Enlarging our understanding, K R Howe

Claims to the Waitangi Tribunal
W H Oliver,
Waitangi Tribunal Division, Department of Justice, Wellington, Daphne Brasell Associates, 1991, $19.95

Sovereignty and indigenous rights: The Treaty of Waitangi in international contexts
William Renwick (ed),
Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1991, $24.95

More than a dozen books have been published on Treaty of Waitangi issues in the last few years. These are two of the more informative ones. It is unfortunate that they have appeared at what is probably the end of this publishing bonanza when many potential readers have given up trying to read, let alone buy, this daunting body of literature, and at a time when there has been an inevitable cooling of overt government and public interest in Treaty matters.

Rather than produce some sort of official annotated index or abstract of the Tribunal’s work, the Waitangi Tribunal Division of the Department of Justice commissioned historian W H Oliver to provide a summary. His brief Claims to the Waitangi Tribunal (81 pages of text) is a typically elegant and concise account of the Tribunal’s reports, recommendations, and interpretations of the Treaty’s principles. Given the scarcity of the earlier reports, and the size of some of the more recent ones (the Ngai Tahu Report runs to three volumes), this book will be welcomed: I imagine that it is already well-thumbed in academic and government circles. The discussion of the various claims and findings is organised thematically rather than chronologically. Chapters examine the ‘reclaiming’ of ‘the waters’, ‘the land’, and ‘the language’. The potential problem for the reader in keeping track of the Tribunal’s principles/precedents as they are established over time is assisted in a final chapter on ‘the spirit’. Brief appendices provide a checklist of claims dealt with by the Tribunal, and notes on how the Tribunal’s recommendations have been handled by the Crown.

Although promoted as a ‘factual’ summary to ‘provide information and answers’, this book is rather more complex than that. Oliver is no mere reporter or abstracter; he is inevitably interpreter and even advocate. Summarising the huge amounts of historical information behind the claims in a few pages must of necessity involve selection, emphasis and priority. To claim, as Oliver does, that whether he endorses the historical accounts or not ‘is beside the point’ is perhaps to miss another point. Self-located in ‘the liberal democratic tradition’ and working through an evocative thematic framework that is his, not the Tribunal’s creation, Oliver has also offered us a beautiful artefact of the times, as much as it is more consciously crafted for today.

Self-location has been a more obvious characteristic of most of the recent books on the Treaty, that is, authors usually have been both personally and nationally introspective, often in the extreme. Sovereignty and indigenous rights is a refreshing effort to locate the Treaty of Waitangi in the international context of colonial treaty making. Drawn from papers presented to the 1990 Stout Centre Conference, this book convincingly demonstrates that ‘our’ Treaty was far from unique, and usefully broadens the academic dialogue to consider the treaty and sovereignty experiences of others. By far the best chapters are those by Keith Sorrenson, Donald Brown, Robin Fisher and Ian Campbell who provide fascinating insights into British colonial treaty precedents, the histories of treaty policies in the States, Canada, and Polynesia. Fisher’s excellent account of Indian land claims in western Canada would seem to have particular resonances for New Zealand.

Another seven chapters examine a range of contemporary treaty and sovereignty issues, mainly in the Pacific region. The discussion is wide ranging and sometimes controversial, encompassing places like Australia, New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga and the American Pacific islands. All the writers in this section – Sione Latukefu, Alison Quentin-Baxter, Alan Ward, Malama Meleisea, William Tagupa, Pat O’Shane are to a greater or lesser extent participants in contemporary legal/political process and analysis. The issues and examples are dazzlingly rich and collectively raise profound questions about human interrelationships. Some of the sparring that presumably took place at the conference is nicely reflected here.

The cumulative effect of all the chapters to this point is to liberate the debates about Waitangi from their usual narrow perspectives. But for that reason. the last three chapters, by E Durie, P McHugh and Joe Williams, that return specifically to New Zealand also seem to return to a now rather well worn discourse.

Editor William Renwick’s concluding chapter begins with a brilliant deconstruction of Alfred Drury’s bas-relief of the signing of the Treaty, but subsequently loses its impact because of too diffuse a reflection. But Renwick is to be congratulated for compiling a book that does more to enlarge our understanding of Waitangi issues than most previous writing on the subject.


K R Howe is Associate Professor of History at Massey University, specialising in New Zealand and Pacific history.


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Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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