Oka went and stood outside the back door of the meeting house and lit a cigarette. He knew what his people were really like, and he wasn’t as optimistic as Takitimu.
The others had already started talking, as usual, about how much money they would make from their shares if they sold them to the latest developer hanging around.
Oka hated the talk and the people who talked about it. He wanted to tell them so many things about the world as he saw it, but they had no time to listen to him, and the rejection pained him into a mumbling raver. Besides, after all these years, he wasn’t telling them anything they hadn’t already heard. Progress meant leaving dead weight behind on the way to something better. To most, he was the deadweight, but not to Takitimu.
Oka didn’t want Pākehā people living anywhere near them, but he didn’t want to live with his relatives either. They had been poor for so long they had nothing rich left to offer, not even in their hearts. It was the principle of the matter that they should not sell land to anyone, again, ever. What the hell had they been doing in those painful meetings about Raupatu if they hadn’t learned the lesson of individualising land as if it were a chattel?
“Listen to all of you talking about land as if you have a say.” Oka laughed at them from the back of the room.
“What’s the big deal, Oka? It’s only 53 hectares out of 2000. We turn it into 160 sections with canal waterways and we flick them on for a few hundred thousand.”
Oka was wary of people who spoke about flicking land on as if it was something that could fit on the end of a thumb.
“It’s a Pauanui-styled development”, said the brochure.
“They rake the sand in Pauanui apparently,” piped up Aunty Agnes, who was slightly Queenie with thick paned glasses and a mile of a smile. “That’s flash,” she added.
Oka felt his blood rising. The developers had been using their B-grade brainwashing ideas on them all. A “Pauanui-styled development” was a phrase that was meant to attract money. Some were so naive they thought it was a compliment to have someone raking the sand.
“So those dumb rich fuckers will come over here with their flash boats and their flash blond and their flash house and just flash the place out, right Aunty?”
“Oka, why do you have to be so rude? We don’t have to be racist. We all have our own ways, and one is not better than another.”
Aunty Hine, a fully-fledged Christian, had won Lotto and thought that this meant she was hooked up to the angels. Oka couldn’t stand her. Since she had become rich, she was an authority on everything. The fact that she herself was racist seemed irrelevant.
“The ones with money wanting to buy more of my land are cheap arseholes, Aunty.”
Truth was not supposed to be a sweet medicine when administered by Oka.
“It’s our land, Oka.”
“Aunty, you only married-in here. You don’t have manawhenua here. You can’t just buy a ticket and win whenua, Aunty Lotto.”
Her annoyance at being called Aunty Lotto overtook her good sense.
“Oka, do you know who you are?”
She had a malicious strain of blood in her veins, Aunty Lotto.
The people around them shifted uncomfortably because they knew things Oka didn’t about his parentage.
A fantail flew into the meeting house.
Everyone was visibly perturbed. It was enough to make Aunty Lotto shut right up. Secrets were kept to protect the children. It was no one’s fault the children had become adults.
Oka was paying no attention. He had learned to switch off his comprehension when anyone made a comment about his family. His mother had killed herself, pregnant to her father; they thought he didn’t know.
No, Oka could not be convinced by the money. It could not be compared with even the skinniest tree on the Island. If it wasn’t good money, it was bad money, and bad money was something that made good people sick. It had sickened his own grandfather. Oka wanted to make good money and buy back every piece of their whenua, every piece of his mother.
Takitimu’s grandmother stood. She whistled to the bird, now perched on the tewha tewha, and it flew out the door. She asked her sister, a member of Te Pāti Māori, to speak. She was the great hope of Māoridom in the beehive. Their queen bee. But at home, she wore gumboots, slapped men and kids, and always spoke her mind.
She said, “We need money to prune the trees, to fix the bank and stop the sewage being poured into our moana. We could not stop the Pākehā and their guns and we cannot stop the Pākehā with their laws. Money, that is what we need. Oka, if you can get us money without selling land that will be better. So show us, Oka, show us. Never mind talking if you have no plan. I can do that on my toilet seat boy. Show me the money, boy. It’s not too late but if we want to keep our land free for our mokopuna, we will have to pay the landlord like every other. We sold our souls. You know we sold them for a life in town. Drunk, all of you; stoned, all of you. We used to work our gardens together, share our kai, have dances at the marae, and collect pipis together. What’s going on here is a good old-fashioned addiction to shit.”
The room grumbled. They were useful with the right plan. But what was the plan? The company was stripping them, the Trust was helping them to do it and the meth had taken out two of their key cousins. Self-annihilation was nothing new and this hurt Takitimu the most; same shit different day. He drew a deep breath and let the plan formulate.
“We have a forest asset worth millions. We are not broke. The Trust needs a financial audit of the forest company.”
“Good luck with that. Something is going on there. We have asked repeatedly for this document and never received it,” said the treasurer of the Trust, the kaiako at the Kura, the bus driver and everyone’s Aunty Wi.
She continued, “I don’t trust Donald. He has a gambling problem. Have you seen how he limps around with a sore back? That’s money issues for sure.” Aunty Wi was always telling them the emotional reason for their physical issues. You could add doctor to that list of jobs she had.
Half the people in the meeting moved uncomfortably. They too had sore backs and gambling problems; the biggest problem being that they never won any bloody-thing.
The curly-haired Aunty on the opposite side of the meeting house, unusually quiet, had all the documents in her briefcase; these minutes, those resolutions, those accounts, the hard evidence. She flung the briefcase around threatening people from time to time. Proof.
She suddenly piped up like the soprano in a choir, “Something is definitely not right in the company. The forest has been poorly managed. People on the mainland are joking about it. We don’t even mill our own logs. All of our men are unemployed and we have a mill that is operating at one tenth of its capacity. There is something in what Oka says.”
Aunty Lotto stood up, she was burning. She was a great admirer of Donald, some said too admiring, wink, wink, nudge, nudge. The fact was they had grown up together.
“You young know-it-alls smoke dope all day and leave the work to people like Donald.”
Oka said, “Fuck off, we don’t leave the work to anyone, you and he snaked your shares in the company out of my people. You are a fucking visitor only. You got your shares in the company and your friend has the job as manager of the forest because of the Pākehā systems, which are still fucking us over. You are defending a corrupt, greedy man and I am going to expose him and anyone else that his shit clings too. Yes I am. That you think you have rights cos of your pieces of fucken paper, you can get fucked. The founding document of this country has been used to wipe Pākehā arses; pieces of paper don’t mean a thing to me. They don’t mean a fucking thing.”
Oka felt his heart pumping and his temple tightening. He drew in a deep breath and let it out in despair. He wanted to smash something or someone. As far as he was concerned, Aunty Lotto and Donald Duck and the rest of their cohorts could fob him off until they had no way to deny his existence; he would make them remember.
Takitimu, as chairman of their ropu, let Oka say whatever he liked… it was helpful having the “fuck you” man in the room. The “fuck you” man cut to the bone while Takitimu got to be the good guy.
They both wanted the same thing: to save the land from being sold to developers.
Takitimu had temporarily stopped the share transfers, which would have diluted the Trust’s power over the company that held all their land and assets. Those transfers were officially stopped. But that could change at any time; all they needed was a majority vote. The company executives, who were also the uncles who had the most to gain financially from the transfer, were trying to keep things off the marae. Lying in the wharenui was more difficult. And he wouldn’t shut up about that either.
The tools at his disposal for certain success were his belief and his tenacity. It kept him hungry and sometimes starving. The depletion of all hope at the times, when he wasn’t strong enough to cope with the poverty of the thinking, made him suicidal.
Takitimu walked to the middle of the meeting house. The people had almost forgotten the reason why they once followed an oral culture; they almost didn’t know why anymore. It was not because they didn’t know how to write or read. Their art was their writing, their whare was their writing. Takitimu looked around at the language of their carved and painted walls. He saw why they were forgetting.
“Convenience kills everything,” he said. “Fast food, fast cars, fast love, fast sales, fast lives.”
Their Te Pāti Māori candidate stood. She could see Takitimu was going off-topic. She spoke clearly: “The point of this meeting is to discuss how we are going to raise the money to pay off the company debts. We do need a full statement of account from the company, and as well, we need some alternatives besides selling land. Your job is to think about how we will do this. Now let’s have a karakia; the old people are tired. The world is big and cold. Let’s make this land a warm land for our people. The more we fight, the colder our whenua gets. Stay warm.”
What she meant was all negative elements will be erased one way or another. She swayed slightly as if unsteady, but then the glint in her eye remained razor-sharp.
Takitimu’s grandfather stood and commenced the closing karakia. It was a Christian prayer said in Māori. Takitimu admired the resourcefulness of his people, even if it made him deeply depressed to have to fight them on something so basic as retaining autonomy over their land. It was depressing for everyone concerned, especially when he mentioned the unpaid work they all had to do to get their land back.
Unpaid work was not how life was on TV; unpaid work was not sexy or glamorous and never fruitful. Unpaid work was slavery. He had felt the enormous space in that void, flipped a somersault in it.
The emotional architecture of a most destructible kind was welling up in the poverty of his relations. But it was like taking candy from a baby. They cried so loud it was painful. So he gave them back their denial sweets and played it cool.
With the karakia done, Takitimu left the wharenui with his grandmother. She wanted her cup of tea at home and not in the wharekai with that lot. He stood on the Atea waiting for his grandmother to say her goodbyes.
The marae was glowing from inside, and the people were lingering on the Atea making plans to go to the beach house for their evening. The beach house was where all the smoking happened. Everyone traded their buds and seeds and compared their crops. Unfortunately, they also had the meth pipe there now too. Some could not erase the pain of loss. So much loss. The loss of dreams, the loss of innocence, the loss of love, the loss of their own identity. And the church was not getting anywhere close to filling the spiritual void. It was better to obliterate feelings altogether.
Oka watched the beach house group feeling pained and angry. No one could live with their own feelings, least of all him. What a fuck-up. He and Takitimu would talk about the meeting later. They would cut it into edible chunks. Chew it slowly. Try to swallow.
Takitimu gave Oka the look. It meant see you later.
Takitimu knew his real opponent was psychological warfare, and he was donning his armour and sharpening his sword. His grandfather’s elder brothers both fought in the Māori Battalion.
“Good work,” said Winston Churchill, “now get home and be oppressed by my forebear’s emissaries”.
Takitimu was insulted by the vagaries of the self-appointed dominant culture. The Pākehā was never going to remember the past like the Māori did.
“Boy, it’s better to be underestimated. That’s how I got into Parliament, being underestimated,” said the candidate.
While Takitimu knew this truth, he was not prepared to trust completely in his own ability. Instead, he had to prove a thing or two to anyone that underestimated him. Takitimu had a desire to change their whole universe yesterday. His grandmother never tired of telling him to change himself, and the world would follow.
As they left the Marae Atea, his grandmother invited her sister to drive home with them. Takitimu looked for Oka, but he’d already slipped out the back and disappeared. Takitimu’s grandfather had also disappeared.
As they drove over the metal road the black sky carved up their silence. The splinters of silence flew frantically around their heads. Takitimu felt heavy-hearted. His grandmother’s voice came like a light from the long dark night.
“It’s not our job to control anything. What can we control? We are not God, are we? It’s our job to listen to the Earth tell us what our job is. Do either of you know what she says?”
“Well, first of all, open your ears, both of you. You’re both leaders.”
“This is what she says: Do not rely on money, rely on me, rely on my bounty, my knowledge, my love. I’m what you are born to come to. I’m what nourishes you. I’m what makes sure you can live here. Money is nothing. It’s a figment of your imagination. But I am real. If you want to have mana whenua, then do the work. I’m your mother, use me, but don’t ever think you can own me. Our relationship is tapu because you value what is sacred between us. If you don’t pay attention, there will be consequences. There will be more disease. There will be more natural disasters. Learn the lesson. Learn what tapu means and understand what your real job is.”
Next week in our election campaign series of short stories: Vincent O’Sullivan imagines a Labour Party candidate