Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, Soaring Bird of the Dawn, Paramount Chief over All, Queen of the Maori, carries her memories carefully. Death walks with life, the Maori have always known, and the present contains all the past. If only the future were so certain.
"Before, we belonged, and we knew we belonged," says the lineal descendant of the commander of the Tainul Canoe which came to New Zealand during the great Migration of 1350. She contemplates her chef salad in the Embassy Row Hotel dining room. "Now, I think, our generations is inclined to talk quite a lot about what it was like only a few years ago -- only a few years, and yet it seems like ages."
There are about 300,000 Maori now, but the number of full-blooded Maori is dwindling as the young move to the cities and intermarry. New Zealand had been theirs, until the country was fully colonized by the British in the 19th century, and the story since then -- the confiscation of land, the destruction of the culture, the slow steps toward reviving it -- is a familiar one.
Only a few years ago, when she became queen in 1966, many of the members of her tribe still lived together, sharing the houses, the planting, the decisions. "Now, of course, the young are so impatient, they don't listen," she says "When they're 15, they leave school and go to the city and get a job. They lose their ties."
And that, after all, is so much a part of being Maori, the ties, the relation to the place one comes from. That, and "the looking after one another -- that's very Maori, but then, it's not a bad thing for anyone, is it?"
But there are traditions that survive in their fashion, symbols of a way the world was once understood. The Maori find life and seek advice in rock, wood, and stream -- the queen, in fact, is here to participate in the opening today of the New Zealand chancellery and will participate in a ceremony to placate the gods of the forest for cutting down the trees for the new building. "Although," she signs, "I suppose here it's mostly concrete."
The queen always travels with a small plastic bottle containing water from the Waikato River. The spirit of the river is a good one to consult "in times of trouble -- you just go down and sprinkle a little of the water on yourself."
She laughs wryly. "I suppose that's where part of our trouble comes from -- the Maori will cling to a piece of land even if its covered in blackberry and gorse and does not want to cultivate it because he believes in its spirit." It is, she allows, a rather different way of looking at the land than the "pakeha" world, the white world, is accustomed to and one it has not always taken to kindly.
She is, she says, mostly a figure-head, although her tribe does look to her for advice on important decisions -- the naming of a new marae, or meeting house, for instance, because "the name that is chosen will be there for always," and the name of a thing will be a part of its fate and future.
She presides over ceremonies and celebrations and has traveled just about everywhere, from the one-armed bandits of Las Vegas to the coronation ceremonies of the king of Tonga -- "where's Tonga," she echoes incredulously, "why surely you've heard of Queen Salolaf, his mother?"
The Maori queen is 48, dark-haired and round, and wears earrings of abalone and a necklace in the shape of the water spirit, Taniwha, who is the symbol of her tribe. When she is not presiding over the opening of buildings and bridges and finding auspicious days for tribal ceremonies, she tends her chrysanthemums and watches the progress of her seven children.
"Surely one of them will be worthy to succeed me," she says with a certain amount of maternal exasperation. It seems that none of her children has quite settled down enough for her to choose the heir apparent.
The Maori believe in dreams, in their power to tell the future. The queen does not remember her dreams. "I'm lucky I don't remember them," she says. "I've seen people worry themselves to death with their dreams."
But then the Maori have seen a number of the old prophecies come true."It was once said that an iron monster would run through the land," her husband, Whatumoana Paki, says, "And look -- the railroad." There was another prophency that money would fall from the sky, and that, he explains is precisely what welfare checks and old age pensions seem like to the older Maoris.
There was another prediction, around the time of the queen's great-great-grandfather's rein, that peace and contentment would come to the Maori when a woman ruled them. The queen is not sure she wants to get that specific.
"In tradition, it's predicted we'll do very well, thank you," she says, and that is the end of that. Besides, there is just enough time to do a little sightseeing, and a visit to a shopping mall had been mentioned.