Why Witi Ihimaera wants New Zealand to bring its war dead home

by Clare de Lore / 24 April, 2018
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Witi Ihimaera. Photo/Simon Young

Witi Ihimaera's journey to Commonwealth war graves for a new documentary, In Foreign Fields, is both personal and political.

Witi Ihimaera is tired, jet-lagged after a whirlwind visit to Commonwealth war graves in six countries. The 74-year-old writer hasn’t even made it to his Auckland home; he’s in Wellington, visiting his two daughters and helping out with his mokopuna.

Couple the fatigue with the demands of an eight-year-old and two five-year-olds and it’s surprising his sense of humour is intact. As he keeps one eye on the children, his thoughts return constantly to his uncle Rangiora Keelan, who fought and died in Tunisia in World War II. Ihimaera visited Keelan’s grave during the filming of a documentary, In Foreign Fields, to be screened on Anzac Day. In 12 days, he and the producer and cameraman visited Singapore, the UK, Tunisia, Israel, Palestine and Turkey, speaking to families of those buried in war graves.

Ihimaera is from a farming family near Gisborne, the oldest of eight children. His mother was Julia Keelan and his father Thomas Smiler Jr. Rangiora Keelan died the year before Ihimaera was born.

Ihimaera gave up his first career, as a diplomat, in favour of writing and then academic life at the University of Auckland. Pounamu Pounamu, a collection of short stories, was published in 1972 to critical acclaim. Tangi a year later was the first published Māori novel. Among his best-known works are The Whale Rider, made into a movie of the same name; Nights in the Gardens of Spain, a semi-autobiographical novel; and Māori Boy, the first volume of his memoirs.

After hearing about Uncle Rangi and then talking to other families for this documentary, what was your reaction to seeing those cemeteries?

Rangiora Keelan.

I had the privilege of going to see these huge graveyards, which Rudyard Kipling described as a feat to rival the Pharaohs building the pyramids. Except the Pharaohs only had to build their pyramids in their own country – these are spread among many countries. You have to be proud of the human sentiment that brought about this huge undertaking, which involved Fabian Ware [founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission, now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission] sending out teams of recovery soldiers to bring the bodies back. When you are there, you feel a huge sense of gratitude that they did this job. The stories of the men who died are full of emotion; I came back in tears.

Kemal Atatürk, the military leader and founder of modern Turkey, said, “You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.” It was your mother who longed to get her brother Rangi home. Is it generally the case that it is women who want their loved ones returned no matter how well they are cared for in death in another country?

Yes, and my mother felt that strongly. The Americans did it totally differently from us. They would not allow their war dead to be buried overseas. During World War I, an American mother wrote to the President and said if it was good enough for our sons to go and fight overseas for their country, their country should make sure they came home again. Every US citizen who fought and died overseas has been taken back to the US. I think it is a magnificent thing and they have had about a 60% success rate in terms of those who died. Between 1930 and 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, the US spent $5 million to send to France the widows and mothers of Americans soldiers so they could visit their sons’ and husbands’ graves. What a great gesture that was. They chartered passenger liners to do that, although the mothers and widows of African-American soldiers had to go on segregated liners.

Members of the World War I Māori Pioneer Battalion taking a break from trench improvement work near Gommecourt, France. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Members of the World War I Māori Pioneer Battalion taking a break from trench improvement work near Gommecourt, France. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

What is the particular concern for Māori of leaving the men buried overseas?

During intertribal warfare, Māori made huge efforts to take the dead back to their tribal lands. If they couldn’t take the whole body, they would cut the head off and take the head back. They had to do that. In early 1955, the New Zealand Government’s burial policy changed for a short while and families could bring their loved ones back if they paid for it themselves. Then it changed again in 1971, and the public purse was opened to pay for those who died after 1955, which covers Malaya and Vietnam. They go back to family graves.

Were Māori consulted at any point from WWI onwards about the fate of the fallen?

I know Māui Pōmare, Āpirana Ngata, Tau Henare and Peter Buck were all on the Native Contingent Committee in WWI. Casualties mounted and the need for reinforcements grew; they recruited them but they were probably not consulted about the fate of the fallen. A Māori contingent left New Zealand in early 1915. It had a combat role at Gallipoli before being re-formed as a Pioneer Battalion to serve on the Western Front. One of the reasons I did this documentary was to ask questions about whether these soldiers should remain in foreign fields. New Zealand is paying $3.17 million to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for 2017-18 and that is 2.14% of its costs. It is a lot of money.

A cemetery containing Māori Battalion soldiers’ graves at Takrouna in Tunisia.

What’s your suggested alternative?

I think the CWGC and the Government should get together and build a Commonwealth war grave here so all those people coming back after 1955 can go into one cemetery rather than being dispersed between family cemeteries.

And Uncle Rangi, what about him?

I have tremendous respect for the way the CWGC is looking after our dead – 2500 cemeteries. But I have to answer to myself and to my iwi and to my mother, who was Ngāti Porou.

Uncle Rangi died in 1943 in Tunisia, at Point 209, which is an extremely important location for Māori soldiers who fought overseas. It is where Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngārimu became the first Māori to earn the Victoria Cross. [Point 209 was a vital hill during WWII at Tebaga Gap in Tunisia]. We have a small hill called Mt Hikurangi – why can’t those 26 people who died at Point 209 come back and be buried at Mt Hikurangi on the East Coast? I would like Uncle Rangi buried there. It is the first mountain in the world to see the sun in the morning, and that would then become the place where all our overseas military dead are brought back to.

Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngārimu. Photo/ATL

Including non-Māori?

Yes, I think Ngāti Porou are magnanimous and generous in that way, although I haven’t spoken to them yet about this. Still, it is nice to unpack all of this in the Listener.

Are there any active moves to get Uncle Rangi back?

I haven’t had enough time to come to a conclusion – I have been thinking through the process. Unfortunately, there is no way of doing that with current legislation, because he died before 1955.

The men whose graves you visited in Singapore are covered by the legislation. When will their bodies be returned?

In September, I think. One of the reasons they are coming back is because suburban Singapore is encroaching all around the cemetery. In Tunisia, the cemetery is close to the Syrian border and it is a war-torn sort of situation. These men would be safer at home. I wonder what they would think of the world today that they fought for in 1918 and again in 1942-44.

Soldiers of the Māori Pioneer Battalion on anti-aircraft guard at Bayencourt, France. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Soldiers of the Māori Pioneer Battalion on anti-aircraft guard at Bayencourt, France. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

What do you think?

I am not too sure they would be very happy that we have buggered up the world ever since. They went there to stop wars, to stop the Axis powers from expanding, and that was their huge triumph. But has humanity learnt anything about living peacefully together? No.

What are you currently writing?

I had a musical event premiered in Hamilton just before I left called Flowing Water, about the Waikato River and various people who lived along its banks. I am completing the second volume of my memoir; it is called Native Son. It picks up from Māori Boy. My advice is never write a memoir – it takes too long. You have to check and cross-check and talk to people who might not be your friends after the book comes out.

Ihimaera doing a haka at Gallipoli. Photo/Supplied

Ihimaera doing a haka at Gallipoli. Photo/Supplied

Did you lose friends after Māori Boy?

Yes, and I am expecting it to happen again, but you must write what you feel compelled to and people hopefully have the grace to be able to forgive you. All the work I do, including the documentary, my books and the musical event, is my best shot at showing my grandchildren, when they get to their thirties or forties, what Papa’s world was like. My focus is turning, as is most people’s, to writing works that are about saving the planet.

The Doomsday Clock, used by scientists to reflect metaphorically how close they think we are to nuclear war or environmental catastrophe, is at two minutes to midnight. What’s your reckoning?

I am more optimistic than that. I think midnight will come and pass and we will still be here. There are sufficient people of strength and vitality. In New Zealand, in the past year, there has been a remarkable upsurge in the millennial generation: intellectual, clever, not listening to their elders, going forward. There is a great strategic sense about that; just look at our Prime Minister. New Zealand has an edge. We have been brought up to be humanitarian. While we are the species that is contributing to the death of our planet, if we re-establish our humanitarian link, we will be the species to save the planet.

Māori Battalion members in Tunisia. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Māori Battalion members in Tunisia. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

You’re the Writer of Honour at the forthcoming Auckland Writers Festival – what does that mean to you?

I am very proud, but I don’t think of it as an accolade. I think of these things as affirmations that I am improving, that I am not as mediocre as I thought I was. One of these days I will become a writer of worth, a good writer. Every writer has to say this to themself: don’t become too whakahīhī [full of yourself]. I keep on making sure my level of aspiration is higher than the last book.

What do you read?

My God, while I am writing, which seems forever and every day, I don’t read, because some of what I am reading may go into my work. I have already had one bun fight with the public over The Trowenna Sea and I don’t want another one. Most of the time I actually watch bad television. Things like Australian Spartan, My Kitchen Rules, Married at First Sight. They take me as far away as possible from living in my head. My friends are horrified and say I should watch documentaries. But if I did that, I would be thinking, and there are times when I just want to pig out, eat chips and watch junk-food TV. It takes me away from the high-quality stuff I am meant to be producing.

This article was first published in the April 28, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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