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Sharples: Loss and Grief - Uncensored

National Association of Loss and Grief Conference

Loss and Grief: Uncensored

Hamilton Gardens, Monday 16th October 2006

Dr Pita Sharples; Co-leader Maori Party

Kia kore ai e ngaro nga kakano i ruia i Rangiatea

I will never be lost; for I am a seed sown from Rangiatea


It is good to be back here with you again, confronting and addressing the exploration of grief.

This is the third time I have had the privilege of being part of your hui - and I do so in recognition of the importance of addressing grief, of touching, feeling, seeing grief, if we are ever to hope for healing.

And so I was only too happy to respond to your invitation to consider the unseen, unacknowledged loss and grief that are the ongoing effects of colonization and marginalization.

It is a theme that many of us have been contemplating as the insidious denial of indigeneity and identity rages on.

But in our sorrow - and our rage - we take strength from our source, our fundamental identity as Maori, as descendants of our tupuna from Rangiatea, our original homeland.

Kia kore ai e ngaro nga kakano i ruia i Rangiatea

I will never be lost; for I am a seed sown from Rangiatea

This is a theme which encapsulates our pride in being Maori - of whatever percentage point or degree of blood a colonial enumerator would dream up.

Our origins in Rangiatea represent our collective identity as tangata whenua. An identity that over the generations perhaps well-meaning missionaries, evangelistic settlers, paternalistic anthropologists, ethnocentric educators, vote-catching politicians and all manner of other players in the colonizing project, have sought to suppress, deny, dilute and eradicate.

Our language has been smothered almost out of existence. Our traditions and histories have been held up for ridicule. Our tupuna have been mocked, have been murdered, have been jailed for contempt, but still our songs are sung.

As a descendent of Ngati Kahungunu, I was brought up with stories about the Land Repudiation movement, which sought to resist the seizing of our land by the Crown.

The Movement emerged to challenge the large-scale confiscation of land in Ngati Kahungunu that came with the passage of the New Zealand Settlements Act. At a hui in August 1873, Te Ataria expressed his concern, and I quote:

'the plains and the mountains are being removed from under our feet, the hundred pathways of Heretaunga are being trampled by angry greedy people.

Soon all we may have left will be the sea and the beaches although even now Pakeha covet our fish, drain the waters that feed the sea, and take away the rocks and sand . . . the ocean is in danger of being taken like the rest of the whenua'.

The process that Te Ataria described, the horror of land alienation and confiscation, has haunted our people right up until the present day.

Just last Thursday, a mere four days ago, we were advised that our Bill to repeal the Foreshore and Seabed Act has been drawn from the ballot. While it was a moment of celebration that our Bill had been drawn - to thus come before the House in the next few weeks - it was a bitter sweet event. For in repealing that Act which vests ownership of the foreshore and seabed in the Crown, we grieve that we even had to go through this process in the first place.

Our understanding as tangata whenua, was that the affirmation of tino rangatiratanga in article two of Te Tiriti o Waitangi clearly gives hapu and iwi an ongoing regulatory role, a fact acknowledged in Treaty settlement legislation.

Such a role goes hand in hand with the understanding that all citizens of Aotearoa should be able to enjoy access to the foreshore and seabed, based on respect and care for those areas, the concept of kaitiakitanga.

Instead, in opening up a process which denied, indeed extinguished Maori rangatiratanga over our taonga, the current Government was willing to incite a pathway of division, of conflict, of distrust, where some citizens were described as haters and wreckers, where the Prime Minister chose to give her time to a celebrity sheep called Shrek, rather than listen to the concerns of thousands of New Zealanders who had marched to Parliament in utter despair at the latest actions in the project of colonisation.

We believed it was the last attack of colonisation, without arms or armies, a colonisation to break the heart and spirit of a nation.

But what we have seen, even in the last few months, is that the project is still very active.

The Government has signed up to the persistent efforts of New Zealand First to delete all treaty references from legislation. Indeed, the Government has attempted to enforce a colonisation of the imagination, deleting Treaty references from the school curriculum, thereby threatening the capacity of our upcoming generations to know the ‘full story’.

I want here to refer to a challenge put forward by Dr Glenn Colquhoun; a doctor, poet and children's author. Colquhoun’s first collection, the Art of Walking Upright is about a place to stand; finding out what it means to be Pakeha in this land; finding out what it means to be human. He gives us further insights, in his 2004 book, Jumping Ship, and I quote:

“The most difficult thing about majorities is not that they cannot see minorities, but that they cannot see themselves. There is no contrast, no dissonance, everything is white on white.

To be Pakeha in this generation is sometimes to stand behind the goal line, scratching our heads, waiting for the conversion, on the wrong end of one of the great comebacks in cultural history, our coach screaming possession, possession, possession.

What we do next will define us. Accepting a loss could be good. We may discover a way of being we had forgotten”.

I discovered this comment last week, when I spoke to a conference of Pakeha, all whom had invested in making time to learn about ‘Engaging Maori’.

And I have to say, it gave me hope. For if one outcome of colonisation is the recognition that loss is not always on the side of the colonised, then perhaps our mutual ‘grief’ can indeed become a base from which we move forward.

The consequences of colonisation are absolutely massive. We see it manifest in a generation of people who have turned from the spirit of entrepreneurs to people, too many of whom are dependent on welfare. We have observed the transfer of authority from a people who have been documented as international traders since at least the 1790s, to a population that some might label as urban wanderers.

We have histories and evidence of our tupuna producing and supplying fruit, vegetables, animals for sale to whalers in return for blankets, material, clothing, and other goods. Maori were also the original owners and operators of most of the coastal shipping outlets, and were astute exporters.

The large-scale drift to the city of a people ill-equipped to face a life of such contrast, has inevitably been damaging. But it is not damage beyond repair.

For even the waves of intolerance that periodically threaten the stability of the nation, cannot wipe out the seed sown from Rangiatea.

Through all the storms and tempest, like the singer Gloria Gaynor suggests, we will survive.

Our history and success as entrepreneurs is recognised, worldwide, and provides a solid basis for our potential to be explored.

And just as our tupuna plied the oceans of the Pacific, tangata whenua are blessed with a hardy resilience, a hearty strength and enthusiasm that knows no bounds.

And that is why the topic of grief to us, is always balanced with the wonder of life.

There is no better demonstration of this than in the rituals and ceremonies of grieving encompassed in our tangihanga. From the moment the death is observed until the last clods are thrown into the grave, mourners touch, kiss, hug, weep, sing, chastise, laugh, wail, and speak to the tüpäpuka, the corpse, in a coming together of emotion and grief.

Our grief is as much a part of our life as joy itself. Indeed, death is but the achievement of life. And as we express our love in the process of grieving, we also cherish the expression of our humanity -kua heke te hupe me te roimata; literally, the flowing of tears and the discharge of mucus.

We say, ‘I whanau tatou ki te mate’ - we are born to die.

Past injustices are addressed; exploits relayed; memories stirred. We believe that the spirit remains with the body until the time of the burial and it is our utmost responsibility and honour, to ensure that all issues are resolved, all experiences are acknowledged, before their final journey back.

That process is intimate, personal, excruciatingly intense - and also a process of incredible collective therapy, ma nga tau heke, e noho pai mai i te pokohiwi o te katoa, to share and lift the weight off our shoulders for years to come.

The process of grieving is also absolutely uplifting; a celebration of life not loss.

I contrast that with an outstretched handshake, “My sincere condolences” or maybe a polite expression of regret in a Hallmarks card. I recognise we have different, culturally appropriate ways of grieving, but I wonder - if everyone has the capacity to express emotions, should not the occasion of death be the perfect outlet for such emotions?

The intensity of the tangihanga releases a person into a world where there is no pain; Te Ao Kare he Mamae, while we, the living, continue on in Te Ao Mamae - a world where pain is experienced.

The ultimate challenge is how do we encourage the opportunity for grief to be expressed, alongside the incentive for joy?

This notion of grief sitting alongside joy is part of the balance of life.

As another example, when we are no longer living in the home where our children live, rather than being submerged with the loss, we may be able to see that as an opportunity to embrace the strength of collective responsibility. We may look forward to the new perspectives, the richness of experiences our child may enjoy - there is no boundary set around the capacity for love.

Our emphasis should be on what connects us, rather than what divides us.

I am often puzzled when I hear Pakeha define members of their whanau in ways which seek to create a distance - to put up a barrier between themselves and another. A step-sister; a half-brother; a cousin twice removed; my mother’s cousin.

In our world, we welcome our sisters and brothers, our cousins, our aunties and uncles as whanau - whatever degree of separation a genealogy expert might describe it as.

And in much the same way, when we need to express grief, the strength for us is in numbers, in our connections, while in other world views, the expression of grief may be another opportunity to create distance - “we’ll leave them alone”; “they wouldn’t want to see people at this time”; “we’ll just send flowers and cause them no bother”.

Perhaps in this one day conference, in which loss and grief will be expressed, we may all get a chance to say, the bother is worth it.

I hope that this day - and days to come - help us to be strong enough and honest enough to advance the process of healing and restoration.

And finally, I wish us all great courage and fortitude, as we harness the entrepreneurial spirit of the seed from Rangiatea, alongside the pioneering valour of those who have travelled to a new homeland, so that we shall never be lost.


ENDS

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