Pita Sharples, the nation's kaumatua

By Catherine Masters

Pita Sharples got to Parliament late in a stacked career, which included a job in race relations and founding the kura kaupapa education movement. He has stuck up for Pakeha, but his life's work is for Maori.

Pita Sharples' CV is so crammed that on his website he's divided his achievements into sections - milestones, awards (which along with kapa haka and becoming a commander of the Order of the British Empire, I note he's added Sexiest Politician of the Year for 2007) and sections on education and community service.

The part on career history is really hectic and includes his appointment, in 1972, as chief executive officer for the new Race Relations Office.

When he arrives for this interview, which is broadly about the life and times of Pita Sharples, the cheery 67-year-old has already had a hectic morning.

He was up at the crack of dawn to fly from Wellington to Auckland to attend a hui called by the Ratana faith, who laid down in no uncertain terms what they expect of the Maori Party.

They want the validation of the Treaty of Waitangi as this country's ultimate document, he tells me.

He and the Maori Party will do their best to oblige.

On the heels of the successful review of the foreshore and seabed legislation, which this week recommended dumping the act, another of the Maori Party's coalition agreement bottom lines - set down for next year - is to take a look at the treaty and constitutional issues.

So things are looking pretty good right now for Sharples and the party he co-leads with Tariana Turia, founded during the conflict over the act, and who should, or shouldn't, own the foreshore and seabed.

Sharples may have added the sexiest politician award to his website as a bit of a joke, because he likes a good laugh, but the grandfather and long-time fighter for his people seems on a bit of a roll.

He has even emerged as a bit of a darling with Pakeha talkback callers, despite taking a pasting for his comments on allowing Maori open entry to university, though those comments were only part of what he was trying to say.

Sharples arrives at the Sky City cafe in a dark suit, crisp white shirt and the pony tail he's worn for years - it fits him well in a way it would not fit Prime Minister John Key, whose ear Sharples now has. He's warm and friendly and though the subjects we canvass are serious, most of his stories are punctuated with laughter.

He's chosen this place to meet because he knows the casino well, but not for the gambling.

When it was being built he and others managed to set up a scheme to train unemployed Maori to work there, the logic being if they worked there they wouldn't be allowed to gamble.

"We trained 700 people and the whole bloody lot except one got a job.

"We'd have long term unemployed and they'd walk in and they'd have their head down and you might hear your name whispered as you walk past, that's on a Monday.

"Two weeks later on a Friday, graduation day, they're standing on chairs singing solos, they've really got their act together."

This, he says, was one of the best things he's ever done.

Sharples was a smart kid but no great academic, he says. He took two years to get School C and and another two to get University Entrance. As a youth he always had leadership qualities, he just didn't realise them for a while.

The next story he tells me is about a defining moment from his days in the race relations office in the seventies when he suddenly came to grips with the fact he had a way about him which meant he could get things done.

Funnily enough, his first big fight was on behalf of "poms."

In the 1970s an anti-pom wave was sweeping the country, fuelled by Pakeha and Maori alike.

"It was getting worse and worse, or better and better, depends which side you're on (don't get mad, he's laughing) and it was coming over the radios, it was coming over at the schools, it was coming everywhere.

"They'd ring up (the radio) and if they had a pommie accent (the host) would say 'oh, another bloody pom' and you'd hear a toilet flush on air and they'd cut them off."

He hums and hah's about telling the next bit as the world is a more PC place than it was in the seventies, but he's grinning and can't help himself.

He used to call his secretary White Girl, he says, and she would call him Super Maori.

White Girl would say to him "come on Super Maori... you're always on the marae and there's these poor bloody poms that come over here and they're getting bashed..."

He would say "oh, they're not" but complaints started building up, that cars were getting paint--splattered and that people were being sworn at.

He didn't like it and says one day a woman with a broad English accent came in crying.

"And in comes old White Girl and says come and listen to this and drags me out to reception and there's this lady getting a cup of tea.

"She said she was outside Whitcoulls talking to her child and this Maori heard her accent and he walked up and he spat on her and he said 'go home you ****ing pom."' So Sharples called a press conference and all the media turned out.

He pointed out to them that though some thought a bit of hassle against the English was okay, on the grounds "we're just taking the mickey out of ourselves", that painting on cars, swearing and spitting showed there were no boundaries to the behaviour.

"I said 'that's why I'm having this press conference, hoping you'll print something and show the danger of the direction we're going..."'

There was much debate in the media, and some said perhaps Sharples was getting a bit carried away, but within two weeks the complaints to his office had dried up.

He reckons he boasted a bit to White Girl that he, Super Maori, had solved the racism problem for poms and though he's been gesturing and joking telling this he then says quietly and seriously that actually, he did make a difference.

He realised that he had made a stand and even though he hadn't been too sure of exactly what he was doing, it worked.

"And that's when I realised anybody can do anything if you choose the right time, the right moment, the right location or whatever, and so I started doing stuff."

The irony is not lost on him. His first big stand was on behalf of English, not Maori. His life work, though, has been for Maori.

In the race relations office he appointed himself to work with the gangs and it was often dangerous. He's worked in prisons and in justice and was a driving force in the building of Hoani Waititi Marae in West Auckland, the country's first urban marae.

He led the vanguard in the establishment of kura kaupapa education, Maori immersion education, and set up kohanga reo and kaupapa primary and secondary schools at Hoani Waititi.

Because, long before he was a politician, Sharples was a teacher and educator and is a doctor of anthropology and linguistics.

* * *

In fact, he lets slip he and Dame Anne Salmond, probably the country's most renowned anthropologist, still call each other ringworm from their anthropology days - but not in English mind you.

The label is given affectionately because these two go way back and shared many extraordinary experiences on a remote Pacific atoll in the Solomon Islands.

In their young days at Auckland University in the 1960s he and Dame Anne were sent by the late Professor Bruce Biggs to document never before recorded Polynesian languages.

Dame Anne worked on the language of the Luangiua people, and Sharples the language of the Sikiana people, and for various reasons they took to calling each other ringworm in each other's chosen language.

They had a marvellous adventure with much singing and dancing and feasting, but also encountered the most awful racism and were kicked out of a restaurant for trying to dine together.

When I spoke to Dame Anne about her old friend, she said the racism encountered on this field trip was a terrible eye-opener for her, that indefensible superiority felt by the white people over indigenous people.

Growing up Maori in New Zealand (he was born in 1941), Sharples was much more used to it, she says.

In those days her Maori friends were getting chucked out of flats and not being given job opportunities because they were Maori.

"In the time that Pita was young it could be pretty gross and you either got extremely angry and started to hate people, or else you just kind of rose above it and got to see what was good about them and tried to reach out, which is what he's always done.

"Probably Pita's been quite unusual in his generosity of spirit, if you like, to be able to sort of park a lot of that ugly stuff."

Indeed, Sharples reckons he spent a bit too much time on that trip in the Solomons fighting the racism he saw around him and not enough time on anthropology, but Dame Anne says he wrote a terrific account of the language.

He's a very smart guy, she says, and kind and funny too.

She wasn't at all surprised when he was appointed to the Race Relations Office and is not at all surprised he has the confidence of John Key.

* * *

Tau Henare has known "Uncle Pete" for years.

They don't always agree but the National Party MP says he has a lot of respect for Sharples.

"He's a cuddly old Maori," he says on the phone from Wellington and cracks up.

He reckons Sharples is a sort of 60s version of Maori. He means he's non-confrontational and non-threatening, which is probably why Pakeha love him.

"He has a way of doing things and it's the way kaumatuas do things, you know, they don't jump up and down and all that ...

"He's not this ugly, threatening political beast like Hone (Harawira) might be. But you, know, we all have our ways and means."

And though he might not be the greatest performer in the house, outside the house, "boy he's successful out there," says Henare.

Sometimes, says Henare, he thinks Sharples is a little too warm and fuzzy "but then again I suppose I'm a hell of a lot younger than he is and that most probably explains a hell of a lot".

Sharples' achievements, and those of other groundbreakers in West Auckland, have meant a lot in Henare's family. His children all went to Maori immersion kohanga reo, primary and secondary schools set up by Sharples at Hoani Waititi marae.

Two are still there and one has returned to teach.

Henare went to Hillary College in South Auckland as a teenager and says, with due respect to that school, that he didn't want to send his children to a state school.

"We sent our kids to kohanga and kura because of the add-ons, the extras, the whole kaupapa of learning, so it wasn't just about maths, science and English. It was about reo Maori, it was about the culture behind the language, the total gambit of Maori culture and you don't get that in a state school."

Sharples is the catalyst for the kura movement, he says.

"I wanted (my kids) to be part of the continuum of kohanga and, I mean, I'm a supporter of Pete's idea of even going that next step, which is wananga (university) and not the sort of wananga that you and I know of, but in terms of the whole thought process of Maori."

And look what Sharples and the Maori Party have just achieved in Parliament with the review of the foreshore and seabed legislation, he says.

Sharples has the ear of the Prime Minister in a way that other MPs don't.

If you want to get something done, the people to see are Sharples and Key, or Tariana Turia and Key, he says.

"I think there's a level of communication that I don't think I've seen in coalition politics, even with Winston and Helen Clark, or Winston and Shipley, or Winston and Bolger."

In my talk with Sharples I got the feeling one of the most important things for him is getting across an understanding of why Maori are failing not just in education but in other statistics.

He says though he's half English (his father was from Bolton and his mother was Ngati Kahungunu in Hawkes Bay) his rationale is that his English side is doing well but Maori are not so he is devoting his life to his Maori side. When I raise the impact of colonisation (he murmurs "up and running") and how some New Zealanders think Maori should just "get over it" he says the impact is still apparent "because it makes us second and everywhere we are second, in health, jobs."

He grew up a poor boy from Waipawa in a village where Maori was not taught and customs were handed down by stealth.

"We are second in everything," he says, "because we are treated as part of a level playing field and our culture is not part of the consideration of the way of life.

"It's very hard to explain that to people and even as you write that, people won't understand it."

But this is the way it is and it's why he is in Parliament. And the plan is to stay there for some time yet.

AN ABRIDGED CV

* Pita Sharples hails from the Hawkes Bay tribe of Ngati Kahungunu. His sub tribes are Ngai Te Kikiri o te Rangi and Ngati Pahauwera. He has a doctorate in anthropology and linguistics and is a former Professor of Education at the University of Auckland.
* He built Hoani Waititi, the intertribal marae for urban Maori, where he founded the country's first kura kaupapa in 1985. Kura graduates can go on to the first whare kura, or secondary school.
* He created the New Zealand National School of Maori Weaponry, and established Te Roopu Manutaki Maori Cultural Group, which he has led, choreographed and composed for 38 years.
* He pioneered the development of the Race Relations office and was its Chief Executive Officer from 1972 to 1980.
* The Maori Party co-leader was elected in 2005 as the MP for Tamaki Makaurau.
* He has five children and eight mokopuna and turns 68 on July 20.

- NZ Herald

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