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A love letter to Mitzi Nairn – Pākehā Tiriti Worker

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

Mitzi and Ray Nairn Photo: Denis Came-Friar


One of the things about being a Tiriti worker is you usually get to die on the job or near as. Sadly, to make these challenging times, more trying, we lost Mitzi Nairn - the matriarch of the Pākehā Tiriti workers movement) this week. She is survived by her partner in crime and husband of nearly 60 years (in Jan) Dr Ray Nairn.

I first met Mitzi decades ago. Even then she was a legend and everyone I knew in the movement had been mentored by her at some time. She had her fingers in all the pies. She had been involved in any significant piece of Pākehā Tiriti work since the 1960s. She was a founding member of the antiracism group ACORD (Auckland Committee On Racism & Discrimination), worked on the church-led and funded Programme on Racism, helped set up Project Waitangi/ Network Waitangi, and Tāmaki Treaty Workers.


She was deadly sharp with her analysis, compassionate and humble.  When you were out with her at a political event anyone who was anyone would come and pay homage to her. Everyone knew her name and the brave and necessary work she did. She was a formidable woman who got things done.


Over her lifetime she did thousands of hours in classrooms, halls and meeting rooms teaching Pākehā about Te Tiriti o Waitangi. She always had a probing question or an example to illustrate her point. I wasn’t there on this particular day, but she had some unruly glass makers who really didn’t want to be at a Tiriti workshop. She responded by explaining the Tiriti implications of glass making and won over another convert to the cause. It was always a privilege to share a classroom with her.


After the passing of her compatriot Joan MacDonald, Tāmaki Treaty Workers - pre-covid/ pre retirement village - used to meet in the lounge of Mitzi and Ray’s villa near Eden park. There we would eat Ray’s superior mousetraps and plot and scheme how to mobilise Pākehā to fight for racial justice. The cottage garden was always an unruly sight with bountiful flowers and plants everywhere and the productive avocado tree. The walls were lined with books from floor to ceiling and you knew you were visiting a well read, well informed political whānau. The tiny kitchen produced many splendid feasts.


Mitzi was literally a colourful round woman, a feminist, a writer, a strategist, a comrade, a wife, an auntie and a dear friend. When she slept over at the marae, she would always have her stuffed dragon with her. She wrote poetry, political essays, media releases, submissions and never let anyone take her whimsy away. I felt like she gave me permission to be myself, to lean in and do the work my way, playing to my strengthens and getting things done. She encouraged me to forge my own path in the work and that has been liberating. She has always been a place to come home to when I am unsure. Many times, I have asked myself in the classroom and elsewhere – what would Mitzi do in this situation.


Mitzi did slow down over time, but still had amazing political stamina, and also had considered and clear advice for the generations that followed her. Although she had no children of her own, she guided and mentored endless budding Tiriti workers. One time we were organising a national Tiriti workers gathering (we started with a budget of $40) and everyone told us it couldn’t be done. She came down to Hamilton from Auckland to give us young ones a pep talk when we were wavering and helped us push through. We got in endless trouble from the crew when we accepted her offer to cook at the wānanga rather than do a keynote address. The kai was great, but her leadership lessons didn’t need to be put into a keynote – she was a woman who walked her talk – often despite well below average health. She always challenged as to try and be the Pākehā Māori believed they were negotiating te Tiriti with in 1840.


Mitzi always had a cuppa tea at the ready. Always had sage advice. Was always curious and loved being in her beautiful garden. I am grateful for the memories and the time well spent together. I love that she spoke at my wedding, and I can grieve her passing within our strong village. Her writing, the videos people had the foresight to make, the quotes that dance in my head will continue to sustain us in the work. Rest peacefully e hoa – in my lifetime we will see constitutional transformation, and someone will persuade the members of Hobson Pledge that they are on the wrong side of history.


In sisterhood, in solidarity


Heather Came

 

Learn more about Mitzi:

·       Jen Margaret interviewing Mitzi Nairn on social justice 

·       Mitzi Nairn on being an ally

·       Megan Cook interviewing Mitzi Nairn on women in the anti-Vietnam war movement

·       Mitzi Nairn on the impact of Freire in Aotearoa

·       Mitzi’s State of the Pākehā Nation – Joan Cook Memorial Essay p 123-126

·       Te Tiriti based futures + Anti-racism webinar Stories from the field with Robert Consedine

Nairn, M. (2002). Programme on racism collected newsletters 1985-2002. Auckland, New Zealand: Treaty Conference Publications Group.

Nairn, M. (2002). Decolonisation for Pakeha. In J. Margaret (Ed.), Pakeha treaty work: Unpublished material (pp. 203-208). Auckland, New Zealand: Manukau Institute of Technology, Treaty Resource Centre.



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