Two Moments in Time

Last Monday’s funeral for Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu was one of those moments in time that make some of us focus on the passage of something we should have paid more attention to.

Enough has been written about the week-long tangihanga and its coverage by the media, but there were some aspects which struck me.

Normally strict protocol was continuously adjusted during the week to accommodate different groups within the estimated 100,000 visitors who paid their respects, and allowed the ritual of selecting and appointing a successor to be shared with the rest of the nation.

Traffic was managed, visitors queued patiently and were greeted appropriately, huge numbers of people were fed, ritual was honoured and guests were entertained. At the same time, a team planned and executed a funeral ceremony and procession that would require legions of bureaucrats and support staff in pakeha society.

There were many events that touched me during the week-long tangi. The sight of the local cop pausing to hongi former Governor-General Bishop Sir Paul Reeves and share a joke with him while chatting to a TV crew was so typically small-town New Zealand. The little old ladies and men, some of whom were leaders among their own people, waiting patiently in the queue to be welcomed – chatting amongst themselves or pausing for a little moment of private tangi. The order in the kitchens as vast amounts of food were prepared and gifts of food accepted. That such sights could be shared with the media by the participants is a credit to all concerned.

The funeral ceremony and announcement of Dame Te Ata’s successor was thoroughly and sensitively covered by television. The commentary, especially that from the knowledgeable and dignified Mamae Takerei, was invaluable to those of us who don’t normally see such things.

Here too were sights that stick in the mind. One of the three doves creating a moment of consternation by its reluctance to fly away. White-tipped oars digging into the mighty Waikato River made the waka look like massive dragons’ heads with white glittering teeth. The haka that each waka got from the landing as they paused and then passed. The canoe warriors leaning forward in salute. Young and old joining in the performances with perfect confidence.

A grand lady of style and elan was farewelled in stately fashion.

A few days later, I read a churlish letter to the editor in the Dominion Post. The writer stated that he could not recall any of Dame Te Ata’s great achievements, and wondered why her funeral attracted such attention. This gave me pause for thought, and I realised that he did make a point.

The history books are full of “great” leaders who have led us to war, achieved victory in battle, dominated the world stage, made lots of loot, triumphed over their opponents or led otherwise dramatic lives.

Dame Te Ata was not one of these leaders. She was struck from a different mould, one that could have been used for Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother or even Queen Elizabeth II. These are leaders who quietly but firmly guide, confer with, and advise their peers and facilitate their great deeds. I don’t recall anyone (except the anti-royal mob) denouncing The Queen Mother for not achieving great things. She was, instead, praised for complementing her husband the king, breathing new life into the monarchy and training her descendants for the roles they would have to perform during their lives.

To have failed to recognise Dame Te Ata’s achievements is, indeed, churlish. She breathed new life into the kingitanga movement, guided her peers, trained those who would follow in her wake, consulted with wise and powerful visitors from overseas, and developed an extensive network across the Pacific.

Credit for the “great” deeds that occurred during her reign rightly went to others who led the task they undertook. Revitalisation of the Maori language, land and resource settlements, pride in our nation and our closer identification with the Pacific area, improved race relations – all this happened during her reign and in an environment in which she participated.

Some leaders achieve while others facilitate great things and don’t claim the credit.

I have no doubt that her successor will build on Dame Te Ata’s work, but probably in a different fashion, to the benefit of both Maori and Pakeha.

Later in the week, my thoughts turned to another moment in time – the funeral of another great Maori leader, Dame Whina Cooper. This was a leader cut from a different mould from Dame Te Ata. Dame Whina was sometimes controversial, often outspoken and possessed strong will and determination. By the end of her long life she had achieved great deeds for her people and managed to claim a special place in the hearts of both Maori and Pakeha as she mellowed into a matriarchal role.

Looking at a video of Dame Whina’s funeral held on the 31st of March 1994, which also attracted strong media attention but a smaller attendance, there were many parallels and differences. Dame Whina’s was a Catholic funeral wrapped around a Maori tangi. Dame Te Ata’s was a Maori tangi wrapped around multi-denominational ritual. Both were a successful blend of old and new, tradition and ritual.

These two moments in time gave valuable insight into a race that is honouring its past as it grapples with modern-day life. They should be proud of their achievements.

One Response to “Two Moments in Time”

  1. Chris M says:

    Well said that man! Couldn’t agree more.

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