Moana Maniapoto (Ngāti Pikiao, Tūhourangi-Ngāti Wahiao, Ngāti Tūwharetoa) reflects on the Black Pearls of Aotearoa, and asks, on the eve of our 125th anniversary of suffrage, how far have we come.

Black Pearl, precious little girl, let me put you up where you belong.

Black Pearl

, the 1969 hit for Sonny Charles and the Checkmates, was the song that kicked me into the musical spotlight in Aotearoa.

Advertisement

It was 1990, and I was just trying to be useful. My mates were rattling the cage inside the criminal justice system, education, health, media, and on the streets. In those days, thoughts of us being board members, chief executives or running our own companies were, well, non-existent.

We just wanted to be visible. That big ol' glass ceiling Pākehā women talk about? Māori women couldn't even see the damn thing. We were still outside banging on the door, trying to get in. Most of us still are.

So we packed the music video full of wāhine Māori of all ages, shapes and sizes. Eight months pregnant with my son Kimiora Hikurangi, I was all shapes and sizes myself.
The video was a deliberate celebration that, against all odds, Māori women are still here.

When you don't hear your language on the radio or see yourselves on television, it's easy to get the impression you don't count.

Black Pearl took off up the charts. Strangers would rock up with a hug, and say: "Thank you for making me feel proud to be a Māori woman," then disappear, leaving me teary.

Not long after the release, June Jackson, my mother-in-law at the time, suggested we throw a Black Pearl party in the middle of Mangere as a treat for kuia who didn't get out much. The venue was the Ngā Whare Waatea night markets. It didn't have proper walls, just bits of tarpaulin. No one cared.

June was a cleaner. She made the best chutney around. She also backed a vision by Anzac Wallace to create a welcoming space for Māori in the heart of Mangere, particularly those with weak ties to iwi. The longest-serving member of the Parole Board, June created a programme to help reintegrate inmates into society. It was run by a neat bunch of matriarchs.

Auckland was full of dynamic kuia who were surrogate mums and nans for many of us.
There was Haupai (Nanny Jack) Tawhara, a Tūhoe kuia and a fixture on the streets of South Auckland. Her trademark white gloves were as spotless as the rest of her Māori Warden uniform.

Waireti Walters, who was just as jolly and irreverent, and hell-bent on dragging any female in her sights into her mobile cervical smear clinic.

And dear old Mere Knight, who was at every hui in her beloved Māngere. They reminded me of the multi-talented Beatrice Yates in Rotorua, one of our Te Arawa kuia who became everyone's aunty.

Inspired by that first Black Pearl party and those wāhine, my friend Amiria Reriti and I teamed up with Brandi Hudson, Carol Ngawati and Nicole Presland to run the annual Black Pearl Awards. It was another all-women, flax-roots affair, although every year a bunch of opportunist males would volunteer as waiters.

We wanted to acknowledge the unsung heroines making a difference in their own communities. All of them were humble to a T. One sweet old dear would knock on doors in her poor neighbourhood to offer budgeting advice to young mums. Their generosity of spirit had us dabbing our eyes and questioning our own commitment.

There was no questioning the commitment of the women who lodged the Mana Wāhine claim with the Waitangi Tribunal, in 1993. Or their mana.

Dames Mira Szászy and Whina Cooper, Lady Rose Henare, Dr Irihapeti Ramsden, Donna Awatere, Ripeka Evans, and Paparangi Reid. Formidable and highly accomplished, they were role models for many of my generation.

The basis of their claim was that the Crown's actions and policies had breached the protection offered by Te Tiriti — and that this systemic discrimination had deprived wāhine Māori of our spiritual, cultural, social, and economic well-being.
Next year, 25 years after it was first lodged — and after several of the claimants have passed on — the Mana Wāhine Wai 2700 claim will finally be heard by the tribunal as part of the massive Kaupapa Inquiry.

That inquiry will also look at Wai 2608 — the claim that the justice system is institutionally biased and disproportionately targets Māori.

I'm picking there'll be some massive spillover between the two.

For many Māori, these aren't controversial claims. They're the reality that we live with daily, the statistics that we know only too well.

For example, Māori are more likely to be stopped by police, arrested, less likely to have legal representation, more likely to plead guilty, and six times more likely to be imprisoned than anyone else. On top of that, Māori women make up nearly 60 per cent of the prison population. The impact on whānau is huge.

The Mana Wāhine claim is a reminder that Māori women have always been at the frontlines of this fight to assert our mana and reclaim our rightful place in this land.

Twenty years after the Treaty was signed, including by 13 women, Māori were outnumbered. Disease. Invasion. Resistance. Māori women picked up weapons too, to defend their land and way of life.

My dad told us about Ahumai Te Paerata (Ngāti Raukawa/Ngāti Te Kohera) who responded to calls from the British that women leave Ōrākau: "If the men are to die, the women and children will die also." Most did. Ahumai was shot four times.

Then there was Hine Pore (Te Arawa), who also fought alongside Kīngitanga and at Gate Pā in the 1860s.

As power was devolved from the Queen to settler governments, laws were introduced to alienate more land and undermine Māori sovereignty.

Wāhine rangatira had been used to asserting leadership and independence. But they found themselves battling against both the imposition of European rule and missionaries who replaced the female-heavy Māori stories with Christian ones, in which females were chattels. Increasingly disempowered Māori men started to pick up imported thinking around gender roles.

Māori women joined the Women's Christian Temperance group as part of the Suffrage movement (and had to sign a pledge to give up tā moko), but they also fought for a voice in the Māori Parliament.

Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia addressed Te Kōtahitanga, pleading for Māori women to not only vote, but sit in the house. She argued that Queen Victoria might be more receptive to advocacy from wāhine, given Māori men hadn't had any success in halting land alienation.

Ngā Komiti Wāhine would later call for a boycott of the Native Land Court while also fighting against alien matrimonial property laws.

These women honed their advocacy, networking and organisational skills within Ladies Committees and the Country Women's Institute (CWI). But they were media savvy, playing a role in the production of Māori newspapers and using them to mobilise around political issues — i roto i te reo.

Dame Whina Cooper at her home in Panguru, Hokianga, 1989. Photo / John Stone
Dame Whina Cooper at her home in Panguru, Hokianga, 1989. Photo / John Stone

Despite the might of the Machine, Māori women have continued to fight back as their ancestors did. For example, Māori writers, academics, and activists consistently challenged the women's movement about a lack of support for decolonisation. They helped us understand the link between colonisation and the intergenerational trauma that has our people ending up in institutions.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith, a professor at the University of Waikato, agrees that the feminist struggle is relevant for all women in Aotearoa but, at the same time, "Our rage as an oppressed group is directed at dominant white structures which sit over us so encompasses white women as well as white men."
The rage went both ways.

In 1981, my mate and I found ourselves next to Eva Rickard and other Springbok Tour protesters in the middle of Rugby Park in Hamilton. The crowd was baying for blood. And as we left the pitch, some recognised Eva as the kuia who had led the 1978 occupation on the Raglan Golf Course, after land seized under the Public Works Act post-war was never returned. Eva copped their full anger. It was ugly.

It takes guts to get off the fence and do the unpopular thing. Eva Rickard had that in spades. And the movement she led did change history. The Crown eventually returned the land to Tainui Awhiro in 1984.

Merata Mita copped abuse too. An activist whose own life is now celebrated in film, Merata gave our people a voice and explored the hard stuff on screen through Patu and Bastion Point: Day 507.

"The revolution isn't just running out with a gun," she said. "If a film I make causes indigenous people to feel stronger about themselves, then I'm achieving something worthwhile for the revolution."

A mentor to many, Merata was inspired by Ngā Tamatoa. They weren't always popular with Māori. In 1972, Hana Te Hemara's petition mobilised support for te reo. It eventually led to the establishment of kōhanga reo and helped gain official status for Māori language.

Hard to imagine now that, in 1984, Dame Naida Glavish was threatened with dismissal for greeting customers with "Kia ora," when she was a toll operator for the Post Office.
In 1991, after reaching gold sales with Black Pearl, I released AEIOU to deafening silence. New Zealand radio wasn't interested in playing Māori music, but it turned out the rest of the world was. I didn't know it then but singing in Māori about Māori would take me — and Hinewehi Mohi, Rob Ruha, Maisey Rika, Maimoa, and Alien Weaponry — on to stages around the globe.

When our indigenous cousins from Taiwan, Australia, Canada and elsewhere look at Māori gains with envy, we tell them that nothing has ever been handed to us on a plate. Māori continue to put up one hell of a fight.

So where are we now?

My 10-year-old just sent me her essay exploring the place of women in Māori mythology. It's in Māori. Two ticks for that.

This week when I asked women to send images of themselves for my Warrior Woman music video, it was heartening to see so many wearing tā moko. Big tick.

We can certainly celebrate an increase in the number of Māori women leading iwi or at the boardroom table, in Parliament and across the professions — women like Brandi Hudson now running the Independent Statutory Board, Arihia Bennett and Lisa Tumahai, the chief executive and chair of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu.

Māori women are often leading the way at iwi and hapū level, too. They're tackling environmental issues or active on post-settlement trusts. Many more, like my cousins Watu Mihinui and Aneta Morgan at Whakarewarewa, are running wānanga and keeping everyone up with the play.

Most of my old classmates from law school are judges. There are Māori women in the arts and in sports on the global stage. And hotshot journalists, educationalists and academics. Others have high-level roles inside organisations and government ministries. "Think of me as a plant," whispered one high-flyer to a group of us. The Black Pearls I know are on a mission. They may be flamethrowers or stealth bombers, but gamechangers don't just want a seat at the table. They want to tip the table over, rearrange the seating and change the menu.

Neo-liberalism, consumerism, capitalism, individualism, racism — all the "isms" — are killing all of us, but especially Māori.

Most Pākehā understand that their sons and daughters are less likely to be picked up by the cops, go to court, drop out of school, rob a bank, get sick, be unemployed, commit suicide, or end up homeless. The statistics should be a wake-up call. Many Pākehā don't understand the dice is loaded in their favour — that their place in the game is a given. Most who do are agents of change in their circles of influence.

June Jackson was made a Dame in 2010 and has retired. She's fragile now. But her happy place was always among a posse of big, bold, and bossy women at Waatea — smoking and cackling up large.

Back then, Amiria Reriti and I would rock up to them. "Tobacco is a tool of colonisation," we'd announce. "Māori women have the highest smoking rates in the world."

They would roll their eyes. And take another puff. The impact of colonisation walked through their gates every day. Poor. Angry. On struggle street. Alone in New Zealand's most crowded city. That's the sad reality for more and more Māori.

If I was going to give out a Black Pearl Award this year, it would be to a grandmother I know who has raised three young children on a benefit while both parents were in jail. At one point, she was forced to live in a motel because, unknown to her, someone had smoked "P" in her state house. Despite that struggle, she's instilled pride and positivity in her granddaughters.

Sure, we've made advances, but what with all the "isms", it's Māori women like Nan bearing the brunt of trying to hold families together and raise confident and educated kids, while others work hard to challenge systemic racism and structural inequities we inherit through colonisation.

This year, as we reflect on Women's Suffrage and 250 years since the arrival of James Cook, the legacy of ongoing colonisation — the real story, warts and all — will unfold at the Waitangi Tribunal.

PEARLS OF WISDOM

1. What is the most transformational event that's happened in your lifetime?

Annette Sykes, lawyer:

The Springbok tour; violence on peaceful protesters inspired me to fight for justice.

Brandi Hudson, CEO Independent Maori Statutory Board:

The digital age

Stacey Morrison, broadcaster:

Treaty settlements and their impact on our entrepreneurial & cultural status.

Mihingarangi Forbes, journalist:

MMP

Tina Ngata, environmentalist:

Te Whānau ā Apanui beating Petrobras.

Laura O'Connell Rapira, director ActionStation:

Legal recognition of personhood in the Whanganui river, Taranaki & Te Urewera.

2. What is one strategy to transform the lives of Māori women and whānau?

Sykes:

A Māori system of justice based on respect, manaakitanga and mana motuhake.

Hudson:

Free public transport for under 18-year-olds and free Wifi in all shopping centres.

Morrison:

Strategies supporting women to reclaim and teach Māori to their whanau at home.

Forbes:

Reduce gaps between Māori and Pākehā with policy that addresses our past and puts children first.

Ngata:

Educational support for young mothers.

O'Connell Rapira:

It's all laid out in Matike.

From the past...

Auckland Star, 19 Sept 1891

"The wāhine Māori of today thinks a great deal more of a good pipe of tobacco, a new blue and red roundabout, a smart pig dog or a dish of potatoes and pork than of any such humbug as votes and franchise and so forth."

Huia Tangata Kotahi, 30 Sept 1893

"There are Māori women who are neither handsome nor intellectual, but they are invariably good-natured – although they can bite and fight valiantly when their lords and masters are attacked, as instanced the other day when some buxom wenches of the full native blood resisted the attempts of the police who captured their husbands who had obstructed a survey."

Mana wāhine

Moana Maniapoto writes for E-Tangata. She is one of six women featured in "Conversations", a web-series celebrating wāhine Māori and Pasifika, produced for E-Tangata by Tawera Productions. Moana is directing The Negotiators, a documentary series on Treaty settlements for MTS and recording her sixth album, ONO. She is the mother of two.

Quotes, Māori Women and The Vote, Tania Rei (Huia Publishers), 1993