Return to Sender
ISBN 0 140 25676 8
Nga Pepa a Ranginui — The Walker Papers
ISBN 0 7900 0460 7
All festivals are acts of collective myth-making, chances for a nation to advertise its idealised image of itself. When the nationalist rhetoric takes the form of corporate commercials on television, what better place to celebrate the nation’s unity and collective will to nationhood than the 6 o’clock news on Waitangi Day 1995?
But that Waitangi Day the ideology came unstuck with a vengeance. The front window of the nation’s one-stop bicultural shop was daubed with the rejecting Maori slogan of tino rangatiratanga for all to see. Here, offering proof positive that the politics of identity are not merely socially but also linguistically constructed, the Maori language as used by activist Tame Iti and others was itself a managed discourse directed against the dominant political hegemony, which not only had to make room at these commemorations but also to downscale the triumphalism in succeeding years.
The disruption of the commemorative celebrations was the culmination of a series of events which are discussed specifically by Wira Gardiner (who was at that time the chief executive of Te Puni Kokiri, the Ministry of Maori Development) in Return to Sender, which is about reactions to “the fiscal envelope”, and more generally by Ranginui Walker in Nga Pepa a Ranginui.
The phrase “fiscal envelope” comes from Crown Proposals for the Settlement of Treaty Claims, launched by the government on 8 December 1994. Part of it proposed to limit the settlement of treaty claims to $1 billion. This attempt to put a finite value on the intangible resources of Maori culture, heritage and property allowed left-wing radicals in Maoridom first to identify a gap in perception tantamount to an insult and then to mobilise almost the whole of mainstream Maoridom behind them.
The government found that the fiscal envelope had been interpreted as containing a blank cheque for unlimited direct action. The chair of the Waitangi Tribunal said the Maori people believed a situation had developed where all the power was on the side of the Crown in treaty negotiations. Ngai Tahu elder Sir Tipene O’Regan said the proposal was “unilaterally determined, unilaterally designed, unilaterally imposed — take it or leave it’. Maori journalist Derek Fox said: “The government has insulted Maori. The fiscal envelope is an insult.” Thus was weight leant to the Maori backlash.
Wira Gardiner discovered himself in the unfortunate role of messenger of an unwanted offer and at Waitangi Day the object of calumny and physical threats. This was doubly unfortunate because in private he agreed with the reactions of his fellow-Maori but as a public servant he was committed to loyalty to the Crown.
His book is an explanation by way of apology which sets out to analyse — albeit from the viewpoint of an insider with a vested interest — what went on at the series of special hui held with different tribes to get feedback on the proposal. He discusses how the fiscal envelope became a catalyst for protest actions, such as the occupation of Wanganui’s Moutoa Gardens and a number of other smaller land occupations. He then trots out the National party line: “Had the protesters focused on the land issue alone they might have gained major success. By binding the case of sovereignty, which the government had emphatically stated was not a matter for discussion or negotiation, to their land-claim, the occupiers faced inevitable failure.” There speaks his master’s voice — that of Prime Minister Jim Bolger.
Wira Gardiner’s book is good on the fine bureaucratic detail of the tribal meetings, painting dramatic word-pictures of the emotions engendered by the discussions. If the fiscal envelope had had a human face, it would have resembled that of Sir Robert Muldoon — guaranteed to get people’s backs up while always remaining the focus of their fascinated, half-admiring interest at its sheer cheek.
In mid-February 1995 the Government’s fiscal envelope “explainers” — led by the Minister in Charge of Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations, Doug Graham, and containing the statutory quota of unnamed “officials from Treasury” — flew by RNZAF Andover to Rotorua to a hui with the Te Arawa people. This was the first hui of the whole public relations exercise and amongst the speakers in reply Graham ran slambang up against Annette Sykes, whose confrontational style, while it didn’t quite floor Graham, certainly gave him a run for his money: “I don’t mind being called ignorant and useless,” he said. “I do take slight offence at being called dishonest.” Such defensive self-mockery set the tone for the following 12 hui (concluding in Christchurch at the end of March) which Gardiner traces with sometime tortuous exactitude. In the end, the fiscal envelope was indeed marked “return to sender”.
The last part of Gardiner’s book provides pen-portraits of some of the Maori activists who turned out to be his bêtes noires, his nemeses: Iti, Sykes, Mike Smith, Niko Tangaroa, Ken Mair. “Engagement with your opponent is as much what you know about your opponent as it is about finding solutions to problems that arise.”
His conclusion: “New Zealand is too small for the protest movement to establish a strong organisation… the tough reality of life for those like Annette Sykes is that in order to earn a living they cannot alienate those they depend on. The price of radical principle is loss of livelihood.” Gardiner himself resigned as head of Te Puni Kokori in October 1995 and now works as a “Crown facilitator”.
Over the past 20 years we’ve seen the rise and rise of Maori arts and literature to the point where books on things Maori constitute a light industry, redefining and reshaping the way we look at the world and the way the world looks at us. This is typified by the overseas success of Keri Hulme, Witi Ihimaera, Patricia Grace and, most recently, Alan Duff. In the history of this Maori enlightenment or renaissance a special place must be reserved for Ranginui Walker. In the 1960s he made a conscious decision to become an articulate voice for Maoridom, to help correct what he saw as relentless negative stereotyping in the media of urban Maori, allied to a paternalistic, patronising pakeha view of rural Maori and Maori traditions.
Under our present system, working for a university endows one’s extramural activities with a certain cachet, a cultural authority. Attached to Auckland University and working in continuing education, Walker used this authority to speak out at every opportunity. In the 1970s and 1980s Walker turned his regular “Korero” column in the Listener into a pulpit to catch the ear of policymakers and the ear of public opinion. As he put it in his 1987 Penguin collection of “Korero” columns Nga Tax Tut — The Years of Anger:
Initially I got a lot of letters attacking what I was saying because I was redefining reality for pakehas and they didn’t like it… I welcomed those letters because they gave me an opportunity to continue the dialogue…
Nga Pepa a Ranginui also continues the polemical work by collecting together various conference papers, academic essays and Metro articles. Walker’s style is exemplary: he’s a born teacher with a gift for lucid exposition. He’s a rigorous self-editor: “I made a private resolution not to add to the pile of pretentious papers that passed for scholarship in the academy.”
And while Walker defends Maoritanga against the “dominant discourse”, the dominant discourse itself has shifted over the past 20 years to a more moderate position, which now includes an acceptance of the Maori viewpoint or viewpoints. At the same time, Walker has never stated — as some extremists have — that Maori have been rendered morally superior by their years of oppression and marginalisation. He merely seeks to redress a gross imbalance.
Walker grew up in World War II and after in Opitiki, where the Maori were a dispossessed underclass, refugees of a military invasion, and where the pakehas were the descendants of the military settlers and formed the governing class: the landowners, the judges, the borough councillors, the business owners, the educators. The high-handed confiscations of land from independence fighters, given to loyalists, and showcase trials and executions of tribal leaders were still vivid in the collective memory of local Maori. The long and winding road which took Walker to a PhD began against this background.
Of mixed pakeha and Maori ancestry, Walker had a Catholic, sectarian education. By education and training he was middle-class, but by heritage and identification he was Maori. In 1974 he became chairman of the Auckland District Maori Council. In 1990 he produced an alternative history of New Zealand (that is, one told from the Maori point of view) Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou — Struggle Without End, also published by Penguin.
Walker makes no apologies for being angry about racial prejudice. In a way his writing constitutes a kind of ongoing 12-step programme which tackles racial hatred and racial ignorance as addictions which can be beaten: step 1 is to dismantle the barriers of institutional racism; step 2 is to roll back the redneckery of dyed-in-the-wool bigots, who still, for example, clog up the airwaves of certain talkback radio station frequencies; step 3 is to help enlighten ordinary people who don’t necessarily know a lot about things Maori, encourage them to learn te reo Maori and so on.
When Eurocentric American writer Saul Bellow asked rhetorically — as he did recently in a magazine interview — where is the Proust of the Papuans, he was implicitly making a loaded geopolitical value judgment against the experiential possibilities and achievements of an Oceanic society close to our own. But he was also asking the wrong question. The question he ducked was: where do we go to find the artist or artists in that society who express the same perceptions, the same philosophy, the same poetical, mythological and cultural insights as Marcel Proust?
To reframe his argument: if Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey represent the ancient Greek collective poetry experience of many bards over a long period, a peak of the oral poetic tradition, then in our own pre-European Oceanic tradition the mythological characters, the whakapapa of the founding ancestors who migrated from Hawaiki, along with their attendant creation myths and legends — those necessary fictions — represent the fountainhead of New Zealand’s artistic, mythological, and cultural heritage. Our version of Marcel Proust will be someone who can translate such indigenous phenomenology into secular terms. And anyway pluralism means we don’t have to chose: we can have both. As for Bellow, that die-hard modernist, he will end up being devoured by his own impishness.
Part of Walker’s strategy is to challenge elitism of the Bellovian kind. Walker doesn’t pretend to be a sage but his reiteration of commonsense as being a recognition of the viewpoint of the “other”, the native, the Maori (where to the Maori “maori” meant normal and “pakeha” meant abnormal) does add up to a kind of wisdom. As Walker wrote in Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou: “From their original usage it is clear the words Maori and pakeha ostensibly defined ethnic categories. But as a consequence of our colonial history they took on political meanings as well.”
Some of Nga Pepa a Ranginui revisits Maori concepts and anthropological information provided in Walker’s two earlier books, though, as in his essay on the central importance of the Maori meeting house, he approaches certain cultural symbols in more detail: we learn how the prophet Te Kooti was able to make adroit use of the symbolism of the meeting house by building a new one every time he was forced by the European military, who were hunting him, to relocate. Te Mana-o-Turanga, completed in 1883, incorporated a carving of a settler named Agnew Brown and his dog in amongst the ancestor posts — an acknowledgement of the presence of a locally significant and sympathetic pakeha.
Other essays examine the chequered history of Treaty of Waitangi implementations, the changing role of Maori leadership in a corporatised society, including an account of that wily back-room operator Sir Graham Latimer, and a discussion of the Sealord deal: “Tribes opposed to trading their aboriginal property rights to the sea for 150 pieces of silver have appealed to the Waitangi Tribunal”. He also discusses the formation of the neo-urban tribe known as Ngati Otara.
The usefulness of Walker’s book is that it brings a lot of specific information on recent Maori politicking (government machinations and Maori responses) together in one place. And everywhere Walker uses his training in political theory to underpin his prescriptions for social harmony: “If Maungakeike/One Tree hill is to have symbolic meaning in our own time, replacing the lone pine tree (hacked at by activist Smith) before it dies must be a joint enterprise between the tangata whenua and city fathers.”
As a recognised authority on things Maori, Walker now travels the globe addressing conferences, as, for example, with his paper on the role pakeha education has played in disadvantaging Maori, which was delivered to a “first nations” conference in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1993. Walker’s writing profits from having a clearly defined political agenda, though his thesis about Maori self-determination remains in a sense still to be proved, even as it is being realised. His commitment to biculturalism makes it difficult for him to accommodate multiculturalism. He attacks the current immigration policy which he characterises as a monetarist-driven Asian invasion.
Conspiracy theories aside, this claim does point to the fact that the government has yet to resolve many dilemmas arising from biculturalism and one way it has come up with to deal with this impasse is by leapfrogging conveniently to a corporate model of multiculturalism, otherwise known as the McWorld model, which in essence consists of “dumbing down” and therefore trivialising cultural heritage arguments. Walker’s book ends uncertainly in this grey area of multiplicities which offer new challenges to the Maoritanga model Walker has championed since the 1960s. Where to from here remains an open and very tantalising question.
David Eggleton is a Dunedin writer.