For 50 years Tūhoe kaumātua Tame Iti has hit our headlines, representing Māori rights in his own unique style. From te reo Māori to land disputes to the ill-fated anti-terror raids and imprisonment, his battle for justice has been judged by Stuff and its newspapers through a monocultural lens. His experience is similar to many other Māori and it’s led to a breakdown in trust of the media. National Correspondent Florence Kerr and Visual Journalist Mark Taylor changed the lens to retell his story.
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As early morning sunlight in Te Urewera filters through the ethereal cloak of Hinepūkohurangi, the mist maiden, a different light, harsh and human-made, is shining coldly in the darkness of our newsmaking ignorance.
This story begins and ends in Te Urewera, a statutorily and culturally protected being of rivers, mountains and forests forever linked to the Ngāi Tūhoe people.
Among their varied creation stories, Tūhoe are said to be the descendants of Pōtiki-tiketike, a child born of natural entities: Te Maunga, and Hinepūkohurangi in the heart of Te Urewera.
In the small village of Rūātoki, one of those descendants is quietly absorbing stories written by Stuff and its affiliate newspapers about him and his people.
Tame Iti has featured on our front pages over five decades.
He has received more than his fair share of criticism as he pursued the rights of Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Tūhoe kaumatūa Iti became the face of the 2007 anti-terrorism police raids. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
A recognisable face of Māori activism, his well documented campaigns against colonisation, land thefts, and oppression have won him fans as well as critics, including condemnation from some of his own people.
There is silence as Iti methodically scans each line, mouthing the words as he reads without making a sound. His eyes flick across words written in the Evening Post, June 2007.
“Certainly Mr Iti is not wanted back here, where rule of law is still respected and exists for the protection of Māori as for anyone else.”
An opinion piece in the Sunday Star Times in January 2011 had the headline: “Weak lawmakers loading guns for fearsome ferals”, suggesting that a disproportionate number of New Zealand’s troublemakers are Māori.
A sub-heading from The Dominion Post in October 2007 – “Guerillas in the mist” – referenced Tūhoe’s creation story and the Dian Fossey movie, Gorillas in the Mist. It may have seemed clever at the time, but it’s offensive.
A headline in the Dominion Post caused insult when the paper used Tūhoe's creation story and the Dian Fossey movie, Gorillas in the Mist. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Iti’s face was often used by our news organisation to depict the anti-terror police raids that began in 2007.
There is an unpalatable irony to those raids and other related moments in Tūhoe history involving the constabulary. The news media, including our own, supported and in some instances, applauded the actions of the police and officials against Tūhoe.
This occurred when the fugitive Te Kooti was on the run from armed colonial and Māori forces who tracked him through the territory in the late 1860s and early 70s; during the mass arrests of Rua Kēnana and his followers at Maungapōhatu in the early 1900s; and again in the anti-terror raids from 2007 onwards.
Stuff’s journalists have comprehensively trawled back through time to critically analyse our coverage of Māori across all of our papers and more recently, on our digital platform.
Iti's experience with the media has formed part of the national Our Truth, Tā Mātou Pono project, which found Stuff and its newspapers have been racist, contributing to stigma, marginalisation and stereotypes against Māori.
We have apologised publicly to Māori and plans are in place to better represent all communities in Aotearoa.
After the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, we showed our racism against Māori during the early years of mass European colonisation by writing news in support of the political, legal, economic, cultural and social interests of settlers.
Later in the 20th century and this millennia, because we have never taken stock of our own bias until now, our reporting continued to protect and maintain those interests.
Iti continued to quietly read the news headlines, while we watched on, rubbing his chin as another line was absorbed, the lines of his moko moving with every touch.
Abruptly the reading stops, his eyes look up and an unexpected smile spreads across his face.
Is he angry about what he has read?
“No,” he replies.
Iti describes the mainstream media’s portrayal of Māori as one that is only told through a Pākehā lens and invites more harm than good.
“They incite violence and incite a response from the community.
“Particularly the early days of propaganda … by and large the way in which indigenous people have been portrayed like some alien from another world.
Iti strides into his art studio, and we follow closely behind. Inside the house, his art - interpretations of the past, present and future - hang on the walls.
He was raised by whānau on the land in Rūātoki he still lives on. He has always been more than the activist depicted in the news.
Iti is an artist, actor, poet, entrepreneur, beekeeper, gardener, father and grandfather. He has supported other indigenous nations seeking redress, given advisory talks to fledgling journalists and police students, and was invited to give a TEDx Talk in Auckland.
He described his many interactions with the media as theatre, deliberately choosing what role he would play, outfits he would wear, actions he would take and words to use.
“That was a good strategy, I thought, to use this as a platform so we could have a voice,” he says.
The earliest news story we found of Iti was when he erected a small tent, dubbed the ‘Māori Embassy’ on the grounds of Parliament in 1972. It relates to a black and white photo taking pride of place amongst his artwork.
It shows a group of fresh-faced, young Māori activists in their early 20s, including actor Rawiri Paratene, wearing the hairstyle and bell bottoms of the era. A long-haired young man sitting further back is barely recognisable.
“That’s me,” Iti says.
It was not on the grounds of Parliament that Iti began his career as an activist. It was at his primary school in Rūātoki, where he came face-to-face with racism. His principal told them not to speak te reo Māori at school. Iti and his schoolmates refused.
“It was a school run and operated by the state and it perpetuated violence toward us little kids at the school, in those early days, for speaking our language,” says Iti.
In the early 70s, Iti came to a crossroads while living in Christchurch. He was one of many young Māori who moved to the city for trades training. Iti not only finished his painting and decorating apprenticeship, he was also Canterbury’s wrestling champ. It gave him a chance to represent New Zealand at the 1974 Commonwealth Games
“I had to ponder through all of that, shall I go this way with wrestling or this other way with my people,” says Iti. “Then I jumped the ship totally and forgot all about my career as a wrestler for the Commonwealth Games. I left and joined Ngā Tamatoa.”
Ngā Tamatoa was a well-known group led by young Māori university students, including Hone and Hilda Harawira, Syd and Hana Jackson, Rawiri Paratene and many more, who worked closely with the Polynesian Panthers.
In 1972, a 21-year-old Iti erected his father’s tent on Parliament’s grounds and named the tent the ‘Māori Embassy’. It was a symbolic gesture about the alienation of Māori from their lands.
The timing of the protest outside Parliament coincided with the election and Ngā Tamatoa knew they would be able to get traction, albeit on a small scale.
“I went into Parliament to talk to Duncan McIntyre, who was the Minister of Māori Affairs then,” says Iti. “I went in there and caught up with Duncan in his office.
“He got a bit of a shock because I just went in there and introduced myself as the Māori Ambassador and informed him of the police harassment at my embassy, my little tent. He probably thought, ‘who is this crazy guy?’”
For their next big event, Ngā Tamatoa asked kuia Dame Whina Cooper to lead the historical 1975 land march. They knew their own parents and many others with passive views about Māori rights would be able to relate to her and support their cause.
“My biological father was scared and didn’t like what I was doing,” says Iti.
“My dad’s generation carried that legacy, that kōrero that Apirana Ngata talked about. Learn the Pākehā way and that was their pattern.
“I could see it. I just couldn’t understand it and that’s why we needed to find a face that people, like my father, could look at and be OK.”
The long hīkoi from the far North to the steps of Parliament eventually led to the formation of the Waitangi Tribunal to hear Māori land grievances.
“The 70s were an exciting time in the protest movement. You had a huge group of people who were out there, the women’s liberation, the hippies, the gays, the communists - they were all there,” Iti says.
Ngā Tamatoa used the news media to its advantage but knew they would never be treated equally by it. The group had other methods to get the message out, typing out newsletters, getting stories published in independent magazines, as well as face-to-face hui at marae across the country.
The main battle, says Iti, was not allowing the stigma, created by the news media, to define them.
“For me personally, the media coverage during that time was less about context, there was none. It was more about raising consciousness. That’s all we could depend on the media to do then, to say this was happening, rather than it exploring deeper.
“We couldn’t control the narrative of the media, that propaganda was bull...t. Our main aim was bringing our people together.”
Dr Vijay Devadas, Associate Professor in Communication Studies at Auckland University of Technology, has a strong position, backed up by years of research, on how the mainstream media covers Māori people and their rights.
It is without a doubt racist and on par with colonising behaviour in its oppression of Māori and other minority communities, he says.
Dr Devadas wrote an academic paper on the media’s coverage of the anti-terrorism police raids and the impact on Tūhoe. He says our reporting was lazy.
“I think it was cliched and it turned to simple racist stereotypes to frame the event and as we know consequently there was no evidence,” he says.
“It was a very telling moment for me that it took place in 2007 in a country where we have had the Treaty, we’ve got biculturalism and then you see this type of reporting.”
Devadas says he was taken aback by the framing of the police raid stories in New Zealand and picked up by global media companies.
In 2007, The Dominion Post was prosecuted for breaking suppression orders when it revealed the contents of the police investigations leading to the raids across the country and in Te Urewera.
The editor at the time defended the paper’s decision to publish the files. The paper was eventually found not in contempt of court but the editor would later go on to say the paper should have focused more on the human rights violations.
“As we’ve subsequently seen, the police action was over the top and heavy handed.
“It’s clear they did intimidate families and people.
“It was a massive story at the time. We were right to publish, but we should have focused more on the heavy-handed police action.”
After the raids, the Government and police were forced to retract and reduce their case against people they accused of terrorism. In the end, just four people, including Iti, were convicted and sentenced for firearms offences. Iti and Rangi Kemara were sent to jail for 2½ years but served less than half that sentence.
In 2014 the New Zealand Police apologised to Tūhoe for the harm caused by the police raids.
It is the lack of reporting on the human right’s violations at the time that shocked Devadas. He says the media’s failure to hold police to account over the violations made their bias evident.
“When I wrote the media report on the raids it was very painful to find that the police action was very unconstitutional against the human rights of children when they went on the bus with guns, taking away underwear as evidence and the media reported this without batting an eyelid around the issues of human rights, children’s rights,” he says.
“It kept exceptionalising Tūhoe and Iti became the face of that exception. And this a very powerful narrative because in the genealogy of colonisation it is always about producing an exception, right – not like us – and that continued that day and the media was complicit in othering, racialising Māori, Tūhoe, Tame.
“This is symptomatic of deep-seated, unconscious racism that perpetuates quite a few mistruths.”
Former Māori Party leader Tariana Turia came under intense media scrutiny for the party’s support of the accused, including Iti, and all those innocently caught in the raids. The party was called racist.
Turia was asked about Stuff’s reporting and how we admitted to failing the people of Tūhoe by not focusing on the heavy-handed response from police.
Should The Dominion Post have apologised at the time?
It’s an apology that needs to be made, Devadas says, to rebuild broken trust.
“Trust is the glue that holds the media institution, and its public together.” Devadas says the lack of trust in the news media has helped drive the fake news era.
“I don't think mainstream media plays a role in perpetuating fake news ... in that regard, it is quite ethical in its reporting. But the question of trust has been broken.
“Because trust is broken, and trust takes a long time to build, and given the history of racist reporting, of course even mainstream media will be seen as fake news.”
He praised the efforts by Stuff and its owner Sinead Boucher to shift its focus from audience numbers to trustworthiness as its measure of success. In two decades of studying the news media, he has seen some improvements but nothing substantial in the industry.
“Mainstream media still has a long way to go and a project like Stuff’s which is calling on self-reflection is the first step, I think, towards looking at a way to advance a much more ethical, less racist institution of reporting.”
On the last day of November 2020, Stuff apologised publicly to Māori.
Editorial Director Mark Stevens says apologies are hollow without a commitment to change, to do better in the future. “We’ve begun that journey, with much distance to travel.”
It’s nearing the end of our time spent with Iti. He is gripping his carved tokotoko, made for him by an inmate while he was in jail for the firearms convictions.
He says the words of the news media have left a traumatic mark on Māori throughout the history of colonisation in Aotearoa New Zealand.
“It traumatised a lot of our people in a lot of ways,” he says.
I tend not to let myself be affected by the bull...t. Because really it is bull...t and why are we allowing ourselves to be affected by it?”
Iti has been mentoring a group of young Māori university students who are deeply concerned by the news coverage of Māori rights and people. He told them a shift in mindset allows him to not take how the media defines him to heart.
“I had a chat with them about that and I tried to talk to them about not taking ownership of other people’s negativity and just respond to it in another way. Instead of taking ownership, not taking on that mamae (hurt).
Media organisations must engage with tangata whenua to build trust, Iti says.
“I don’t like to see our people take that on themselves, we have to be able to push it away and put it in the bin.”
Iti did have some advice for media companies in the age of new technology — “we don’t need you,” he says, but it's time for meaningful engagement.
“Mainstream media need to start from the beginning in how they teach their up-and-coming writers to tell a story, there needs to be balance,” he says.
“They need to have consultation with tangata whenua before they can put that out. We do that ourselves. I need to make sure that what I put out is safe, it’s appropriate and it makes sense and I think the mainstream media need to look at that.”
When it was time to leave Iti’s art studio, we hugged and promised to meet again. We ended our time together with a glimmer of hope towards the future.
As we walked away, we noticed the sun had burnt off Hinepūkohurangi’s misty shroud. Across Te Urewera, everything was in sharp focus and no longer blurred by the haze.
We couldn’t help but relate the weather event to the murk of bias shrouding our journalism and the light of truth slowly clearing it away.
Words Florence Kerr
Visuals Mark Taylor
Design Kathryn George
Digital Producer Sam Wilson
Editor Carmen Parahi
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