Earlier this week I had the privilege of attending a meeting with our organisation’s Te Ara Wānanga, a critical friend grouping of Māori leaders that provides advice and guidance to Manatū Taonga on Māori cultural issues. I’ve attended their meetings before and always value the opportunity to listen directly to people like Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, Karl Johnston, and others.

This wānanga was a little bit different in that it included kaihautū from our partner organisations, Ngā Taonga, Te Papa, Heritage NZ and DIA, as well as most of Manatū Taonga’s senior leadership and third-tier management teams. One of the main topics was looking at Te Ara Taonga and better approaches for the cultural sector, and government in general, to engage with iwi.

Te Ara Taonga has seen these five cultural sector agencies (or six if you count DIA as National Library and Archives NZ) come together and jointly engage with iwi. Iwi have responded positively to this; it saves time, it means they only have to tell their story once to all agencies at the same time, and iwi and agencies can collaboratively work out who’s best to respond to iwi needs around the same table.

I came away inspired and feeling that maybe New Zealand is on the cusp of generational change in Crown-Māori relations. Certainly sitting around a big table talking about these issues together, openly, honestly and in an atmosphere that encourages people to contribute and listen, is a great space to be in.

But I also came away wondering what the role is for Pākehā. Listening is one part, and an important part, but it’s got to be more than that (and no one’s going to argue with that, right?).

Pākehā need to do more than listen. They need to do the some of the hard mahi, not as leaders but as workers taking direction and instruction from the actual leaders in this space: Māori.

There aren’t enough kaihautū to do all the mahi on their own. That’s true in the cultural sector and it’s true right across government. It’s probably also true for many iwi. The pressure on a handful of Māori who know how to work in the space occupied by Crown and Māori interests is huge and well-known. For those in government, they need genuine support that comes from an entire organisation behind them.

But Pākehā need to step back and let Māori lead. Pākehā need to follow, and that means follow instructions. In this world Pākehā don’t get an automatic spot on the paepae. They need to start in the wharekai before they can enter the wharenui, and earn our stripes in a different way to fit into a different world.

For some Pākehā it’ll be a huge challenge to give up leadership and accept authority from someone else. For some they’ll complain that it’s not in the spirit of partnership for Pākehā to take a back seat. But to embrace partnership we have to learn a new way of working and learn from the people who know this part of our culture.

Only when we’ve learned from Māori, and Māori have the space to lead, can we think about leading together in partnership. I look forward to that day, and in the meantime I’m looking forward to learning how to make an honest and genuine contribution to getting there.