Silencing a people, Diane Prince

Treaty Issues

The history of Maori is only beginning to be written, and the heroes and heroines of the Maori resistance of the past and the outspoken “activists” of the present have yet to be absorbed into the “psyche” of the white New Zealander. The key word in the Maori struggle is tino rangatiratanga (self-determination) – the ownership and management of tribal resources, the equitable sharing of political power (and not just through MMP), and the rehabilitation of Maori social structures at all levels of society.

It can’t be forgotten that, since the Treaty, Maoridom has become virtually a culture of resistance in order to survive, and because of its minority status is almost entirely dependent on the prevailing whim of the New Zealand public and its mouthpieces, the various political leaders. Taken as a whole, it would appear that the superficial measures the Crown has put into effect – to include the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi within government policies and the settling of claims – are merely attempts to deconstruct its colonial past. However, it is increasingly clear that the Crown’s desire to annul its colonial past has nothing to do with relinquishing the power it employs to maintain the status quo.

A major concern is that while whole Treaty claims are being heard by the judiciary, other arms of the Crown continue to dispose of whatever assets or resources the Crown retains. This is because of the Crown’s efforts to devolve its responsibilities in the public sector, as in broadcasting, and its efforts to be recognised as an influential player in an increasingly market-driven world.

The fact is that, despite Treaty claims that have been attended to, Maori are over-represented negatively in the economy and in the prisons. This didn’t evolve naturally from the reluctance and inability of Maori to adapt to new “market” conditions. This pattern was set last century by legislation subverting the economic and social fabric of the individual Maori communities.

The dream/myth of the fledgling New Zealand colony as a new egalitarian society was only made possible by “emancipating” the land of the Native in order to “emancipate” the lot of the white settler. And as the “liberating” egalitarian spirit of the white politician conceived a continuing cycle of legislation to eliminate the communal threat of the Maori, Maoridom’s communal response to the new conditions was unable to develop in an orderly, systematic way.

At first, for Maori, times were relatively prosperous. In fact, the Maori communal structures as they existed helped direct the transformation of the new colony, something only made possible because Maori owned the bulk of the land. Tribal labour was readily available, and the tribal structures were still intact.

At the same time, there was no need for Maori to offload their land, which was what the white land-squatters wanted. So judicial solutions were implemented and have continued until recently as the primary means of defining “land ownership” and converting a “communal culture” to an individualised Western one. These continuing legislative moves have rendered Maoridom vulnerable to the subversive economic forces of the time.

In 1911, for example, the Reform Party under Bill Massey won the election on the promise of transferring Maori land to European ownership, and between 1911 and 1912 three million acres of land were duly transferred out of Maori ownership.

Today although several major claims have been settled (amidst much controversy within tribes), the Crown still remains unwilling to debate the broader constitutional base which gave rise to these grievances in the first place.

Historically, the struggle for Treaty rights has always existed within the larger context of Maoridom’s need to regain that sovereignty. Conversely, we have seen the Crown’s repeated reluctance to comply with the contractual agreements of the Treaty in case such compliance might breach the walls of the existing power structures.

In 1923 Wiremu Ratana went to see King George V with grievances against the Treaty of Waitangi. He was roundly snubbed. In 1932 Ratana Members of Parliament presented a petition calling for the ratification of the Treaty, signed by over 30,000 people, to the New Zealand Government. It was obviously never actioned.

Maori participation in politics is only permissible at the lower levels. Leaders have to be approved by Cabinet. Consultation is highly selective, with carefully defined frames of reference. Negotiation is therefore highly suspect; nevertheless, the powhiri is performed on a regular basis to reaffirm the Crown’s “obligation” to Maoridom in the spirit of partnership.


At the public level, as the attempt to restore self-determination continues, Pakeha New Zealanders have responded in numerous ways. The most common response has been to imagine a Maori version of apartheid so that any attempt on the part of Maori to introduce alternative power structures in line with Maori expectations is dismissed as destructive – too radically like the once white racist policies of South Africa. Not that the call for self-determination is new. Political movements such as Kingitanga, Ratana and Te Kotahitanga arose with the mandate of their people to try and persuade the Pakeha to relinquish their control and honour the Treaty.

But if nations are moulded by the terms of their history, both Maori and Pakeha have defined themselves by their experiences of their colonial past. And, as the contemporary debate over Treaty rights has achieved a higher public profile, one increasingly hears Pakeha calling for Maori “to leave the past alone” (a popular slogan that) and “to get back to the real world”, and for government policy “to forget the Treaty because we’re all New Zealanders, mate.” Such reactions are merely modern-day derivatives of Hobson’s original “Now we are one people”; for Maori, the hidden message is the same: DISAPPEAR, BE ABSORBED.

Although the status of the Treaty has never been fully recognised by Parliament, it does articulate the political position of Maori and is seen as the constitutional covenant of Aotearoa. And after Maori rights to the common law were virtually extinguished, we have had to rely on the Treaty itself to resolve issues in court. As history has shown, Maori have gradually shifted the context from simply that of the land to that of access to resources: to the lakes, the rivers, the foreshores, the fisheries – and the language.

But for Pakeha, those who define themselves as New Zealanders, the view of the world they have had created for them has been carefully defined to maintain their own system of dominance – a position a great many seem reluctant to relinquish. And because we all live in a participatory democracy where the will of the majority prevails, the resolution of Maori issues is subject to the whims and prejudices of politicians who, to ensure their political survival, take cognisance of the whims and prejudices of the voting public. For Pakeha New Zealanders, Treaty issues strike unforgivably at the heart of their social order, which continues to define the parameters of Maori expectations and continues to legislate it into a pattern of economic dependency.

Historically, Maori calls for the resolution of Treaty issues have always been received as grotesque, as acts of hostility that threaten the nation’s ideological framework. After all, to write history is to claim victory over the “vanquished” and to claim victory is to claim origins of “discovery”, to claim ownership and control.

Maori have experienced the evolution and development of the white New Zealand psyche and the peculiar notion of nationhood that followed. The white male pioneer was, and still is, extolled as the heroic founding father of New Zealand. He believed that it was through his efforts alone that civilising New Zealand would be possible and that to achieve this it was necessary to create an artificial situation by dividing this little world into two camps. The pioneering hero could only come into existence by first creating a foe, then by condemning that foe, and finally by eliminating that foe. The foe, of course, was Maori. All this in order to assert and secure forever his own ascendancy. And the modus operandi was first to clear the area of the native foe (caricatured as grotesque) so that the pioneering hero could then transform the uncivilised native environment into an idyllic economic Eden.

Within this scheme, any resistance by Maori was portrayed as hostile and unpatriotic, because only the white pioneering hero could hold the monopoly on creating Eden. And, as the heroic creator of that Eden, he saw himself as the rightful owner who has now been transformed into today’s prototype of the authority figure, the respectable citizen who is the rightful heir to that pioneering dream. To complete the trompe l’oeil of civilisation, what was needed was the disappearance of Maori as a race. It was therefore necessary to break the strategies of survival that Maori had evolved and shove them out of existence.


One of the most effective ways to silence a people is to silence its heart, its memories, its intellectual base, to cut out its tongue. And so a concerted and rigorous campaign was launched to eliminate the Maori language. The loss of the land and the judicial removal of the Maori language were inextricably linked. During the early years of the colony, the Maori language had great commercial potential. Pakeha themselves had an incentive to learn the language because it was necessary to conduct land transactions in Maori. You could say it was the first language of commerce in this country. It had an economic purpose; it was useful.

But by 1867, when the number of white squatters had overwhelmed the number of Maori, an Education Act was brought in to overthrow the bilingual system of education that had existed in the missionary schools for the previous 20 years. By this means the Government planned to accelerate the disappearance of Maori as a social force. At the same time, four Maori seats were put in place to tranquillise us into thinking that the indigenous people were being treated fairly and squarely. It’s easy to see how they hoped by this sop to restrain Maori aspirations and defuse any political insurgency within the confines of “civilised” parliamentary debate.

By 1871, the Native Schools Amendments Act provided for the establishment of village schools with instruction in English only. By the 1900s, the authorities once more struck at the heart of Maori by forbidding the use of Maori in schools; and in 1908 the Tohunga Suppression Act was passed to further extinguish the spiritual heart of a democratic people. At the same time, however, the judicial system was sufficiently flexible to accommodate further land transactions and to allow documents to be read in Maori in the land courts.

By the 1960s, Maori were concerned at the rapidly declining number of Maori speaking the language, and in 1973 Nga Tamatoa agitated for the introduction of Maori Language Week. In 1975, the loss of the land and the loss of the Maori language became the focal point of the Maori Land March. For the first time, a collective show of unity and strength by Maori meant the Government had to start listening seriously to Maori. In 1978, the Maori Language Bill was introduced by Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan and was roundly defeated. Finally, in 1987, the Maori Language Act recognised Maori as an official language of Aotearoa. A victory? Or a temporary palliative? Language resourcing is still scarce and the protection of the language is far from guaranteed.

In 1998, the Waitangi Tribunal was critical of the Crown’s “slippage” in protecting the Maori language and of the removal of Maori language bulletins from National Radio. As well as shedding news bulletins, all current affairs programmes in Maori (a mere 45 minutes per week) were removed in a downgrading during the period 1990-1995.

Part of the background to this is that there is now a network of 22 iwi radio stations around the country. Te Mangai Paho, a government-appointed broadcasting agency, maintains that the scarce funding it receives should go into iwi radio stations rather than into the government-owned national broadcast networks. A low level of funding means that the Maori language, like our news, is being marginalised out of the mainstream psyche of the white New Zealander, making Maori language once more non-intrusive and therefore of no significance. Perhaps if all Maori workers were to speak only Maori in the workplace, production might be disrupted, and this might assist in making Maori a language of commerce once more.

Diane Prince is an artist of Nga Puhi, Ngati Whatua descent.

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Posted in Comment, Essays, Māori
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