Luke Fitzmaurice and Maria Bargh ask what the response to Covid might mean for tino rangatiratanga heading into this year 

“From a tino rangatiratanga point of view, we acted because we felt we had a right as a people to act. We didn’t have to wait for the government to instruct us to do something, it was instinctive in us.”

The quote above is from an organiser of a community Covid checkpoint established in Maketu during the first wave of the virus in April 2020. The checkpoints (more commonly, though inaccurately, referred to as “iwi checkpoints”) were part of a wider Māori response to Covid in the early days of the pandemic and drew on tino rangatiratanga as their primary justification.

But what exactly is tino rangatiratanga, how does it relate to the checkpoints, and what does it have to do with Te Tiriti o Waitangi?

Although it is central to our constitutional fabric, tino rangatiratanga is a concept about which many people remain unfamiliar. Protected by Article 2 of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, tino rangatiratanga translates loosely as “absolute authority”. Te Tiriti o Waitangi guaranteed Māori tino rangatiratanga over their kainga (villages), whenua (lands), and taonga katoa (all their treasures).

Taonga has a broad definition, encompassing not just tangible items but all the intangible treasures central to te ao Māori (the Māori world), including te reo Māori, health, education, tikanga (Māori values, laws and principles) and traditional Māori knowledge. Put simply, the guarantee in Te Tiriti o Waitangi of tino rangatiratanga promises complete Māori authority over all things central to Māori ways of life.

The fact that tino rangatiratanga remains poorly understood by many people is not because its relevance has diminished. Manifestations of tino rangatiratanga may have evolved, but traditional understandings persist. Rangatiratanga has never been abandoned and continues to be demonstrated by Māori in a diverse range of practices, from environmental management to education and a wide range of cultural practices.

Despite the Crown’s failure to uphold the guarantee of tino rangatiratanga inherent in Te Tiriti o Waitangi, Māori are actively engaged in practicing tino rangatiratanga and for many this is simply a fact of life.

The checkpoints demonstrated this in a number of ways. We spoke to several checkpoint organisers throughout the country (all of whom helped organise checkpoints during the Level 4 lockdown of 2020) as part of writing our book Stepping Up: COVID-19 Checkpoints and Rangatiratanga. All the people we spoke to drew on tino rangatiratanga as the primary justification for their actions.

Some used different terms. One spoke about mana motuhake (autonomy and self-determination) while others spoke about “just getting on with the job”, but all were describing the same underlying ideas. Tino rangatiratanga may take different forms in different places, but it is alive and well in 21st Century Aotearoa New Zealand.

Another lesson we drew from our conversations with checkpoint organisers was that tino rangatiratanga is not just vested in iwi. Te Tiriti o Waitangi was signed by representatives of hapū, not iwi, and the diverse range of Māori political groups remains important. While iwi certainly are a valid form of Māori political organisation, they are not the only form, and in some cases not even the most important one.

The checkpoints we examined were run by a combination of iwi, hapū and whānau-led groups, as well as confederations of multiple iwi in some areas. The popular label of “iwi checkpoints” is too simplistic – tino rangatiratanga can be expressed in multiple ways and all these ways are valid. The Crown has obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi to recognise Māori political authority in the forms Māori choose.

Tino rangatiratanga can be good for everyone. Māori responses to Covid have benefitted everybody, from the checkpoints to the vaccination campaigns, to the public health outreach initiatives, especially in isolated areas. The checkpoints may have been led by Māori, but in helping to keep Covid out of communities where they were set up, the checkpoints were of benefit to everyone.

The checkpoints are part of a wider effort towards the revitalisation of tikanga Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand society that has been underway for decades. As to what all of us, both Māori and Pākehā, can do to help this revitalisation, there is perhaps more than some people may assume.

Renowned Māori scholar Mason Durie has stated that the realisation of tino rangatiratanga depends on a number of factors working in tandem. These include constitutional change, legislation, government policy, iwi and hapū leadership, Māori social arrangements, and a shift in popular opinion. The latter is crucial and relevant for all of us.

Durie has labelled the sum of these factors “a climate within which opportunities for tino rangatiratanga are moulded”. We can all have a role in creating such a climate.

Associate Professor Maria Bargh (Te Arawa and Ngāti Awa) is from Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington' Te Kawa a Māui, School of Māori Studies.

Luke Fitzmaurice (Te Aupōuri) is a lecturer in law at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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