Determining rangatiratanga, Filma Anne Phillips

Maori and the State: Crown-Maori Relations in New Zealand/Aotearoa, 1950-2000
Richard S Hill
Victoria University Press, $92.99,
ISBN 9780864736116


Aotearoa/New Zealand 1950-2000 now seems like a foreign country. Of course it isn’t an unfamiliar country, in part because the struggle between Maori and the state has continued, admittedly in different ways, undiminished. Richard S Hill, the author of this study of state policies and institutions, is the Professor of New Zealand Studies at Victoria University of Wellington’s Stout Research Centre. Hill is not only scholarly but also brave, because the story of that struggle is complex, controversial and harsh. It does not make easy reading.

An important principle in this book is the concept of rangatiratanga which the author interprets as “autonomy”. One of the stated aims in the book is to explore the complex organisational expressions of rangatiratanga/autonomy. The concept itself is intricate, and rangatiratanga might be regarded as a highly-charged term, depending where and in what context it is used. It is more usually translated as “self-determination”, but that distinction might have resulted in a different book. More importantly, rangatiratanga was often used as an empowering call for collective action and protest about state policies. Here the extensive discussion of rangatiratanga veers towards its most conservative interpretation, arguing that rangatiratanga in its organisational sense seldom implies unlimited power. Absent is any detailed discussion of the application of rangatiratanga today as compared with its usage in the Treaty of Waitangi. There is enormous merit in the historical examination of the concept in more recent times, and this book analyses the quest for rangatiratanga and the Crown’s responses 1950-2000.

Without question the subject is controversial, and the author strives for balance and analysis, occasionally at the expense of clarity. What does he think? Does he support Maori in their struggle or does he support the Crown? It is difficult for the reader to be certain, possibly because the binary oppositions such as the Crown and Maori, Pakeha and Maori, autonomy and assimilation constantly jump up and assert themselves.

The result tends to suffocate analysis and critique about the indigenous people of this country. It also hides the enormous achievements Maori made when they first responded to the call for rangatiratanga. One example in the book is the quotation from the brilliant strategist, leader and intellectual from Ngai Tahu, Tipene O’Regan. He defined rangatiratanga as “iwi in control of themselves and their assets in their own rohe”. The authorial voice intervenes and undermines this powerful statement. Hill observes, “Many agree with this perspective, whether or not they accept the argument that iwi were reinvented or boosted in the 1980s in ways which suited the Crown and/or capitalism.” Is the author being critical of the economic success of Ngai Tahu? Or, alternatively, is he supportive of the tribe’s enormous achievements? More analysis of the historical context of O’Regan’s statement might have modified this analysis. The Ngai Tahu journey towards prosperity was a calculated strategy over several years.

People of Ngai Tahu descent made immeasurable personal sacrifices to research the historical evidence for the claim to the Waitangi Tribunal. Their work must have carried conviction because the evidence showed how the Crown defrauded their ancestors. Despite the fact that the Ngai Tahu report of the Waitangi Tribunal was released in 1991, it still alarms and disturbs. As is well known, on the basis of that report the Crown and Ngai Tahu negotiated a settlement, and the tribe put their bold vision into play. Today the tribe is wealthy because they made considered choices – these facts would be familiar to the author. Not mentioned, however, is that the majority of Maori people not only applaud Ngai Tahu but also admire ministers of the Crown for the confidence they demonstrated in rangatiratanga. That initial optimism seems to have been gradually worn down.

Maori and the State is organised logically into chronological sections, and the themes of each chapter reflect the gradual shift in the way the Crown related to Maori aspirations for rangatiratanga. Hill is at his best when he looks closely at the beginnings of the movement towards autonomy during the 1980s. His comprehensive scholarship on the later decades is admirable because it throws light on the profound transformation in this country and the incremental steps that had to be taken to convince the majority that these changes mattered. It is important to remember that respective governments saw the necessity for change and stumped up with the cash for Treaty settlements. Not easy.

This is something all New Zealanders can be proud of, the way we decided we had to move away from the crippling legacy of colonialism and took active steps to make those changes happen. Of course, nothing is simple, and the final chapter of the book briefly considers drastic reversals such as the government reaction to the Court of Appeal decision in Ngati Apa v Attorney-General (2003), and how the government unilaterally stripped the right to legal action by the tribes to establish title to the foreshore and seabed. In these circumstances, it seems illogical to stick with the old oppositions of Pakeha and Maori when all the evidence points to something far more diverse and multi-textured.

Although this latest offering from Hill is rich in scholarship, I would have liked much closer editing and more critiquing of key organisations such as the New Zealand Maori Council. If the hand of the editor had been more in evidence, such clumsy
hyphenations as “Crown-Maori”, “lego–constitutional”, “lego–historian” (all on the same page) might not have been such a distraction. The editor might also have made certain that the endnotes did not become a stew of references, and have dealt to the acronyms that properly belong to a policy document, not a book.


Filma Anne Phillips, of Ngapuhi and Ngati Ruanui descent, has been a barrister and solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand. 


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