It was 1989, despite the howling winds, sleet and freeze all around us I felt secure and warm in the sleeping bag my parents had bought me. Our tent was pitched on the slopes of Mt Rupaehu white out conditions had ensued and a blustering wind raged outside. I was one of several teenage boys holed up in the tent as part of a weekend exercise for the boarding school I was attending.
It was the first mountain craft weekend at Tihoi. Tihoi was a six month “venture school” modelled on outward bound to which St Paul’s sent all it’s fourth formers. I found the students at this school weird. I was an urban middle class boy, (though my grandparents were working class). I had attended state schools my whole life and since intermediate it was common to have several Maori and pacific Islanders in my class. I had even been friends with some. The kids at Tihoi were different. Most of them came from rural farming backgrounds; they had been in elite boarding schools since age seven. There was only one Maori at our school, though we only spoke a couple of times, I admired him immensely; he was one of the most motivated people I had ever met. Inga’s father was a minister and clearly was committed to his son’s development. Inga voluntarily did twice as many cross country runs a week as was required and did it in hiking boots to ensure he was being physically challenged. This while others slacked of and tried to get away with not doing any and the rest of us did the bare minimum to avoid getting in trouble. Inga topped the school in academic achievement as well he came first in science ( at St Pauls we ranked each other and the rankings were known to all). He was different to the Maori had experienced in previous schools, who were almost always low achievers academically, often obese, and frequently flirting with criminal activity. Prior to that point, I had developed some unfair sterotypes of Moari people. Inga for ever shattered these. I felt the need to repent before God for holding these views.
But something else happened at Tihoi, and I remember vividly the conversation on that mountain. As we lay awake at night talking one of the students informed me passionately how his father was part of an anti Maori group, how NZ would be served better if all the “niggers” as he called them, were made to live in the south Island and Pakehas lived in the north Island. He was adamant that this is what Maori deserved and they had asked for it. I was somewhat appalled by this, yet few of the other boys in the tent seemed fussed at all. Another student expressed disdain that Inga “that nigger” was even at the school. When Inga was not in ear shot they referred to him as “coon” I was horrified, this was New Zealand after all, not South Africa.
Inga never returned to St Paul’s after Tihoi. He received a package in the mail full of letters telling him he was an unwanted nigger and expressing general racist vitriol he was so upset by this that he walked out of the school and disappeared for a day or two to get over it. I felt absolutely sickened. I remember seeing him win the school tug of war competition when his father passionately cheered him on, I also remember one of the other kids remarking that their parents wished that “coon” would shut up and only politeness prevented them saying this out loud. After Tihoi was over Inga never returned. I did not blame him at all. Who would want to return? But I felt St Pauls was the worse for this, they had lost one of their best students and best athletes who had more drive and commitment than any other student I encountered in my time at high school. I never knew what happened to Inga. But I was saddened by the fact that he had felt he had to do leave. I was also disgusted by the glee others showed when he did.
But one thing I also remember from that time was the rumour that I was to hear over and over again in my time at high school even after I left St Paul’s six months latter. (I left because I did not wish to associate with the kids who attended this school any more) This was that Maori groups were secretly training with weapons, waiting for an opportunity to strike. This was often said in muted tones, as though lots of people knew about it and yet no one dared do anything about it. This urban legend came up over and over in the debates I had with other students over race relations. While I tried to get them to understand that previous governments had stolen Maori land, had violated a treaty they had signed with Maori and that hence there were some legitimate grievances. This was always brushed aside; they were out to get us. They were being trained in military tactics getting ready to strike. It was hard to convince people who held fears like this. I remember a work colleague once telling me that she knew people in the military, that the army was dominated by Maori and it was only a matter of time before they began assisting the activists. I always took these urban legends with a grain of salt. The sources were hardly reliable people and it was always hear say and to be honest I had little respect for these peoples opinions anyway.
In light of recent events it’s saddening to see that these rumours may now be substantiated in the eyes of many New Zealanders. The revelations that the police have raided several places up and down the country, that they allege that various far left activists were compiling weapons and training and planning potential strikes against the “colonial oppressor” is not what New Zealand needs. Of course the evidence is not all in and caution is needed until all is revealed. But I find myself in a state of disbelief. That at least on one issue, my interlocutors were, inadvertently onto something. I would hate to see the kind of people that drove Inga from our school reinforced in their prejudice and I would hate to see other Inga’s; other promising Maori students denied opportunities and subjected to appalling harassment and abuse because some people believe their ignorant rantings have been confirmed.