Full story and photos published by Dumbo Feather magazine (see here)
Read my interview on this project with Monster Children magazine (see here)
The open exposure to the elements, the heightened awareness of your surroundings and a feeling of freedom – with New Zealand’s jaw-dropping landscape and spectacular scenery, it’s not surprising that motorcycle culture has become a lifelong passion for some kiwis. Although statistically it’s a dangerous way to travel, the appeal of becoming at one with your surroundings and immersed in the moment is obvious.
NZ is home to many motorcycle clubs, including outlaw gangs who wear large club-specific patches. Tribal Nations are among one of the patch-wearing groups, although this special community of people is far from being a gang.
Founded in 2014 in New Zealand, Tribal Nations is a motorcycle group of over 200 members spread throughout the country. They pride themselves in raising funds for charities and campaigning about important issues, such as raising awareness about the prevalence of violence and suicide. The group, consisting of both men and women of all ages, are a welcoming crew and embrace people of all nationalities, backgrounds and religions. One of the causes the group are most passionate about, is suicide prevention.
The statistics surrounding suicide rates in New Zealand make for difficult reading. The country has the highest youth suicide rate in the developed world, more than twice the global average. Suicide deaths are now the highest since records began, with 685 people taking their lives in the past year. The number of Māori people taking their lives has increased 19%, making their rate more than twice that of NZ Europeans.
“Our statistics are atrocious,” Tiki O’Brien, Māori artist and one of group’s original founders, comments; “We only seem to be talking about those that are successful, there are others that try – this number is huge and they don’t get reported. Then there is an even bigger group that are thinking of attempting.”
“There’s a lot of factors. We’re not professionals, we’re more or less campaign riders to bring awareness. It’s no use if it is hidden inside. People need to be sitting at the table and talking about it. It’s not about normalising suicide, but it’s about making it less taboo to talk about feelings, so if there is a problem - they feel comfortable.”
What sets Tribal Nations further apart from other motorcycle groups and gangs is their general ethos – they go by the acronym F.A.I.T.H (family, acceptance, integrity, trust and honesty). “Family always comes first, not the club,” he says. “Don’t become member if you can’t clean up your backyard first. If we have an event on and you can’t make it because of family issues, stay and sort it out. This often isn’t the case with other clubs, as they demand the club comes first.”
The club’s Secretary, China Pepperell, shares a poignant moment shortly after undertaking a Riders Against Teen Suicide (R.A.T.S) ride in Horowhenua, a yearly occurrence for the group - “About 4 months after our R.A.T.S ride we stopped in at Waiuku to fuel up and a man was watching us and recognised our colours. We had this simultaneous mutual connection and we started talking. He’d been following our ride in the Horowhenua and had lost a daughter to suicide not long before that. He said what we did had really helped him and his whanau and he’d been looking for a way to thank us since then. We all hugged and shed a few tears. Before that moment I guess I hadn’t realised that what we did could have such a positive impact on people’s lives. That moment was meant to be.”
The ride has become something that gives a voice to what has become an arguably silent epidemic. “It’s difficult to measure preventive stuff,” Tiki furthers. “It’s hard to quantify it, but we try through feedback. Often, the person who is contemplating suicide is not going to tell you. When I’m doing events, I’m not looking at the people that are in front of me, I’m looking for the ones at the back. I just go there to make the kids laugh - if I’ve inspired and saved one kid, you’ve saved the whole family.”
Tribal Nations are also involved in White Ribbon Day, an international day on 25th November, in which men and boys wear white ribbons as a symbol of their opposition to violence against women. As in many countries, violence is endemic within New Zealand, with one in three women experiencing some form of abuse within their lifetime. Tribal Nations have actively been involved with White Ribbon for over seven years and travel to each region in the South Island visiting schools and prisons during each event.
“The main theme is respectful relationships, especially how you treat women. We also talk about bullying, online influences. Every time the White Ribbon event happens, they say there is a rise in people calling – I say isn’t that what we want? People to speak?”
The group regularly meet up at maraes (Māori meeting grounds) throughout the country. On this particular weekend, they’re practising the haka, incorporating the Māori language which Tiki explains is about “re-identifying with ourselves.” The haka is an ancient ceremonial dance or challenge in Māori culture and is a significant part of their identity, made famous globally by NZ’s rugby team, the All Blacks.
Learning about the history of Māori culture is a core part for the members of Tribal Nations. Their history is a crucial part of the country’s identify and respecting, preserving and promoting it is absolutely vital. Positive steps are being taken by the current prime minister, who recently announced that New Zealand history will now be compulsory in all primary and secondary schools by 2022. The national framework will be reset by curriculum changes and learners will be educated on the key aspects that influenced and shaped the nation, including the arrival of Māori to Aotearoa, colonisation, the Treaty, etc.
Today, the group are riding around the Waikato region in the North Island, visiting areas of historical significance. I’m paired up to ride with Vicky, a Māori lady with a wise, calming presence. Wearing borrowed leather gear from another member, I climb on the back of her crimson 3 wheeled Harley Davidson, my heart beating a little faster with anticipation and excitement. Sweeping alongside the Waikato river, past rolling hills and mountain ranges, I have my first dose of the intoxicating, exhilarating feeling of motorcycle freedom.
The first stop is the Pioneer gun turret, a First World War memorial situated off the Waikato River, unveiled in 1922. The second is Rangiriri Pa, the cultural site of the famous battle that took place during the land wars back in 1800s. On 20th November 1863, a hugely outnumbered Māori force was attacked by 1500 British troops in one of the fiercest battles of the Waikato. The motorcycle group spend over an hour visiting the site and as they paid their respects to both the British and Māori men who lost their lives during this major conflict.
Rumbling through towns, roaring down the highways, clad head-to-toe in leather, Tribal Nations certainly attract a lot of public attention, but this is exactly the aim. They are challenging typical gang stereotypes associated with the ‘back patch’ whilst marketing their brand and raising awareness about important social issues.
Many of the members have Ta Moko – the traditional Māori tattooing in which the skin is carved by uhi (chisels) instead of being punctured by needles. It is a core element of Māori culture, and each design is steeped in ritual and unique to the individual. They can tell a story of their family (whanau), their descent (whakapapa), their community (iwi) and their life journey and moments of significance.
It is evident that Tribal Nations are all about addressing important issues within New Zealand, working with communities to bring positive changes and most importantly, looking out for one another. After a day in their company, they truly feel like one big extended family.
During this digital age, we are supposedly more connected, but statistics have shown that people are feeling lonelier than ever before. The disjointed way many people are living daily lives has fragmented many of the communities we live in. Life is about relationships, who you are and having a purpose. As human-beings, perhaps our best survival strategy is unity – Tribal Nations are thinking deeply about what is going wrong and how to set it back on track. It’s not about focusing on markets or the government, it’s about fundamentally reconstructing the social constructs that we have.
It is apparent that Tribal Nations truly represent the very core of community – a group of individuals who share a mutual concern for each other’s welfare. They meet at maraes during important occasions, which in itself is a communal experience - everyone sleeps in the same room on mattresses lined against the walls. They eat together in the dining room, and all do their bit with chores and spend time learning and discussing tribal history.
As the Dalai Lama famously quoted, “We human beings are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others’ actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others’ activities. For this reason, it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others.”