Beyond Treaty illiteracy, Richard Hill

Healing Our History: The Challenge of the Treaty of Waitangi
Robert Consedine and Joanna Consedine
Penguin Books, $29.95,
ISBN 0141004487

The Treaty of Waitangi and the Control of Language
Richard Dawson
Institute of Policy Studies, $29.00,
ISBN 0908935552

I have recently been reading a number of books by populist writers who denigrate the Treaty of Waitangi and everything it represents, past, present and future. Turning to the two texts under review took me into territory not only infinitely more pleasant, but also more cerebral. Both works share a common aim of examining key aspects of New Zealand’s past as a contribution to the debate on our “national identity”. In particular, they seek to assist in developing a more harmonious and less homogeneous society, one in which Maori will no longer be sidelined. They thus form part of the “inclusive” portion of the Treaty publishing industry, contributing to what Richard Dawson calls an “ethic of reciprocal openness”. Such books “celebrate difference”, in stark contrast to the mean-spiritedly monocultural impulses underpinning the literature of “anti-Treatyism”.

While anti-Treatyists trade on nostalgia for a past that never existed outside official policy, one in which Maori had assimilated to mainstream Pakeha culture, Dawson and the Consedines aim to elucidate a central New Zealand experience: the “coercive” marginalising of indigenous culture by the dominant power structures after 1840. Dawson’s Control of Language situates, for an academic and policy-making audience, the meaning of words firmly within cultures and their institutional structures: armed with an understanding of words as “[p]rincipal tools of negotiation concerning the use of sovereignty”, those engaged in the “process of negotiation over the control of force” will be better able to contribute to the emergence of a truly bicultural nation. His aim is to influence outcomes through informing the policy-making processes. The authors of Healing Our History, in contrast, seek to educate a general Pakeha audience about the past, and to suggest practical ways to assist in enhancing the post-Maori Renaissance reconciliation between the majority cultures of Aotearoa/New Zealand.


Both books, their different purposes notwithstanding, argue that social justice can be progressed by exploring knowledge in ways unconstrained by the narrowing conventions of traditional disciplines. Dawson conducts an erudite examination of crucial processes and issues in “legal-economic” operations, focussing particularly on interpretive conflict and privileging in Treaty discourse. His chosen arena, then, is that of “the academy”, although “academic” publication has (alas, a sign of the times?) not precluded spelling and other errors and inconsistencies slipping into the text.

The Consedines believe in “[e]ngaging both the head and the heart”, and their book is readily accessible to and relatively reliable for a general readership. The problems that professional historians will find are greatly outweighed by its many virtues, including its style of interweaving, say, personal testimony and international context. Both books under review presuppose that people of goodwill can be “empowered” by acquiring knowledge from those who have dissected New Zealand’s past and present from a “race”/power relations perspective, and illuminated the injustices endemic in those relations. It was no accident that when I attended the Wellington launch of Healing Our History, I rediscovered old friends from social justice struggles going back over several decades.

Long dedicated to such issues and highly experienced as a Treaty educator, Robert Consedine entwines “stories” of the Treaty relationship with stories from his own “personal journey”. From Irish/Catholic working-class childhood to a highly successful Treaty workshop business, his account is one of “integrating the personal and political”. His investigations into matters central to (but often erased from the memory of) the New Zealand experience has led to a fervent desire to share his insights and dreams. Readers sharing Dawson’s preoccupation with language will note a Consedine lexicon of words (“validating”, “honouring”, and so forth) embodying that respect between cultures which he sees as the appropriate response to the “challenge of the Treaty of Waitangi”.

For Dawson, the intimate relationship between social control and language is so central to this challenge that a “different form of cultural life requires a different language”. Looking back, he sees that contesting sovereignties “involve attempts to control and maneuver (sic) language”. The words used during the “legalised dispossession” of Maori cloaked the reality of that process, whose end results are today’s adverse social indicators. In a system based on inequality, policy involves structuring that inequality, and when the rule of law is invoked, the question is: “Whose rule of law is it?” If the law’s words and underpinning concepts are attuned to both of New Zealand’s main cultures, he implies, the pattern of socio-economic distribution will become, at very least, less unfair.

Flaws in both books do not greatly diminish their value. The Consedines’ religious sentiments will jar with those of us who believe that assessing people’s actions “regardless of their cultural background” does not require belief in a divine being. Indeed, the history they discuss illustrates, as they are aware, that religion can constitute one of the mechanisms coercing indigenous people. Such qualification aside, the major values they espouse (and the things they reject, such as collective guilt) are so crucial for attaining a national identity rooted partly in socio-cultural justice that one can happily concur.

Dawson tends to subvert the norms of his own “academic” terms of reference, employing for example a minimalist approach to textual and conceptual linkages (including between various greater or lesser claims about the importance of language). This might assist keeping readers alert, but sometimes interpretive help and elaboration would have encouraged a more appreciative or convinced response. Thus, while words can indeed mask legislation’s role as an “element in enshrining … resource appropriation from the subjugated”, it remains unclear as to whether words can transcend their role as media of communication and themselves be coercive. In the absence of expansive discussion, the cart is seemingly put before the horse in passages such as: “continued [Maori] absence of control with regard to language meant a continued absence of control with respect to cultural change”. But again no matter, for Dawson’s text forces us to ponder the relationships between language, power, culture, and perception, and that is a valuable – albeit difficult and fraught – service to perform.


Attempting to reverse social and linguistic conditioning among Pakeha, both books point to enormous hiatuses in New Zealand’s educational curricula, thus feeding into the debate resparked by James Belich’s recent comments on silences in current school offerings. So vast is Pakeha ignorance of Maori culture, in fact, that the Consedine workshops initially segregate Maori and non-Maori participants. (Some of their generally supportive constituency will get decidedly uneasy about this and other matters, such as their unproblematised use of concepts like “cultural safety”.) The stakes in terms of New Zealand’s future are so high that Robert Consedine can sound like an old-style evangelist in his analyses of wrongs and his sweeping remedies. Dawson’s recommendations are generally more specific, particularly a Treaty of Waitangi Language Forum to encourage “a common language system” to emerge from dialogue between representatives of Maori and Pakeha cultural/linguistic paradigms.

That and, more broadly, an implicit call for full and frank scholarly debate. And here the signs are positive. Since the mid-late 1980s so many “inclusivist” books on Treaty matters have emerged that perhaps it is time to cease calling them “revisionist”. Hopefully, one day, after a full political and social addressing of the types of issues canvassed in the books under review, there will be no need for such a profusion of Treaty-based publishing. Perhaps “inclusivist” scholars could then progress to other things which also profoundly shape our lives – such as class, that other matter which, like racism, was once widely believed not to exist in “God’s own country”.

When a book from the Institute of Policy Studies can aver that policy-making concerns who decides “who can coerce and to what degree”, there is cause for optimism about scholarship investigating the structures that control our lives. Dawson, moreover, usefully calls on scholars to make explicit their own value judgements, one possible way of avoiding collaboration with the mechanisms of coercion by “unreflective” adherence to the (non-impartial) norms of their disciplines. Still, for Healing Our History to argue that if “the same level of job losses had been experienced by Pakeha” as by Maori during Rogernomics, “it is unlikely the reforms would have been allowed to continue”, indicates that even in the world of historical revisionism there is quite some way to go before the dynamics of class and capitalism are understood.


Meanwhile, through a meaningful Treaty partnership New Zealand can move towards a “unique national identity” that can help restore the (not entirely undeserved) reputation for social progress that prevailed before the “right-wing revolution”. Fortunately, many writers now conscientiously address what the Consedines call the “legacy of Treaty illiteracy” which New Zealanders have inherited. Their daughter/sister, whose death forms an integral part of the Consedine “story”, wrote in a time capsule when she was a teenager: “By the year 2000, the New Zealand government and people must have moved and be honouring Te Tiriti O Waitangi.” They had – perhaps inadequately in pace, substance and even direction, but sufficiently that in an international context one can reasonably assess that New Zealand is doing well. One might even, with some justification, hope that the two works under review better express the aspirations, however inchoate, of most New Zealanders than do the mean-minded, fear-based works of anti-Treaty “exclusionists”.


Richard Hill is Director of the Treaty of Waitangi Research Unit at the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies, Victoria University of Wellington.


Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category