Every few months a disparate group of New Zealanders file into Rongomaraeroa-o-nga-hau e wha, the National Army Marae in Waiouru. They have just made it past the initial hurdle of Army basic training: the gruelling first few days. The group has come to attest – the process of swearing loyalty to the Queen and formally entering the armed services.

Speeches precede the solemn ceremony. High-ranking officers welcome the recruits, and entreat them to consider eachother as comrades. They then explain the significance of what is about to take place. Having attested, they will have a new family: Ngāti Tumatauenga – ‘Tribe of the God of War’.

This is what makes the New Zealand Army, a small force with few major deployments, so unique. It is not a conventional Western military. In 1994 it transformed itself into Ngāti Tumatauenga: an iwi created by, with and for the state.

The Army hoped this would facilitate better integration of Māori knowledge and culture into its organisational ethos. In the background looms one question. Is this genuine bicultural integration or merely the co-option of Māori culture?

Ironically, the history of Ngāti Tumatauenga begins with a white officer named Anthony Birks. Birks grew up in the relatively white and rural South Island of New Zealand in the mid-20th century. He attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in England and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. It was a conventional journey for promising young officers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It was only upon returning to New Zealand from England that Birks came into contact with Māori. Steve Bethell, the cultural advisor at the Army Marae, remarked that “[Birks] joined the Army believing Māori were extinct. When he climbed off the train [at Waiouru Military Camp] at 2 o’clock in the morning, brown people were yelling at him [to direct him which way to go]. And he met Māori for the first time in his life.” It was a confronting awakening.

Birks gained an abiding appreciation for the practices of his Māori compatriots while serving overseas in Malaysia and Vietnam. Steve Bethell recounted how upon coming out of the jungle, all Māori in the camp would congregate to “make sure that everyone came home. If they didn’t come home then they would listen to the reason why … and they could grieve for one of their own. At the end of that grieving … people would add ‘my baby brother had his 21st’ or ‘my baby was born’, so that into this world of darkness you suddenly had this shining light of happiness.”

By 1994 Birks had been promoted to Chief of General Staff, the highest position in the NZ Army (the position is now ‘Chief of Army’). That year he decided to attend the annual meeting of the 28th Māori Battalion. Lieutenant-General Bernard Freyberg, commander of the 2nd New Zealand Division, once noted that ‘no infantry battalion had a more distinguished record, or saw more fighting, or, alas, had such heavy casualties as the Māori Battalion.’

At the meeting Birks made a surprising request. He asked for permission to construct a permanent Army Marae and transform the New Zealand Army into an iwi – Ngāti Tumatauenga. Most interestingly, Birks wished for Ngāti Tumatauenga to have equal tribal status to conventional iwi.

Just as surprisingly, the 28th agreed. Working alongside Birks, they sent messages to iwi across New Zealand. The Māori Queen gave her assent, as did the iwi which surrounded Waiouru; Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Tuhoe. And so Ngāti Tumatauenga was born.

It was an astonishing reversal. The NZ Army evolved out of the British troops deployed during the 19th century New Zealand Wars to suppress Māori dissidents and appropriate Māori land. Most successful officers were white New Zealanders and, similar to Birks, had studied at prestigious English military institutions. To them a good military was an English military. In that world Māori soldiers felt like “third-class citizens” said Steve Bethell.

“Our marae faces the setting sun. Every other marae in NZ faces the rising sun to welcome the new day. If every marae faces there, who guards against the darkness?”

Nonetheless over a few months in 1994, the NZ Army transformed into an extension of the culture which it had played a part in suppressing.

That transformation has had little impact on the NZ Army’s combat practices. The NZ Army has seen little modern relevance in the traditional hand-to-hand warfare of early Māori history. Similarly, the guerilla tactics utilised by Māori to great effect in the New Zealand Wars has been deemed of little independent value to an Army which has absorbed its harsh lessons from deployments in Malaysia, Vietnam and Afghanistan.

But the transformation has had a profound impact on the culture and ethos of the NZ Army. Every soldier, regardless of ethnicity, is inducted into Ngāti Tumatauenga. Recruits spend nights on the marae being taught the whakapapa of their new iwi. As they sleep under the creaking roof they sink their roots into what will become their spiritual home. It can be a transformative experience. “I had never considered that I would ever belong to an iwi,” explained one enlisted soldier with no Māori ancestry. “Knowing Ngāti Tumatauenga is my iwi gives me a sense of belonging… I am proud to say I belong to Ngāti Tumatauenga. It gives me pride in my country, my country’s history and in myself.” That sense of belonging supports the strong ties of comradeship among NZ Army personnel.

That shared cultural belonging was poignantly expressed in this year’s repatriation of NZ Defence Force personnel who had been buried overseas. The remains of 27 personnel who had served in Malaysia and Singapore were exhumed and blessed under the supervision of kaumātua, and the Defence Force committed to complying with appropriate tikanga.

The remains were flown home by Air New Zealand in August, and were greeted by waiata which echoed across the tarmac of Auckland Airport. A fleet of hearses then carried the remains through a gauntlet of serving personnel. On one side Defence Force personnel silently stood to attention, and on the other a mix of uniformed soldiers and elders wearing traditional Māori garments performed a rousing haka. Traditional Māori practice and customary military ceremony merged into a moving farewell to the fallen.

The NZ Army’s transformation into Ngāti Tumatauenga has also brought significant practical benefits. The Army Marae organises courses teaching te reo, tikanga, Māori culture and even the use of traditional weaponry. This understanding of Māori culture supports the work of Defence Force personnel overseas.

Commander David Ledson and the HMNZS Waikato is a good example. The HMNZS Waikato was approaching Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. Confused and concerned as to why the HMNZS Waikato was approaching, local residents grabbed weapons and began threatening the vessel. By going ashore with his Māori advisory group, performing a haka and engaging in cultural discourse, Commander Ledson demonstrated the HMNZS Waikato’s lack of hostility and avoided a major international incident. The fact that this took place in 1990, even before the creation of Ngāti Tumatauenga, is thought to be indicative of the potential value of a concerted effort to inculcate Māori knowledge in the activities and practices of the New Zealand Defence Force.

Of course the integration process still faces challenges. The value of Māori knowledge and the difficulty which some NZ Army personnel have adjusting to a genuinely bicultural reality were both exemplified in comments made by Brigadier Roger Mortlock, the New Zealand Commander of peacekeeping forces in Bougainville during 1998. Mortlock declared that he had two assets which would be “main weapons in our arsenal.” The first was a squad of Māori cultural advisors who he hoped to deploy as liaisons with locals. The second was a shipment of guitars which the cultural advisors could use; a comment which plays into common stereotypes about musical Māori.

Cliched comments like these make it possible to argue that Ngāti Tumatauenga represents not integration, but co-option of an indigenous group and its knowledge. The fact that Māori make up around 20 percent of enlisted soldiers but only around 8 percent of commissioned officers is another indicator that the Army may be unfriendly to Māori trying to enter command and management positions.

Yet few commentators espouse such concerns. Dr Debbie Hohaia, an academic at Charles Darwin University, has written positively about Māori cultural experiences within the New Zealand Defence Force. In her paper In Search of a Decolonised Military: Maori Cultural Learning Experiences in the NZDF, Dr Hohaia concluded that while “a deeper understanding of Māori epistemologies and kaupapa is needed at every level of [the Defence Force]”, she believes that “the New Zealand Defence Force’s journey towards biculturalism” has made significant progress towards the goal of a decolonised military where Māori knowledge and practices are as credible and valuable as their Western equivalents.

Many see Ngāti Tumatauenga as another step towards the fulfilment of the promise of bicultural partnership made in New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi. One current enlisted soldier with Māori ancestry explained that “Ngāti Tumatauenga represents the amalgamation of the Imperial soldier’s spirit with the mana of the Māori warrior. This is a positive reflection of the partnership principle of the Treaty of Waitangi, giving me pride in using Ngāti Tumatauenga in my pepeha.”

Perhaps there would be more controversy if Ngāti Tumatauenga’s nature and origins were better known. But for those in the know, such as New Zealand’s soldiers and academics like Dr Hohaia, the NZ Army’s creation of Ngāti Tumatauenga is a genuine, laudable and effective attempt to integrate Māori knowledge and culture into the Army’s ethos.

Regardless those debates are far from the mind of visitors to the Army Marae in Waiouru. Instead, as they exit through gates adorned with carvings of Ngāti Tumatauenga’s ancestors, visitors are confronted by Mt Ruapehu towering on the horizon.

That orientation, as with every other aspect of Ngāti Tumatauenga and the Army Marae, is unique. “Our marae faces the setting sun,” noted Bethell. “Every other marae in NZ faces the rising sun to welcome the new day. If every marae faces there, who guards against the darkness? We have the back of New Zealanders during those hours of darkness… That is our sole responsibility: to protect our own. We face the darkness because that is from where the enemy will come.”

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