The Maori resistance
Most outsiders think that New Zealand’s indigenous people are well integrated into a liberal state. But the arrest of an alleged terrorist cell has put the focus on the injustices suffered by the Maori. Jon Henley reports
Tuesday November 6, 2007 Guardian
Henry Williams (b February 11 1782, Nottingham, d July 16 1867, Pakaraka, Bay of Islands) is as good a place to start as any. A rotund, bespectacled and doubtless well-intentioned former navy man, the Rev Williams was a missionary who had been busy winning antipodean souls for Jesus since 1822. By February 1840, when the first lieutenant-governor of what would very soon become Britain’s newest colony landed in New Zealand, Williams was leader of the Church of England’s mission there. He must have seemed like just the man to translate a landmark treaty between the Crown and the Maori chiefs.
Unfortunately, he was not. Or at least, he may have been from the British point of view, but he most definitely was not from the Maori’s. And if last month, more than 140 years after his death, a shocked New Zealand woke up to the news that 17 Maori rights activists had been arrested on weapons and terrorism offences following the discovery of “paramilitary training camps” in the remote mountain ranges of North Island, it is not entirely fanciful to suggest that the late reverend should bear at least some of the blame.
Sixteen people are on trial in Auckland district court following the raids, the culmination of a year-long police undercover operation that involved up to 300 officers and was centred on the isolated North Island hamlet of Ruatoki, gateway to the Urewera mountains that are home to the fiercely independent Tuhoe tribe. The raids followed sightings of “armed men in camouflage and balaclavas moving through forests carrying heavy packs and firearms”. There are unconfirmed claims that among the weapons seized was a napalm bomb, or perhaps some molotov cocktails, and rumours that the prime minister, Helen Clark, may have been a target.
One of the men arrested has reportedly told police he was training to be “a vicious, dangerous commando”, would “declare war on this country very soon”, and that “white men are going to die here”. Another, a colourful Maori and Tuhoe activist called Tame Iti – previously best known for baring his buttocks at public protests and shooting at the New Zealand flag – is said to have been preparing an IRA-style “war on New Zealand” aimed at establishing an independent state on his tribe’s land. One New Zealand paper, the Dominion Post, has claimed Iti’s 20-strong group was known as Rama – the Maori word for enlightenment – and included ex-New Zealand army Vietnam war veterans as well as several teenaged recruits. It had adopted the IRA’s Green Book as its training manual, the paper claimed.
Quite how much of all this will ever be proved true is anyone’s guess. Claims and counter-claims have been flying furiously since the first raid a fortnight ago: Maori leaders are livid at what they say is police heavy-handedness; some have suggested that the camps (if they exist at all) were harmless bushcraft retreats. Pita Sharples, leader of the country’s Maori party, says the raids have “set race relations back 100 years”. Meanwhile, the rightwing NZ First party has called on moderate Maori to “disown their subversive and divisive sub-culture”.
What is certain is that these events have exposed wounds that most people outside New Zealand could be forgiven for assuming had healed long ago. Disease and massacres, we sort of vaguely know, finished off most of the indigenous people of Australia, and many of the Aboriginals who survived now live on squalid reservations beset by problems of health, education, unemployment, crime and substance abuse. But the Maori? They had a hard time, no doubt. But nowadays their culture is all over New Zealand, isn’t it? Maori do very well, don’t they, in all walks of life? And look at the All Blacks! New Zealand and the Maori, they’re pretty much OK, aren’t they? No big issues there.
It turns out, though, that there are – and that feelings about them are starting to run dangerously high. Listen, for example, to Allan Hawea, a moderate, law-abiding Maori community worker from the Bay of Plenty. New Zealanders of European extraction, known in Maori as Pakeha, he warns, “can harp on all they like about how tired they are of Maori considering themselves above the law, or how sick and tired they are of hearing Maori bleat on about the race issue. Well, friends, get used to it. We will not have you tell us how we will respond to the issues that concern us. We will decide how we respond. We are not going away. If you find our response unreasonable, illogical, perhaps it is because we have been reasonable and logical for far too long.”
Some facts. Just under 15% of New Zealand’s four million-strong population are Maori. A survey last month from the ministry of social development showed that in all but four of 20 basic socio-economic indicators, they are worse off than European New Zealanders. Maori are three times more likely to die from a violent assault (and four times as likely to be arrested for violent assault) than non-Maori. They account for around 40% of all convictions in the courts, and 50% of the New Zealand prison population. Maori are nearly three times as likely to be unemployed, and their household income is roughly 70% of the national average. Healthwise, Maori life expectancy is nearly 10 years lower than non-Maori. They are four times more likely to live in an overcrowded house, and far more likely to have drug or alcohol problems.
A 2006 report by Rodolfo Stavenhagen, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, concluded that while some progress had been made, and New Zealand ranked pretty high on international human and social development indicators, “persistent disparities” continue between Maori and non-Maori in fields such as health, paid work, economic standard of living, housing and justice. Some of these, Stavenhagen added, were consistent with “a history of discrimination”, and there was a need for “continued specific measures based on ethnicity” to “strengthen the social, economic and cultural rights” of the Maori. “While the standard of living of the Maori of New Zealand has improved and is better than that of indigenous peoples in poorer countries,” Stavenhagen wrote in a separate statement, “there is widespread concern that the gap in social and economic conditions is actually growing larger and an increasing proportion of Maori are being left behind.”
Some Maori have no hesitation in saying what they think this is all about. “It’s quite obvious that underlying all this is a deeply entrenched racism,” says Professor Margaret Mutu of the University of Auckland’s Maori studies department, who is also actively involved with the Maori rights movement. “The European attitude is basically: we are superior, we are in charge, and that’s just the way it is. It’s really a huge problem here. And I do consider the patience of the Maori amazing. They could have taken up arms long ago, but they have not done so.”
The roots of Maori resentment lie, of course, in the past, and more specifically in February 1840. Back, then, to the Rev Williams, who with the assistance of his son Edward – raised among Maori and deemed an even more able scholar of the Nga-Puhi dialect than his father – produced the Maori version of the three-clause treaty of Waitangi.
In article one of the treaty’s English text, the Maori signatories apparently cede their “sovereignty” to the British Crown. Williams’s Maori version of the text, however, which was the one the chiefs signed, used a missionary neologism, “kawanatanga”, to translate this concept – the term means something akin to “governorship”. This was curious, because a pretty good translation of “sovereignty” already existed in Maori: “tino rangatiratanga”.
Even more curiously, article two of the Maori version expressly reserves “tino rangatiratanga”, or full sovereign authority, over “their lands, forests, fisheries and everything they value” to the Maori chiefs. And since the only reason the chiefs were sitting down with the representative of the British Crown in the first place was because they had been obliged to asked for Britain’s help in controlling the lawless, land-grabbing and violent band of European whalers, sealers and other settlers who had invaded their islands, it seems clear that what the Maori believed they were signing – what they did, in fact, sign – was a document granting the Crown a strictly limited authority over the non-Maori settlers.
What the British signed, on the other hand, was a document granting them full sovereignty over what, three months later, duly became the Crown colony of New Zealand. And thanks to a subsequent barrage of questionable land purchases and wholesale confiscations of vast tracts of New Zealand, between 1840 and 1890, the Maori lost approximately 95% of their territories. Over roughly the same period, meanwhile, the Maori population had shrunk from 100,000 to about 36,000, while the European population rose from 2,000 to more than 600,000.
“The land issue is the legal, cultural and spiritual focus of almost all Maori grievances today,” says Dr Tracey McIntosh, a University of Auckland sociologist and member of the Tuhoe tribe. “Many tribes, including mine, never even signed the treaty, so we just view our land as having been stolen. And above and beyond the Maori’s spiritual relationship with their lands, you can make a very strong evidence-based argument for saying that the alienation of our land removed our whole economic base and distorted the whole range of social relationships. That’s why this history is so important: for Maori, the injustices of the past have real implications for our present lives. We’re still seeing their consequences.”
There has been some attempt to address the land issue, but not with any tremendous success: the Waitangi Tribunal, established in 1975 to hear complaints of alleged treaty violations, has in the 32 years of its existence registered 1,400 cases, heard around 150, issued 50 reports – and settled barely 20 claims, for a total value of just over NZ$700m (£258m). The tribunal’s decisions, moreover, are non-binding. In recent years, Maori have had further cause to question their government’s intentions when it passed the 2004 Foreshore and Seabed Act, giving the Crown ownership of coastal areas and overturning a court of appeal ruling that the islands’ indigenous inhabitants enjoyed “customary title” or property rights. The UN is sufficiently unimpressed with this legislation, dubbed by many Maori “the last great land grab”, to have formally recommended it be repealed, or at least significantly amended.
Paradoxically, Maori language and culture have come to occupy a significant, even a fundamental place in New Zealand life. Thirty years ago, speaking Maori in school was liable to get you caned. These days, Maori is an official national language and is taught, along with Maori history and culture, in creches and at primary and secondary school. Maori place names have been restored, and their correct pronunciation is seen as important; there is Maori-language TV and radio; a Maori party exists and seats are reserved for Maori in New Zealand’s parliament; much of the very iconography of the state is now Maori. “It’s true we now have a real consciousness, an awareness of Maori issues that many other countries with indigenous peoples do not have,” says McIntosh. “It’s pretty difficult to be in this country and not to be aware of it. Partly as a result, everything around Maori is political.”
Much of this has been accomplished as a result of the so-called Maori revival, started in the 1960s and 70s. Fuelled by almost invariably peaceful protest – essentially sit-ins, occupations and marches – the Maori protest movement has been highly successful in raising their profile and achieving concrete, if limited progress in areas such as land rights, the Maori language and culture, and racism. “The problem,” says McIntosh, “is that there may now be a great deal of recognition of Maori issues, but that certain practices are very deeply embedded here. Plus, there’s a lot of tolerance for ignorance around Maori issues. This is a country, remember, that in the 1960s firmly believed it had the best race relations in the world. It simply did not believe it had a race issue.”
It is an environment, many Maori feel, in which “it can all too easily seem as if most non-Maori in the land are saying: ‘We know, we care – but we don’t really understand, so don’t expect us to do anything about it,'” says one contributor to a popular New Zealand chat community. “It’s as if their efforts on the cultural front can excuse them from taking the underlying historical grievances and social and economic problems seriously.” Mutu adds that New Zealand is “very, very good at the propaganda it puts out, and has been for years. It’s so successful, in fact, that it has convinced most of its own population. There’s a real perception among many Pakeha that Maori are now a privileged group, that we already get way too much preferential treatment.”
But paramilitary training camps? Police raids? molotov cocktails and napalm? War on the streets of Wellington? Few Maori seem to believe a word of it, preferring instead to talk of “ignorance and misunderstanding” and a “huge overreaction” by the police. There is, though, a wary acknowledgement that tensions are building. “The powerlessness and disenfranchisement some Maori feel may lead people to explore different ways of articulating power,” says McIntosh. “There may be a significant few who feel that way. My worry is that this incident will do a great deal of damage to a group that already feels very alienated. I worry about the response it may provoke.”
Mutu also doubts there was “anything remotely threatening going on up in those mountains”, in part because “if there was, I think I would have heard about it”. But, she concurs, “the whole of Maoridom has been traumatised by these raids. Attitudes are certainly hardening. Eventually, I think, we will get together, and we will discuss how to handle it. And yes, I can see a day we will go back to our land and reclaim it. There will not be military action, because that is not our way, but we will go on to the state-owned farms, into the forests, to the wild places where very few people live, and we will say: ‘This is ours, now try and stop us taking it. We’ve been patient, we’ve believed your fine words, for too long. We know what is right'”.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007
Robert S. Rodvik