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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Tena korua

Over a thousand years ago, a group of Maori travelled across the Pacific Ocean in well-made canoes, travelling from their homeland Hawaiki to a place one of their number had discovered years before. The place was Aotearoa, 'Land of the Long White Cloud'. Eventually European newcomers would call it New Zealand.

Relations between non-Indigenous and Indigenous New Zealanders are not always smooth, but in some ways they look almost idyllic compared to the struggles we can face here in Canada. One important difference even before considering matters like land claims or treaties is that the Maori are a homogenous people relative to Indigenous groups in Canada, in part because New Zealand is much smaller than Canada, and they have not lived there as long as Indigenous Natios have here. The different Maori groups are differentiated mainly by kinship. Each group is descended from a different canoe of people who travelled to Aotearoa from Hawaiki. So in a way, it was a bit easier to work out terms of coexistence because the number of parties was not as great. That said, non-Indigenous people in Australia took an approach much like Canada's to working with Indigenous Nations although they also had far fewer parties to deal with.

In 1876, after years of relentless lobbying and protest by Maori, the New Zealand government established four parliamentary seats which Maori would vote on exclusively. They opted for this instead of allowing Maori to vote in general elections or redrawing the electoral ridings for fear that Maori would be able to outvote any non-Indigenous people in mixed ridings. By the early 1980s, the members of parliament voted into those seats had held the balance of power over ten times, and several times provided an acting prime minister. By 2002, with a Maori cultural renaissance and population boom now undeniable, the number of Maori seats was boosted to seven. Well before 2002, the rules were changed so that Maori could choose whether to be on the Maori voting roll and therefore to vote for candidates in the Maori seats, or to participate in the overall general election instead.

When it comes to language, the situation in New Zealand is perhaps surprisingly similar to Canada's bilingual policy. Maoritanga and English are equal1 in the eyes of New Zealand law. A movement towards bilingualism is growing, with numerous government departments and companies opting to translate at least their names and selected key documentation into Maoritanga. There are Maoritanga immersion schools through the primary grades, and Maori radio and television stations. Contrary to early predictions that the language would vanish, it now looks like the number of Maoritanga speakers is growing.

The Maori landbase is handled quite differently from any arrangement we have in Canada, although arguably the situation in Nunavut could be compared to it. There are Maori reserves, but most Maori land is in freehold, that is, the Maori themselves own it and control it. The land is directly managed by the Maori Trustee, a body independent of the New Zealand government and accountable to the Maori themselves. Disputes concerning the land, its uses, and royalties from it are handled by the Maori Land Court. The Maori themselves choose whether to make a specific area a reserve, and for the most part a policy of preventing Maori from leaving reserves was never implemented.

Of course, this begs a question. How does the New Zealand government keep who is a Maori and who isn't sorted out when it updates the Maori voting roll, or deals with questions of land title and traditional use rights? To handle this question, New Zealand didn't create a Maori Act analogous to Canada's Indian Act. The definition of a Maori in New Zealand, as applied by government bodies like Statistics New Zealand runs as follows: "A Maori is a person who identifies with or feels they belong to the Maori ethnic group." This probably sounds unworkably vague, like practically anyone could claim to be Maori. In fact, That doesn't actually happen. Currently, the Maori population is roughly 250 000, and its growth is primarily by birth, not changes in self-labelling. What makes what amounts to a self-definition system workable is the persistence of Maori culture and the concept of whakapapa.

Whakapapa is complex, but its base is in genealogy. If you want to not only call yourself Maori but also take part in Maori institutions like receiving moko, the traditional facial tattoos handed down in families, or using and controlling communal land holdings, you must know your connections to the Maori clan system. You must know them, and your fellow clan members must know them or learn them and accept their validity. Whakapapa has important spiritual and ritual components as well. So when it comes to going beyond census forms and the like, you do have to do more than just call yourself Maori.

New Zealand's approach to Indigenous rights, title, and identity didn't come about simply or even necessarily easily. These changes and developments have been the product of years of hard work by both sides, and not every strategy tried out has survived the test of time. There are still other challenges to meet, not the least of which is persistent racism and the attendant problems that this brings to Maori communities.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2018
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 23:43:35 MDT