Kaipara mayor Craig Jepson got a “rude awakening” today as hundreds of people gathered to tell him that tikanga (Māori customs) is here to stay whether he likes it or not.
Around 300 people from all over Northland took part in a peaceful hīkoi that wound its way through Dargaville’s main streets.
The endpoint was the Northern Wairoa War Memorial Hall on Hokianga Rd, where the newly elected Kaipara District Council was to meet at 9.30am.
Paturiri Toautu organised the march after a controversial “karakia ban”, when the mayor prevented new Māori Ward councillor Pera Paniora from opening the council’s first full meeting, at Mangawhai on November 30, with a karakia.
Jepson said council members had different religious convictions and ethnicities, and he intended to run a secular council that respected everybody.
The “karakia ban” sparked complaints from iwi leaders and a petition with more than 6000 names, but Jepson said he had been inundated with calls, texts and emails supporting his decision.
Last Friday the new council backtracked by deciding councillors would take turns to open future meetings with a karakia, blessing, statement, reflection or whatever they felt comfortable with.
But it was clear today the council’s gesture had been spurned.
Ngāti Whātua chairwoman Dame Naida Glavish cut through the hīkoi’s calm with her fiery words.
She promised Māori would no longer allow anyone to “do what they like” with tikanga.
“How dare someone who was voted in for three miserable years do what they like with tikanga without a conversation first?
“No way are we going to take that sort of behaviour. No way, it’s over.”
Glavish said a hīkoi, or march, was the only way to be heard because the mayor would not meet them otherwise.
“He has not got the courage,” she said.
Aperahama Kerepeti-Edwards, chairman of Te Poari o Ngātiwai (Ngātiwai Trust Board), said members of the iwi had travelled from all parts of their rohe (region) to take a stand.
Many people proudly displayed their iwi affiliations on their shirts with Ngāti Whātua, Ngātiwai and Ngāpuhi among those represented.
“We’re standing in solidarity with the people of Kaipara to restore the place of tikanga and remind the council of its obligation to the Treaty of Waitangi,” said Kerepeti-Edwards.
A sea of placards calling for tikanga to be restored jutted into the air. Some were more direct as they demanded Jepson resign.
Josephine Nathan (Te Uri o Hau, Ngāti Whātua), who contested the Kaipara District Council’s general ward, was at the hīkoi because she wanted to “restore balance” to a community impinged by racism.
That was the reason Nathan threw her name in the ring for council.
“It’s all about partnership,” she said.
“My grandmother, Lorna Nathan, went through a whole lot of historical trauma back in the days.
“As her mokopuna, I wanted to run for council and I wanted to be a voice at the table for balance.”
The uproar at Jepson’s karakia ban wasn’t about Māori being different to him, Nathan said.
“We are all one whānau. Our tūpuna have been through so much intergenerational trauma that this is just too much.”
But the mayor was getting a “rude awakening” today, Nathan said.
“Karakia isn’t about religion. It’s all about how we connect to something bigger than ourselves.”
Nathan used the example of giving thanks while fishing by putting the first catch back in the sea.
“That’s karakia,” she said. “It’s giving gratitude and thanks.”
James (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Whātua ki Kaipara, Te Uri O Hau), who did not want to give his last name, travelled from Ahipara to take part in the hīkoi.
He said the march wasn’t about Māori versus non-Māori.
“It’s about uniting and understanding each other’s values and tikanga.
“It’s about us standing strong in the Kaipara,” he said.
When the hīkoi reached the district council steps, Glavish delivered an emotive challenge, in Te Reo Māori, to the council to respect tikanga.
Kerepeti-Edwards followed with a powerful message about the resilience of karakia – it has always been here and it will always remain.
Jepson stood at the top of the stairs, his hands clasped behind his back.
With him were other council representatives, including interim chief executive Jason Marris.
Jepson looked on, expressionless and silent, as Te Kurataiaho Kapea (Ngāti Whātua) expressed the “depth of their hurt”.
Kapea urged the mayor to “gaze across the people here today” who shared concerns about last month’s karakia ban.
While the group was small, they “represent thousands”, he said.
“We’re not going away, we’ve been here a thousand years plus — we are not going away.”
Kapea lamented Kaipara’s backwards steps while lauding the Far North, which had just elected its first Māori mayor, Moko Tepania.
Toautu then took the megaphone and accused Jepson, to his face, of racism.
Jepson remained silent before eventually walking back inside the building.
Kapea performed a final karakia outside council chambers as councillors inside prepared for the meeting to start. Nine speakers from today’s hīkoi were to address the council.
Toautu said he was “deeply blown away” by today’s hīkoi.
He hoped the mayor had heard their message and would respect tikanga in future.