The Maori Struggle for Land and Life

Written by John Schertow
Thursday, 02 October 2008

ImageTheMaori People of Aotearoa (New Zealand) are now standing at acrossroads, forced to choose between sovereignty and colonialism.Within the recent Maori settlement program, the government offers largesums of money and small fragments of land. In exchange, the Maori areexpected to give up their independence and become New Zealand citizens.Recent history shows that the New Zealand government is more thanwilling to use intimidation and violence to control and assimilate theMaori.

The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi between the Maorileadership and the colonial state resulted in massive land seizures andviolence against the Maori. The current land claims process is arenewal of this tragic legacy of repression. One major differencebetween then and now is that in the past the Maori refused to let go oftheir sovereignty -- always maintaining they did not intend to cede it.We can see that's true, given that the original treaty "does not usethe Maori word for 'sovereignty,' kingitanga, or even the Maori wordfor 'independence,' rangatiritanga." Kevin Jon Heller, a law professorat the University of Auckland in New Zealand, points out:

[T]heBritish had to have known that the Maori did not intend to cedesovereignty to the Queen. In 1835, the British and the Maori had signedthe Declaration of Independence, in which the British guaranteed thatthe Maori chiefs would maintain sovereignty over their land. TheDeclaration made use of all three of the words that are at the heart ofthe dispute over the Treaty, with the British translatingrangatiritanga as "independence," kingitanga as "sovereign power andauthority," and kawanatanga as "functions of government." How thencould the British have honestly believed a mere five years later — withmany of the same British officials present at the signing of bothdocuments — that Article 1's use of the term kawanatanga, as opposed tokingitanga, meant that the Maori were giving up their sovereignty?

Inretrospect, we can assume that belief had nothing to do with it. Afterall, New Zealand has never acknowledged the original treaty as anythingbut 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:

TheChiefs of the Confederation of the United Tribes of New Zealand and theseparate and independent Chiefs who have not become members of theConfederation cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely andwithout reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty which thesaid Confederation or Individual Chiefs respectively exercise orpossess, or may be supposed to exercise or to possess over theirrespective Territories as the sole Sovereigns thereof.

Inany case, "the question is now moot," says Heller. "New Zealand courtshave long since given up trying to determine the "true" meaning of theTreaty. Now they — and the Waitangi Tribunal, which makesrecommendations to the government concerning Maori grievances — simplyapply the so-called "Treaty Principles" [which are based on the Englishtreaty]."

Heller's right to say it'smoot, but the New Zealand government's insistence is little more than adesperate plea. They simply can't afford to respect the Maori version,which would be an admission that they committed fraud, would could inturn de-legitimize the state, or at least force them to acknowledge theMaori's rights. The only thing would be expected to do to avoid thiswas 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 ofthe Maori leadership is doing just that.

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

Photo by Simon Oosterman

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