A Letter From Our New Zealand Correspondent
Two Days in November
New Zealand’s colonial-settler history and heritage, the WASP factor as it were, is ever-evident. It isn’t just the dominant strain in Pākehā (white) culture – the Crown, the English language, the semi-official status of the Anglican church, the adoption of the Westminster parliamentary system and much more. There is also the flip side of the coin, the aboriginal status, with its legacy and current racial-discriminatory problems and their manifestations, of Maori, whose arrival on the islands actually predates that of the English by some hundreds of years.
Central to this story is the Dispossession arising from the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi between the Crown and a large number of tribal chiefs. The deep and long-lasting effects of that dispossession continue but are today being addressed politically through, critically, the Waitangi Tribunal and political concession to a renewed Maoridom.
Every year in New Zealand, two days in November within, as it were, ‘sight’ of each other, bring it all home.
On the fifth of November, we have the large-scale celebration of Guy Fawkes day. Presented as fizzing fireworks fun for kids it of course under the surface remains an exercise in seventeenth-century English sectarian Protestant anti-Catholicism, a relic and hangover of the WASP colonial culture.
On November eighth, there is something else: the marking of the effective birth of what would become the Maori-Christian Rātana Church. The church was formally established separately from its Maori-Methodist origins by TW Rātana, a Maori (Methodist) farmer in the province of Taranaki in 1925. It has its origins in its founder’s claimed and famed visionary-religious experience on 8 November 1918 at his homestead and commemorated annually since. News of the vision and of his claimed healing powers attracted a large following among Maori. The homestead became a settled community, Rātana pā, and headquarters of the Rātana Church.
This year the event marked the centenary of TW Rātana’s first visionary-religious experience.
Rātana Church is also a Maori political organisation, a religio-political movement. Coinciding roughly with the established of his church Rātana also launched his movement as a political body. In this dimension, it is a story of attempted Maori communal renewal with its origins in the early twentieth century and the then condition of the almost terminal decline of Maoridom. The highpoint of Rātana, the church, the man and the political movement, came in 1936 with an alliance with the Labour Party negotiated with the Party’s then leader and Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage.
While the movement has been enormously influential before the Savage/Rātana deal and since it did not quite spark the envisioned great renewal (which has in fact been the story of Maoridom).
‘Guy Fawkes’ is now an embarrassment in what is a secular and multi-ethnic and cultural society. There is a growing understanding of the underlying sectarian character of the event, the nonsense of a continuing with a celebratory seventeenth century sectarian English Protestant event in the New Zealand public calendar.
There is also for fizz-bang lovers and kids an alternative with a growing following: Matariki, the Maori new year festival (which occurs in the depth of the Southern Winter, late June, a good time for firework fizzes and squibs and bangs).
In addition, though, there is today fundamentally a noticeable renewed Maori renaissance. Maori culture is increasingly respected. There is a large group of MPs, across the full party spectrum, in parliament, and in government. There seems also to be a language renewal. Maori have voice as never before in New Zealand.
Much of this is attributable to the enormous influence and impact of the Waitangi Tribunal. It was established in 1975 to hear and inquire into claims brought by Māori relating to Crown actions which breached the promises made in the Treaty, and to make recommendations to government for restitution.
In its work and historical research, the tribunal has also finally awoken in Pākehā society both an understanding of Maori culture and the consequences its own harsh dispossession of Maori, especially through the latter part of the nineteenth century. There is even a growing (if still small) support for a national annual commemoration of the Maori Land Wars, in a sense a day of Pākehāatonement for the large-scale seizures and thefts by white colonists and their governments of land from Maori during the nineteenth century. Taranaki is one of those places most affected by seizure and dispossession.
The entire ‘Waitangi’ episode especially rankles with Maori. Treaty terms were on any reading disavowed over more than a century by settler-colonial society and its governments. Without going into the complexities of the history Maori saw the treaty as creating a partnership with the Crown, indeed with Queen Victoria personally. What Maori saw differed from how settler society (and its governments) saw it all – which was “we won, you lost and now we own it and you don’t.” The apogee of this view was undoubtedly the decision and remarks of the then Chief Justice of New Zealand, Sir James Prendergast, in 1877 that the Treaty was “worthless” because it had been signed “between a civilised nation and a group of savages who were not capable of signing a treaty.” Since the treaty had not been incorporated into domestic law, it was a “simple nullity”. New Zealand’s version of Australia’s terra nullius.
The case at issue, Wi Parata v The Bishop of Wellington, centered on a dispute between a tribe, Ngāti Toa, and the Anglican Church. The tribe had given the church a land block on the understanding a school would be built on it. No school was built and the church later made a Crown grant to the land. The case, the outlook, the decision, the dicta of the judge have echoed down the decades. They defined the official attitude and Pākehā culture literally for a century. Prendergast still has his followers. Parata, as it happens, was a leading member of Ngāti Toa as well as being its counsel in court.
Through the dispossession, various attempts at renewal, renaissance, and insurrection and civil disobedience, at political action came and pretty much wilted and went in the face of the power of the Pākehā State. Maori society rotted in its dispossession in poverty, disease, alcohol, brutality, social disintegration and collapse and self-abasement. The language all but disappeared. One small fragment, the haka, somehow was adopted by the national Rugby team. Quite how I don’t know.
And then came Rātana.
There are aspects of Maoridom today that I have to say I find hard to take. There is, despite the fact that most Maori are today town and city-dwellers disconnected from their iwi (tribes), the continuing dominance politically of the tribal elders and chiefs and the related structures. These are based in the (now rural and remote) homelands and their marae (the communal meeting grounds and associated buildings at the heart of every tribe or sub-tribe). It is a ritualised, stratified and highly deferential system and way of life. It is pre-modern. Within the undoubted renewal, the tribal structures and representative bodies such as the various Iwi Leaders’ Groups, the Iwi Chairs Forum and the likes of the Waikato-based Kingitanga movement (Maori King movement) predominate and control. All with their insistence on deference in the name of the respect that must be paid by all to tribal leaders.
There is also within these bodies and their frankly, camp-followers in the rural, tribal communities, what one is tempted to see as a kind of inverted apartheid worldview. And there are some inter-tribal tensions (usually sparked by land in the Treaty settlements).
Further, accountability of the tribal leaders and their entourages and chosen ones in respect of the management of the very big Waitangi restitution settlements appears minimal – but it is disrespectful to ask questions or press for transparency. How much resource flows to the alienated Maori individuals and communities living in ghetto-like conditions in public housing in the towns and cities (or indeed in the rural townships of Northland) or entirely marginalised is a question.
Rātana was not the first – or indeed the most radical – Maori movement of renewal. Nor can it be said to have been transformatively successful on behalf of Maori. However, it has survived – and achieved political influence with the Pākehā State and its establishments far above and beyond its weight. It survives and seemingly thrives (it is quite secretive in its internal life). Today, twice a year, on 5 November and 25 January (TW Rātana’s birthday) the cream of the New Zealand’s political establishment, led by the Labour Party, descends in November and January onto Rātana pā, walks into the pā and pays homage.
Labour once was Rātana and Rātana for much of Maoridom, Labour. The 1930s four Maori seats in parliament were pursued and eventually all won by and for Rātana. Rātana and Michael Joseph Savage (an Irish-Australian labor radical) made a deal and the Rātana Church and the Rātana political organisation became within the Maori constituencies indistinguishable from Labour. Maybe it took an Irish Australian Red to achieve this.
The symbiotic relationship was lost around 2004 arising from the seabed and foreshore ownership dispute (another story in itself of disruption and separation). But now it is back. The Arderne-led, Labour-led government has worked hard at this and has remade the relationship.
I am neither a ruralist-tribal in my orientation nor am I a religious Christian acolyte. Yet I have a view, that Rātana is preferable in its historical record to the chiefs and their mini-aristocratic entourages and naturalistic spirituality and all that goes with it.