Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Once Were Warriors

Having been to the far south of New Zealand I thought it only fair to make my way to the far north as well. Unlike the South Island, which was sparsely inhabited by Maori, this has always been the Maori heartland. To this day the region is home to the highest Maori concentration in the country and is an essential stop for anyone wishing to try and understand the two sides to New Zealand. I find it useful, when thinking of New Zealand, to compare it to Australia. Of course they vary markedly in size and geography, but their recent histories share many similarities that do make such comparisons meaningful. Both were inhabited by indigenous populations that were isolated from the rest of the world until their contact with Europeans in the 18th century (not 100% true for the Aborigines of the Top End who traded with the Makassarese, but good enough as a generalisation); became British colonies; indigenous people were greatly dispossessed by the colonists; gained independence in the early 20th century; economies are mainly based around primary resources (mineral for Australia, agricultural for New Zealand). Yet despite these similarities there are glaring differences between the two, most notably with regards to their indigenous peoples.

Australian and New Zealand road signs share a common design, but instead of kangaroos you have kiwis, and instead of wide, flat, limitless expanses you have volcanoes.

The Australian Aborigines were a fragmented people, speaking over 300 languages, divided into small tribes, and technologically very primitive, having remained hunter-gatherers. The Maori, on the other hand, were relatively unified (not that they didn't have regular inter-tribal wars), spoke a single language throughout the islands, and were technologically more advanced, having brought long-distance sea-faring and agricultural skills with them when they arrived to colonise around 1200AD. Thus they were not only in a stronger position than the Aborigines when the world came calling, but they were also far more receptive to new ideas and technologies. Particularly influential were the three R's: writing, religion and rifles. At that time New Zealand was also a lesser concern for Britain's colonialist ambitions, which were stretched thin by Australia, India and the Americas, amongst others. So when the French started breathing down their necks in the race for Maori influence the British cobbled together a treaty which they put to the Maori chieftains at Waitangi.

The Treaty of Waitangi is a seminal document. It is at once seen as being the birth of the modern nation of New Zealand, but also the first time a European colonial power treated with an indigenous people on terms resembling parity. Nevertheless the Treaty was for a long time highly controversial. It was drawn up by Captain William Hobson, the British consul, who was no lawyer, familiar with contracts and precise language. Secondly, though written in English, it was translated into Maori. Over one long night a priest and his son who had lived in New Zealand for several years and were fluent in Maori were tasked with the translation. Although undoubtedly skilled, they were no trained translators. Furthermore there were numerous words in the English version that had no direct equivalent in Maori, yet whose meanings were of prime importance: sovereignty, governorship and property (for a more detailed discussion on the differences in interpretation read this). So when the chiefs finally agreed to sign up to submitting themselves to British overlordship, to become British citizens, answerable to, and protected by, British laws whilst being vouchsafed their customs, rights and lands, it was to the Maori text that they looked. It is unlikely that these differences were deliberate, nevertheless the English wording was used by the whites to expropriate more and more Maori land until soon they had become a marginalised underclass.

The official Maori flag (created in 1835 for the first unification of Maori tribes) flying at Waitangi.

It wasn't until the latter stages of the 20th century that attitudes to Maori began changing from superiority and contempt to understanding, acceptance and pride. Now the more egregious abuses of the Treaty are being looked at and rectified through a public commission  Maori language and culture is taught in most schools (many of which even have their own hakas - for those of you unfamiliar with haka it is a traditional Maori war dance, performed as a challenge - check out the All Blacks performing theirs below and see why they make fearsome opponents), and people are proudly claiming Maori ancestry, even when it is tenuous at best. Even the official policy of portraying New Zealand as a multicultural country has been scrapped in favour of biculturalism, firmly putting Maoridom on an equal footing with British heritage (at least on paper). It is great to see a culture being rehabilitated and regaining its deserved prominence. And it is safe to say that although Maori life will, and can, never be like what it once was, it is moving forward, embracing change and stronger than ever.


Lost in Bucharest said...

My contact with NZ has been limited. My understanding was that the Maori side of things (present everywhere) was more some kind of branding (racist in essence, as it's based on white man's use of exoticism), rather than an acceptance and cultivation of biculturalism (which may be something very recent only).

In other words - "Look, we're exotic, not just a British spin-off like our bigger neighbor".

Do you think this is far fetched?

Erik said...

I admit there is a certain amount of that, and of course in the South Island you won't get much real Maori exposure. However I do feel that there is a genuine desire to cherish and nurture Maoriness (which isn't necessarily what Maori traditions were like back in the day, but to bring it forward and make it relevant), at least amongst our generation.

How that is then packaged to visitors and tourists is another matter, and it's often hard to capture those nuances in a souvenir or marketing campaign.

The rehabilitation of a culture takes a long time, but I certainly feel that the Maori are getting there, whereas for the Aborigines that's not on the horizon.

[I didn't get to meet him, but there's quite an active member in CS in Wellington who is really proud of his Maori heritage (traces his lineage back to Maori nobility) and yet looks totally pakeha.]