Titewhai Harawira: Nana or Bully?

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Titewhai Harawira at Waitangi today. Harawira has attended Waitangi celebrations over the past few days and was up for the dawn service this morning at the Treaty Grounds. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Titewhai Harawira at Waitangi today. Harawira has attended Waitangi celebrations over the past few days and was up for the dawn service this morning at the Treaty Grounds. Photo / Sarah Ivey

It's 4pm on Waitangi Day and Titewhai Harawira is holding court in the lobby of the Copthorne Hotel, next to the Treaty grounds in the Bay of Islands. She is surrounded permanently by caregivers and minders, in particular daughter-in-law Stephanie Harawira, who is charged with keeping the media at a distance. The Herald on Sunday photographer was quizzed for almost an hour about her suitability to take Harawira's photo.

Her son's press secretary Jevan Goulter hovers nearby. Goulter admits he's neglected his Mana Party boss Hone Harawira somewhat in favour of his mother. His 80-year-old charge is not amused at being put in a nearby hotel by the Maori Council: she wants to be at the Copthorne, so here she is.

Now Harawira is glaring at a young male journalist as he attempts to interview her. He apologises for having offended her, blaming his youth.

Harawira is dismissive.

"Not all young people are idiots."

Plates of food and a glass of orange juice arrive from the kitchen and Harawira smiles broadly at the waitresses. She takes her time over the food, then half-an-hour later calls the Herald on Sunday over. It feels rather like a summons from the Queen.

Harawira doesn't mind the royal connection at all. "I am [regal]," she says at one stage during the interview. "I don't apologise."

Certainly she dresses the part - today a black pleated skirt, tunic and cardigan, teamed with black patent Mary Jane shoes. Her hands glitter with rings, her nails are manicured with sparkly pink enamel, and she has a delicate bracelet around one frail wrist. Her hair is vibrant purple, her face framed by virtually-permanent dark glasses.

The day before, when she victoriously escorted Prime Minister John Key on to the Te Tii Marae - having won a battle of wills with Ngapuhi elders - she stood out in a mint-green jacket and chiffon top in a sea of black. White lace gloves and a fan completed the outfit, a flowing scarf - and often a long string of pearls-favoured over carved pounamu.

Quite how this diminutive nana, hobbling along on crutches, can spook an entire marae and dignitaries is un-clear. But spook them she does. The point is, who will be brave enough to manhandle a little old lady out of the way? Titewhai Harawira it seems. In 2009 when marae elders wanted her replaced with Nellie Rata, Matiu Rata's widow, Harawira allegedly elbowed her out of the way as Prime Minister John Key arrived.

Harawira makes no apologies for her sense of entitlement, nor for her elegant wardrobe. People expect activists to look "grubby and unkempt" and that they don't know what to do with women who dress nicely, she says.

"Some of the most brilliant Maori are in the protest movement and they get stereotyped. You're meant to fit in and if you don't, they write all sorts of things."

Harawira's mother and grandmother would never have gone out in public without a hat and gloves, so neither does she, she says.

"That's howI was raised. Why would I change that because I have a strong opinion?"

As we talk, she's greeted by a constant stream of passing mostly-Maori men, who kiss her on the cheek and enquire after her well-being.

She clearly adores the attention and is unashamed about the need to have a high profile.

"The Maori world has become complacent, taking it for granted that politicians will come up with an answer. But they only come up with an answer if there's a strong voice from the community."

Harawira says she quite likes talking to journalists. It gives her an opportunity to get her point across. But she demands respect.

"It's the responsibility of media people to understand that when you come to interview people in the Maori world that the approach is different. For older Maori, if you approach it wrong, it doesn't happen. Often I end up saying, 'just go away and put whatever. I won't participate."'

She won't watch television when she's on or read the reports in newspapers. But before we begin the interview, she asks for a rundown of what's been in the media over the past couple of days.

What have they been saying? It's obvious she wants to know what has been said about her. She has reason to ask. She's been front-and-centre at Waitangi this year through what's been dubbed "granny-gate".

Harawira was determined to hold on to her role as the kuia who escorts Key on to the lower marae, despite opposition from other Ngapuhi elders who wanted Ani Taurua to take over the role.

"People like Kingi Taurua, telling the media he's afraid of me. He has a tattoo on his face like he's a warrior but he should have it on his bum."

He had the chance to come and talk to her, she says, but he didn't take it.

The words Waitangi, Harawira and trouble have been inextricably linked in recent years but Titewhai shrugs off suggestion she and her family are bullies, a bit too prone to throwing their weight around. People who complain are those who are scared, she says, "weak" men who aren't used to having women say what they think.

She hurled these accusations, and others, at Kingi Taurua this week, who in turn pointed out that Harawira has convictions for assault.

In 1988 Harawira, her daughter Hiniwhare, son Arthur and two others were found guilty of beating a Carrington Hospital patient. At the time Harawira was head of the Whare Paia Maori health unit. The jury also found Harawira guilty of a charge of threatening to kill. She was jailed for nine months.

The sentencing judge said that the five had carried out a "vicious and violent" attack on the patient and that the offences were "an arrogant and frightening abuse of authority and power".

He described Harawira's role as "outrageous".Imposing a longer prison sentence on Harawira, the judge told her "You were in a position of authority, you ought to have prevented what occurred."

At the time Helen Clark was Minister of Health and Harawira got her own back in 1997 when she made the then-Prime Minister cry by refusing to let her speak on the marae at Waitangi. Harawira said at the time she was highlighting the fact that Maori women couldn't speak on the marae - although she does so herself-so why should the Prime Minister?

From New York, Clark, who in the past has described the Harawira clan as "wreckers and haters", declined to take part in this story.

Compare that woman facing assault charges with the one who shuffled on to the lower marae with John Key this week. He later described her as a "gentle old lady". Harawira responds with, "Well, that's nice" when the remark is repeated.

She likes Key, she says, and thinks he makes clear decisions. "But his decisions exclude too many people."

While the Harawira family has often been in the spotlight for violence and disruption at Waitangi over the years, Harawira says now it is a day for discussion. She can remember being greeted by police armed with batons, backed up by rows of ambulances. "At the dawn service today I looked up at the flagpole and remembered when you couldn't get anywhere near it because of lines and lines of police. They saw us bunch of women as such a huge threat."

As the Waitangi Day tensions have mellowed, so has she. Her solution is not to kick all pakeha out of the country and she's no longer insisting that Europeans should pay rent as she did the 90s. She wants Maori history acknowledged, the Treaty properly honoured and the Government to admit it's failed to uphold its end of the bargain.

"Maori know the Treaty hasn't been recognised, it's not about bleating about the past."

As for Waitangi she'll keep coming back, keep holding court, no matter what stoush blows up with Te Tii.

But she won't be drawn on whether Taurua will have another fight on her hands next year if she wants to take Key's arm.

"There might be a snap election. Who knows? I never plan ahead."

She might be frailandthe crutches might never be far away, but her wits and her tongue are still sharp. Asked what is the best thing about being Titewhai Harawira now, she digs into a scoop of ice cream that's been placed in front of her.

"This ice cream, which is melting because of you."

Yet few women can fire up talkback or draw dislike from mainstream NewZealand than the elderly nana licking her ice cream spoon. This week Trade Me message boards lit up with vitriol.

User Terry, from Tokoroa, said: "Titewhai Harawira...so anti-European but wants the limelight escorting Europeans. Two-faced."

Lynda, from Auckland, wrote: "Basically she is anti-everything that doesn't see her prancing around in pride of place. And if she is so anti-colonial, I can't see the point parading around in her finery, trying her best to look like some clone of the Queen Mum."

Judith Tizard, a former Labour party minister and close friend of Clark, says Harawira gave the impression that she would rather no progress happened at all, than that something happened that wasn't on her terms.

"She has very passionate views about what should happen."

She doesn't think Harawira had it in for Clark in particular, pointing out Harawira also tried to make the Queen's visits unpleasant while Tizard's mother, Dame Cath Tizard, was Governor General."Her daughter once spat at my mother."

In 2011, Maori party co-leader Tariana Turia told media Harawira and her daughter Hinewhare had called her a liar at a Maori Party meeting at Te Tii.

"It was nothing short of being psychologically abusive and violent," Turia said. "I've never seen anything like it, to be honest. I felt sick."

Professor Paul Moon, of the University of Auckland, says grass roots Ngapuhi is split into two camps over Harawira. While some don't like her attention-seeking tactics, others think that while her methods are not always ideal, what she says is worth hearing.

"She's got enormous determination. I wonder if she were a man, whether she'd be treated differently. I do feel a bit uncomfortable when I see a large group of men bullying her.

"I'm not saying she's always in the right but if she were a man, would it be different?"

Professor Margaret Mutu, of the University of Auckland, says the media give Harawira too tough a time.

"It's well-known in academic circles that if an indigenous person challenges the colonising Government, they must expect to be demonised. Titewhai is one who is always challenging the Government."

Moon isn't sure: "I think she probably gets as good as she gives."

And challenge she does, over Maori language, fisheries rights and access to the airwaves. She's now back in court with the Maori Council for the right to water in the face of planned asset sales.

"We have a goddamn Treaty right to it, no matter what anyone else says."

She comes from a background where her parents were strapped at school for speaking Maori and watched children in her class being beaten and having their mouths washed out with soap for speaking Te Reo, she says.

It hasn't all been a life of activism. Harawira boarded in Auckland at Queen Victoria Maori Girls School. She then qualified as a nurse and worked for three years at the hospital in Kawakawa before heading back to Auckland, to take a job in a gentlemen's club off Queen St.

The club was advertising for a head waitress and a manager and Harawira and a girlfriend decided to try their luck. It was her first experience with really successful business people.

"They were the nicest people to work with, all very polite and considerate. I enjoyed working with them."

It was in Auckland that she met husband John Puriri Harawira.

"He was a musician and I used to love dancing."

Harawira looks set to keep talking but the TV news in the lobby comes on with a tsunami warning. Harawira immediately wants to know if her family down at the lower marae, by the water, know about the warning.

But she doesn't seem overly concerned.


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