The Face of Maori Resistance

Tame Iti has a face you won't easily forget—it's entirely covered with a Maori tattoo called a moko—but other sides of him are just as striking. This 53-year old New Zealand activist and artist has made headlines for his bold demonstrations for tino rangatiratanga—self-determination for the Maori—including one incident on Waitangi Day in 1995, when he bared his tattooed buttocks to Governor General Cath Tizard in a scathing Maori insult called whakapohane. Ever since he was a teenager, Iti has been on the front lines of the struggle to resist "Pakeha imperialism," expose racism against indigenous people, and win back whanako—lands stolen by the Crown. And in that time, he's protested the Vietnam war and helped found one of the biggest anti-apartheid movements outside South Africa. He's hosted radio shows on underground and mainstream stations in both English and Maori, created paintings and visual art installations and, using his DJ pseudonym Dr. Tutu, recently collaborated on a CD that combines Maori chant and instrumentation with electronica and politically charged lyrics. All while holding down a day job as a social worker with battered women and those dealing with substance abuse.

"Thirty or 40 years ago they were reckoning we're a dying people, a dying culture, a dying language. But we proved them wrong."

With such a diverse curriculum vitae, it's no surprise that his activism has taken on creative and controversial dimensions. His legendary protests include a childhood rejection of the principal's dictum that only English be spoken on school grounds (his belief that "if you didn't speak Maori, you weren't a Maori" earned him countless trips to the blackboard to write "I will not speak Maori") and an incident where he threw his body in the path of a speeding jetboat to protest races down a sacred river. One famous demonstration in the 1970s feels more like conceptual art than civil disobedience: Iti constructed a Tuhoe Embassy on the Parliament grounds—a borrowed tent pitched under the statue of Prime Minister Dick Seddon—to raise awareness of his people's cause. When confronted by police, he announced that he was the new Maori ambassador from Tuhoe, for which he was jailed overnight. But Iti's tactics don't always involve the extra-legal: on January 15, Iti and other Maori leaders went to court, continuing a process begun in the '70s to gain back ancestral lands occupied by Maori for 1,000 years.

New Zealand's most visible activist, Iti admits the 10 or so hours spent in the tattoo artist's chair were extremely painful. But it was worth it to literally—and indelibly—embody values he aims to see survive and thrive. Today, once-rare mokos are common on the streets of Wellington and Auckland, and Maori is now the official second language of Aotearoa (the indigenous name for the country dubbed New Zealand by the Dutch). Tame Iti insists that the marking indicates a cultural renaissance that's anything but skin-deep. "Thirty or 40 years ago they were reckoning we're a dying people, a dying culture, a dying language," he says, "but we proved them wrong."

A writer's cut of a piece I wrote for the current print edition of the excellent Dutch magazine Ode.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm from New Zealand.... Born and lived here all my life...
Tame Iti is generally regarded here as a loudmouthed buffoon. Your article paints him in a pretty good light, and if it all were correct, he'd be Prime Minister... or probably not, as that would be buying into the opressive doctrine of the Pakeha. (White man. The literal translation, is "long pig.. Hmmmm... light the Barbecue)
Tama Iti has done little for race relations in our country apart from spurring those on, who believe thay have an entitlement to marginalise themselves from mainstream society, in the name of sovereign rights to the land, while they spend their weekly taxpayer funded unemployment benefit.
You missed his list of convictions too... Shooting the New Zealand Flag with live shotgun shells on National TV during our Waitangi Day celebrations was a goodie.
Sorry to say it, but there's your facts.