politics as well as human beings. Look around New Zealand. Lots of healthy, friendly people who aren’t causing much harm in themselves but who in their innocence, ignorance, and naiveté are causing so much harm. In a world filled with atom bombs, racism, and exploitation, being a good joker just isn’t good enough.”
It wasn’t until the following year, 1987, that te reo would be recognised as one of New Zealand’s official languages — representing a key step forward in the march towards justice. Acknowledging and revitalising the language had long been a focus point for Māori activism. In 1972 the Te Reo Māori Society and Ngā Tamatoa presented 30,000 signatures in support of integrating te reo education in schools. Now, some 45 years later, the debate is still ongoing.
I recall my sister describing the emotion of her te reo teacher when, in the first lesson, the over-subscribed class was asked to explain their reasons for studying the language; how, in response, the kaiako explained the shift, what it meant to her. While far from over, it is easy to be blind to the history of struggle, resistance, and mana that has brought Aotearoa to this point, but nothing happens without effort. As the banner in the 2002 photograph by John Miller reads: “The Treaty Always Speaks” — and yet for so long those in power were deaf.
In my encounter with the exhibition — as part of a small hīkoi of my own, kayaking down the Waikato River — I felt a huge gratitude: for those pictured, for their sacrifice and struggle; for the photographers, for standing and recording these moments; for the curators, in recognising their totemic value.
Through the slogans of protest past to more modern calls to “honour the Treaty,” Disenchanted Prophets charts not only the changing status of our founding document, but also those responsible for its increased recognition. If Bertolt Brecht is right in his assertion that art is “not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it,” then those who walked, talked, and stood up are the builders; this world is the house they built — and the struggle, as always, goes on.