2019 09 – News from New Zealand

A Letter From Our New Zealand Correspondent

Feargus O’Raghallaigh

Settling scores … or not …

Here is a colonial, anti- and post-colonial story of today from New Zealand.

Pania Newton is a New Zealand lawyer and political activist. She is also true Maori and identifies strongly with her ethnicity. She is of a new generation of Maori, young, bright, ambitious and educated. Yet she was born and grew up in a tribal/clan setting near Ihumātao, a once-rural but now urbanising area southwest of Auckland City and rapidly being absorbed into the massive sprawl the region has become. The airport is nearby and suburbia keeps on marching.

Maori at and associated with Ihumātao, are members of a tribal complex based on the Waikato-Tainui tribe (in te reo, Iwi). They seem also to see themselves as special, the descendants of the first Polynesian voyagers to reach and settle in New Zealand. They are not alone in laying such claim. There are other tribes too that claim likewise in their own voyager stories and foundation myths. In the Ihumātao (Waikato-Tainui) tribal voyager narrative however, they claim to have been in continuous occupation of the lands around Ihumātao since the ocean-going canoes, having navigated the Pacific, landed centuries ago. The archaeological evidence today of a long-term occupation is strong.

From the mid-nineteenth century Tainui were, they say (and they were), pushed and pressured from their extensive communally-held lands in greater Waikato; marginalised, robbed and reduced time and again by the Crown, the colonial (planter) government and the Auckland municipality; and forced to withdraw and retreat to a backwater region of Waikato, what is now known as King Country.

Today what Ihumātao once was is history though the memory lives among the tribal families and with it the idea of retrieving and restoring guardianship over these lands (‘guardianship’ is an important idea in Maori culture). Their story of dispossession, robbery and discrimination is an entirely reasonable representation of events since 1863 (when the coloniser seizures in this area of New Zealand began).

Five years ago Pania Newton had graduated law school and was on her way to her first job as a professional lawyer when she and others of her extended family heard of surveyors pegging out in Ihumātao fields (‘paddocks’ in NZ English), reminders of that once upon a time community but now (and long) in private Pakeha private ownership. The lands actually were now in the hands of Fletcher (the country’s biggest builder). The pegging was to lay out a new, large housing development (Auckland has a severe housing shortage with land and property values bubbling).

Newton abandoned her incipient career and began a campaign to have the development stopped, the lands bought by government and handed back to Maori guardianship to become a sacred site in memory of what once was. She and her fellow protesters were ignored. Further, it emerges, the chiefs and elders of her tribal grouping had done a deal with Fletcher (who were fully sensitive to the history of the place but also need vitally to develop the site). A portion of the lands would be handed back to Waikato-Tainui; the scale of development would be reduced; and a proportion of the development would be set aside for social or affordable housing. Pania Newton and her associates were actually going against their chiefs and elders.

Two points.

First, the Maori tribal leadership system is based on people acknowledging and owing respect, honour and frankly, obedience to the leadership (the chiefs and elders, always men). Newton’s action is an affront to tribal leaders, an assault on their mana, a concept difficult to translate into and convey the sense into English (and western culture) – it enwraps owing honour and loyalty to your leader (who is wrapped in mana). Pania Newton has confronted and broken with this tradition, cast it aside for western-style ‘identity’ protest. She is of her tribe and identifies but has broken with the tribal leadership. This is suddenly a tribal dispute.

Second, Ihumātao is happening in an important context. Newton is Waikatao-Tainui; she and her family have high standing in the tribal complex; and the extended family is apparently aristocratic within Tainui, loyal to Kīngitanga, the King Movement, one of the most important political forces within Maoridom. This is a dispute within the highest levels of Maoridom.

From the mid-nineteenth century there was an attempt to create among all of the tribes a grand alliance owing loyalty to an elected Maori king, the King Movement or Kīngitanga. It never got beyond North Island and within North Island never really progressed beyond Waikato. The paddocks of Ihumātao are in a sense at the northern fringe geographically of King Country and the writ of the Kīngitanga. And Pania Newton is part of all of that – except that she is also in effect Europeanised. The idea of protest, even against her chiefs and elders, is in her blood too.

The problem is that there is a chasm between the chiefs and elders and indeed the new generation on the one hand and on the other the average Maori experience of life: urban, dislocated (from tribe), with low educational attainment, hooked into gangs and drugs, patches and so on and on.

In the meantime what of the government? Well it has stood back – and back and back. This for Labour (the leading party in government) is internal to Maori. For the PM, no’wt t’ do with me mate.

Meanwhile Pania Newton is discovering the true nature of politics, cruel, blood and in the NZ context, mana, above all, mana.

Mana: prestige, authority, control, power, influence, status, spiritual power, charisma – mana is a supernatural force in a person, place or object. Mana goes hand in hand with tapu, one affecting the other. The more prestigious the event, person or object, the more it is surrounded by tapu and mana. Mana is the enduring, indestructible power of the atua and is inherited at birth, the more senior the descent, the greater the mana. The authority of mana and tapu is inherited and delegated through the senior line from the atua as their human agent to act on revealed will. Since authority is a spiritual gift delegated by the atua, man remains the agent, never the source of mana. This divine choice is confirmed by the elders, initiated by the tohunga under traditional consecratory rites (tohi). Mana gives a person the authority to lead, organise and regulate communal expeditions and activities, to make decisions regarding social and political matters. A person or tribe’s mana can increase from successful ventures or decrease through the lack of success. The tribe give mana to their chief and empower him/her and in turn the mana of an ariki or rangatira spreads to his/her people and their land, water and resources. Almost every activity has a link with the maintenance and enhancement of mana and tapu. Animate and inanimate objects can also have mana as they also derive from the atua and because of their own association with people imbued with mana or because they are used in significant events. There is also an element of stewardship, or kaitiakitanga, associated with the term when it is used in relation to resources, including land and water.