Study Web Award

The Treaty as the Basis of Protest

Jennifer Lee '99 (English 27, Spring '97)

Though subject to interpretation, it goes uncontested that the Treaty spells out the terms of Maori relations to the state. The question now is to what extent it is applicable in modern day New Zealand society and, if at all, on whose terms it should be actualized. Therefore, the position the government chooses to take on the question of Maori sovereignty and the degree to which it recognizes its deviations from those stated standards is directly related to the Maori population because these decisions dictate state policy towards the Maori minority. Undeniably, the policy of the New Zealand government regarding the Treaty of Waitangi has changed many times since its signing - from a flagrant disregard during the Pakeha/Maori Land Wars in the nineteenth century to a grudging and often stagnated and highly contested progress towards its fulfillment in the present. But change did not come to New Zealand as a result of Pakeha enlightenment. Much of the progress that has been made towards this end has been due to Maori activists demanding that the state honor the promise of Maori sovereignty. Much of the result, however, has been the state slowly moving towards its promise of governorship instead.

In general, the evolution of Maori rights in keeping with the treaty has paralleled the development of an activist Maori tradition within the Maori community. As the Maori have seen their lifestyle threatened by an ever encroaching Pakeha culture and watched as their socio-economic status has slid into despair, they have also witnessed an apathy on the part of the state to honor the Treaty which pledges to uphold their proud legacy. They have found themselves strangers in their own lands, subordinates to an alien race. There is a real fear among Maori of losing all that is Maori about them. In response to this kind of popular sentiment, Peter Tapsell, a former Internal Affairs Minister, made the comment to the New York Times: "New Zealand Europeans, and I am not saying this in a bitter way, are peasants. That's how it is. What we have here is aristocratic Maoris and peasant Europeans. Really, that's a problem."

So, on the one hand, the Maori are striving to ameliorate their situation within the greater New Zealand society, and on the other hand, they are distancing themselves from all that which carries the taint of Pakeha creation. In the name of justice, there appears to be two movements, one of social equity and peaceful coexistence and the other of sovereignty and vengeance. But these are not mutually exclusive. Even as the establishment of a sovereign Maori state has become a hot issue in recent times, for most Maori, especially the 150,000 Maori living in urban areas without tribal affiliations, talk of sovereignty is a means of pushing the government to fulfill the terms set down by the Treaty rather than a revolutionary independence movement to create a modern Maori state governed by Maori customs and law. For these Maori, I believe, the desire to attain equality in social standing, to level the playing field so that Maori will have an equal chance at succeeding in Pakeha society, is the most immediate concern.

And indeed, it is a pressing concern. In practically every single category, there is a considerable gap between the Maori average and the Pakeha average.

While improvements in some areas are noted, the contribution of socio-economic factors to poor health remains high. Two-thirds of Maori people occupy the two lowest socio-economic classes, a figure that is over twice that of the non-Maori group; at the 1986 Census, 14.9 per cent of the Maori labour force were unemployed compared with 5.8 per cent of the non-Maori labour force; 60.1 per cent of the unemployed Maori labour force were under twenty-five years of age; the most common income group for Maori males in the full-time labour force at the 1986 Census ($10,001-$12,500) was half that of non-Maori males ($20,001-$25,000).

From this perspective, it is obvious that the terms of the Treaty are not being met. Well-being, while not specifically mentioned in the document, is directly implied in several parts. As a report by the Royal Commission on Social Policy points out,

Article II obviously refers to the ownership and management of such resources as land, forests, fisheries and villages. Given the relationship of people to that environment the Article must also be concerned with economic and social issues and with the many factors that contribute to wellbeing. The relationship is even more evident when due weight is given to the notion of ŽChieftainship' and the responsibility that entails for the care and welfare of all sections of the community.

In one sense, in Article Three of the Treaty, the Maori are granted the rights of citizenship in a sovereign state wherein all citizens are equal. But the Maori are not enjoy "equality", as they stand inferior to the Pakeha in so many ways. In another sense, however, the very existence of the Treaty gives the Maori special status in New Zealand society. But, similarly, that status as tangata whenua, indigenous people, certainly has not amounted to much either.

In addition to social welfare, protests about the state's interpretation of the Treaty also center around land. Here the rhetoric of sovereignty manifests itself in Articles One and Two wherein the Maori are promised "chieftainship" or at the very least "full exclusive and undisturbed possession" of their lands. The reality, however, is that over the 150 years since the Treaty was signed, the Maori have largely been dispossessed of their tribal territories and today can lay claim to only 3 million acres of land compared to the 63 million in Pakeha hands. For the Maori, as for all indigenous groups, land is the foundation from which their societies are built and their identities created, and to be alienated from ancient tribal lands as most Maori are is in clear defiance of every article in the Treaty. Indeed, history will show that in almost every case, Maori land was not sold by free will; rather, as activists cry today, the land was stolen by the Pakeha and now it is time for justice.

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