Rangatira / 20th century
Written by: Tipene O' Regan
9 Jul 2015

The late Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister of England, was once asked, ‘’What is the most important determinant of political decision?’’. His answer was simple; “Circumstances, dear boy... circumstances”. I refer to his observation because there were circumstances in our time that allowed our generation to float to the surface. They were quite powerful circumstances.

Api, Koro Dewes, Ari Paul and I, along with a bunch of others were emerging as a group on the surface of Te Ao Maori as a great tectonic shift was taking place in the demography of our society - in the shape of our population. The greatest migration that Maori people had ever undertaken was well underway. The move from out of these valleys and coasts of Te Tai Rawhiti, out of the Whanganui River, out of the Waitotara - the rural regions emptied into the cities and southwards into Te Waipounamu. Everything changed. It changed massively.

The regions were gutted of their working-age Maori population and our people were emptied onto the clay frontiers of outer suburbia. It was in that turmoil that the fundamental change was taking place that allowed our generation to make some transformational shifts in the Maori condition and, importantly, in the structure of the relationship between our Iwi and the Crown.

There was, at that time, a modest tension between the forces of the NZ Maori Council with its kaupapa of collective ethnicity and our Iwi-based thinking. That tension has waxed and waned over the years – currently, I observe, that particular tide seems to be surging again. At that time though, our educated and self-assured Maori Graduates Association was unquestionably on the side of the angels! We were in favour of an Iwi-led future! Not for us the role of Maori Council lapdogs of the State!

These attitudes also reflected a measure of competitive political edge between our leader, Api, and his uncle, Sir Henare Ngata. And where Api went his cousin Koro Dewes was never far behind! I followed suit with my own relationship with Hohepa Karetai – another Council stalwart. Virtually all of the Graduates had a pakeke sitting somewhere in the Maori Council structure.
I return to that great tectonic shift of which I spoke. The real driving change then that was taking place in our world, was one of a massive rise in the Maori proportion of the population. It was that which drove political change, political perceptions and our new social and cultural reality. We moved from a societal faith in assimilation to a world that was different. We began moving to a formal concept of bi-culturalism and we struggled to find some proper articulation of the Treaty in our lives.

In a national sense of course, that struggle continues. Back then though, our contemporary Treaty debate was only beginning to emerge.











Above: Ta Tipene, Kate Walker and Api

This great shift in ‘’circumstances’’ allowed people such as Api, myself and others to bring about change. There were a great variety of things that we did and advocated and tried. Yesterday, as I sat here on this marae, I was thinking about those years and asking myself just what, in all that activity, was the most significant thing that we did in our time. You see, for me personally, it was not the Ngai Tahu Treaty Settlement or the Maori Fisheries Settlements as much as it was the formal recognition by the Crown that Ngai Tahu actually existed as a people – the recognition of our legal personality as a people.

Because, you see, that legal identity as a people was formally denied by the Settler State from the NZ Settlements Act in the 1870s right up to the late 1990s. It was, in my view , the greatest single Treaty breach of them all. We knew we had continued to exist as a people, as an Iwi, but we had been rendered legally invisible – unless viewed through the distorted prism of some Parliamentary- rooted and controlled statute, all devised to circumscribe rangatiratanga. Most politicians, and lawyers even, regard the legal personality of the tribe as inconsequential – probably because it didn’t cost money!

Academic historians still don’t know what it means! But to us the concept was precious – like our mountain, Aoraki, we existed in our own right – we were not a creation of the State. So, Api, sitting here yesterday on the marae, I reached back to select what it was like that, of all those things we did in our Graduates Association when you were leading us through those years of turmoil, that was absolutely fundamental – whether anyone noticed or not! What was the single most important and enduring thing we did? I thought about it again last night. I arrived at a conclusion – for those of us still living there may be a different answer – but here’s mine! Norman Kirk was Prime Minister and Phillip Amos was the Minister of Education. A then somewhat younger edition of Ta Tamati Reedy had a senior role in the Department of Education at the time. Phil Amos had a Ngai Tahu whakapapa and Tamati was steering him towards a greater confidence in it. By way of support we were regularly knocking on his Ministerial door!

Amos was no frontline warrior in the Maori cause but like his leader, Norman Kirk, he was solidly supportive of Maori initiatives, and like the diligent civil servant that he was, Tamati persuaded his Minister to instruct him to prepare a draft document for his consideration. So his Minister did so. Tamati then brought his draft along to a meeting of the Maori Graduates for a discussion on the kaupapa. He carried his draft to the bar of the De Brett’s Hotel on Lambton Quay – the Marae of the Maori Graduates Association. On that sacred table we edited Tamati’s draft, or at least we thought we did! There was an enthusiastic discussion (Koro Dewes poured, Api ventilated and I wrote). The following day Tamati went into the Minister and the Minister took out his pen and signed it. And thus, by a simple stroke of the Ministerial pen, Governor Grey’s Education Ordinance which prohibited the use of Te Reo Maori in schools, was struck out – abolished, shredded, finished with!

You may think it is a small thing to get a Minister to sign a piece of paper. But we were conscious of what was happening. We knew that this was the first formal step in the long process of the revitalization of Te Reo. We also knew that we had played a major part in the lobbying and other persuasive action that brought it about. WE were there when the wave broke! I have selected that instance as only one of the many things that the Maori Graduates Association waka accomplished in those years of its voyaging. In all that voyaging our tauihu whakairo – the carved prow of our waka is the man whom we celebrate today. He was the one who drove us nuts with his arguments, phone calls and endless memoranda - pushing and shoving the political Establishment on just about any question with a sun-tan.

For a whole generation of us before we went back to our Iwi this is the man who brought a significant proportion of our generation of Maori graduates together, and changed in many ways the working fabric of this society. Then we re-engaged more fully with our own respective Iwi and some of us were to be privileged with the opportunity to do more. But it was Api who was our kaiwhakatere when we were all cutting our teeth.



















Above: Ta Tipene O'Regan 

It is my honour to pay tribute to him in this company but more so to remind us all of those basic steps on Te Hekenui o Te Maori that our generation has been permitted – by circumstances – to take. The sight, both yesterday and today, of so many faces on this marae from those earlier years has recalled for me some very powerful memories. But, beyond memory, what can usefully be said?

It is this: We floated to the surface on one set of circumstances and we go out on another. Some of have the opportunity briefly to shape or modify the circumstances in which we find ourselves. However, when we review the big tidal sweep of the historical process which is the sum of all those circumstances – we should remember the small but critical elements in the story. The liberation of Te Reo Maori from the Education Ordinance of Governor Grey was one of those.

It was Api who drove it. It was Tamati who drafted it. For me, it was enough just to have been there!

E, Api! Haere wairua e!

Tukuna mai o whakaaro