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David Round

David Round

Horotiu the taniwha stirs

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The Auckland City Council’s plans for a $2.6 billion rail loop to assist in easing the city’s transport woes have encountered, as all Aucklanders will be aware, a perhaps unexpected obstacle. One Glenn Wilcox, a member of the Maori Statutory Board which ‘assists’ the council, has pointed out to its transport committee that the rail tunnel between Mt Eden and the Britomart Centre proposed as part of the loop would trespass on the territory of Horotiu. Many Aucklanders had probably forgotten about Horotiu, but he is a taniwha. The taniwha is the principal monster of Maori mythology, and this one’s territory, Mr Wilcox tells us, evidently runs (how does he know?) from Myers Park to the sea, therefore including the area of the Town Hall and Queen Street. ‘The tunnel goes right through his rohe[territory]’, Mr Wilcox told the committee. He added that ‘[i]t concerns me that they [the council] do not see Maori as a component of the city, and that is where I come from’.

Yes indeed. Here is someone, purporting, anyway, to be a spokesman for all his race, telling the council that a mythical monster is going to interfere with carefully considered major transport plans ~ for there seems to be the clear implication that Horotiu is going to be pretty angry about the tunnel ~ and the council just does not want to hear about it! The council might even be secretly thinking to itself that Maori are either (a) completely serious in their beliefs about this monster ~ in which case they are, let us speak quite plainly, in the grip of a superstition properly belonging to the Stone Age, and certainly not one worthy of being taken seriously in any half-intelligent society; or (b) using poor old Horotiu as yet another excuse for extracting some material advantage from excessively polite white people either stupid enough to believe them or afraid to say ‘no’ to any Maori claim, however preposterous. Mr Wilcox did also remark to the transport committee that ‘there are always ways to placate taniwha’. You can bet your bottom dollar there are.

Will the Council point out that the monster has, up until now, never raised any objections to developments in his rohe? There may, true, not have been any tunnels drilled in his territory before, but the big buildings of central Auckland have nevertheless required a fair bit of excavation and some mighty foundations, and Horotiu has not, as far as I am aware, ever raised a squeak of protest. The popular response so far seems to be not to take Mr Wilcox seriously, but the official response, as far as I can judge from down here in the south, seems to be rather more ~ well, shall we say, measured. What will be the practical outcome of this latest piece of blackmail? It would be good if the Council were to confront it head on, with a simple instruction to Mr Wilcox and his witch-doctor friends to ‘combine sex and travel’, as the euphemism goes, but the Council needs the tunnel to go through and would prefer to avoid controversy and a possible legal challenge, which, even if lodged and then later withdrawn, would cause expensive and unsettling delay. The Council might well, then, choose to avert Horotiu’s anger by the expedient of a suitable benefaction to his human defenders. A plaque, perhaps, and some public ceremony of propitiation, and even ~ who knows? ~ perhaps some money for Horotiu’s people. That might please the monster.

Really, the way things are going, it would hardly surprise me if the sacrifice of a virgin were required. How did we reach this situation, where Maori spokesmen can announce with a straight face the existence of a monster, of whom no physical evidence whatsoever exists and which has been, at the very least, completely harmless hitherto, and reasonably expect, at the very least, a sweetener to be quiet and go away? This is not the first taniwha to have raised its ugly head in recent years, and the evidence is pretty clear that few, if any Maori actually believe in their existence, in any sense in which something can be said to have an ‘existence’. In pre-European times there is no doubt that taniwha were considered to be actual creatures. Margaret Orbell, in her Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Maori Myth and Legend, describes them as physical beings which might create harbours or cause landslides, and which were widely held responsible for deaths by drowning. They might warn of the approach of enemies, or leave their dens to be seen in the water as a sign of mourning for the death of a leading rangatira. Some appeared as whales or big sharks. A famous taniwha in Lake Taupo usually appeared as a black rock, and others assumed the form of a floating log. Clearly, the cunning creatures had all sorts of clever disguises….

But the physical taniwha has vanished under the scrutiny of a scientific age, and taniwhas have undergone a remarkable evolution into something much more spiritual and caring, somehow. They are no longer physical creatures, nor even, it would seem, genuine if disembodied forces ~ spirits, ghosts, poltergeists ~ capable of being sensed and doing actual physical harm. A sceptical age has rendered them extinct in these categories. The taniwha, though, has managed to escape complete extinction by evolving into something far more early twenty-first century. One polite commentator, Mr Robert Harris, in the 2003 Resource Management Journal, thought that the taniwha should now be regarded as a ‘representation of the natural forces of the land and sea’, ‘part of the essence or properties of a place’, and ‘symbolising a tribal or family association with place; both guardian and symbolic power’. That is a charming and poetical expression of nature and territorial connexion, but is easily perverted into meaningless but unquestionable mumbo-jumbo. Professor Ranginui Walker, a very learned man, has written in the Waikato Times of Horotiu that ’these days taniwha are a manifestation of a coping mechanism’, and Maoris’ ‘way of indicating that they were troubled by some incident or event’.

Far be it from us to prevent Maori from coping with incidents or events in their own special way, but what event or incident is Horotiu helping Maori to deal with here? He has been summoned up from the depths when the Auckland City council proposed a tunnel to improve the city’s transport system. How has this proposal created some deep psychic wound in Maori? Please explain.

The wise professor draws further on his learning by telling us that’[y]ou have to placate local demons, deities, taniwha…don’t tempt fate. Who knows the number of deaths along the Meremere straight caused by taniwha? They are sacred and familiar friends.’

Well, they are not all that friendly if they are causing road deaths. In the interests of public safety, the professor should ~ if he actually believes what he says ~ surely do something by way of ‘placating’ the Meremere taniwha in order to stop it from killing people. His failure to act, his failure to attempt, at least, to placate the monster, using his wise old powers, might even be considered to be complicity in unnecessary deaths……

But that aside, it is possible to find other explanations for road deaths and other misfortunes without having to resort to ~ allegedly ‘friendly’ ~ invisible monsters. There is also a remarkable contradiction or confusion in the learned professor’s arguments here. One minute the taniwha is a Maori ‘coping mechanism’. The next minute it is an actual malign spirit causing deaths on a straight stretch of road.

Just why do we have so many angry taniwha these days? I think they must be trying to tell the Maori people, the taniwha’s people, something. What might that be? My mind is racing. Might it be…let me see…that the taniwha will rest ~ so the ancient legend says ~ only when we, the tangata whenua, when we get our land back, eh. That’s what our taniwha is telling us. It’s in the Treaty. That’s what you signed, man. Give us our land back’

Is this not by now a reasonable possibility?’ The Maori Monster Religion and Party?

We would have to admire Professor Walker’s staunch commitment to the superstitions of one of his ancestral races. (I say ‘one of his races’ because, although we get the impression that Professor Walker loathes this part of his ancestry and perhaps even himself, he is of British as well as Maori stock.) Nevertheless this taniwha nonsense has to make us wonder if his political feelings for his chosen race have by now loosened his ….well…I don’t like to say ~ but ~ well, his grip on reality.Does he really believe this stuff? Does he tell his students this stuff? I do not know. Perhaps he never touches on these burning issues in his lectures. But if he does, do his students believe it? Heaven forbid that I should even raise the matter, it is only because we hate the ugliest of suspicions, but may we not ask if students were, however mistakenly, to consider themselves under any obligation to believe it? Students often do think it wiser not to disagree violently with their lecturers come exam time, even if the examiner is considered tolerant of other points of view. What do they think of their professor? We would hesitate, of course, to propose the censorship of any reasonably educational material, but aren’t we approaching, here, the point where we have to wonder that if the professor does tell his students this stuff, and expect them to take it and him seriously, a case could be made for his university employer having a look at just what his courses contain?

(And where do his graduate students find employment?)

Before some among my readers accuse me of intolerance in these matters, let me observe, first, that there must be limits to everything, and the teaching of socially damaging nonsense has no right to demand financial support from the community in a publicly-financed tertiary education ~ and, second, lest you think that last suggestion to be that of a person in a glasshouse throwing stones, I will tell you of plenty of occasions over the years when supposed apostles of tolerance have called for the banning of my reasonably-expressed opinions, and where were you then, liberals? Were you even listening?

We now feel obliged to go through the motions, at the very least, of taking this sort of nonsense seriously. We are reported to this effect in overseas newspapers. The readers may be shaking their heads and wondering if we have taken leave of our senses.

Well, we obviously have taken leave of them. Let us be frank. Maori do not believe in taniwha as anything but another pretext for taking us on and showing us how tough they are. Its invention is a posture, a swagger, and we are allowing it to intimidate us. It’s hard to recover once you start going down that road. The taniwha’s parents are greed and stupidity. So why are we wasting a second taking this seriously? Why don’t we, as I suggested before, just tell Wilcox, Walker co (all good Maori names, as a sainted relative always used to observe), tell them where to get off? If we don’t, if we do listen politely to them and then give them something to compensate for the grief caused to their monster, then we are dimwits of the first order. Central and local government please note. But at the very least the taniwha worshippers are clearly a Stone Age people who should not reasonably expect to be regarded as fully capable of appreciating many of the finer things that modern society has to offer, if you see what I mean…..

In the broader sense, we have reached this situation because, as I have explained often in the past, our self-righteous and cowardly political class is both committed to the Treaty project and afraid to say no even as it becomes increasingly obvious, even to their limited understandings, that the demands will never cease. In the narrower sense we have reached this stage because of the good intentions of the framers of the Resource Management Act 1991, who, perfectly reasonably, wanted respect to be accorded to genuine cultural traditions ~ of all races, but Maori most obviously ~ and therefore included in the Act clauses to that effect. A matter of national importance in section 6 is ‘the relationship of Maori and their culture and traditions with their ancestral lands, water, sites, waahi tapu and other taonga’. In section 7, everyone has to have regard to, inter alia, kaitiakitanga, which is defined further as ‘the exercise of guardianship by the tangata whenua of an area in accordance with tikanga Maori in relation to natural and physical resources; and includes the ethic of stewardship’. (The rest of us also get an ethic of stewardship all of our own, but Maori had to have their ethic get a special mention.) And then section 8 tells us that everyone has to take account of the principles of the Treaty.

The framers of the Act did not foresee where these kindly and courteous words would lead. The pollution of waterways, the poisoning of shellfish beds, the destruction of fisheries, the despoiling of long sacred places ~ all these things, as well as being environmentally destructive in the narrow sense, also tear at the invisible bonds which tie many Maori to the land they love and belong to. We should respect those bonds; respect for them will, even in the most basic practical sense, benefit us all. (In the same way, for fair is fair, Maori must accept our right to be here, and the right of the Queen’s government to rule, and recognise the brute fact that their increasingly destructive and divisive extortions will in the end benefit not even themselves.) But the Act’s words have become a pretext for a shameful extortion racket, as a bogus ‘spirituality’ is invented and then used as an opportunity for pecuniary gain.

How often have we considered this already? From the files: a mining company paid Ngati Wai $1 million so that they would not object to their application to suck up sand from the seabed. Sometime in the 1800s, somewhere within the 480 square kilometre dredging area, a sea battle was fought, and ancestral remains are still on the ocean floor. To disturb the remains would be disrespectful….

But if human remains should not be disturbed, they should not be disturbed. How can any monetary payment render acceptable that which was previously unacceptable? That is surely what Christians would characterise as the sin of simony ~ the selling of sacred things and spiritual benefits.

In Port Levy, where I live, a ‘cultural impact assessment’ prepared by the Revd Maurice Gray declared that all of Port Levy, land and water, was sacred, and therefore that two proposed mussel farms would be entirely ‘culturally and spiritually unacceptable’. Notwithstanding this pretty clear statement, however, the report concluded that the mussel farm firm is ‘advised to establish and maintain a consultative relationship with the [local] runaka…a letter of support from the runaka would also be required to give confirmation of approval…it is also recommended that a Protocols Agreement be formulated with the runaka forthwith to establish appropriate ongoing cultural consultation processes’.

We can read between these lines, and it will not surprise you to be told that despite the complete unacceptability of mussel farms, the local runaka soon after became a shareholder in one of the ventures, and both farms are now up and running. It may or may not be a desirable thing that the farms are there, but can it honestly be said that the ‘cultural impact assessment’ was anything but a blackmailer’s note to his victim? ‘We have your daughter. Make us an offer’ A parent’s worst nightmare….

The Tasman Bay District Council, I read several years ago, evidently requires applicants for resource consents to pay consultation fees to iwi even if iwi are not directly affected. Iwi representatives claimed that councillors who objected to this ‘were forgetting the spirit of the Act’, and that their iwi were ‘way behind other iwis in their handling of such applications. That would not surprise me. The iwi representatives threatened that any change in council policy would lead them to ‘reshape their interpretation of the Act’, and warned that litigation would ensue.

I have plenty more examples, and doubtless you have to. Any half-decent investigation would easily uncover enough evidence to justify some such phrase as ‘extortion racket’. And all these we hear of are only the very occasional cases where things somehow leak out. It is a sort of cultural protection money. In 2003 the Christchurch Press published a document prepared by Te Runanga o Ngati Puu’s Environmental Management Group concerning Resource Management Act applications:

It says the first rule on consent applications is to ‘object’.

The second rule on consent applications is ‘object’.

‘If in doubt go back to rule one (objection gives time, time is of no importance to us, only the application)’ it says.

The first rule of objection is to claim lack of consultation, the document states. The second is the treaty of Waitangi, the RMA is the third, and the fourth ‘anything anyone can think of’.

Results would not be measured in dollars, ‘but the sum of the good that can be gained for the hapu’.

Ngati Puu spokesman Ted Shaw said the document had been intended for discussion only.

A Wellington public policy consultant has said publicly that he has encountered several instances in which ‘clients have effectively been forced to pay significant sums of money for exercises which seem to serve no real purpose other than to enhance the wealth of the party that might otherwise have objected’. As others have observed, this is ‘the thin end of the wedge of corruption in New Zealand ’. In some cases, the word ‘bribe’ has been publicly used to refer to payments made. The $1.62 million given to Ngai Tahu by Contact Energy, for example, in a ‘mitigation package’ which resulted in Ngai Tahu support for Contact’s applications for resource consents for the Clutha river, was described by some locals as ‘nothing but a bribe to get the consents through’. A Ngai Tahu spokesman described this as a ‘narrow view’, and Contact Energy’s general manager described the bribe label as ‘most unfortunate’. Asked whether Ngai Tahu had requested the money from Contact, the Ngai Tahu spokesman replied that it was a ‘joint effort’.

So here we are. Our philosophy of multiculturalism and cringing guilt means that it is already often considered inadvisable, even for entities as large as the Auckland super-city, to do almost anything without a payment to the ancient spiritual custodians of the place. Only the custodians, after all, can get in touch with the taniwha. The rest of us wouldn’t recognise a taniwha if we fell over one. And they can move, you know. Most of the time they live in this area, but every now and then they go and live in that area…… ‘I can remember my granny saying to me, Billy, she said, when she lay dying of lung cancer…I remember her lying there coughing ~ the white doctor had told her that tobacco was good for her, eh ~ Billy, she said, this is your land, and the taniwha he’s our taniwha. And he moves. Sometimes here, sometimes there. And don’t you let them take him away from you. And when he speaks you listen. Ti hei Maori ora. Then she just closed her eyes and drifted off to Cape Reinga ….’

In the Pegasus subdivision case in 2002 before the Environment Court, the aforesaid Maurice Gray told the Court that he was the ‘only living repository’ of certain knowledge which he was charged with guarding for the future ~ when it might be revealed, it will be very interesting, I’m sure. When you alone in the whole wide world know something, it may well be difficult to examine the truth of what is, of course, your secret. One just has to take ones word for it. Once we do that, we are total goners.

The High Court, in the 2002 Nga Wha decision, a decision I have carefully read several times in the attempt to derive some clear meaning from it, manages to avoid answering so indelicate a question as to the precise sense in which a taniwha ‘exists’. It did observe, thank heaven, that the Act and the Court are the creations of the Parliament and a secular state, and observed that there are difficulties when judicial bodies have to make decisions on some things. The Court wisely declared that it was incapable of deciding conflicting claims about the taniwha or even whether they existed at all. That was wise. But in fact conflicting evidence had been given by Maori about the taniwha, some denying its jurisdiction in that area or even its existence. Perhaps the Nga Wha decision could be interpreted in future as holding merely that where Maori disagree about the taniwha, the Court may not decide; but that where Maori agree, their ruling on the taniwha is binding. Someone will undoubtedly be giving the case such an interpretation ere long.

And all the time, of course, that we have to suck up to the taniwha, it continues to be open season on our own ancestral, compassionate and redemptive religion. Te Papa ‘Our Place’ insisted that in a travelling exhibition of modern British art there be publicly displayed an art work by a seventeen year old girl artist, who had stuffed a little six inch plastic statuette of the Virgin Mother of God into a condom as a commentary on the Catholic Church’s attitude to contraception and birth control. This controversial item, grossly offensive to all Christians, not just Catholics, had not been put on public display in several other countries where the exhibition was shown, but Te Papa was adamant that in the interests of freedom of expression it had to be shown here. Well, just stick a tiki in a condom as a thoughtful protest about, oh, the Maori contribution to the growth of the underclass, something serious like that, and see how far you get.