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I forgot I was Tangata Tiriti

by Rebecca Thomas

Being open to criticism, being open to being challenged and not getting defensive about it, this is part of being Tangata Tiriti.

On paper that sentiment looks actionable, in reality, in the heat of the moment it can sting.

Recently, I carried out a staff meeting where my intentions were to get everyone excited about te reo Māori. I had designed a scavenger hunt where I wanted staff to break down key components of te reo and see if the hidden message when translating these components could lead them to identify the kaupapa from an important researcher’s mahi.

I was so excited about the prospect of staff looking deep and hard at the contextual layers of te reo Māori and falling in love with the complexity in meaning of the words, I forgot where I was standing. I forgot to do due diligence. I forgot my position. As a result I was certainly rightfully challenged.

Let’s say that the staff meeting didn’t go very well.

It got to the part where my cheeks stung red as the gravity of the situation revealed itself. In my excitement I realised I had misjudged things. If the ground would have opened up and swallowed me, in that moment, there would have been no struggle.

My initial response that followed after was to become immediately defensive. I phoned four consultants I knew to run the event by them, and ask how to repair the relationship, they supported me to check my position.

It’s taken me three weeks to get my head around what went wrong, and what I could have done differently. I’ve been reading lots, exploring ideas, and playing conversations over in my head. With distance, now that the time has passed, I've been able to pause and reflect. I then decided to do what I try to do best, write, create and share.

The following tool Steve and I have created is for anyone who is nervous about their position as non-Māori, but keen to commit to the ongoing fight for Māori, and stand with Māori for their rights. This tool will support anyone who got it wrong before, and wants to learn from their experiences, learning how they can be better.

In reality, I should have planned the activity with more care as Tangata Tiriti, I should have followed the following path.

First check for the ‘safe space’

Although I had an existing positive relationship with the school over a period of a year, I should have described the activity clearly to the experts and sought their advice, whilst making clear my intentions. Then following the schools’ lead, planned how to deliver the message to keep everyone’s mana intact. Instead, I only mentioned it fleetingly in a flurry of excitement at lunchtime. Correct tikanga and protocols for the staff and myself were neglected. I should have made the learning environment safe and inclusive.

Voices, listen and be open to the kaupapa

From the outset of the meeting the prior learning activity was met with whispers and I was pulled up about my intent. This is when I should have stopped. I should have listened, and I should have respected the kaupapa. I should have respected my boundaries. Instead, I was determined to show the school I meant no offence and my intentions were honourable from the outset. Their insights, if I had checked beforehand, would have helped with my understanding.


Admittedly this came after, and now I know better and I can be better. But there will never be an end to this part. Words and wisdom have helped me begin to find my position and they have supported me to take ownership over my responsibilities. Ownership over what went wrong. I know my new knowledge will never be complete, but it is certainly deeper and richer from my experience and my openness.


It’s because I care I am writing this, it is with care I acknowledge the historical injustices and ongoing inequities, it is with care I am trying to help others. We must use empathy and compassion.

This cycle will continue, there is no shortcut to the work Tangata Tiriti have to do to figure out their responsibilities, but hopefully using this tool will help others on their journey to work out ‘how’ we can do the work, ‘how’ non-Māori can embrace te ao Māori and honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Remember, the path to true understanding and meaningful action is paved with sincere effort, and an unwavering commitment to walking together on the path of reconciliation.

(This tool will help you lead 4 staff meetings where you can unpack what it takes to be Tangata Tiriti )

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