Sarah Sparks,Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Te Whiti, advocate and former Chair of the Independent Community Panel for COVID-19 appointed by the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet

‘Waitangi’ is a Wānanga On Personal And Interpersonal Power Dynamics

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6 February 2023

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Image above: Sarah Sparks,Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Te Whiti, advocate and former Chair of the Independent Community Panel for COVID-19 appointed by the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet.

“Always teach by story because stories lodge deep in the heart,” the old people say but when I was asked to share my whakaaro on Waitangi, I froze. The topic is fraught as well as polarising. Well, as the old people also say, “Silence is the lie of the good man, or the coward.” So at the risk of writing a lecture ( which a boomer once accused me of), I’ve got kaha backed by my whakapapa, I’m speaking up!

I have a duty to uphold the legacy of the tūpuna who signed He Whakaputanga the Declaration of Independence in 1835, that was the precursor to entering Te Tiriti o Waitangi 183 years ago. 

That undertaking involved nine sheets, circulated over eight months, spanning 45 locations securing 542 signatures. It’s up to us mokopuna to act for them now to honour their collective dreams and aspirations.

So our tikanga, manaakitanga, and kaitiakitanga responsibilities that ensure the wellbeing of our whānau and protect our taonga are understood, voiced and valued.

Circling the calendar date of February 6 is easy. Understanding the meaning of the Articles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi is the real test. Living it out takes a mindset that comes from cooperation and collaboration.

As Dr Moana Jackson CRSNZ once said, “It’s always been about the rightness that comes from people accepting their obligations to each other. Te Tiriti o Waitangi is about Indigenous peoples having the right to be fully free in their own lands.”

Kahurangi Tariana and Sarah Sparks
Kahurangi Tariana and Sarah Sparks after a Ministerial hui

On Waitangi Day itself I’ve attended commemorations up at Wāhi Tūpuna (Waitangi Treaty Grounds) to support issues raised at Te Tii Marae in the Forum and on the paepae of the Upper Marae before the government.

When I look back over the years, ‘Waitangi’ – the place, the commemoration (Waitangi Day), the covenant (Te Tiriti o Waitangi), and the jurisdiction (Waitangi Tribunal) have taught me invaluable lessons about justice, transparency, fairness, and equity.

I listened to Andrew Little deliver his entire speech  in Te Reo Māori and wondered if his reo journey played an influencing part in standing up Te Aka Whai Ora – the Māori Health Authority to address systemic bias that’s well evidenced in the 2019 Hauora Report and 2021 Haumaru Report.

I heard the cries of Ngā Kahurangi (the Dames) ad infinitum on the same day. “State care is not safe care”, “hands off our tamariki”, “not one more mokopuna”. Pushing back against without notice uplifts and seeking devolvement and dismantling of the care and protection system. Echoed by evidence again in the 2021 He Pāharakeke, he Rito Whakakīkinga Whāruarua Report.

Counting how few Māori journalists were actually broadcasting from Waitangi  (meaning fewer Māori perspectives voiced on mainstream media), I rejoiced when TVNZ Breakfast presenter, Jenny-May Clarkson went live with karakia on TV (I think for the first time).

I’ve accompanied claimants and Rangatira Māori meeting Ministers of the Crown and I’ve served many contemporary kaupapa inquiries in the Waitangi Tribunal. I’ve read devastating claimant briefs of evidence stating dreadful data i.e Māori die 7 years earlier than any cohort and are incarcerated nearly six times more likely than non-Māori. 

These insights have taught me that ‘Waitangi’ is a wānanga on personal and interpersonal power dynamics. It’s a karanga for humility, compassion, and humanity.

Deliberating on the many scholarly interpretations of the covenant and sovereignty, I’m on board with Dr Ned Fletcher, son of Dame Sian Elias in his recent chewy 721 page text and his take that the British were “happy with the idea of Māori continuing to manage their own affairs.” It seems so simple. Māori looking after their own, their own way. Māori determining what works best for them. The rejection of a master and servant relationship.

Going back to the original meaning of Te Tiriti, Dr Jackson’s analogy resonates deeply with me.

When people come to the marae as manuhiri, to any marae, then they are expected to observe the kawa or the rules, the constitution, if you like, of that marae. And the old people who bring those manuhiri onto the marae are expected to ensure that that is done. And in a sense, when people started coming from somewhere else to our land, in a sense, they were entering our marae. And so we expected their old people, if you like, their political authority to ensure that their people behaved and accepted the kawa of our marae.”

For now, as a collective we have a way to go. Say seven generations…Let’s not forget that the literal translation of Waitangi is “weeping waters”. However, let’s reimagine a world where there is progressive dialogue, there are no more breaches of Te Tiriti, no more catastrophic statistics, no more inequity, and no more closed hearts.

A nation where Tangata Whenua are free to exercise mana motuhake and tino rangatiratanga. Reclaim independence and self-determination. Work interdependently on matters of common interest. Promises kept on both sides according to the sacred covenant. 

Well, us descendants would have tears of joy.

Sarah Sparks at Waitangi in the 80's 
Sarah Sparks & her whanau at the flagpole on Waitangi in the 80’s 

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