Review: Taame Iti – Mana, the power in knowing who you are

Read the complete analysis of alleged Maori terrorism in the Urewera

This is a video talk by Taame Iti about the context of his activism and protest over the decades and about the principle underlying that activism – Mana.

The talk was given at TEDx Auckland 2015. TED Talks are a global series of short talks by mostly interesting people about mostly interesting topics.

This talk is tight, concise, well scripted and expertly delivered. It showcases one of Taame’s strengths, that of the performer and communicator. More importantly though it is a short journey through his development as an activist and protestor and an insight into what has driven that activism for decades now. Taame talked to me a few weeks ago about how his activism had made him unemployable, leading to the social work he has turned to, occasionally paid but mostly unpaid. Even now he still owes Legal Aid and the local garage and needs to sell a few more paintings to become debt free.

The personal price of his activism has been great but his mana is intact, the principle worth the price and the ultimate reward has come, shown at the end of the video, in the Ngai Tuhoe settlement with the Crown and in the Crown apology.

I am reviewing this talk in the context of the Police paramilitary counter-terrorism operation, codenamed Operation 8 on 15th October 2007, and in the context of the long drawn out legal proceedings resulting in his imprisonment on arms charges in 2012. The principle upon which all of his activism has been based, that of mana, is one of the keys to understanding what was really going on in the Urewera in the period of the Police “intelligence” operation from late 2005 until October 2007 leading up to the “termination phase”, the actual paramilitary assault on Ruatoki and about 60 premises around the country. I will continue to explore all of that in a later essay. This short profile by Taame about Taame is deeply relevant.

Taame introduces himself in pepeha (in this case with impressive video background) through his maunga, his awa, his marae and Te Urewera. He explains mana; everyone has it, you have it by knowing who you are, where you came from, where is your whenua. Mana can be tested and challenged but we are all equal; we all stand kanohi ki te kanohi, eye to eye as equals. Authority does not equate to mana for we are all equal regardless.

The difference between authority and mana is something few in authority are able to comprehend.

Taame illustrates this principle by describing what happened at school when he was about 8 years old. He and his classmates had all been brought up speaking Te Reo but their headmaster decreed that they were not to use Te Reo at school. At home in Te Reo Taame learnt important things about the ancestors, about the mountains and rivers and about the land. At school in English he learned “Hey diddle diddle the cat and the fiddle”. The tui also sings in its own language and who would stop the bird from singing.

So he and his classmates tested the headmaster’s mana. And took the punishment; a choice between cleaning up horse manure or writing lines. They ended up smelling like horses.

After school, aged 16, he moved to Christchurch where he discovered a whole new wider world. He met people, Maori and Pakeha, who were testing the mana of those in authority. They were involved in women’s liberation, anti-apartheid, anti-Vietnam War, and in various socialist and workers’ rights movements. He learnt about global issues such as stolen lands, police brutality and military rule. The new people he met were standing against injustice, both locally and globally.

He learnt about protest and protest methods including occupations, and about making the authorities uncomfortable by testing their mana. Behind it was the principle that we all have mana, we are all equal, and no-one can steal your mana.

He learnt that to draw authority into a conversation you have to keep the pressure on no matter how long it takes, and you have to keep reminding authority of the need to engage in proper conversation; kanohi ki te  kanohi.

Taame further illustrates his theme by talking of his famous theatrical presentation to the Crown in 1994 during the “Fiscal Envelope” consultation round of hui. The National government at the time had decreed a $1 billion total limit on Treaty of Waitangi settlements and were trying to sell it to the tribes. At the Ngai Tuhoe consultation the Crown representatives led by Minister Doug Graham were seated on stage looking down on everyone else. Taame borrowed a stepladder, mounted it and spoke to the Crown on the same level, kanohi ki te kanohi. I remember it well. It was classic Taame Iti.

He also gave Doug Graham his nephew’s horse blanket in payment for the land the Crown should return to Ngai Tuhoe. Two years later the blanket had been framed and hung on the wall of the Office of Treaty Settlements but no land had been returned. Taame sent them an invoice to remind the Crown of its debt.

All of that was firstly about the Ngai Tuhoe claim against the Crown but the underlying principle was about mana.

In his talk Taame then went on to chronicle the previous decades of activism and protest based on that same principle:

  • 1972 – the Te Reo petition to Parliament
  • 1975 – the Land March to Parliament
  • 1978 – Bastion Point and Raglan
  • 1981 – Springbok tour
  • 1985 – Anti-nuclear protests

The mana of the people is equal to that of any authority.

And after 170 years of resistance and activism Ngai Tuhoe finally obtained the respect and understanding it sought in the Crown settlement and apology. The two protagonists finally acknowledged each other and each other’s mana, kanohi ki te kanohi.

I have watched hundreds of TED Talks and this one is up there with the best, both entertaining and informative.

As shorthand when talking to and about Taame I talk about his standing on a ladder. Standing on a ladder is for me the visual representation of a deep principle underlying all human engagement, a principle rarely understood in the Crown’s engagement with Maori despite the years of Treaty settlements and hundreds of millions of dollars involved.

I still don’t believe that the Crown truly gets the principle of mana. It is something the NZ Police definitely didn’t get in 2007, both in their incompetent “intelligence” investigation and in the paramilitary assault on Ruatoki. More about that later.

Watch the video here: Taame Iti: Mana – the power in knowing who you are .

Links: The Operation 8 Series