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A curious reminder
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
A curious reminder
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
A curious reminder
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
29 October 2019

A curious reminder

A photo essay reminding us all to shelve our judgements and simply be curious.

Written by Mattea McKinnon

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

It’s a sleepy morning in Paeroa, a small town in New Zealand’s North Island. A few window shoppers amble along, peering into the assortment of op shops and retro stores.

A cacophony of rumbling breaks the silence as flashes of leather-clad motorcycle riders speed past. It feels like a violent attack on the senses. I spot some face tattoos through their helmets and strain to catch a glimpse of their badges, assuming they’re a gang. Tribal Nations. Phone out, straight to Google, eager to satisfy my suspicions.  I’m wrong. Very.

It turns out, Tribal Nations are a motorcycle group who raise funds for charities and awareness about societal problems, such as the prevalence of violence and suicide in New Zealand. They welcome men and women of all ages from all walks of life; doctors ride next to road-workers, pilots and lawyers. Completely law-abiding, the uniting factors seems to be a love of motorbikes and a dedication to making a difference. Less of a gang more of a roaming community, a pang of guilt washes over me.

I felt compelled to contact them. One of the group’s founders, Maori artist, Tiki, responds inviting me to join them at their next get-together. A month later and I’m clattering my tired old van from the Bay of Plenty to Waikato, over the Kaimai mountain range through sleet, rainbows and blinding sunshine, pretty standard stuff around these parts. 

Tiki, wearing long black hair and a headscarf, greets me with a warm smile and a hug. He tells me they have prepared something special, disarmed by his calm demeanour I feel immediately at ease.

We walk over to the marae, a fenced-in complex of carved buildings and grounds that belongs to a particular iwi (tribe), hapū (sub-tribe) or whānau (family). Waiting for me are fifty plus riders in uniform, arms crossed, eyes fixed on me, many sporting Ta Moko, the traditional Māori tattoo in which the skin is carved by chisels, each design steeped in ritual and unique to the individual. As we get closer warm smiles and kind words are offered up.

There follows an array of nods to their Maori heritage, I feel honoured to bear witness practices that are so steeped in cultural history and meaning. Karanga’s, Powhiri’s, Hongi’s and Haka’s are performed with bristling pride. Tiki explains the importance of Maori people “re-identifying with ourselves.”

“It’s a big story and you’ve got to really understand the history about what happened to Maori,” Tiki explains. “It’s what happened to the Aborigines, it’s what happened to Indigenous people all around the world. There was huge movement that changed their entire way of living. We’re trying to come back to our roots and educate people on our culture, our language – hence why we practice the haka. Many men in this country don’t know who they are anymore. That’s why some move into the gangs because so they can express themselves and unfortunately it’s often in a negative way.”

“We’ve the highest suicide rates in the developed world and the stats keep getting worse. This needs to be talked about more. It’s not about normalising suicide, it’s about making it less taboo to talk about feelings, so if there’s a problem – people feel comfortable.”

“At events I just go there to make them laugh, if I’ve inspired and saved one kid, you’ve saved the whole family. We also talk about respectful relationships, especially how you treat women.”

As the group prepare to ride to areas of historical significance, I’m asked if I want to join them. I surprise them, and myself a bit, with the enthusiasm of my response. I’m paired with an experienced rider called Vicki, her eyes smiling through the gap in her helmet. Wearing borrowed gear, I clamber on the back of her crimson three-wheeled Harley Davidson, my heart drumming against my rib cage. Sweeping alongside the Waikato river, past rolling hills and mountain ranges, I have my first dose of the intoxicating dose of motorcycle freedom.

Booming through towns, roaring down highways, clad in leather, we attract attention, but this is the aim. They’re challenging typical gang stereotypes associated with the back patch whilst bringing awareness to their own ‘brand’. I make eye contact with a little boy, his hands pressed against the car window, eyes bulging at the sight of us, his parents catching hurried glances themselves. I chuckle under my helmet. They probably assume we’re just another gang. Who am I to judge them? I did the same.

To me, they represent the core of community, a group of individuals who share a mutual concern for each other’s welfare. Meeting at the maraes in itself is a communal experience, they eat together, help with chores, laugh and learn together and sleep in the same room. They truly feel like one big extended family, their pride in togetherness magnified. After all, cooperation and community are the avenues walked by humanity for survival, working together.

I’m reminded that in reality, we know nothing about the strangers we meet. And yet we feel compelled to define those people in an instant. Instead of judging or assuming, we should be curious, nothing more. The feeling of being judged on first encounter, assessed based on what you wear, your gender, your age or where you’re from; is wholly unsatisfying, dehumanising and prevents any real connection from taking place. Whether it’s our preconceived notions, experiences, values or biases; when we judge, we should ask ourselves – why?

And what impact does it have on those involved? As a species it feels like we are evolving into something more isolated, more comfortable exchanging taps on a keyboard than words, eye contact, touch and space. An altogether lonelier, more hollow experience. Tribal Nations want to make a difference. There is no criteria for who can ride with them, nobody is excluded based on surface judgements. They didn’t judge me, they welcomed me in. They didn’t look for what was different in me, they saw our similarities. And on those terms, we connected.

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