New Zealand: The Maori Struggle for Land and Life

The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi between the Maori leadership and the colonial state resulted in massive land seizures and violence against the Maori. The current land claims process is a renewal of this tragic legacy of repression. One major difference between then and now is that in the past the Maori refused to let go of their sovereignty — always maintaining they did not intend to cede it. We can see that’s true, given that the original treaty "does not use the Maori word for ‘sovereignty,’ kingitanga, or even the Maori word for ‘independence,’ rangatiritanga." Kevin Jon Heller, a law professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, points out:

[T]he British had to have known that the Maori did not intend to cede sovereignty to the Queen. In 1835, the British and the Maori had signed the Declaration of Independence, in which the British guaranteed that the Maori chiefs would maintain sovereignty over their land. The Declaration made use of all three of the words that are at the heart of the dispute over the Treaty, with the British translating rangatiritanga as "independence," kingitanga as "sovereign power and authority," and kawanatanga as "functions of government." How then could the British have honestly believed a mere five years later – with many of the same British officials present at the signing of both documents – that Article 1’s use of the term kawanatanga, as opposed to kingitanga, meant that the Maori were giving up their sovereignty?

In retrospect, we can assume that belief had nothing to do with it. After all, New Zealand has never acknowledged the original treaty as anything but a ‘courtesy.’ The real treaty, they say, is the English translation they drew after the original. This version, of course, plainly states the Maori ceded their rights:

The Chiefs of the Confederation of the United Tribes of New Zealand and the separate and independent Chiefs who have not become members of the Confederation cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty which the said Confederation or Individual Chiefs respectively exercise or possess, or may be supposed to exercise or to possess over their respective Territories as the sole Sovereigns thereof.

In any case, "the question is now moot," says Heller. "New Zealand courts have long since given up trying to determine the "true" meaning of the Treaty. Now they – and the Waitangi Tribunal, which makes recommendations to the government concerning Maori grievances – simply apply the so-called "Treaty Principles" [which are based on the English treaty]."

Heller’s right to say it’s moot, but the New Zealand government’s insistence is little more than a desperate plea. They simply can’t afford to respect the Maori version, which would be an admission that they committed fraud, would could in turn de-legitimize the state, or at least force them to acknowledge the Maori’s rights. The only thing would be expected to do to avoid this was to make it into a non-issue, and then pray the Maori buy into it. As we can gather from the recent wave of settlements, a vast number of the Maori leadership is doing just that.

Fortunately, there are still some tribes who refuse to let go of their history, and of their ancestors’ resilient will. Such is the case with the Whanau-a-Takimoana tribe. The Takimoana recently formed an independent government, reaffirming that "east coast tribes did not cede sovereignty to the British Crown in 1840, and so the New Zealand government has no legal right to rule them," Aotearoa IMC reports.

Te Whanau-a-Takimoana was an autonomous tribe of the independent northern East Coast territory of Aotearoa, which held complete sovereignty over the rohe before 1840. The Te Tiriti o Waitangi ki Te Tai Rawhiti (Maori version not English translation) signed at Rangitukia on June 1, 1840 was the prevailing treaty between Takimoana and Queen Victoria and Article 2 of the Tiriti did not cede sovereignty.

"It is about exercising our constitutional and sovereign rights, to attain a full measure of government over our territories including our foreshore, seabed, inland waterways, territorial seas, fisheries and airspace, to promote our own well-being, to put an end to the crimes and abuses committed against us by the New Zealand government, marginalisation of our human and property rights, the exploitation of our natural resources, to promote authentic biculturalism, social progress and better standards of life for all New Zealanders" said Tamati Reid of Rangitukia.

Kaumatua [Elder] and Justice of the Peace Bob Kaa further adds that this ‘could be the catalyst for a major shake-up of New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements.’

New Zealand’s Greatest Fear

You can be sure the government trembles at the thought. After all, it strikes to the heart of New Zealand’s greatest fear: the Maori coming together and reclaiming what is lawfully theirs. That means there’s really no telling how far the government would go to stop this "shake up", especially with last year’s "anti-terrorist" raids still so fresh in their minds.

Mirroring the police suppression at the reclamation of Takaparawha in 1978 and that of the Tuhoe settlement of Maungapohatu in 1916 — on October 15, 2007, police raided dozens of houses throughout Aotearoa, arresting 16 Maori sovereignty activists and outside supporters.

The October 15th Solidarity website explains:

The raids were the culmination of 18 months of surveillance, including phone, cellphone, vehicle and other bugging. The Police alleged the 16, and others, had been involved in what they called "terrorist training camps" in the mountainous Urewera region in the North-East of the North Island, in the area known as Tuhoe Country, after the Maori iwi (tribe) that lives there. The Police have suggested that some or all of the arrestees were planning a bombing campaign and other attacks designed to advance the cause of independence for Tuhoe Country from the New Zealand Government.

Prominent Tuhoe activist Tame Iti was the first arrested at his home at 4am Monday morning. At 6am raids were carried out at A Space Inside anarchist social centre in Auckland and the 128 activist Community Centre in Wellington. In Tuhoe Country, the towns of Ruatoki and Taneatua were blockaded by armed police for several hours, with all cars leaving and entering being searched and their occupants photographed, and many houses and people searched and questioned.

Over the next couple of weeks, the arrestees were moved from one prison to another, keeping them distant from their families, communities, and support networks. Eventually, four of them were granted bail while the others waited to be tried in court.

Just prior to the hearings, the Police announced they would apply to the Solicitor-General to lay terrorism charges against 12 of the 16 arrestees. During the two days of hearings, two more prisoners were granted bail, leaving just 10 of the 16 in prison – two women and eight men.

Then, on November 8th, New Zealand’s Solicitor-General announced that he could not allow the terrorism charges to be laid because of insufficient evidence and a lack of coherence in the legislation. Soon after this, the remaining 12 were released from jail.

While all 16 are now out on bail, they still face multiple charges and potential prison sentences under the Arms Act, and trials could still be years away, with tens of thousands of pages of evidence to be examined. In the meantime, many have non-association orders preventing them from interacting in any way with some of their closest friends, while others have strict curfews and have to report multiple times per week to the Police. Some of the prisoners had virtually everything they own confiscated during the raids, some lost their homes, and the emotional and financial impacts on their families has been immense.

It’s seems doubtful that the New Zealand government will try something like that any time soon, thanks in large part to the solidarity efforts of activists and indigenous peoples around the world. However this may not matter, given that New Zealand’s goal — like that of Canada, America and Australia — is not to crush indigenous resistance but to weed it out through the gradual process of assimilation. In this process, the heavy hand is used to ‘help things along’, but the rest of the time (at least nowadays) it’s all about the gentle stroke of a pen — and the kind words of someone acting like a long lost brother.

If the assimilation process is allowed to advance as freely as it now is (through the land claims settlements), then it won’t be long before the Maori disappear into the colonial landscape – forever acting like "players in a market driven philosophy centered on wealth creation rather than the health and well being of Maori communities," as Maori activist and lawyer Annette Sykes recently pointed out. 

The same can be said for Indigenous Peoples in other colonial centers. For that reason, there’s a great need for activists around the world to rally around efforts like the Takimoana’s new government, and support those who refuse to sacrifice everything for a mediocre, unsustainable life.


You can find more articles by John Schertow at his blog, Intercontinental Cry

Photo by Simon Oosterman