By Māni Dunlop for RNZ

A Māori man says he was left upset and frustrated after aviation security staff at Auckland Airport would not let him bring his walking stick on to a plane because they said it had Māori carvings and could be used as a weapon.

Piripi Winiata a consultant and pāpā, no Ngāti Kahungunu and Rongomaiwahine, was gifted the tiripou (walking stick) when he graduated from a prestigious Māori language academy at the weekend.

Walking through security on Tuesday afternoon with his baby boy on his hip, Winiata was catching his flight home to Wellington after his graduation.

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Piripi Winiata with his tiripou. Photo / Supplied
Piripi Winiata with his tiripou. Photo / Supplied

But the 29-year-old and his son missed the flight after aviation security staff decided his new tiripou - a carved walking stick - was a risk to other passengers and the security person said she saw it as "mini-taiaha".

"I explained to her 'oh no it's not a taiaha, a taiaha is much longer, a different shape, it's a tiripou, it's a carved walking stick' and she said no you can't take it on.

"So I asked her if it was a regular walking stick as she knew it, would there be an issue with it and she said no, it's okay to take plain walking sticks on and I distinctly remember her saying plain walking sticks because when she said that, that is the point I knew there was a real issue here.

"I asked if the only difference between a plain walking stick and tiripou was the carving and she said 'yes it's a mini-taiaha'," he said.

Winiata said he became upset and tried to explain to her that it's a racist policy if the only difference she is making is the carvings and concluding based on that, that it could be used as a weapon.

"The real issue of what was happening there, she may or may not have been conscious that it was the message she was making, was to draw a connection between Māori culture and violence, and that for me was the real reason I was not willing to allow that to go unnoticed, because that is a really damaging view for us to have."

He said he apologised to the security person, who identified as Māori, and made clear that he was upset with the policy that was being implemented.

He had travelled from Wellington to Auckland with the tiripou and hadn't had an issue taking it through security so was confused with the inconsistency security had in applying their policy.

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The tiripou, which features carvings of his tīpuna (ancestors), was a gift from his whānau for completing one of the most exclusive and top Māori language courses, Te Panekiretanga o te reo Māori.

Winiata said walking into that experience was a huge contrast from the weekend's events where there was "great understanding of tikanga Māori".

He said he stood up for what he believed in because he knew it wasn't right - he said for him it was important for his son to see that you could do that despite what felt like swimming against the current in situations.

"I would rather him see that than grow up seeing me bow out when I encounter racism."

Winiata has written a letter to the Aviation Security Services explaining how the situation made him feel as well as making recommendations for them to improve their policies - he hasn't received a reply.

He wanted to create some urgency about making change.

"When I posted the experience on social media and I saw the number of Māori having the same experiences I realised this wasn't a one-off unique occurrence ... and there need to be changes to prevent this from happening again."

'An obvious example of racism'

Māori rights lawyer Kingi Snelgar agreed and said it was a racist and discriminatory experience and said he hoped change would be made.

"Piripi is someone who is able to handle himself and ask the right questions why the tiripou wasn't allowed through, but what if this was a kaumātua who wasn't aware of their rights? It seems like an obvious example of racism and the justification for why he couldn't take it through wasn't good enough."

Snelgar suggested training for frontline staff working at airport security and an acknowledgement of this incident.

"It's [tiripou] not just a walking stick, these things have a mauri, a life force, so there needs to be an acceptance that they were wrong and to correct the behaviour through training."

The Aviation Security Service said that it was required to prevent passengers taking on to aircraft blunt instruments which are capable of being used to cause serious injury.

It said walking sticks, when required for passenger mobility, were always allowed within the cabin, carved or otherwise.

"The presence of Māori carvings and the cultural significance of the item in question are not factors taken into account when determining if the item can be carried as cabin baggage."

It said it had reviewed the incident in question, including the review of video footage, and were comfortable that staff applied the policy correctly.

It did not clarify the inconsistency in implementing their policy as to why the tiripou was allowed to be taken through airport security in Wellington but not in Auckland.

- RNZ