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Facing up to Waitangi

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'New Zealand can be described as one nation with three histories: Maori, Pakeha, and the one in the making.'

February 6, 1990. A summer's day in New Zealand's Bay of Islands. Queen Elizabeth II will step ashore at Waitangi, scene of the signing - 150 years ago, to the day - of the treaty between the Maori (indigenous people) and Pakeha (white settlers). Her escort will be a fleet of 20 war canoes paddled by hundreds of Maori warriors representing most of the tribes of Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand). For Queen Elizabeth is not a foreign visitor but the Queen of New Zealand, the 'White Mother' of the Maori people, who have long held her in reverence. It was her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, in whose name the treaty relationship with the Maori was first established.

Amid the excitement and sense of high festival, abounding in 1990 as it did in 1840, there is also apprehension. For it may not be appropriate to call the occasion a celebration when the treaty has not yet been ratified nor fully honoured. Some suggest that 1990 should rather be a time for reflection, when Maori and Pakeha acknowledge one another as treaty partners who have yet to confirm their contract as a living reality.

When the Treaty of Waitangi was signed there was expectation and good faith on both sides. In 1640 the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman had 'discovered' New Zealand - though the Maori are clear that they were never lost and did not have to be found. In 1769 Captain James Cook explored its coasts. But it was only when the European settlers and the Maori both requested an official agreement that Captain William Hobson was sent to negotiate on behalf of the British Crown with the independent and sovereign race of the Maori who were in a large majority.

The Europeans had come to respect the Maori. Both sides wanted to see tribal differences settled and lawless elements among the new arrivals controlled. Both were hoping for a more harmonious relationship, based on agreements regarding trade, settlement, the rule of law, defence, and other matters. Hobson was instructed to obtain the free and intelligent consent of the Maori chiefs, and 'to deal with them openly.' The treaty made it clear that the natural rights of Tangata Whenua (the original inhabitants) would be respected and upheld. The Maori would not lose their chiefly authority in giving to the Queen what they saw as the 'shadow' of their land while retaining the 'substance'. Their land, their inheritance and their treasure would be safe. The Crown would have the sole right to buy land, but only when the Maori agreed to sell. They would receive the full rights of British citizenship. In return, the treaty gave the Europeans the right to settle peacefully in New Zealand.

The terms of the pact were debated vigorously by cautious Maori chiefs, for already there was criticism of the way some settlers had obtained land. The chiefs sought the advice of Henry Williams of the Church Missionary Society, who had translated the treaty into their language. Finally accepting that it was in their best interests to proceed, over 40 chiefs signed at Waitangi, and at least 500 more in the next months.

From the first, the Maori viewed the document as a spiritual covenant, representing the Queen's special 'act of love' towards them. In this they were encouraged by the missionaries, who knew that Christianity was already accepted by nearly half the Maori population. The agreement symbolized the joining of two peoples in a common enterprise, to the expected advantage of both. When Governor Grey questioned its seriousness, Lord Stanley, the Colonial Secretary, replied, 'You will honourably and scrupulously fulfil the conditions of the Treaty of Waitangi.' By and large this attitude prevailed into the 1850s.

In 1852 the administration of New Zealand passed to a settler government, and the immense flow of British immigrants increased the demand for land. In the 1860s wars broke out between Maori and Pakeha, and in retribution the government confiscated large tracts of Maori land - an action since acknowledged as unjust. The Maori were considered a 'dying race', and the treaty declared a 'nullity in law'. Maori chiefs travelled to London to speak with Queen Victoria herself, in the firm belief that she would acknowledge their rangatiratanga (chiefly authority). They were not even granted an audience.

The next hundred years saw the establishment of a European-dominated national culture. War and disease reduced the Maori population to a low of 44,000 during the last part of the nineteenth century, from which it gradually recovered to today's 300,000 - around ten per cent of the total population. Although New Zealand developed one of the most advanced social policies in the world, in 1893 becoming the first nation to give women the vote, the Maori culture was swamped.

The 1960s and 70s saw an enormous revival of interest in the treaty. Young Maori radicals marched in protest to Parliament and staged dramatic sit-ins. Increasingly impatient with the moderation of their elders, they pointed to the virtual extinction of their language, the loss of their land, their merely token presence in Parliament, an education system in which Maori children rarely succeeded, and a standard of living well below that of the average Pakeha. Growing unemployment and crime, a weakening of family and tribal bonds as a result of migration to the cities in search of work - all these conspired to give a loss of pride and identity.

These young Maori brought to the attention of the nation the deep sense of anger, frustration and hurt felt by their people. It was and is a cry of pain coming from the depths of humiliating experience.

Ngatai Huata, a political songwriter, entrepreneur and visual artist, describes herself as a Maori activist who was kicked out of huis (tribal meetings) for her radical views. She expresses pride that her fellow protestors have set the agenda for the Nineties by their stand against racial injustice.

The Pakeha have been slow to acknowledge that the Maori have been cheated, and the process of democracy perverted, but at last the evidence of history is persuading them of the need to put right the past.

A turning point came in 1975 with the passing of the Treaty of Waitangi Act which established the Waitangi Tribunal charged with the full investigation of Maori claims against the Crown. The partnership established by the treaty was confirmed by the Court of Appeal, and recent judgments have started to right the legacy of injustice all the way back to 1840.

'The founding of the Waitangi Tribunal is a world first,' points out the Tribunal's chairman, Chief Judge Eddie Durie, himself a Maori. 'At present we are going through the process of dealing with old land claims and this is tearing the country apart. But it is an indication of the strong, mature race relations that exist already that we have been able to embark on such a venture.'

The Tribunal makes practical recommendations to the government. Progress is inevitably slow, though some Crown land has been returned to Maori and reparation negotiated. The huge backlog of grievances includes the control of forests, fisheries, minerals, environmental concerns, and the taking of sacred lands both by gun and statute book. 'Complexities must be resolved,' says Judge Durie, 'to give justice to the Maori without injuring property holders or ruining the national economy. Compromises may well have to be worked out between the government and Maori claimants.'

Denese Henare, a young Maori lawyer, knows the pain of the struggle but reflects on improving attitudes and procedures. She says, 'The first hearing was conducted in the ballroom of the Intercontinental Hotel! Since then the debate has been taken onto the marae (Maori meeting place). Pakeha have been introduced to the kawa (customs) of their treaty partners, to follow, to hear, to begin to understand not only the voice but the heart of the people. There has been no initial willingness from the Pakeha to negotiate. Too often they have had to be brought to the wire before they will come to the table.'

Henare says that protest in the streets has signalled desperation but also courage to act. She believes in working within the system to bring about change, but urges the Pakeha to move beyond the rhetoric and symbol of partnership to the reality of repairing the injustices of 150 years.

Hiwi Tauroa, a former Race Relations Conciliator, sees the need for a two-way exchange. 'The Pakeha needs to give the Maori opportunity and the Maori needs to gain the expertise to take advantage of the opportunity,' he says.

Chris Laidlaw, former All Black rugby player and first New Zealand Ambassador to Black Africa, is the present Race Relations Conciliator. He has high expectations. 'The scales will have to dip Maori-wards from now on,' he says. Under the weight of Western culture, 'it is a miracle that Maori culture was able to survive.' He believes that there are now many developments enabling Maori culture to reassert itself, plus a momentum towards cultural parity. 'Language, education, ways of doing things... all have to reflect the genuine place Maori culture is to have in New Zealand as a whole. It is nothing short of a major cultural revolution.'

Wellington journalist Colin James agrees: 'You can't have a bi-cultural society unless you teach both cultures to both cultures.'

During the 1980s the Maori people developed many initiatives to reassert their culture and spirituality. The successful 'Te Maori' exhibition in the USA, when Maori elders accompanied their taonga (treasures), evoked a deep reverence in them and others for their heritage. Of great significance is the current revival of the Maori language through the establishment of 900 kohanga reo ('language nests') where pre-school children are taught in Maori. Ngatai Huata's father, Canon Wi Huata, Chaplain to the Kohanga Reo Trust Board, is excited by the possibilities of this experiment. 'Never in the history of Maoridom,' he says, 'have we cared for the mokopuna (grandchildren) in a holistic way - educating body, mind and spirit.' He is delighted that the government has promised to fund this voluntary teaching service.

The Maori are also being given back the right to govern themselves. The power and resources of the Maori Affairs Department are being transferred to the iwi (tribal management) - a challenging and controversial move.

'There have been three eras in our experience,' says Ngatai Huata. 'The first was the domination of our people by the Pakeha. Then came the era of enlightenment. We are now into the era of consolidation.' She works to build up her own people's expression of history and culture through creative forms of image and music. She shares her father's enthusiasm for the programme of Kohanga Reo: 'That's the only kaupapa (topic) that we don't challenge and hassle about.' She endorses, too, the late Sir James Henare's view of the Treaty of Waitangi as 'a contract of honour between two peoples'.

Sir James, a former commander of the Maori Battalion, liked to recall Maori enlistment in both World Wars. 'There was no conscription for Maori,' he used to say. 'They felt in honour bound to help their treaty partners. It was a spiritual obligation.'

It would be foolish to say that strains and recriminations do not exist, as the two races 'grope their way towards partnership'. At one extreme there is the frustration and impatience of an articulate, awakened and confident indigenous people aware of their rights and demanding immediate redress. At the other extreme there is evidence of a 'white paranoia', a conservative backlash, an unwillingness to examine the past and consider Maori as equals. To many Pakeha, says Colin James, 'Maori have the same chances in life as they do. They resent special assistance to Maori whom they see as not trying hard enough on their own behalf. Positive discrimination that gets a Maori candidate into medical school ahead of their better qualified son or daughter is seen as patently unfair.' Fear of violence has also done nothing to steady nerves.

James believes that there is a residual goodwill for Maori among the great majority of Pakeha. Education is needed to counter 'ignorance, unreason and fear.' He also contends that, amid all the talk of growing Maori self-confidence, one of the biggest issues of 1990 is the 'restoration of cultural confidence among the European majority.' Uncertainty about their distinct identity as 'neither Europeans displaced 20,000 kms, nor as a new breed of white (and slightly brown) people domiciled in the South Pacific' has often led to a 'brash but rather defensive insularity' or to 'cultural cringe'. It is hard, James admits, for Maori to 'deal with us in this insecure state.' Yet he is also optimistic. 'We, all Aotearoans, have been much concerned with the letter and the "principles" of the treaty; just possibly we may at last come to be moved by its spirit.'

Many New Zealanders are addressing the deeper underlying issues of the heart. Jean McLean is the great great-granddaughter of Henry Williams, who translated the treaty. She and her husband are farmers in Hawkes Bay. 'Twenty years ago,' she says, 'I had a vague desire to be a link between our two peoples, so I learnt the Maori language. I came to see a whole new dimension to New Zealand life. Whereas I had thought I knew about Maori people, I found I did not. For the first time I realized how all-pervading is the culture from which we spring - how we think, speak, eat, sleep. As I became aware of so many differences, I felt troubled, thinking they grew from prejudice. Then, as a load tumbling off my back, I realized I grew from a different culture. At last I was free to learn about theirs and not expect to be the same. It was like discovering a gold-mine in our garden which we'd never known of before.

'There grew in me a deep desire to bring understanding and true partnership to this country of ours. I can no longer claim the right which the Treaty of Waitangi gives me to be here, without recognizing the responsibility to see the intent and spirit of the treaty honoured.'

Members of Parliament and Geoffrey Palmer, the Prime Minister, have been urged to acknowledge publicly past injustices, and to undertake unanimously to uphold the treaty at all levels of decision making. Several Maori elders have suggested that an apology from the Crown for injustice done would go a great distance to change the atmosphere, and much would be forgiven.

Historian Claudia Orange has recently published a definitive work on the Treaty of Waitangi, which aims to set the record straight. A simplified version is ready to go into all schools this year, as part of a programme to provide a factual record of New Zealand's history.

Sir Paul Reeves, New Zealand's first Maori Governor-General, counsels the nation to 'view the treaty as a friendly document that will provide us with jewels we can give to the world.' And these jewels can give hope to many indigenous peoples in their own struggles for equality and justice. The environmental and spiritual ethic of the Maori can lift the sights of the Pakeha to consider lasting values, and the complementary skills of both races can enable New Zealanders to work together in the Pacific and Asia for the betterment of all people.

'New Zealand can be described as one nation with three histories: Maori, Pakeha, and the one in the making,' to quote a New Zealand Anglican report on the treaty.

The symbol chosen for 1990 is the Kotuku, the soaring white heron. Just as in Maori legend Kotuku guided the god Tane to the twelfth heaven with three baskets of knowledge, so the energy and knowledge generated in this important year can guide New Zealand into the next century. In Maori legend the Kotuku appears but once, then disappears forever. Maori and Pakeha leaders alike realize the urgency of making the most of this special opportunity that has been given to honour the Treaty of Waitangi. 'We have to get it right in 1990,' they all agree.

Joan Holland, recently retired as the Principal of St Cuthbert's College, Auckland.

Article language

English

Article type
Feature type
Article year
1990