Wellington writer Graeme Carle has dreamed of making Parihaka Day a New Zealand day of celebration for nearly 24 years. Later this year, that passion and perseverance will pay off when the Government takes the first steps to recognise the heroic deeds of the people of Parihaka on November 5, 1881.
Graeme first read about the events at Parihaka, a village in Taranaki, in Ask that mountain: The story of Parihaka by Dick Scott after a friend recommended it. The book outlines the principles of peace that Tohu Kakahi and Te Whiti-o-Rongomai used to guide the people of Parihaka.
Particularly he was struck by the events of that day in 1881 when Tohu and Te Whiti and the several thousand adults who lived at the village sat in silent, peaceful protest as 1600 volunteer and Armed Constabulary troops marched towards them. Te Whiti sent singing children out to greet the soldiers with baskets of food, which initially defused the situation.
Graeme started to consider a Parihaka Day celebration in October 1993 when he walked his children to Kilbirnie School in Wellington. He began talking with the school’s principal, Mike McGimpsey about the upcoming Guy Fawkes celebration which shares the same date as Parihaka.
Graeme had always enjoyed Guy Fawkes Day as a child, but as an adult he didn’t see the point of celebrating the execution of a Catholic militant 400 years ago in England.
“As we looked at the wood being gathered for the bonfire, I said to the principal, ‘Why do we celebrate Guy Fawkes anyway? Why don’t we celebrate something worthwhile?’ The principal asked, ‘Like what?’ I told him the story of Parihaka and he loved it,” he says.
The principal asked Graeme to share the Parihaka story at a staff meeting and to the parents’ group. Everyone agreed it was a great idea and should be shared at the school’s morning assembly.
While he was waiting to speak, the children sang Parihaka, a song by Tim Finn. They had been singing the song at school for a long time, but no one had told them what the song was about.
“They had no idea what it meant so when I got up to speak I told them the story, ” he says.
Parents, teachers and children of Kilbirnie School came together on the Guy Fawkes evening of 1993 to celebrate the courage of Tohu and Te Whiti and the Parihaka people on November 5 1881.
“We sang the song and talked about what had happened, then went on to celebrate with food and fireworks,” Graeme said.
Encouraged by the response, Graeme started coming up with all sorts of “crazy ideas” to acknowledge and celebrate what had happened, including naming a ship. But a friend, Monte Ohia, took him aside and cautioned him.
“Monte said that I really needed to go to Parihaka and ask permission from the people first. It’s their story and we have to respect that.”
Soon after, he went for the first time to Parihaka with Monte who explained the process to him.
That was the beginning of regular visits.
A committee is formed
In response, a committee was formed – the Parihaka Network: Nga Manu Korihi (the bird’s dawn chorus). Twenty years later, Graeme co-leads the group with Parihaka local Mata Wharehoka.
The committee was formed to orchestrate ways to celebrate the courage of the children and the people in November 1881. It became a national organisation committed to Parihaka Day and a children’s festival based around that. The festival aims to teach children some of the values and principles taught at Parihaka including anger management, conflict resolution as well as autonomy and self-sufficiency.
On June 9 this year, Graeme travelled to Taranaki to hear the Government finally ask for forgiveness for the past misdeeds. A Crown delegation formally apologised to the people for the injustices that took place 135 years ago.
Attorney-General and Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson delivered the apology on behalf of the Government. He admitted it had been a long time coming. He spoke of the consequences arising from the wrongful treatment of the people including the decimation of the village, the rape of women and the wrongful imprisonment of their leaders and others, consequences still being today.
The Government and Parihaka Papakainga Trust have signed an Relationship Agreement, which includes a $9 million settlement and promises of development services from Crown agencies and local councils. The agreement also includes plans to commemorate 5 November 1881 and the peaceful resistance of Parihaka.
The Parihaka Network wants to carry on and celebrate the spirit of Parihaka within this commemoration.
Acknowledging the suffering and injustices was the correct thing to do while celebrating the New Zealanders who were committed to peaceful resistance which was exemplified by children at the forefront, Graeme says.
“I want the courage of Parihaka and these children to be remembered, like we remember other peace activists such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jnr” he says. Both Gandhi and King were assassinated, but what is most remembered about them is not the shame of the deaths but their accomplishments, their example of peaceful resistance.
Gandhi may have been inspired by the events at Parihaka. According to the New Zealand Gandhi Foundation, there is some evidence that an Irish delegation had travelled to New Zealand earlier and had told Gandhi of the peaceful resistance of the Taranaki people.
Graeme says the people of Parihaka preceded these internationally renowned heroes and he wants his children to know and celebrate the amazing New Zealanders.
While there is still a way until his vision is realised, Graeme says he has been able to persevere for 24 years simply because it is the right thing to do.
Te Pire Haeta ki Parihaka: The Parihaka Reconciliation Bill is expected to have its first reading in Parliament in November. It will go to a select committee where public submissions can be made.
Parihaka settlement was founded in the 1860s. Under the leadership of Tohu Kakahi and Te Whiti-O-Rongomai, it gave hospitality and shelter to those from many different tribal affiliations and some pakeha. Together they shared the principles of Parihaka.
The words on Te Whiti’s memorial at Parihaka read:
He was a man who did
great deeds in suppressing
evil so that peace may
reign as a means of
salvation to all people
on earth …