At Te Wānanga o Aotearoa we are proud of our history and mindful that we are beneficiaries of the foresight and vision of our founding kuia and kaumātua. We keep the stories of their sacrifice and perseverance close as a constant reminder of why we’re here – to achieve our vison of whānau transformation through education and tauira success.
We listened to many of those stories recently as we celebrated our 35th Anniversary but our mindfulness for history isn’t just a Te Wānanga o Aotearoa thing - it’s an inherently Māori thing. It’s a cultural imperative for us, as essential as breathing.
The older I get and the wiser I get, the more I realise how true this is. No matter how new and challenging a problem might appear in this modern age, if we look to our cultural mores and oral narratives, a solution always presents itself.
So as we collectively face the threat of COVID-19, I look to our history. I recall kōrero tuku iho from my elders, and others, and I find comfort because our people have faced this nanakia mate urutā before.
The Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 decimated our people, probably more than any other demographic in Aotearoa. Across the country, we have urupā with mass graves containing our tūpuna - young and old – cut down by that disease.
In Taranaki, where my wife comes from, places where those who died lay are marked simply by a bed of rocks. No headstones, no monument, no names. No one other than the tribe would know what lies there. Even in the Waikato - the birthplace of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa - its effects are still evident when you consider Tūrangawaewae Marae was built and manned by uri and tamariki orphaned by that epidemic.
As we contemplate the impact of COVID-19 on tangihanga protocols, for example, I am comforted by the fact our tūpuna faced these same dilemmas and were able to uphold our tikanga and adapt, like we’re doing now. They too had no choice.
The problem, however, is that these experiences aren’t in our recent memories and aren’t widely known. Had we highlighted these stories earlier, it might have cushioned the impact of the current rāhui. That’s easy to say with hindsight, but iwi and Māori organisations across the country - including us - are starting to unpack the cultural memory we have of pandemics, their effects and their human costs. It’s worth asking why this wasn’t considered as part of the national pandemic plan.
Understandably, the government’s plan has been clinical in its focus and application. As a nation, we stockpiled supplies of personal protective equipment and tests, reviewed hospital capacities and readiness, examined the economic implications and created macro plans.
Nationally, there seems to be a high level of confidence in the government’s clinical oversight.
But what about the human side? How do we build the nation’s resilience to endure the projected impacts?
The Māori and iwi response has been proactive. While tangihanga guidelines were not published until after the rāhui, many marae and iwi had already closed their facilities and cancelled gatherings.
Iwi issued their own advice about tangihanga, and iwi and Māori organisations continue to produce their own messages for their respective communities. Our people established road blocks to protect vulnerable communities and ensure the safety of their pakeke.
This Māori resilience to cycles of crisis is not new.
During the earthquakes in Ōtautahi and Kaikoura, Māori public servants and health workers were among the first to go door knocking to check on whānau – both Māori and non-Māori. Ngāi Tahu and Te Tau Ihu iwi opened their marae and did what they could to support displaced whānau.
The Edgecumbe flooding was the same. Māori wardens, Whānau Ora navigators, Te Puni Kōkiri, marae committees all doing what they do best.
Looking after big groups of people is what we do every day - for tangihanga, poukai, Hui Aranga, Ratana, Waitangi and many other occasions. So it’s no surprise that our people know what to do and get on and do it.
This Māori resilience comforts me as we contemplate COVID-19 recovery and the new norms we’ll have to embrace.
But just because Māori responses to these situations have been decisive and proactive, that does not abrogate the government’s obligations to Māori as a treaty partner.
COVID-19 presents government, iwi and Māori organisations with a unique opportunity to enhance our relationship further, and it’s critically important to do so. Here’s why.COVID-19 recovery is going to be rough for a lot of people. Hika, life was already rough for many people before COVID-19. Our most vulnerable communities - home to a disproportionate number of Māori - are going to face the most discomfort as we move out of rāhui.
I suspect the Prime Minister made the rāhui decision knowing she was trading one sort of human cost - the deaths of many New Zealanders - for another, the cumulative impact of loss; of work, homes, relationships, income....purpose....direction.
This was not an easy choice and - in my humble view - she made the only decision possible. Clearly though, the impact of COVID-19 on our most vulnerable communities suggests that the toughest tests of her leadership are yet to come.
So, as a former politician and Minister, as leader of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, as a husband, father, koro and citizen of Aotearoa-New Zealand, I’d ask our country’s leaders to look at our history, and reference our cultural memory, just as we do at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.
The strategies for galvanising our country in times such as this are there.