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NZ’s Maori Cultural Heritage Is ‘The New Frontier’

NZ’s Maori Cultural Heritage Is ‘The New Frontier’

On UN Day for Cultural Heritage, Race Relations Commissioner calls for greater respect for Maori culture and contemporary relevance of Treaty of Waitangi

Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres says New Zealanders are still struggling to come to terms with the contemporary relevance of the Treaty of Waitangi, and its place in modern society.

Speaking at a dawn ceremony in Wellington’s Civic Square to mark the United Nations Day for Cultural Heritage, organised by the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO, Mr de Bres said our cultural heritage, like our natural heritage is in urgent need of protection.

He said we must all acknowledge that the colonisation of New Zealand was “a sorry litany of cultural vandalism”.

To Maori, the Treaty is a taonga, highly prized for its solemn promise.

“Regrettably…despite consistent Maori representations to governments and the British Crown, the Treaty was ignored, rejected and, as a final indignity, dismissed in court as a nullity,” Mr de Bres said.

“It was not until the landmark case brought by the New Zealand Maori Council in 1987 that the Treaty finally began to assume its proper place in modern jurisprudence.

“We are all still struggling to come to terms with this new and unfamiliar state of affairs.”

Mr de Bres argued that the Treaty of Waitangi could be seen as this country’s first legal agreement on natural and cultural heritage, and a precursor of the Resource Management Act.

The current parliamentary consideration of the Local Government Bill and the Resource Management Amendment Bill had ignited the debate over the Treaty’s legal relevance once again.

“When you combine the Treaty and the RMA, you have a powerful cocktail that can almost instantly reduce some public commentators to severe monocultural apoplexy,” Mr de Bres said.

“Someone said to me recently that New Zealanders are very opinionated about the Treaty, but very ill-informed. The current catch cry is that we should settle historical grievances as quickly as possible and then re-consign the Treaty to the history books.”

The point, Mr de Bres said, is that the Treaty will always have contemporary relevance.

But respect for the Treaty, and respect for Maori culture, was still wanting, he said. People complain of “Treaty fatigue” or accuse Maori of holding the country or private landowners to ransom.

This was illustrated by the media and political outrage expressed in three recent cases: the proposed replenishment of a beach on Auckland’s North Shore with sand from the Coromandel; the taniwha and Transit New Zealand; and the registration of a wahi tapu area over Kopukairoa Maunga in Northland.

Mr de Bres called for much greater respect and tolerance for issues that have spiritual and cultural significance for Maori.

“Let me make my own position clear. Taniwha are not a part of my belief system. ..What I do believe in is respect for cultures other than my own. .. If there is a conflict between cultures or beliefs, then we should not throw up our hands in horror or in mockery, but look for solutions and compromises,” Mr de Bres said.

“Real tolerance is hard. It requires us to respect and engage with people who have different beliefs, who challenge us, and who have the right to live their own culture.”

Mr de Bres said that in recent decades New Zealanders had become passionate about protecting and restoring what remains of our natural heritage. There are more than 6,000 historic places and historic areas on the Historic Places Trust register, and a backlog of hundreds of new applications. By comparison, there are only 63 wahi tapu and wahi tapu areas on the register of the Maori Heritage Council, and no backlog.

He called on all those New Zealanders who had fought to protect our natural heritage to now recognise that the protection of Maori cultural heritage, and the implementation of the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, was “the new frontier”.

Mr de Bres said this was the lesson for New Zealand from the Taliban regime’s wanton destruction of the priceless Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, which had prompted the United Nations to establish 2002 as the Year of Cultural Heritage.

“Let us…seek to understand rather than condemn without a hearing, to seek to negotiate if there is a conflict, and to respect other people’s cultures as much as we expect them to respect ours,” Mr de Bres said.

UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) is the United Nations organisation in charge of protecting, safeguarding and enhancing the world’s heritage. The 2002 Year for Cultural Heritage aims to raise international awareness of the importance of cherishing our varied heritage, both the treasures of our physical cultural heritage, and the intangible heritage of traditions and cultural practices.

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