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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...

Tēnā kōrua

UPDATE 2018-08-09 - Many of the articles in Contested Documents began their existence as part of a series written for the edification of friends and colleagues. They are definitely "early works" and as such can be alarmingly uneven closer to the beginning of the series, and many of the earliest examples got dropped as not worth revising the first time for inclusion in the Moonspeaker. This piece, and The Sámi come from the closing days of the original series, when I felt that my writing feet were set firmly on the ground, and I wanted to explore broader Indigenous issues and the fact that Indigenous people exist all over the world. Unfortunately this more adventurous turn was not well received, with many of the original readers declaring after just this article and The Sámi that I shouldn't be wasting my time writing about foreigners. Times have changed.

Over a thousand years ago, a group of Māori travelled across the pacific ocean in well-made canoes 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. This is european naming is one more in a long sequence of absurdities, because the original "zealand" was apparently a province in the netherlands, not the main island of denmark, which might have made slightly more sense. Then at least an island name would have been applied to an island. It seems quite possible that europeans would feel less lost in the world if their ancestors hadn't gone around trying to rename every other place after places at home instead of learning where they actually were. For their part, the Māori weren't lost when they made their way Aotorea, being among the greatest navigators of all time. Those ancestors knew where they were going.

Maori carved house post from Tanenuiarangi meeting house, Waipapa marae. Maori carved house post from Tanenuiarangi meeting house, Waipapa marae.
Image courtesy of wikimedia commons, photo by Kahuroa, may 2006.

Relations between settlers and Māori are not always smooth, but in some ways they look almost idyllic compared to the struggles Indigenous peoples face in canada. One important difference even before considering matters like land claims or treaties is that the Māori are a homogenous people relative to Indigenous groups in Canada, in part because Aotora is much smaller than canada, and they have not lived there as long as Indigenous Nations have here. The various Māori 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, invading europeans 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 Māori, the new zealand government established four parliamentary seats which Māori would vote on exclusively. They opted for this instead of allowing Māori to vote in general elections or redrawing the electoral ridings for fear that Māori would be able to outvote any settlers 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 Māori cultural renaissance and population boom now undeniable, the number of Māori seats was boosted to seven. Well before 2002, the rules were changed so that Māori could choose whether to be on the Māori voting roll and therefore to vote for candidates in the Māori seats, or to participate in the overall general election instead.

When it comes to language, the situation in Aotorea is perhaps surprisingly similar to canada's bilingual policy, including its late advent. Official bilingualism in canada was instituted in 1969, in Aotorea in 1987. Māoritanga and english are equal 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 Māoritanga. There are Māoritanga immersion schools through the primary grades, and Māori radio and television stations. Contrary to early predictions that the language would vanish, it now looks like the number of Māoritanga speakers is growing.

The Māori landbase is handled quite differently from any arrangement in canada or the united states, although arguably the situation in Nunavut could be compared to it. There are Māori reserves, but most Māori land is in freehold, that is, the Māori themselves own it and control it according to british-style law. The land is directly managed by the Māori Trustee, a body independent of the new zealand government and accountable to the Māori themselves. Disputes concerning the land, its uses, and royalties from it are handled by the Māori Land Court. This court started out mainly as a way to force sales of Māori land, so it has a fraught history in its own right. The Māori themselves choose whether to make a specific area a reserve, and for the most part a policy of preventing Māori from leaving reserves was never implemented.

Of course, this begs the question of how the new zealand government keep who is a Māori and who isn't sorted out when it updates the Māori voting roll, or deals with questions of land title and traditional use rights. To handle this question, the new zealand government didn't create a Māori act analogous to canada's indian act. The definition of a Māori in new zealand, as applied by the settler government bodies like statistics new zealand runs as follows: "A Māori is a person who identifies with or feels they belong to the Māori ethnic group." This probably sounds unworkably vague, like practically anyone could claim to be Māori. In fact, that generally doesn't actually happen. Currently, the Māori 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 Māori culture and the concept of whakapapa.

Whakapapa is complex, but its base is in genealogy. If you want to not only call yourself Māori but also take part in Māori 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 Māori 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 Māori. These criteria should sound familiar to settlers in canada who would like to claim indigeneity based on just a feeling that it would be cool to do so, or that they are entitled to do so. They are the very criteria Indigenous communities across the americas insist on, demonstration of acceptance by, commitment to, and genuine participation in an Indigenous community.

New zealand's approach to Indigenous rights, title, and identity didn't come about simply or 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. Most importantly, Māori have continuously resisted colonialism. There are still other challenges to meet, not the least of which is persistent racism and the attendant problems that this brings to Māori communities.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2024
Last Modified: Monday, January 01, 2024 01:26:41