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Keith Rankin: Maori: colonised or colonist?

Maori: colonised or colonist?
Keith Rankin
9 November 2000

The "colonisation debate" in New Zealand suffers because too few non-Maori New Zealanders know our country's history, and too many Maori know how to exploit that historical illiteracy. The irony is that a film released this year, Feathers of Peace (by Maori director, Barry Barclay), has disseminated historical truths that are discomforting to Maori. The pity is that so few saw the movie.

The story of the Chatham Islands from the 1830s to the 1880s is one of conquest, holocaust, colonisation, legally sanctioned imperialism, and genocide. The Taranaki victims of Parihaka were, in the 1880s, landlords of the Chatham Islands; their descendants still are. The white feather emblem of Te Whiti was acquired from the victims of genocide.

I was likewise struck by the Ngati Whatua perspective on None Tree Hill (Maungakiekie). For the tangata whenua of Auckland, Maungakiekie is sacred to them because it was the site of a great battle 300 years ago; a victory that established the Tamaki isthmus as Ngati Whatua property. As One Tree Hill, Maungakiekie became sacred to Auckland pakeha for essentially similar reasons.

Maori, unlike pakeha, are not squeamish about the rights of conquest. Likewise, pakeha New Zealanders have not always been guilt-ridden. A late- 19th century pakeha court granted Taranaki Maori title to the lands expropriated from the Moriori, on the basis of the 'winner takes all' law of conquest.

Iwi took pride in lands gained by conquest. And they still cherish the acquisition of those lands. I don't agree that appropriation of land through battle is matter of pride; I am from a relatively pacifist late-20th century generation. Nevertheless pakeha should try to understand the Maori perspective of conquest and it's corollary, colonisation.

Maori failed to protect their lands in the 19th century mainly because of disunity, both between and within iwi. James Belich's interpretation (Making Peoples 1996) of 19th century New Zealand history is instructive. At least until the end of the 1860s, Maori generally thought that the settler militias were allies in their tribal wars.

The depopulation of Maori was well underway by 1840, in contrast to the impression given by Sandra Lee. The main culprit was the Maori arms race. Maori quickly learned the culture of free trade capitalism. And, like the Americans and the Soviets in a more recent era, they expended much intelligence in pursuing their rivalries towards mutually destructive outcomes. Pakeha "won" on account of their opportunism rather than their malice.

Maori respect conquest and the colonisation (ie settlement) that follows from conquest. These are not the issues that affect Maori today, although some Maori would like to perpetuate the myth that there are many outstanding grievances arising from British settlement. The issue that really matters today is the colonisation of Maori by a culture that individualises accountability and blame. This cultural invasion is ongoing rather than historical.

In a sense, the clash of cultures is being played out between two Maori women: Tariana Turia and Merepeka Raukawa-Tait. Turia represents Maori, whose traditionally more collective forms of accountability clash with an increasingly dominant individualism that arises from European culture. Turia links high rates of Maori crime, child abuse and economic disadvantage to this process of colonisation. Many pakeha, not tuned into her cultural wavelength, find her message discomforting. Cultural colonisation has cost huge numbers of Maori their voice, casting them into a Kafkaesque poverty trap, forcing them to incur debt and rely on social welfare benefits that abate almost dollar-for-dollar as their meagre earnings rise.

Raukawa-Tait, on the other hand, seems to have been well colonised. She adopts the extreme individualist perspective of western feminism. Child abuse is seen as a by-product of partner abuse, and is assumed to be always caused by the bad behaviour of individual men. This, despite that fact that almost all of the high profile cases of child abuse to surface this year have been perpetrated by Maori women. In emphasising the individual accountability of Maori men, Raukawa-Tait has become the voice of Maori that politically correct pakeha feel comfortable with.

Of all the gaps to emerge in Aotearoa in the 20th century, one of the biggest is between Maori and Maori, between poor Maori and rich Maori, between the incompletely colonised Maori underclass and the well-colonised Maori middle- class. Like born-again Christians and ex-smokers, middle-class Maori proselytise the values they have acquired, putting an expedient spin on their history in the process.

Prominent Maori of the 19th century were warriors, and colonisers of Maori and Moriori. Those Maori who, in the 20th century have absorbed the mores of pakeha law and pakeha individualism, are as much a part of the contemporary colonisation problem (of the 'gaps') as are pakeha. The gaps will not close until the problems of exclusion that define the underclass are addressed. The abuse of Maori children is systemic, and cannot be resolved by rooting out a few individual perpetrators.

Maori are not the victims of New Zealand's distant past. Those Maori who are victims are victims of the present and the near-past. They are as much victims of inequality within Maori as of inequality between Maori and pakeha. Disingenuous historical grievances distract us from addressing the real sources of disadvantage among Maori.

© 2000 Keith Rankin


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