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Haare Williams: Words of a Kaumatua

Haare Williams: Words of a Kaumatua

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Haare Williams: Words of a Kaumatua

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Nov 14, 2019


A kaumatua an elder of the Maori people reflects in poetry and prose on his journey from te ao Maori on the East Coast to contemporary Auckland, New Zealand.Ko te kopara anake e tarere ki te tihi o te makauri. Oti rawa! Kia oti rawa, e!Haare Williams grew up with his Tuhoe grandparents on the shores of Ohiwa Harbour on the East Coast of New Zealand in a te reo world of Tane and Tangaroa, Te Kooti and the old testament, myths and legends and of Nani Wai and curried cockle stew a world that Haare left behind when he learnt English at school and moved to the city of Auckland.Over the last half-century, through the Maori arts movement, waves of protest and the rise of Maori broadcasting, Haare Williams has witnessed and played a part in the changing shape of Maoridom. And in his poetry and prose, in te reo Maori and English, Haare has a unique ability to capture both the wisdom of te ao Maori and the transformation of that world.This book, edited and introduced by acclaimed author Witi Ihimaera, brings together the poetry and prose of Haare Williams to produce a work that is a biography of the man and his times, a celebration of a kaumatua and an exemplar of his wisdom.
Nov 14, 2019

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Witi Ihimaera


The poems and narrative pieces in Haare Williams’ collection might appear to be very simple but their simplicity is deceptive.

One of the poems, ‘He Iti Kōpara Noa’, is illustrative of this quality. A bellbird swings and beats against the wind as it feeds on the sweet berries of the makauri tree. But look deeper. The bellbird or kōpara has a beautiful song and Māori often compare the bird with a fluent, admired and graceful speaker on the marae – as Haare is. They might say, ‘He rite ki te kōpara e kōkō nei i te ata. His kōrero is like listening to the bellbird singing at dawn.’

Again, the word, makauri, in the poem, is another name for kahikatea – which also happens to be the emblem of Haare’s iwi, Te Aitanga a Māhaki. Thus the poem is embedded with cultural and personal meaning.

One could therefore rightly say that Haare Williams is one of our greatest elders, a singular bellbird among our native language speakers, able to articulate our concerns to all who live in Aotearoa. I know that he would say, self-effacing, that his wisdom, strength and resolve comes from the privilege of having ‘suckled the sweetest berries’. His tribal culture has been what has nurtured him and made him the person he is.

In this collection, we are privileged to obtain the wisdom of a Māori elder of the old school. And how fortunate we are to hear his songs in a life where, like the kōpara, he too has often had to beat against the storm.


To give him his full name, Haare Mahanga Te Wehinga Williams was born in 1934 in Pūhā, Te Karaka, in the rural heart of Te Aitanga a Māhaki, very close to Gisborne, with close links to Rongowhakaata and Te Whānau a Kai. His parents were Te Wehinga Williams and Ereti Brown.

But, as he tells it, ‘I grew up with grandparents on the shores of Ōhiwa Harbour near Ōpōtiki, just over the hill from Gisborne, in the traditional Māori way, not learning English until the age of seven when schooling started.’

His childhood hearth was a whare raupō at Karaka located between Ōhiwa and Kutarere – and it is indeed ‘just over the hill from Gisborne’ in the Bay of Plenty. He likes to talk of himself as being ‘a living gift to my Tūhoe grandparents, especially my kuia, Wairēmana Poniwahio.’ There is no doubt that her personal influence, together with the relocation, widened Haare’s experiences. Through Wairēmana he was connected to the narratives handed down from her dad, Taihakoa Poniwahiao of Ruatoki, and her grandfather, Tūtakangahau of Waikaremoana.

From the very beginning therefore, Haare was brought up within a totally Māori context, primarily Tūhoe, in which relationships were mediated according to whenua, iwi, wairua and tāhuhu kōrero (history). And some eighty years later we can still see the mana, ihi (energy), wehi (dread) and aroha flowing through his poems – albeit that they are written, mostly, in English. You can see this in his narrative piece, ‘Ko te Tapu o te Whenua, ko te Tapu o te Wahine’. Haare defines the quality of his childhood world by the word tapu (sacred) and maps out its emphatic and profound geography:

Ranginui ki runga Papatūānuku ki raro

Sky earth sea bush springs stream swamp

Cultivations fires whenua land mother

Woman Birth

Placenta Pito

Ahi Kā

At Karaka, the Sky Father is above, the Earth Mother is below, it is a location existing within a mythic as well as physical domain. Yes, physically, it possesses earth, sea, bush, springs, swamp and cultivations. But the narrative piece also witnesses Karaka in an organic, truly Māori and deceptively rich and simple way. For instance, note the final cadences: whenua, land, mother, woman, birth, placenta pito. These are words which proclaim a certain intimacy of ownership and they lead, by way of genealogical reference to the phrase ahi kā: right of possession not based on purchase but on the land’s whakapapa or genealogy with the iwi.

And so the concept of land, what it is, what it means, what it’s been through, looms large in all of Haare Williams’ work. You can’t miss the land’s divinity, as described in the poem, ‘E Mā. Or its majesty, as in ‘A Prophetic Land’, because many of Haare’s poems see the land in exaltation. They remind one of John Donne’s poems in their devotional aspect and their emphasis on the epiphany which provides a surprising illumination.

And in this world there are birds everywhere, singing and warbling, both images that underline the birds as the singing voice of Tāne, sounds of a living world.

Haare’s relationship with the land is not only ecstatic, it is also intensely personal. Immersed in the life and practices of another generation, Haare’s koroua and kuia gardened, fished and preserved food according to a Māori calendar. They exposed him to the best practices for co-existing with the natural world while he absorbed a diversity of mātauranga Māori. Their mode of gardening applied the knowledge of Māori. Not only that, but in one of his narrative pieces, ‘A Place Called Karaka’, Haare cleverly extends the analogy of gardening by including himself as one of his Nan Wairēmana’s fruits: ‘With her brown hand she planted the seed which became the man.’

Some of these childhood pieces are lovely, nostalgic, evoking a Māori world that sometimes appears to be too good to be true. They are redolent of the time before.

Ah, summer days

We kids jumped off the wharf

Fish swim and sleep


The primary focus on the land in Haare Williams’ poems should not be wondered at. After all, his was the generation of the 1950s and 1960s which still lived rurally and close to the whenua. He was educated at primary school in Kutarere and then attended Ōpōtiki College and Waikohu College. And it’s clear that like many of his contemporaries, Haare’s old people saw him as someone who would become a bridge builder between Māori and Pākehā cultures. To speak on behalf of the iwi and, in particular, to hold the Pākehā to account for the promises made to them under the Treaty of Waitangi. Haare did very well at school and he relates how, as a young boy, he recited the alphabet and sang a Pākehā song on his marae – and all the iwi applauded this new wonder – except for his own kuia.

‘Wairēmana walked up to me,’ Haare says, ‘and placed a hand on my cheek. New sounds were coming out of my mouth and strange words were humming inside me, auē, how they buzzed and stung. And then she wept at the ways they were altering the āhua — not just the body of the child, but also the body politic of Māoridom.’

This is where the tāhuhu kōrero (history) of Haare’s upbringing comes in, for the community at Ōhiwa were fierce adherents of the Ringatū faith. Indeed, his grandparents were followers of the Māori warrior-priest, Te Kooti Arikirangi, who was given refuge by Tūhoe from military soldiers during the Te Kooti Wars, 1868–1872. The community lived by the precepts of the church; they were steeped in Old Testament prayers and songs and the regular year calendar of thanksgiving. Haare absorbed the cadences and nuances of the Ringatū:

‘My physical nourishment,’ he writes, ‘was matched with the spiritual substance I received through Te Kooti’s scriptural-based waiata such as the Songs of David and Solomon. Ringatū writings are inspirational texts and they grew my love of language, poetry and narrative.’

In this respect, Haare Williams’ background inspiration is similar to that of New Zealand poet Hone Tūwhare, whose first poems reveal a similar devotional aspect to the Old Testament. The difference between Haare and Hone – and most of the other Māori poets of the 1960s writing in English – is that Haare’s poetry comes from a knowledge of and fluency in te reo, not English. His work uniquely represents the continuity of the poetic experience from the Māori inventory of oral and religious literature prior to the establishment of a modernist Māori tradition by Hone Tūwhare. He comes from the ‘folk art’ heritage and as the Grandfather Moses of our literature he’s the missing link to that whakapapa.

Haare directly addresses the relationship between Māori and the Crown in poems that eyeball our joint history. He draws us into the history by using personal witness as in the prose piece, ‘Redemption is a Long Way Home’:

As a child I learned from Nan Wairēmana of Ōhiwa that Te Kooti and Rua Kēnana were the people’s links to the remnants of their land in Te Urewera. But the Pākehā labelled Tūhoe as dissidents for providing sanctuary to these two prophets and other so-called criminals in the canopy of the bush, mountains and mist.

‘The forced confiscations of Tūhoe lands,’ Nan Wairēmana said, ‘happened because of our alleged disloyalty. That’s how we lost the lands around Waikaremoana, Ruatāhuna, Ruatoki, Waimana, Pekatahi, Opōuriao and here at Ōhiwa.’

No blame is attached in this devastating narrative work. But Haare, who today is a Ringatū tohunga, maintains his vigil on New Zealand history. On the occasion of a recent Radio New Zealand programme on the New Zealand Wars and Conflicts (Te Ahi Kaa, Te Pūtake o te Riri, 25 March 2018) he was adamant that Te Kooti is the best general in Māori history. He says, ‘I found in my life that Te Kooti was a complex person, a man of forgiveness, but he was a man that would bewilder the state.’ Haare absorbed the stories handed down to him – and later personally experienced by him – to do with the conflagration caused by land alienation and the history of dispossession.

His poems become hard-edged, as in the declaratory narrative ‘At the Place of Stacked Guns’:

And the Mōrehu’s disappointment was like a storm to a sunny day when he [Commander Biggs] tried to arrest Te Kooti in that place. They began their Flight Across the Country and went down to the river and sang songs of Babylon. ‘Yea, we wail when we remember Zion. Oh Lord, how can we sing Your song when we have no land?’ He did not walk through the misted light.

The Mōrehu went down to the river and knelt upon the land. They intoned Psalms 63–10, ‘Let us pray for their souls and our own. Āmine.’

And so they wept and named that place Tākipū – The Stacked Guns.

There’s an incantatory nature to other poems like ‘Te Kooti’ and ‘Rua the Prophet’, the two most important warrior-priests in Haare’s whakapapa. And his poem, ‘Go East of Your Mountain’ demands to be read aloud. What’s stunning is that Haare Williams is not afraid to trace the way that dispossession and alienation have led to the difficulties that young Māori have faced and continue to face in contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand. His witness can be graphic, as in ‘To Hide my Weakness’, or a portent, as in ‘Paradox’ with its final stanza:

Paradox is

a Mum and three kids in mid-winter

plotting rebellion in a van

on Hostile Street

Indeed, throughout his life Haare Williams has continued to take what might be called ‘The Arikirangi Perspective’ in his work on colonial history – his poems critiquing the razing of Maungapōhatu or Parihaka – to the Māori–Crown relationship as it has evolved throughout the years.


You might expect that when Haare Williams recites his work in a packed hall to (mostly) a Pākehā audience – as he did recently in Devonport at a Matariki celebration in 2018 – that members in the hall would walk out. But

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