Week in Review

Andrew Little’s journey on the bridge to te ao Māori

Treaty Negotiations Minister Andrew Little's speech in te reo Maori received acclaim at Waitangi - but his remarks were just part of a wider journey he has been undertaking.

When speaking of the relationship between Māori and the Crown, Jacinda Ardern is fond of one analogy in particular - te arawhiti, or the bridge.

The bridge between the Māori world and the Pākehā world is too often one-way traffic, the Prime Minister said earlier this week, with Māori forced into Pākehā paradigms.

It was Treaty Negotiations Minister Andrew Little who Ardern cited as evidence of the Government’s desire to shift the direction of travel - and for good reason.

Little’s whaikorero (formal speech), an eight-minute address delivered entirely in te reo Māori, was undoubtedly the highlight of this year’s powhiri at Waitangi.

Speaking to Newsroom, he said the speech was part of a wider journey he has made since taking on the portfolio in late 2017.

“I've learned more, understood more, and I think grown more.”

Little freely admits his knowledge of te ao Māori was “rudimentary” before taking on the job.

As Labour leader, he had a relationship with the Ratana movement, while growing up in the 1980s the Treaty settlement process was never far from the headlines, but history was another matter.

“As Treaty Minister, you get to see on an iwi by iwi basis the more detailed history and historical accounts of what actually happened: some incredibly moving things, some things that we ought to be, as descendants of our colonial forebears, deeply ashamed about happening...

“As a guy who grew up in Taranaki, it wasn't until I left the province and was at university that I first heard about Parihaka. A lot of what you realise is that a lot of New Zealand history, both pre-colonial and post [colonial], has just been buried, it's just been suppressed, because the victors, why would they tell the story about how they devastated Māori and others at the time?

“But now we're hearing those stories.”

'You are not the same person'

Hearing those stories seems to have changed Little, at least in the eyes of some Ngāpuhi.

Te Waihoroi Shortland, of Ngāti Hine, said of him: “You are not the same person that stood here two years ago - you are a different person.”

Shortland’s description of the earlier, less ‘educated’ Little as “sounding like a cocky politician” is not off the mark, the minister concedes, reflecting on one of the first Ngāpuhi hui he went to in December 2017.

“I was a new minister, I was coming to grips with my portfolio...I kind of laid out what the Crown's view was which is, ‘You know, we want to find a way through, we want one settlement, and that's it’.”

His approach has changed since then, both from an improved appreciation of tikanga Māori and a reliance on the skills from his trade union days.

‘The principal skill you need as a negotiator is to listen. The thing about Ngāpuhi, I don't think it's unkind to say, is that they are very, very powerful communicators, they are very forceful communicators…

“You come to a Ngāpuhi hui, there's a lot of powerful oratory, a lot of rhetoric, and you kind of sift all that out and you understand what it is they want you to hear and what you've been told.”

“I think that there's a message coming from within Ngāpuhi to say, you know, we can't do this hapu by hapu, it makes sense to come together as groups."

But sometimes you have to fire back your own words, as Little did at a “particularly animated” meeting in 2018.

“I really pushed back in a very firm sort of way and I know a reporter who was there at the time was a bit stunned by it all, and a couple of people who were with me said, ‘Aw, that might have been a bit over the top’.

“As I went to leave, a lot of the people who had given their very powerful oratory to me all said, ‘Aw mate that was excellent, that was good, we should see more of that, you know’.”

Little may need more of the same fire if he is to make a breakthrough in Ngāpuhi settlement talks, which have been dragging on since 2012 with no resolution and plenty of obstacles - the most high profile being the objection of hapu to the negotiating mandate given to the group Tūhoronuku.

Last December, the Government announced it had revoked that mandate, and Little is hopeful that meaningful progress can now be made as hui are held to determine how to move ahead.

“I think that there's a message coming from within Ngāpuhi to say, you know, we can't do this hapu by hapu, it makes sense to come together as groups.

“There are some groups coming together, some are going to need some help, because some hapu are not not well-equipped or well-resourced, and we’re going to have to talk to them about that.”

Another fundamental problem is the unresolved issue of He Whakaputanga, the declaration of independence signed by Ngāpuhi chiefs and the Crown before the Treaty of Waitangi, and which the Waitangi Tribunal said in 2011 meant they had never agreed to cede their sovereignty.

Finding a solution that is acceptable to both sides would seem almost impossible, but Little says the only way to know for sure is through testing the options.

“The more we are talking, and we take control of the decisions, the better than handing it over to a third party like a tribunal just to tell us what the answer is.”

'Sink or swim'

Little took control of his own decision to deliver a te reo oratory after Ardern and Kelvin Davis raised the idea with him last September.

He drafted some initial remarks, which went to Te Arawhiti (the Office for Māori Crown Relations) for editing and translation, before the hard work of memorising it began shortly before Christmas.

Little estimates he spent up to 50 hours working on the address, taking between 30 minutes and two hours almost every day in the lead up to Waitangi.

It was “sink or swim”, he says, with no cue cards or plan B of an English speech; the only help on offer was from Davis, who had a copy of his notes and prompted him once or twice at the beginning.

His nervousness was palpable: at several points he paused to collect himself and recall his remarks, but always made it back on track.

“You try and keep yourself calm and all of it, then you get up there, suddenly you're on and you get the odd little brain freeze, which I sort of got through.”

Throughout the address, he grasped tightly onto a kōkiri (carved wooden stick) - a gift from a visit to Parawhenua Marae in Ohaewai early on in his tenure.

“They gifted it to me as a sort of, ‘This is to accompany you in your challenge’, and I've had it in my office ever since.”

The marae actually made an attempt to take it back last year, he says, out of disappointment with both the state of Ngāpuhi settlement talks and Little’s failure to take it out to hui.

After some negotiations, he convinced them he would make better use of it - both physically and figuratively.

“That's why I thought it was important. having been given the the honour and the job of the whaikorero, to have it with me.

“You sent me on this journey, I have the symbol of that and I'm carrying on.”

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