Transit and the taniwha

By JAN CORBETT

When the BBC ran the story on its website - and it did - the headline said, "Maori swamp creature delays road." The Independent - yes, Britain's quality daily broadsheet reported it as well - said, "Construction on a major highway in New Zealand has been halted because a local Maori tribe says it is infringing on the habitat of a mythical swamp-dwelling monster".

You could hear the sniggering all the way around the globe.

It's a straight three-lane stretch of road straddling the Waikato River near Meremere that has claimed an inordinate number of lives in often inexplicable head-on crashes. White crosses punctuate the fenceline.

Maori have long blamed the taniwha for the high death rate. With some modern roading engineering, Transit New Zealand and the travelling public expect to tame the beast.

Except the beast seemed to have been forgotten until the bulldozers moved in and the local iwi Ngati Naho poked it awake, just as Northland Maori have done to oppose the prison at Ngawha.

Letters to the editor suggested taniwha taunting is merely a cynical ruse by Maori looking for compensation. The taniwha, it is suggested, could be paid to go away.

Equally rose the frustration that a "primitive culture" is being allowed to halt development because politically correct Pakeha are too afraid to tell Maori to get real, get over it or get lost. In any event, construction stopped. Urgent meetings between Transit New Zealand and Ngati Naho were convened this week.

So, do rational, modern-day Maori really believe there is a taniwha at the bend of every river and lurking in the swamp?

"My answer to that is yes, we do," says Remi Herbert, manager of the Ngati Naho Co-operative Society (www.ngatinahohapu.co.nz) which has raised the objection. "It is part of our historical belief that taniwha do exist all along the Waikato River.

"It's a cultural matter here. It's entirely what you believe in. Being Maori, that's part of our history that's been there since day one."

Urban and urbane Maori Cabinet minister John Tamihere agrees "there's no doubt" about the existence of taniwha. Dr Ranginui Walker, former professor in the Maori Studies Department at Auckland University, was raised knowing to never swim at the bend in the river because the taniwha would get him.

"It is cultural, just the same as goblins are part of European culture, it's the same sort of thing," says Walker.

And, of course, as he explains further, the bend in the river is a more dangerous place for children to swim because it is deeper. It's like Europeans using the bogeyman to frighten children away from dangerous places, or just to frighten them.

Similarly, he says, like most cultures, Maori use mysticism to explain the inexplicable or grossly unlucky, like a branch falling from a tree and killing a man walking under it at that moment. Europeans might call it the hand of God, Maori might blame tipua, an evil spirit living in the tree. All beliefs require a leap of faith that defy rational explanation.

The difference is, of course, Pakeha do not use fairies, goblins, trolls, Santa Claus, God, the angels or saints to prevent motorways or prisons being built, although there is no record of developers wanting to turn the sod at the sites of Christianity's famous apparitions.

Religions with rules about food, such as Judaism, do not impact on others. Prudently, Pakeha have placed their mythical creatures in cold and distant places where no one wants to go or knows how to get to. Instead, another many-headed beast is used to thwart unsightly developments in the backyard or neighbours blocking the view - the Resource Management Act.

"People who haven't got much power, who are in a powerless situation as most Maori are against big government and local government, reach back in time to these mystical creatures in trying to stop so-called progress," says Walker. "That's a valid reaction on their part. They haven't got the skills, perhaps, to go to planning hearings, to put up coherent environmental arguments. [The taniwha] is an argument of last resort."

It doesn't necessarily mean Maori do not want the motorway, it's more that they resent it being foisted on them without their views being respected, just as a Pakeha or anyone else might feel if they arrived home and found the council putting a road they hadn't been told about through the backyard.

"In the old days chiefs were put down, kaumatua ignored," says Walker. "You can't blame younger ones for reaching back [to the ancient mythology.]"

He believes if there was more and earlier consultation with the local kuia and kaumatua, the taniwha would not rear its ferocious head out of the water nearly so often.

Ask Ngati Naho's Remi Herbert if this is really about Pakeha putting a road through their territory without sufficient consultation and he replies: "Exactly. Absolutely."

More so than it being about a taniwha in the river? "I think they go hand in hand."

Yet Herbert admits Transit New Zealand did consult the iwi about the Waikato expressway. Just not about the taniwha.

"Our organisation requested that a cultural report be prepared. That was only a couple of months ago, which was turned down. Transit New Zealand had reasons for that. We left it at that. A cultural report would have brought all the issues out. There have been cultural reports done in this area, but not by Maori. I think that's the problem."

Believers though they may be, Maori such as Walker and Tamihere also know the taniwha is symptomatic of a stage the culture is going through.

"A lot of modern-day Maori culture is in reconstruction," says Walker. "Maori culture went to the wall as a consequence of British imperialism. Maori culture was transformed irrevocably by Christianity and colonisation. We're going through a reconstruction period."

Likewise Tamihere expects that over time and with the right handling the taniwha will evolve into a more docile creature, particularly if it stands in the way of progress for his people.

Just as Europeans once thought fearful dragons inhabited the outer reaches of a flat Earth, Maori believed a malevolent taniwha inhabited the horizon. But when overpopulation forced the people of Hawaiki to paddle beyond it in search of new land, the taniwha was surmounted. At least that's how Tamihere tells it.

"If necessary every culture will find a way to assuage these matters if it's for the benefit of the community. Which is not to say a belief in taniwha does not have integrity. You can move over and around them."

Herbert says the question is: "How do we find a balance between Maori and Pakeha, between Transit New Zealand and Ngati Naho, to address the issue here? That is what we plan to do at this stage. It can be addressed, it can be sorted out, as long as the procedures are done right."

So, what exactly does Ngati Naho want?

"I guess we need recognition that they [taniwha] do exist. We already know that in the Maori sense. They should be identified and be respected for what they are."

The problem Pakeha have is the idea that taniwha can turn up at any time in unexpected places.

"Like God?" replies Herbert, laughing.

Sadly, Pakeha cannot invoke the taniwha if they see bulldozers heading into the neighbourhood because, explains Walker, taniwha belong to the local iwi, end of story. When Europeans sailed to Aotearoa, goblins, trolls and leprechauns never made it on board. Then again, should we be forcibly colonised, it might be prudent to import some.

But what about the proposition that taniwha can be used to prevent development.

"I see what you mean," says the mild-mannered Herbert. "One of the things we don't want to do is hold up the motorway. It's a matter of sitting down with Transit New Zealand and working out the problem, if there is a problem. And coming to an amicable solution, and there is one."

Which is?

"To identify where the problem is. It's how we deal with it so we can move on. We need to sit down with Transit New Zealand and come to some arrangement where both parties come out on top. And we will.

"It's a matter of how do we address it and if there are any other taniwha that could lurch out and hold the project up - that needs to be raised over the next 24 hours [he said on Wednesday]. That's the issue we're going to be working on so we do not hold the project up any further."

Thursday's meeting with Transit was initially confrontational, he says, but finished with an agreement to limit the work until further talks are held next week.

He says the details of the discussion are confidential.

"We are working in with Transit to see how we can accommodate those taniwha there. Maybe the road needs to divert a little bit. It's up to kaumatua and kuia to make that call.

"At end of day we're confident we'll come to an amicable solution. We are not looking for compensation. We're looking to make sure our spiritual needs and our mana are intact."

Unfortunately the opposite might occur, warns Tamihere. "We've got to be careful about using our cultural licence in a way that can lead to the debasing of it."

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