Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Change for the better

By Janet McAllister

Singer Hinewehi Mohi. Photo / Kellie Blizard
Singer Hinewehi Mohi. Photo / Kellie Blizard

It's easy to get discouraged in a recession, when political history seems to be repeating itself and funding for cultural events and coverage is sliced ever more thinly.

So I was pleasantly surprised to go along to the Michael King Writers' Centre's Matariki event last Monday, and find the centre was using the New Year marker as an opportunity to reflect on past achievements, making dreams for the future seem more realistic, even when things seem mid-winter bleak.

The event was a panel discussion and screening of the exemplary 2010 television documentary Lines in the Sand at Victoria Theatre in Devonport.

One of the panellists and documentary stars was Naida Glavish, chair of Te Runanga o Ngati Whatua, who in 1984, was the telephone operator demoted for greeting callers with a cheery "kia ora".

She stuck to what came naturally to her, even though she could have been sacked, or even evicted as her employer, the Post Office, owned her house.

(They were indeed different times.) But the story has a happy ending: then-Prime Minister Rob Muldoon said he didn't mind if she said "keeee ora", and she got her job back.

Lines in the Sand, directed by Carol Archie, actually centres on another woman who stirred up te reo rage - another "gentle revolutionary" as writer David Slack put it on Monday. Singer Hinewehi Mohi was lambasted for leading the national anthem in te reo and not English before an All Blacks world cup game in Britain in 1999.

The documentary suggests that had she asked to sing the anthem in both languages, the answer would have been no (unlike in international netball, where the anthem in two languages had been the status quo for years). Again happily, Mohi's stand helped fast-track the current custom of singing the anthem twice at official occasions, first in te reo and then in English.

These stories are both horrifyingly recent, but they also give hope: positive change can happen, and it can happen through people power. (Even if it's three steps forward and two back.)

As Glavish stressed at Monday's discussion: "I began the battle but actually it was the country that won the war."

The support - tautoko - she received from both Maori and non-Maori was overwhelming.

Airline pilots greeted passengers with "kia ora"; people rang the switchboard wanting to talk to the "kia ora lady".

One panellist, writer Te Awhina Arahanga, would like to see us showing more of this trust and "more faith in each other, and not continual judging". Unity not uniformity; empathy not forced conformity.

So, we've gone from kia ora 28 years ago to the anthem 13 years ago. What's next?

Archie hopes for a more real, vital partnership with Maori, with political clout. Another panellist, kaupapa Maori architecture specialist Rau Hoskins, said making Matariki a national holiday would be "a mark of maturity" and he expects it to happen within five years.

Now, even for those reluctant to work together, that's an incentive worth changing attitudes for.

- NZ Herald

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