Māori and Pasifikā communities are mourning the loss of Miriama Ruahihi Ness who died this week. Miriama featured recently in Newsroom’s series on wahine who accompanied Dame Whina Cooper in her epic land march in 1975. Producer Eugene Carnachan pays tribute to a woman who walked in many worlds.
Miriama, Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga, was born in 1951 and raised in small-town Shannon in the Horowhenua district. She, like many Māori of the time, shifted to Auckland in the 1960-70s in search of employment.
At the same time, Pasifikā families from around the Pacific were migrating to New Zealand in search of work. Converging in the inner-city suburb of Ponsonby, the area became an urban confluence of Māori and Pasifikā in search of their picket fence dream. Ponsonby, present tense conjures images of affluence, the place to be seen, the place people fine dine. 1970’s Ponsonby was very different, back then it was often described as a slum or ghetto, struggle street.
Miriama started work in a factory and quickly became aware of the maltreatment of Māori and Pasfikā women who worked without a single break, without been paid for working through their breaks. Miriama was elected as a union rep and took her fellow workers on strike over inhumane work conditions.
Up until this point in Miriama life, there had been an indifference to been Māori. New Zealand of the time, steadfastly monocultural in its optics. The media with few brown faces, often seemed to portray a patronising expression of Māori and Māori aspiration. And for some Māori, the negative portrayal stuck and damaged their sense of self.
When Miriama started advocating for the rights of Māori and Pasifikā workers it brought about an “awareness” a sense of self. She started understanding “Ko wai au” (who am I) as her world became more politicised to the injustices of Māori and Pasifikā. It lit a fire.
“I feared no one, fighting for the rights of my sisters both Pasifikā and Māori who were treated as second class citizens had to be done, I saw the violence of the Dawn Raids, I saw the devastation it caused, I saw us as one, I still do, I always will”
And she did.
She was asked to join the Polynesian Panthers, meeting Tigilau Ness, a Niuean, who she would later marry. The couple whose son is well known musician, Che Fu, would form lifelong bonds with Pasifikā revolutionaries and foundation members of the Panthers, Will Illolahia, Alec Tolefoa, Melanie Anae and many others. The group modelled themselves on the militant Black Panther Party in the US and formed, predominantly, around New Zealand born Pasifikā.
As a Māori, Miriama may have seemed out of place as a member of the Panthers, but that is not the way she saw it. She saw commonality in Māori and Pasifikā peoples’ ancestry and mother tongue, of family, whānau, aiga, fanau that were united in struggle; to confront racism and discrimination that lay deep within New Zealand society. That if we as a country were to change, those fibres of discrimination needed to be unravelled piece by piece and re-weaved with hands and minds that understood inclusivity.
“With every inch of my body, mind and soul I fight racism, I fight perpetrators of racism. Include us is the answer,” Miriama reminded us, in what was probably her last interview.
Ngā Tamatoa, the Māori iteration of the Black Panthers had members such as Syd Jackson, Orewa and John Ohia, Rawiri Paratene, Toro Waka, Tame Iti, and many more. Miriama knew most, if not all, of them. She deftly weaved worlds through a common cause.
Both Ngā Tamatoa and the Panthers pushed an abrasive, in your face form of political activism that, scared the bejesus out of middle- New Zealand – letting middle-New Zealand know the long-held belief that the country was the exemplar of race relations in the world was more fantasy than fact.
“I could see things weren’t right, I heard the stories, I was part of the stories, I told the stories, I advocated in support of our voices, yet many New Zealanders were either ignorant to our voices or deliberately deaf.”
In 1975 Miriama was a scout, helping organise the 1975 Land March led by Dame Whina Cooper. She travelled the length of the North Island a number of times visiting Marae on the pathway from Te Hāpua to Pōneke. At one of those Marae, Poutu, the Marae of her people in Shannon, the marchers stopped to eat, sleep, replenish. At the time she was a young mother, but the call to advocate and fight injustice and racism was powerful. When we spoke to her she lamented the time spent away from her children as she fought for the cause.
She rallied the Panthers to take action over the Police shooting of Daniel Houpapa, travelling with them to Taumarunui to protest. The Panthers and Ngā Tamatoa and many others supported the Bastion Point occupation in 1977- 1978, and the Springbok tour protests in 1981.
And while the Panthers disbanded shortly after the Springbok tour, Miriama continued doing what she knew, decade upon decade, often without fanfare or recognition.
Her Poroporoaki was one of colour, of stories, that encapsulated the layers of her world. Rastas, revolutionaries, community advocates, ‘The sisters’, politicians, academics, hard cases, family, friends. All blended into colours and as colourful stories that made for a fitting send-off to the weaver of worlds and worldviews. Many of those stories told by those she helped, inspired, empowered.
The 1960s and 1970s gave rise to women who were or went on to become leaders. To name a few Melanie Anae, Mereana Strickland, Orewa Barrett-Ohia, Hilda Halkyard, Harawira, Nita Ropata, Zena Tamanui, Betty Sio, Sharon Hawke, Ripeka Evans, Carmen Kirkwood, Rose Lazarus, Hana Jackson and many others. And, of course, the weaver of worlds, Miriama Rauhihi Ness – 1951- 2021