Thursday, November 10, 2005

A man of principle

A major figure in the cultural and political life of Aotearoa New Zealand, Tama Poata, died Wednesday November 9.

Poata wrote the screenplay for Ngati, the Barry Barclay-directed film which, by using a near historical lens (the East Coast in the 1940s) was able to shine a light on the contemporary role of Maori in NZ society in an understated but powerful way.

Poata was raised in Tokomaru Bay but ended up in Wellington in the late 1960s after spells as a labourer on the South Island hydro schemes, driver and other jobs.

An active member of the Wellington Drivers Union and the Communist Party, Poata formed the Maori Organisation on Human Rights to address specifically Maori issues. It was responsible for two significant publications: Saana Murray's Te Karanga a Te Kotuku (1971), a poetic look at the issues which eventualy formed the basis for the Muriwhenua Claim, and a reprint of Aureretanga, the‚Ä® Groans of the Maoris, GW Rusden's 19th century exposition on the injustices meted out to Ngai Tahu and other tribes.

Human rights was the framework Poata chose to view the world. He protested the Vietnam War, Springbok tours and Maori land grievances, always with his own carefully thought-through perspective. It was Poata who came up with the name Halt All Racist Tours (HART) as the umbrella organization for anti-apartheid protests.

He was one of the leaders of the 1975 Land March, was arrested at Raglan, and was again on the front lines at Bastion Point. By that stage he had his own land, a gorse-covered farm at Makara west of Wellington, which he broke in with the help of running some of the early work schemes.

His film career started when he shifted from beign a set builder on NZ's first television soap, Pukemanu, to getting a small role. His film work includes Wild Horses, Utu, Among the Cinders and Never Say Die.

I first encountered Poata in 1981. Suspicious of the domination of the Wellington Springbok protest movement by the Maoist Workers Communist League (aka Weasels), the punks, anarchists, Trots and similar untameable types chose to park themselves in Brown Squad, led by Poata with able assistance from Te Nia and Barney Pikari. It was an instructive period, not least for Poata's rejection of some of the thinking coming from the Auckland movement, that there should be some dual protest against racism in South Africa and Aotearoa. No, said Poata, the kaupapa is supporting the struggles of those in South Africa, and that should never be forgotten.

His ability to see Maori issues from an internationalist perspective was extremely valuable, and took some time to be picked up by others.

Tame Poata, truly a man of principle. You will be greatly missed.

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