Interview With Maori Elder Bruce Stewart

Questions by Derrick Jensen and Jeannette Armstrong

As a long-time grassroots activist, I am intimately acquainted with the landscape of loss. Often I despair. Near my home I’ve walked clearcuts that wrap around mountains, drop into valleys, then climb ridges to fragment watershed after watershed. I’ve sat silent near empty streams that two generations ago were “lashed into whiteness” by uncounted and uncountable salmon coming home to spawn and die. In this landscape, hope is a precious commodity, and the activists with whom I work know to savor it wherever it may be found. Without its vitality we could not go on.

Recently in New Zealand I encountered a powerful source of such hope. His name is Bruce Stewart, and he lives at Tapu Te Ranga in Wellington. He is Maori. He is indigenous.


Derrick Jensen: What will it take for us to survive?

Bruce Stewart: I’ve got a passionate love for our plants, which are in terrible terrible danger, so here at Tapu Te Ranga we propagate endangered plants and give them away. More and more we want to bring children here. If they take endangered trees home and plant them in the bush, it becomes “their” bush, “our” bush.

We have a vine here that no longer has a name. Our Maori name has been lost, so we’ll have to find another. Only one of this plant remained in the world, living on a goat-infested island. The plant could go any day. So I got a seed and planted it here. The vine has grown, and although it normally takes twenty years to bloom, this one is blooming after seven. We also propagate it by cuttings. This is tangible, physical, work we are doing.

If we are to survive, each of us must become kaitiaki, which to me is the most important concept in my own Maori culture. We must become caretakers, guardians, trustees, nurturers. In the old days each whanau, or family, used to look after a specific piece of terrain. One family might look after a river from a certain rock down to the next bend. And they were the kaitiaki of the birds and fish and plants. They knew when it was time to take them to eat, and when it was not time to take them to eat. When the birds needed to be protected, the people put a rahui on them, which means the birds were temporarily sacred. And some birds were permanently tapu, which means they were full-time protected. This protection was so strong that people would die if they broke it. It’s that simple. It needed no policing. It just was. Bullers Book of Birds tells of two Maori coming out of the bush with 640 Huia skins. They were paid one penny each. I was brought up in the area, and the birds were so common that the area is called The Huia. But those birds are now extinct. In pre-European times they were tapu. But in their eagerness to unsavage my ancestors the Christian missionaries killed the concept of tapu along with many of our others.

To be kaitiaki was and is crucial to our existence. So while I am in agony for the whole planet, what I can do is become kaitiaki right here. This can spread, then, as people see this and say, “We can do that back at home.” Perhaps then everyone can, as was true in our Maori culture, become caretakers of their own areas, their own homes. Children will say to their parents, or to other people, “Look, I’m sorry, but you can’t do that here.”

I’m more of a practical man, so rather than write papers about being kaitiaki, I just do it.

I don’t trust words. I m frightened of the talking, of the intellectualism that can insulate us from action and turn the problems and solutions into puzzles or fantasies. As Maori we already have the words, the concepts. Our people are the caretakers. But we can’t rest on what our ancestors gave us. The work has got to be done.

That’s not to say we don’t need artists, philosophers, educators, and others who can articulate and perpetuate the Maori way of living, people who can help us untangle ourselves from the pakeha, the Europeans. But I hope to think that any piece of art spurs us into action. I want to believe in sustainability. Now. Not in the future. Not some distant day. Now. Great artists, such as the Maori writer Witi Ihimaera, describe that way of life and help us live it.

I’m sixty, so I only have ten or twenty years left. I don’t need or have time for a lot of words; I want to use those years for action.

I hope before I die that I can hear kiwi again. Thousands of people come here, and I ask them, “Hands up those of you who have heard a kiwi in the wild.” A bit less than one percent raise their hands. Kiwis have not always been so rare. Years ago I heard kiwis, hundreds of them all around me, in parts of Fjordland where predators hadn’t reached.

Because people hear the ruru in television advertisements, or hear kiwi on the radio, they think these birds are still common; it’s not until they stop and listen that they realize they haven’t heard a living ruru for a long time. The truth is that New Zealand has the most endangered birds in the world. The birds can’t handle the rats, opossums, and cats–the worst of the introduced predators. People must begin to feel the responsibility of that very quickly.

We need different heroes. One day in the native bush in Fjordland I stumbled across a tombstone. Scraping off the moss I made out “William Doherty, 1840.” William Doherty was a real hero; he died trying to save birds. Seeing that rats were making their way into Fjordland he started to move some of the birds onto an island where they could be safe, and he died rowing back. He deserves to be recognized as a hero, as a man 150 years ahead of his time.

Actually, he wasn’t ahead of his time. That was the time, then, and he could see it. I want to create a monument for him, do a garden in his honor using endangered native plants. I’d like to see us lift up heroes like William Doherty, not just people who play rugby. We need heroes who leave threads for the rest of us to follow.

We also need patches of native bush full of native birds and animals, cathedrals where man is not as important as he makes himself out to be, where he instead recognizes himself as a small part of the big family. If we were to make those spaces of harmony available within walking distance from every house, so everybody was a kaitiaki, we would change the world. That’s the plan I’m working on. If everyone nurtured a seedling and planted it after a year in a patch of bush down the road they would be building their new church. And I’m in a rush.

Jeannette Armstrong: I’m an indigenous person. What needs to survive from indigenous cultures, and how can indigenous cultures assist the healthy survival of not only our own people but others as well?

BS: It frightens me that being Maori is becoming a matter of wearing greasepaint and singing action songs for competitions. It hurt me to learn that computers are now used to judge singing contests, and it disturbs me that dances once held in circles are now held in rows, with people facing each other like in combat. I’d like to see the circle come back, and the drum come back, and I’d like for people to once again dance for their own spiritual well-being, rather than for competition.

Still, because the culture is hard to annihilate altogether, some good things remain, such as the familyness, and the Maraes, or commonhouses. I’m especially glad that people are starting to get back to the concept of nonownership of the whenua.

DJ: The whenua?

BS: The english word would be earth. But english, which is very exacting when it comes to legal deals and dollars, is imprecise when it comes to things like earth. In english, earth can be called soil, which has connotations of being unclean, as in “The clothes are soiled.” And it can be called dirt, which of course has similar connotations. That could never happen in Maori. The warriors of old never pointed their weapons at mother earth, instead putting their weapons on their feet, or their fingers over the ends. Nor did they point them at the sky father.

Whenua also means placenta, and so is associated with female energy. That caused problems when the Christian missionaries came. The Maori recognize two types of energy, the tapu, or male energy, and the noa, or female energy. We view these energies as opposites. When the opposites are in balance harmony is reached, called waiora, the two waters. But the missionaries said the tapu was good and the noa was evil.

My point is that the Maori still have these concepts; we just need to reclaim them, and to live them more. In this way the young give me great hope. They are searching for the truth and wanting to live it. It does wonders for mothers, for example, to take their children down to the gardens and speak Maori while they plant their food. You can’t just go to the textbook.

JA: This marae seems to be an example of what you’re talking about, living the truths.

BS: This place arose from the need to be sustainable, and not just on the dollar or food levels. Maraes are our art galleries, our museums, our places of history, our universities, our preschools. They are the places where we are buried. They become our whole life.

People say they don’t have the money to build them, but I don’t think that’s the problem. The problem is that most people don’t have the will. This whole place is assembled from scraps, from the wastes of the city, and is a statement on the use of materials. In the old days they just flattened old buildings with great big donkeyknockers on cranes. I used to get in there and grab all this beautiful timber, some of which you can’t find anymore because the trees are gone. And most of this place is made of car cases from Mitsubishi Motors, wood that originally came from tropical rainforests and was just going to be dumped. I love these car cases; they’re so beautiful I haven’t got them covered. I’d love to be carried to my gravesite one day on a car case.

But this place is more than a statement. It represents my mum. It is my mum. When I was a child racism was lovely and loud and blatant. When I was just starting school I was wounded deeply by the other kids, who would point at me and call, “Maori, Maori, Maori.” Suddenly I knew I was something that wasn’t really good. I didn’t know what it meant; I just knew the kids were pointing at me. Many things like that happened. And now I’m glad they did, because eventually instead of trying to become a pakeha, which I did for a lot of my life, I started to get pretty angry. I used that anger to do this work.

Then the anger turned over to love. And that’s because of my mum. She loved me without question, even when I was hard on her. I won a lot of prizes in school, and my mum was very proud of me; she helped me a lot. But on prizegiving night in sixth form, when I was seventeen, I made myself sick because I didn’t want anyone to see my mother. I had kept her a secret for a long time because I thought her darkness made her ugly. What sort of a system would make a boy ashamed of his mum?

My mother never said a word. Just loved me. That’s why I say she’s my greatest teacher. I never heard her running down the pakehas, which probably she should have. She realized what was happening; she knew all of it. That’s why I have a pakeha name. She told me, “If people go down a list and see a Maori name, straightaway you’re not going to get this little priviledge.” Bruce Stewart looked good on the list. A good Scottish name.

My mother died when I was 17, that same year. I saw her with all my schoolmates, and she asked me for a kiss. I said, “Not in front of my friends.” And I never saw her again.

I went through a lot of grieving on that, and later I went into the bush, and spent many lonely years, savoring and trying to understand all of this. And one of the things that emerged is this house, which is designed as the mother. My mother, and the great mother.

JA: How and where do we as indigenous peoples need to break tradition to do some of the things that absolutely need to be done?

BS: As we built this marae, we realized that we were actually building ourselves. People who’ve done a lot of work here have completely changed. We rescue a piece of beautiful wood out of an old building, and as we restore it and put it in place, we restore ourselves.

And you build with whatever is around you. You don’t have to get marble from Italy. If there are buildings being pulled down, if there are car cases, use those. Some of the old chiefs say, “They’re not hardwood. It’s not Maori. It’s not traditional.” But it’s what’s important. It’s what’s around. And the essence is still there. Underneath it’s still the same.

For me tradition is always changing. We still go back to the old tree, but it has new shoots every year. And I actually like the new growth. The old tree is necessary, but sometimes the old tree has been lying down for too long, and it won’t get up anymore.

Long ago I went back to my so-called traditional marae. There were too many power games. It was too hard to move. A darkness had crept in, a darkness mentioned in the Maori story of creation.

In the beginning, the earth mother and the sky father lay together a long time, and children were born. All of these children were important. But the parents lay so close together that no light could penetrate between them to where the children lived. Finally, a middle son, and it’s significant he’s not one of the elders, said, “Our parents have cut out the light, and things need to change.” Although there was a lot of opposition especially from his older brothers, he and his younger bothers pried them apart. Light flooded in. We call that te ao marama, the world of light, the world of illumination. Tane was the name of this younger brother. He was the balancer. From time to time when things get out of balance with me I need to call on the Tane in myself to bring in te ao marama.

Because I’m a nobody I had to move away from the traditional structure. In our philosophy we allow for nobodies–they are just as important as somebodies. But in this case the somebodies were holding onto the power, and using it. That doesn’t work for me; for me the proper use of power is to give it away, to empower young ones. That wasn’t happening.

Things are different now. I still can’t go up and sit with the great chiefs and tell them what to do. They won’t take it from me. But they come here, and I can tell they’re inspired. They go back home and start doing it.

Pakehas are inspired, too. You see this fifty acres behind us? We wanted to purchase this land, and the owners approached me to ask how much I had for a down payment. I reached in my pocket and said, “Five dollars.” They said, “Fine.” We arranged payments of $1200 per week, and I didn’t know where we would get the money, but we did.

We needed to buy the land not so we could own it, but so we could set it free. Most of New Zealand was cleared for beef and mutton, and some of the poorer country, like around here, then went to gorse, an introduced and very invasive species. Now we’re planting natives and trying to keep fire out, because gorse burns every two or three years. If we keep fire away the natives crowd the gorse back out, and the land returns to what it is supposed to be.

There’s nothing more important to me now than the trees, the other plants, and the little grasses, especially the ones that are endangered.

DJ: Do the trees and grass speak to you?

BS: They don’t at this stage. I wish they would. They did to the old people. I think a lot of things spoke to the old people. I’m just taking it a stage at a time by instinct. And it’s all new to me.

I was raised to chop trees down. On my European side trees were seen as weeds. Because this was one of the last countries to be colonized, I can remember as a child seeing smoke for days from the burnoffs. The pakeha side of my family had a 5,000 acre farm, and you could still see huge stumps like dinosaurs. After that I was a timber cruiser. That was my career. Cutting down thousands of native trees. Thousands of them. And it’s only because I lived in the bush that I’ve been able to see this in a whole different light, that I’ve been able to come back home.

I know the old people talked to the trees, and before they cut one down they spoke to it for a long time to find out if it was okay. It’s not happening now. And I think we have to backtrack and rediscover all that. At this stage I’m just finding this new love.

The most important thing for me is to go down into the nursery and walk amongst all those little trees. Some of them you have to wait for the seed, and get it at the right time; some seeds have to hibernate for two or three years before they can grow.

Little nurseries like this are springing up everywhere. And they’re done not by the government but by ordinary people. That’s why they work. People come here when we’re planting, to get their little seedlings. And you see the children come back. The children are more aware than their parents, and the younger children know more than the older ones.

The biggest thing that stops us is ourselves. When ancient Maori warriors were defeated, they were ready to go again two weeks later, because they were warriors–made up of battling stuff. And along the way they tapped unseen forces. We can still do it. All of us.

We are suffering from a great illness, and the way to get better is to serve others. We should all be in service. It makes us well. I serve the birds and trees, the earth, the water.

Anybody can do it. They can do it in their way. It’s action time.

Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2001-2002 issue of Green Anarchy

Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen
No Responses — Written on October 1st — Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen

Comments are closed.