‘It’s not black and white – it’s blurry’: An interview with Teanau Tuiono

Setting the scene

I first met Teanau in 2001. My strongest memory of him was that he was an up-and-coming Māori political activist. People in the activist scene would vet each other by asking new arrivals: “Oh yeah, so do you know Teanau Tuiono?”

Teanau seemed to be a mover and a shaker. Anyone who was anyone knew him. Being new to the activist community, this kind of intimidated me.

In the end, we got to hang out while organising a Youth Forum about Decolonisation at Waitangi. We were also part of a Māori and non-Māori joint action on Waitangi day at the Treaty Grounds.

Thankfully, by this time, I got unstuck by activist awe.

15 years later I found myself at Waitangi again with Teanau.

 

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Teanau and me at Te Tau Rangatira, Waitangi
This time we weren’t holding banners demanding Tiriti Justice and Accountability. We weren’t nominated media spokespeople, and we weren’t responsible for organising a mix of radically-minded young people high on moralistic judgement.

 

Instead, we were staying at a fancy hotel working on an Māori environmental educational resource for communities, kura and schools.

Seeing as we were working on the road, I asked if he wanted to be the inaugural interview for Pūhā&Pākehā. He said, “Sure man. Let’s get a drink and talk.” So we did.

A: Tell me a little about your family and background.

T: I had a bicultural upbringing. On the one hand I’m a first generation Pacific Islander in Aotearoa: my family migrated here for work and educational opportunities. I am also tangata whenua from Ngāi Takoto, Ngāti Hine and Ngāpuhi with connections throughout Te Tai Tokerau.

I see the world through these two [Pacific and Māori] perspectives – it’s not black and white. It’s blurry, the worlds merge. In South Auckland there are lots of different cultures. It was normal going from one culture into another. It was almost like if you weren’t able to go between these worlds, it would be strange.

A: So, what kind of impact do you think growing up biculturally has had on you?

T: Within our own communities we are the norm. We have our languages and our cultures. But I am acutely aware that I am from two cultural minorities. So I’m quite used to comparing the differences and similarities between the two cultural groups that I come from. Moving between them is something I’ve done my whole life. People who are both Pasifika and Māori will know what I am talking about. Navigating how you interact with the majority culture is something that you must learn as a minority. My grandfather would tell me stories about when he first came to NZ, and how tricky it was because he could not speak English well.

 

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“Framing the Other”
Sometimes when you are a minority you try and find the corners and the cracks to hide. It’s the whole idea of the Other, which Edward Said talks about. Othering in colonialism is habitual between marginalised peoples and colonisers. The Other is seen as inferior and in need of “educating or saving”. Colonisation seen thru that lens is benign; as opposed to being incredibly violent towards indigenous peoples. This is something that Antonio Gramsci also touches on when he talked about cultural hegemony.

 

Politics is also fought out in the language we use, the stories we tell, and in the ways we make sense of the world. Whoever or whatever controls that perception has an extended grasp on how we see the world. It is something to be resisted.

A: Yeah, I think most people from majority cultures don’t experience that, unless there’s a conscious decision to be in the corners of society and culture.  

So, would you say pushing against the social and cultural ‘corners and cracks’ has inspired your activism?

T: Yes. In fact the first protest I went on was the Springbok tour in 81. I was in primary school. But I remember it vividly. We were coming down Khyber Pa
ss, down to Queen St in Auckland. We were living in the belly of the beast – by the Duke of Edinburgh, which was a punk rock pub. My parents ran a takeaway bar there – the

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81 Springbok tour protest
neighbourhood then was very culturally diverse. It’s since been gentrified.

 

I remember all of us kids marching down Queen Street chanting “Amandla!” A lot of the conversations I heard as a kid were about Māori Land Rights and the Māori Language. This was due to my mum. I didn’t really make much of it all back then. But as I got older it began to make sense. My mum sent me to a wānanga reo to make us learn Māori; but I think it was also to keep us from hanging out on the streets at night.

It was at the wānanga reo that many things began to click into place for me. Why most Māori didn’t speak Māori; why so many of the previous generation had Pākehā names; and of course the compounded racism I experienced growing up brown in Aotearoa. I experienced racism. It was common, it still is. Cops, teachers etc. When you’re a particular age and brown, the police would pull us over for a random check. They’d go through all our shit. Being stopped by the cops was regular, it was normal.

 

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80s Labour Party design = cool
My grandfather from the islands was big on civic duty – particularly around that connection between the Pacific Islands church and community. He was also a trade unionist and in the Labour Party. He had a picture in the hallway of the Labour Party
branch. Richard Prebble was in it.

 

 

Of course, the picture was taken before he had defected to start the free-market Act Party. I would enjoy sitting
around and arguing politics with him. He was loyal to the Labour Party and adamant that they were the Party for Pacific Islanders. Pointing occasionally to the picture of Richard Prebble in his Labour Party branch photo, I’d say something about Labour selling out to Rogernomics.

 

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L-R: Sir Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, and some other white dude in a suit 🙂
I tried to convince him that we as islanders should take note of their actions, and not their words. We would both laugh about that. Pacific peoples, are very loyal. Too loyal for these political parties who purport to represent us.

 

A: Your activist organising has often involved bringing people from different backgrounds together to work on a common campaign. I’m interested in your reflections about how non-indigenous people can effectively work as ‘allies’.

T: I prefer to call people friends instead of allies. Allies are a ragtag team of mercs banding together to take down the Death Star (or something like that). Actually, now that I think of it, it’s kind of cool!

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L-R: Teanau, C-3PO, and his son
I think that positive personal relationships are really important. Working with non-indigenous peoples on indigenous kaupapa means your intentions need to be clear. The spaces that you create to work in also need to be intentional. Some people use bicultural spaces in their organising, which can work. But sometimes it can be limiting depending on what you are trying to organise.

I think there will always be a need for indigenous only spaces in this type of mahi – just not all the time. For example if you’re trapped in a bicultural space, particularly with Māori whose politics might be quite different or conservative than your own, then you might not get far. An alternative might be opening up the space and narrowing it to people who share your view of the world. With this sort of mahi I prefer to work with people I know well. There has to be a good vibe.

Keeping it on the kanohi ki te kanohi tip helps. Texting and e-mailing are notorious for missing out nuances that are crucial in clear communication. Relationships and organising may start in a virtual world but should be grounded in the real world. 

A: It’s that simple?

T: Well, sometimes it is, other times it isn’t. At the climate change talks in Paris we made it work.

A: How?

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Indigenous people protesting @ COP21
T: In the aftermath of the Paris Terrorist attacks martial law was declared. The ensuing crackdown on climate protesters sent panic through the Climate Coalition’s plans for a series of mass climate mobilisations around the Cop21 UN climate summit. A simple gathering of two people and a sign was illegal. Although one of the bombs went off at Stade de France (a major sports stadium), sports games could still go ahead. They were targeting protesters under the guise of defending against terrorism. I’ve been here before. I was organising in Africa and South America during 9/11.

On one hand there is a lot of talk acknowledging that Indigenous Peoples are on “The Frontlines of Climate Change”, yet this needs to be more than using us as tokenistic photo opportunities, there’s needs to be power-sharing. That makes a difference.  

Many NGOs are about the mainstream soundbite. NGOs can be good because they resource activists to live and do what they are passionate about. But it can become difficult too, because organisers become beholden to the processes of the NGO funding the work. This gets played out around mainstream soundbites and media work. Often what we say is in direct conflict with perceptions of the mainstream, and this runs right against the need to get succinct soundbites and associated actions that the NGO wants.

I get why some activists prefer to advocate on environmental issues. Unlike humans, trees, animals and ecosystems don’t talk back! We, as indigenous peoples talk back, and sometimes it is loud and sometimes it is uncomfortable.

A: So mission drift happens…

T: Yeah.

A: Overall, what did you learn while in Paris?

T: Honestly I didn’t learn anything. I lived in Paris a few years back and I’ve been back a few times since then.

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Teanau at COP21 protesting with indigenous people
I went there and worked. I did what I normally did. It was very familiar for me. I was there
for two weeks. The great thing was, I had more friends in that one place at that one time than anywhere else on the planet!  I enjoyed repping the Pacific and in particular working with Saami activists from the Arctic, and our Indigenous brothers and sisters from North America.

 

All of this stuff has had me thinking a bit about intergenerational activism. I wonder why younger activists aren’t angry at the older generation. If you think about intergenerational transmission, you need to compare what generations have achieved or not achieved.

A: Yeah, anger and activism have a long held relationship! bell hooks has written about “killing rage.”

So, how does anger influence your work?

T: Well, many things my generation have done has failed. Student Fees, failed. Seabed and Foreshore, failed. Climate Change is in the process of failing.

The climate crisis we are facing is compounded by an incredibly decreasing biodiversity.

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Feminist protest.
I think this is a direct result of past generations and my generation’s failure to act.

 

People like to complain about how lazy young people are. I don’t agree. Young people have to get into large debt in order to get educated. Yet, just one generation ago, it was free. Now, once you have that education they can’t afford to buy a home. Look at the state of the Auckland property market – it’s awful. We don’t even have the decency to leave them clean waters – our rivers are a disgrace.

 

Zach La Rocha (singer for Rage Against the Machine) once said that “anger is a gift”. I agree. I think anger that is channelled in the right way is important. It’s fire. It keeps you warm at night. You do have to keep an eye on that fire, you don’t want it to burn your house down.

A: Coming back to our part of the planet, I know you’re also interested in Pacific and Māori activism. Tell me more about this.

T: New Zealand was set up as a settler colony, which is quite different to what happened in many of the islands. The establishment of the New Zealand state was based on the violent dispossession of my people. Rangiriri, Ruapekapeka, Parihaka, Maungapohatu, Pukehinahina and other places during the near 80 years of land wars is something that all New Zealanders should know.

Most of the islands were too small to set up as settler colonies. Some of them were
extraction colonies like Fiji, or in the case of German Samoa, which was divided up in the aftermath of WW1. The church often helped to reinforce cultural hegemony of whatever colonising power supported their occupation of the different island communities. I understand this as someone who walks in both of these worlds.

 

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Wilhelm Dittmer
My view is that what we call “Te Ao Māori” is more than just what is geographically known as “New Zealand”: it has a whakapapa connection to the Pacific. Understanding those connections are an important part of being Māori. Hawaiki, the spiritual homeland of Māori people is not in New Zealand, it’s in the Pacific.

 

As a part of the Cook Islands diaspora living in Aotearoa, I am acutely aware that the borders separating the Cook Islands from Kiribati are a part of New Zealand’s colonial history in the region.

Last year news headlines focused attention on Ioane Teitiota, a self-identified climate change refugee. Teitiota was imprisoned in Aotearoa, where he had sought refugee status after fleeing his home on Kiribati.  His ability to stay or not stay in the country was dependent upon who drew the colonial borders around our Pacific nations. The government ultimately deported Teitiota back to Kiribati.

A: While being on the road together, you’ve talked a little about the relationship between activism, patriarchy and religion. What’s that about?

T: Spirituality and religion are two different, yet sometimes connected things. I dislike the baggage that some religions can carry, particularly around the impact on indigenous self-determination. As a surrogate community away from our island homes, I can understand the role of the church in supporting the Pacific communities, because of my own family experience. But, I also see the connection between colonisation and the role the church. Both have played active roles in the dispossession of indigenous lands and spirituality.

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Robyn Kahukiwa

 

When working with indigenous movements generally I think it’s important that people try to take a decolonised view. For example, in Aotearoa many of our women are rangatira. Some of the signatories to the Treaty were Māori women. If we go into a place where the leader is a women, we need to respect that, and not let christian patriarchy inform how we relate to women’s leadership. I am used to strong Māori women. Many of them are leaders in Te Tai Tokerau, where my mother comes from.

We live in a capitalist patriarchy run in the interests of a corporate oligarchy. What Bernie Sanders would call the 1%. Some, but not all, indigenous activists who have a christian background, can have an indoctrinated colonial mindset. I’ve seen this happen: indigenous women can become sidelined, because they’re not seen as “leaders” like indigenous men are. That’s bullshit.

A: It’s refreshing to hear you make those connections.

Only recently did I realise you’re a sci-fi kinda guy. I wonder if this genre holds clues about how we can transform society to be more just. What do you think?

T: This might surprise you – I wasn’t always this cool (laughs)! In fact I was a bit nerdy at school. I preferred books to sport or kapa haka. I can’t play the guitar.

 

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Teanau performs a sci-fi hongi with C-3PO. Deep.

There’s certain sci-fi that I like that goes beyond the special effects. It tries to imagine and understand the present human condition given certain socio-cultural parameters; even environmental parameters, although I think dystopian futures are quite trope now. For example George Orwell’s 1984 was really about the reality he was living in during 1948.

 

So Star Trek, and I’ve had this argument with lots of friends of mine that are Trekkies, is less about exploring the galaxies and distant planets. It’s more about Americans trying to understand themselves. The Klingons in the original series was an analogy of the Soviet Union in opposition to the United States’ future counterpart, the United Federation of Planets. I heard this one whacked out theory about Star Wars: that the Rebel Alliance is actually the Viet Cong fighting against American Imperialism (the Empire). So it’s the opposite of Star Trek. Seems unlikely though.

There is an interesting talk by Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is pretty much the nerds, Nerd. It’s about our expectation that aliens are anthropomorphic, and how stupid that really is. Neil is my favourite nerd on the internet.

Ursula Le Guin is my one of my favourite authors because she looks at the human

LeGuinLeftHand
I need to read this. Everyone tells me about it. Thanks Teanau.
condition. She explores worlds that help people to think differently about social and cultural situations. “The Left Hand of Darkness” explores gender. “The Telling” is analogous to Mao’s great leap forward. “The Word for World is Forest” is basically that alien Avatar film, but Ursula Le Guin thought it up decades before the movie.

Neil Gaiman is amazing too – he’s not sci-fi but if he writes anything I buy it. He wrote the “Sandman” series a classic, as well as “Neverwhere” and the “Anansi Boys”.

I’m currently reading Kim Stanley Robinson. He writes about the near future. Most sci-fi is far future, and beyond our current knowledge base. Our solar system plays a big part in the stories I’m currently reading of his. The environment itself is a major character in the narratives. He is well known for the “Mars” trilogy, which is about the potential to terraform Mars and the impact of an overpopulated Earth.

I was quite into BattleStar Galactica the reimagined series as well. It explored themes ranging from human rights, terrorism, children and armed conflict, and reconciliation between civilians and faiths.

In a Battle for the Planet of the Apes, I’m the guy who would probably join the Apes. They’d do a better job at looking after the planet. Incidentally I’ve got a life-sized Dalek in my garage. Thank you British colonisation for Dr Who.

The best sci-fi I’ve seen this year is “Sense 8”. It’s about empathy. There is a confluence of 8 cultures. You get to view the world from each character’s perspective as well as their interactions with each other. They come from different backgrounds, geographies. It’s fascinating to think about how people can connect across boundaries.

A: Recently you were on Marae Investigates talking about the flag referendum – what do you make of the debates?

T: I do not see the NZ Flag, the current one or any future one as representative of myself. Sure I’ve take the passport – but if I could get a Māori one, I would. I have a Mohawk friend that travels on a Haudenosaunee passport. Indigenous peoples passports are a thing.

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The Tino Rangatiratanga flag.
For me and many Māori like me, the Tino Rangatiratanga flag is the flag that best embodies our collective connection as indigenous peoples to Aotearoa. A connection that precedes the establishment of the New Zealand State, validated by Te Tiriti o Waitangi and international agreements like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

A conversation on what it means to be connected to place and the symbols and consequential flags that represent that connection are worthwhile conversations to have. They represent collective aspirations and history simultaneously. But before that conversation can happen people need to be ready to talk. And while it is a conversation that many Māori have had for a long time, I’m not sure that it’s one the rest of the people living in this country are ready to have.

A: What’s got you excited right now?

T: I enjoyed Star Wars The Force Awakens and I’m looking forward to Rogue One.

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Ai Weiwei
My significant other has just finished her PhD in fine arts. It investigates power relations and surveillance by juxtaposing a Māori worldview with state sanctioned surveillance of citizens. The creative components are underpinned by a sci-fi narrative against a background of karaoke. As the vulcans would say – a real mind-meld of stuff.

Thanks for taking the time to wax lyrical with me Teanau – I appreciate yah man!

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