Tag Archives: flags

Brief, subjective reflections on the Tino Rangatiratanga flag

In January and February 2008 my wife and I did a road trip the length of the country, twice — from Wellington to Bluff, back to Wellington, up to Cape Reinga, and back to Wellington again. For most of the trip, we flew a small Tino Rangatiratanga flag, one of those small ones which clip onto a car window. It was partly a matter of literally “flying the flag” of my political views at this time of year — I must note, with some misgivings on her part — and partly an experiment to see what response it would get.

Photo by Adrienne Rewi.
(Photo by Adrienne Rewi — because its surprisingly hard to take a shot of your own car-flag while driving and we didn’t take one. Used without permission but with thanks — I’ll take it down on request.)

Most obviously, traffic seemed to treat us somewhat differently, though this might be down to regional and seasonal driving variations. Some cars honked, some flashed their lights or waved; others rode closer behind or seemed to overtake more aggressively. Many times I saw drivers staring or otherwise reacting with surprise at seeing a couple of Pākehā in a white station wagon flying such a flag. Truck drivers were particularly well-represented in all these reactions; the road is their territory, and visual vehicular statements of identity or loyalty mean a lot to them.

This was especially true when driving around Otago and Southland with my ZZ Top-bearded and bemulleted uncle in the car. Mostly in the South, though, people were cool but not hostile, and too polite to mention anything they might have thought. The response, both positive and negative, was strongest in the central North Island, Northland and the Bay of Plenty. In Taumarunui we got into town late and a group of local Māori were drinking and singing karaoke at the hotel where we stopped. They were intrigued and after a few friendly waves and “kia ora bro”s a couple of kuia came over to suss us out — asking us who we were, where we were from, and so on. Learning that we were from Whanganui, and that I have family connections to Jerusalem put it in context and they treated us with easy amiability. Their only mention of the flag was to remark that it was probably a pretty good guard against theft; said with warmth and irony and humour. There were several of these sort of encounters. Later, stopping for side-of-the-road hāngi on the road between Wellsford and Whangarei, the young guy gave us $2 off and claimed it was because it was the last, though I could see there was plenty left and it was only just lunch time. Especially in the Far North, and through the Bay of Plenty from Te Puke through Whakatane down to about Rotorua, Māori pedestrians and kids playing near the street would shout and point and wave. Usually, this was in run-down areas, and the people waving and shouting “chur bro!” often wore gang colours.

The “anti-theft device” line was replayed unbidden in Tauranga while visiting some in-laws, though this time in all seriousness, with none of the warmth of the Māori in Taumarunui. This was combined with a rather heated debate as to the relative merits of the Clark government, Foreshore and Seabed Act and general state of the bicultural nation. The two events were on consecutive days, and the contrast could not have been more stark.

In a couple of cases — once in Lyttelton in the carpark of the Wunderbar, and again outside a petrol station in Whitianga — we were asked by random strangers if we were Māori, and if not, why were we flying the flag. In Lyttelton this was good-natured and curious; in the other case, the question was asked with gruff suspicion, and the answer — an explanation of what the flag means and its origin — didn’t cut any ice with the chap who looked and seemed rather like Garth George. I’ve encountered that sort of reaction before — once a guy called me a “race traitor” in Molly Malone’s because I was wearing a Tino Rangatiratanga hoodie — and that one didn’t even have the flag, just the words.

But on a trip of 7,500km on the busiest roads in the country, passing through all the main population centres at the time of our national holiday, in an election year, not long after the Urewera Terra arrests and with issues of racial separatism and colonialism very squarely on the agenda, the thing which was most obvious was how little such a statement changed anything. It reiterated to me that New Zealand is a pretty tolerant and easy society, as long as that tolerance is not stretched too far. Another example of this was this evening’s “Great Debate” on Māori TV between celebrities and comedians and such folks on the moot “now is the time for Aotearoa to close the immigration gates”. I won’t spoil the result, because it really is worth watching (and I assume Māori TV will put up a video), but while the moot was robustly (and often very personally) contested, it was all done in wonderful good humour. The same good humour as of a Māori joking ruefully about Māori crime — and the opposing siege mentality the following day. Happily, I think the former predominates in this country, and provides a sound basis for the ongoing development of a bicultural — and eventually multicultural — society.


More flaggery

Interesting discussion about flags going on at John Ansell’s blog and Kiwiblog and elsewhere. Go and vote on your favourite fern flag. I’m all for a new flag, but these designs are too logo-ish for my taste. Flags seem to me like the sort of things which ought to be made up of geometric fundamentals. That having been said, I think Ansell’s design A is emblematically the strongest, but I don’t think solid black is an appropriate colour for a national flag. If pressed I would reluctantly choose E or C. Is there an obvious reason why green and black aren’t paired somehow?

Fun thought: would the monarchists and traditionalists and nationalists be claiming victory if the government decided to adopt a new national flag which crown agencies would use, with the proviso that other folks could use the old flag if they wanted?


The flag: politics either way

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that every single one of those Māori I’ve heard speaking out against the tino rangatiratanga flag has a tribal axe to grind. Shane Jones, Kingi Taurua, Pita Paraone, Winston Peters — they’re all from the iwi of that group of rangatira who established the United Tribes of New Zealand confederation under Busby in 1835, in the Tai Tokerau. They, naturally enough, want the United Tribes flag flown instead of the one which represents the aspirations of wider Māori. The root of this claim is the belief among those groups that theirs was the ‘state of origin’, as it were — the first actual state in these lands. That’s a complex and disputed claim but regardless, the belief abides, and this sense of primacy is no small part of the reason that so many of this country’s Māori statesmen and women, great thinkers and inspirational leaders, come from the tail of Te Ika a Maui.

They say there’s an ulterior motive in the flying of the tino rangatiratanga flag on the part of the māori party, who have adopted it as their own, and I accept they have a case. They also have a case to argue that the United Tribes flag should be flown — especially at Waitangi Marae (Te Tii), where the choice belongs solely to mana whenua. But let’s not pretend there’s no ulterior political motive on their part: they have every reason to decry the flag as ‘separatist’ and ‘divisive’ in order to fly their own. Not only that, but the motive is no more unanimous among Ngāpuhi than among other Māori — the tino rangatiratanga flag is supported (obviously) by Hone Harawira, and was designed by Hiraina Marsden, the daughter of the Rev. Māori Marsden, one of the most important philosophical figures of that iwi, and a mentor to Shane Jones and many others. So the political motives in play are much more complex than they appear.

As for Winston Peters’ objection that the tino rangatiratanga flag is ‘political’ — was there ever a more ridiculous assertion? The whole purpose of such a flag is to symbolise and propagandise political identity, to provide it focus and expression. The United Tribes flag is no less political than the tino rangatiratanga flag — and so it becomes a matter of picking which symbolism is more appropriate.

On the one hand we have a long historical pedigree, and a flag which represents the early unity of the NZ proto-state and the formal beginnings of collaboration between tangata whenua and tau iwi, but which actually represents only a small subset of the Māori population and whose political cause (to establish a client state sympathetic to the English in their manouvres against the French) was superceded by the Treaty of Waitangi only a few years after its establishment.

On the other, we have a relatively new flag, one whose symbolism and history is exclusively Māori, rather than being part of a wider game between colonial powers; a modern flag representing modern, rather than historical aspirations but which has, to an extent, been hijacked by the radical movement.

For me, it comes down to the process enacted by the government: wisely, instead of deciding by fiat, John Key instructed Māori to decide, and decide they did, with more than 80% of the 1200 submissions in favour of the tino rangatiratanga flag. This is not to side with majoritarianism, but to say that choosing another flag would have been manifest politicking. Better from Key’s perspective to devolve the decision and allow an age-old struggle to re-emerge: he looks statesmanlike, and both his erstwhile political friends and his enemies get bogged down in internecine fighting. I had hoped it wouldn’t happen; and it might yet prove minor. But the issue won’t go away — nor should it.