Raising Te Wepu
Updated: Nov 14
On Tuesday, in response to protests against neo-Nazi symbols and swastikas being displayed next to Māori flags in an Auckland art gallery, John Hurrell the editor for the art magazine eye contact wrote a piece titled ‘Hoist That Rag’, supporting the exhibition. In the article he praises as ‘excellent’ the accompanying exhibition critique of flags by British cultural critic Nina Power. Nina Power calls flags ‘silly’, prompting Hurrell to wonder what all the fuss is about with having swastikas displayed around the corner from an Auckland synagogue. However, as protesters, including myself, point out, Power’s essay for the exhibition by art collective Mercy Pictures is a front for promoting far-right ideology. By failing to place their exhibition within any historical contexts, both Power and Hurrell statements belittle the complex history of ritual flags used in indigenous resistance to imperialism and statehood.
In 1869 the Rīngatu prophet and military tactician Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Tūruki and his followers fought a bloody final battle of the NZ wars at Te Pōrere. Crown forces and auxiliaries led by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas McDonnell invaded our tribal area near Tokaanu, resulting in many deaths of Ngāti Tūwharetoa persons. Lieutenant Colonel McDonnell had participated in war crimes of rape and murder during the Taranaki and Waikato campaigns. Colonial forces routinely abused their support Māori Auxiliary forces.
After the battle Tokaanu became a permanent constabulary town. Although a polarising figure within Tūwharetoa history, Te Kooti was admired by my grandmother Rowena Irihau Asher for his stand against the crown. She lived at Tokaanu where our marae is situated. We are descended from mixed Māori and Jewish heritage. Our tupuna (ancestor) Herekiekie Paurini fought alongside Te Kooti and though severely wounded managed to escape.
There were two flags of significance raised at Te Kooti’s redoubt in October 1869, one a black flag representing Ngāti Tūwharetoa and the other Te Kooti’s flag designed upon an earlier version called Te Wepu (the whip). After the defeat of Te Kooti, Captain Gilbert Mair seized the flag which was taken by Māori auxiliaries of Te Arawa to Rotorua. Over thirty Māori prisoners of war were decapitated, and their bodies thrown into the trenches, where they still lie buried today.
In 2019 myself and whānau attended the Te Pōrere 150th commemoration in the Tongariro National Park within my tribal area Ngāti Tūwharetoa. For the 2019 commemoration the flag from the Te Pōrere battle travelled from Te Papa with archaeologists and members representing the Crown. Accompanying the flag was a taiaha (weapon) last used at the battle of Te Pōrere and a 300-year-old pūtatara (shell trumpet) belonging to our founding ancestor the rangatira Tūwharetoa.
Like the Tino Rangatiratanga flag and various Māori flags, the reverence for Te Wepu is very strong among followers of the Ringatū faith and various members of iwi throughout New Zealand, including Ngāti Tūwharetoa. When Te Kooti crafted his flag, his actions increased the mauri (life essence) and mana (power, authority) of the fabrics used to make them. For Te Kooti and his followers the flag held mana (authority). Mauri and mana are essential concepts in Te Ao Māori. In modern times mauri and mana can be described as embodiments of resistance to colonialism. Therefore, many Māori do not view flags as ‘silly’ or mere ‘rags’, and instead are viewed as embodied participants in real world events.
The flag, a sibling to Te Wepu (the whip) was welcomed on to Otukou marae Ngāti Hikairo during a powhiri tangihana (funeral rites), flanked by a two hundred strong kapa haka group performing rituals pertaining to tangihanga. The flag represented the embodiment of a returning ancestor and several members in procession carried the flag mounted within a glass case. The flag was given as much reverence as to a tūpāpaku (corpse), and as is customary with tangihana (funeral rites) laid down in Okahukura wharepuni of Ngāti Hikairo for several days before its return to Te Papa.
Over several days and nights haukāinga (home people) along with members of the Rīngatu faith slept next to the taonga with ritual early morning karakia (prayers) and long mōteatea (laments) into the night. The mōteatea (laments) added a sombre tone to the already hushed whispers and weeping in the wharepuni as we reconnected to tupuna (ancestors) from our past and the flag’s significance. Our ariki (paramount chief) Tumu Te Heuheu led the commemoration. His great grandfather Horonuku Te Heuheu Tukino IV was at Te Pōrere in 1869.
For 150 years the ramifications of that fateful day in 1869 and subsequent land confiscations by the crown have had lasting effects on Ngāti Tūwharetoa prosperity. In 2017 we received a crown apology, and the resulting meagre treaty settlement re-traumatised our iwi, adding further burden to the Te Pōrere commemorations two years later. The return of our taonga (treasures), including the flag, provided some form of emotional comfort to a working-class indigenous community bearing the brunt of neoliberal economic hardship.
Another issue that is swept under the carpet of this mindless exhibition is that of Māori flags being used as trophies for white supremacy. As enforcers of colonial dispossession Mercy Pictures’ display of Māori symbols of resistance as European symbols of conquest has historical precedent.
On 13th December 1863 Forest Rangers attacked a Māori camp at Paparātā, in the Hunua Ranges, killing at least seven people. Forest Rangers led by Major Jackson seized the Aotearoa flag made by Hēni Te Kirikaramu. Hēni, anglicised as Jane Foley, was fluent in French, English and Māori. The Forest Rangers were later accused of 'cold-blooded murder’.
The Aotearoa flag was presented as a gift to Auckland city and displayed over the entrance to the public library for many decades as a trophy. A Māori visitor in 1927 appalled by the sight of the Aotearoa flag being displayed alongside a German one captured during World War One bitterly complained. Adding a further insult was the plaque with the inscription ‘an historic memento and token of friendship between the two races’.
In turn, this leads me to ask why does Hurrell’s shallow article omit crucial facts about the political motives behind displaying neo-Nazi symbols? Mercy Pictures revealed their political affinities when reacting to criticism of their use of Nazi symbols and ‘white pride’ slogans posted on social media far-right imagery with racial and antisemitic slurs.
Equally disturbing is Nina Power’s 2019 podcast ‘Hate Speech, Feminism, & Paganism’ in which she promotes two exponents of Third Positionist fascism, one who is an admirer of Italian fascist Julius Evola. Hurrell also neglected to notify his readers that Nina Power for the past two years has faced criticism within the academic community for her far-right inclinations, including an open letter from a former colleague who works as a credible academic.
Hurrell and supporters of Mercy Pictures must denounce the promotion of white supremacist symbols, and provide an adequate response that takes into account New Zealand’s colonial racial legacy. A legacy built upon the struggles of Māori from which John Hurrell and the supporters of Mercy Pictures have benefitted and continue to do so under the specious claim of free speech.