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Kiwis Can Be Proud of Maori Claim Processes

22 November 2005

Kiwis Can Be Proud of The Maori Claim and Settlement Processes
Says Historian Michael Belgrave

Kiwis can be proud of the Maori claim and settlement processes, says historian and Waitangi Tribunal expert Michael Belgrave, the author of Historical Frictions: Maori Claims & Reinvented Histories (Auckland University Press).

Associate Professor at Massey Albany and Waitangi Tribunal researcher for 18 years, Belgrave says inquiries and settlements have always been important in dealing with conflict in the present, allowing adjustment to the changing relationship between Maori and the state and keeping alive Maori customary relationships.

“Our ability to transform the past, particularly before the courts on a regular basis, is a positive aspect of our history, even a safety valve allowing an adjustment between New Zealand’s first two waves of migrants”.

>From this perspective the Waitangi Tribunal, still highly controversial for many, is actually less radical than is often supposed and is only the latest in a long series of commissions and courts to have grappled with crucial issues of contemporary political, legal and social significance to all New Zealanders.

What has been new in the last two decades is the attempt to reassess New Zealand’s race relations past against interpretations of the Treaty of Waitangi that have themselves been radically revised over recent decades.

In Historical Frictions, Belgrave also explores the way that the meanings of the Treaty of Waitangi and ‘claim settlements’ have changed over time and successive commissions of inquiry, using examples such as the Ngai Tahu, Taranaki, Muriwhenua and Chatham Island claims.

His intimate knowledge of the Maori claim and settlement process began in 1987, when as a young historian he moved, reluctantly, to Wellington to become one of the first Waitangi Tribunal researchers.

“Professionally, this disinclination came from a belief that the Tribunal’s new jurisdiction would make for uninteresting history. Land deeds and court decisions appeared a dull window into New Zealand’s past.”

But, he now admits, he could not have been more wrong.

“The issues uncovered by the Tribunal’s inquiries are among the most complex and challenging for any historian. Understanding what happened and why in this troubled but creative relationship between government and Maori is not straightforward.”

What made these arguments and the past even more interesting was the legal and political context in which they were presented.

“At one level it was necessary to understand just how history could be made and remade before judges and tribunals, but at another level it was an introduction to applied history, where the issues were often part of public debate and the consequences meaningful not just for contemporary race relations, but for the material well-being of the claimant groups who were taking their grievances to the Tribunal.”

The Waitangi Tribunal was and remains one of the most controversial of New Zealand’s government institutions, whose work is as much misunderstood as it is championed or demonised.

“As many of the historians, counsel, claimants and tribunal members themselves worked through these claims”, says Belgrave in the preface to Historical Frictions, “we were privileged to look back on our history in a way that seemed fundamental to key issues about the way New Zealand should deal with its past and, more important, the place of Maori in our society.”

Historical Frictions: Maori Claims & Reinvented Histories by Michael Belgrave (Auckland University Press assisted by the Ministry for Culture & Heritage) will be launched by celebrated historian Judith Binney on Friday 25 November, during the NZ Historical Association Conference, The University of Auckland.


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