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Walking through Aotearoa’s hot gates

* Watch 'Stories of Ruapekapeka' in the video player above*


During one of his first functions as a Minister, Kelvin Davis was presented with a very personal reality check of his immense responsibility.

The event was an advance screening of Stories of Ruapekapeka, an RNZ collaboration with Great Southern TV and New Zealand on Air. The closing scene of the documentary was one of the Minister’s whānau, close to tears, reflecting on the plight of his people.

“How will our children prosper in this world?”

I had a lot of feelings (capital F) watching this documentary. Before I start you should know that I’m dreadful at writing reviews of anything because I can’t bear to be cruel about creative endeavours that people have poured effort and time into. If you want a critical review of this project you’ll have to look elsewhere. But if you want to understand what the existence of a documentary like this means to me, and how it helped me to find peace with our new Government (plot twist!), read on.

The Northland pā Ruapekapeka was the site of a siege over the Christmas and New Year of 1845/46. The Treaty of Waitangi had been signed a handful of years prior, and while the ink was still wet the colonial government had imposed regulations on Māori in the Bay of Plenty which devastated their economic prosperity. Relations soured and after Kororāreka (now Russell) fell to an alliance of Ngāpuhi chiefs led by Hone Heke, British troops were brought in to subdue Māori.

I feel utterly ripped off that there was a Thermopylae of our own, on New Zealand soil ... nobody had told me about the heroic tūpuna here.

Heke and Te Ruki Kawiti stood against the Crown, vastly outnumbered and outgunned, from 1845 until the final battle at Ruapekapeka in 1846. After holding out against sustained artillery bombardment for over a week, the pā was finally breached and burned to the ground.

Peace was established but, as narrator Mihingarangi Forbes says, the North never recovered and the promise of prosperity for Northland Māori seemed like it burned with the pā.

'It seemed entirely natural that the representative of the Government at this event, Kelvin Davis, would speak in te reo Māori, and effortlessly navigate the tikanga.' Photo: Lynn Grieveson

This story was entirely new to me. I couldn’t point to Ruapekapeka on a map and I had never heard of Te Ruki Kawiti. But I could tell you about Alexander the Great and his campaigns. Or, my personal favourite, the Spartans at Thermopylae who held off the entire Persian army with only 300 men. My heroes were Leonidas, Pericles, Themistocles. Because that is what was available for me to learn at high school. I feel utterly ripped off that there was a Thermopylae of our own, on New Zealand soil, just up the line. I’d dreamed of going to Greece and tracing the footsteps of someone else’s ancestors because nobody had told me about the heroic tūpuna here.

We have all been ripped off. The suppression of our own history is something that no New Zealander should accept.

I studied military history and admired the tactical genius of other cultures without realising that, at Ruapekapeka, the ingenuity of Ngāpuhi’s fortifications and battle strategy, the bravery of their people, was worth my admiration too.

We have all been ripped off. The suppression of our own history is something that no New Zealander should accept. John Campbell got it, quoting Milan Kundera: "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

In her opening remarks to the audience, RNZ’s Head of News, Carol Hirschfeld, acknowledged the perspective Forbes brought to the project. There is only a handful of people who could have pulled this off. To be entrusted with such a taonga (treasure) as she was, and to tell the story in a way that draws a line directly from the trenches of Ruapekapeka to the depressed economy of the North in 2017 and to bring some kick ass feminism into the picture to boot is no mean feat and it pretty much sums up Forbes’ MO as a journalist.

It’s also a huge achievement for the entire team; it is an ambitious mixed-media documentary with clever use of CGI and an interactive component, and it was completed in just 10 weeks.

It was a poignant first outing for the Minister of the newly created ‘Crown and Māori Relations’ portfolio. Davis picked up Corrections and Tourism as well, having conceded the Deputy Prime Minister role to another son of the North, Winston Peters.

I like Kelvin Davis. I know some people have been less than impressed with his performance during the election campaign. I, too, winced watching his fumbling of the housing policy on The AM Show and I’m never quite sure if he’s across the numbers when I listen to him being interviewed on the radio. On the flipside, I’ve never seen anything that suggests to me that he’s anything other than a thoroughly good person, and I’ve been watching closely since he first entered Parliament in 2008. It seemed entirely natural that the representative of the Government at this event would speak in te reo Māori, and effortlessly navigate the tikanga.

I’ve written here before about the weight of expectation on Labour for Māori aspiration in the wake of regaining all seven Māori seats. With that in mind, I think we are going to need heart and integrity, someone who is going to be truly accountable and not just bank the baubles. Kelvin Davis might be that guy. 

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