In 2017, film director Taika Waititi released a video for the Human Rights Commission, ‘Give Nothing to Racism,’ mercilessly satirising everyday racist behaviour in New Zealand. The next year in an interview in the UK, he described New Zealand as ‘the best place on the planet,’ but added, ‘It’s as racist as f***.’
Most recently, Waititi, described as ‘New Zealand’s hottest cultural export,’ released a new video, ‘Unteach Racism’ for local teachers. He addresses his eight year old self, describing the racism he experienced as a child, reassuring young Taika that he has a brilliant future, and paying tribute to two of his teachers who ‘untaught’ him racism, while teaching him to believe in himself.
In many ways Waititi reminds me of Eruera Stirling, also from Te Whānau-a-Apanui, one of the great orators and tribal experts of his generation. Like Taika Waititi, Eruera ‘gave nothing to racism,’ holding fast to a whakapapa-inspired vision of the past and the future of Aotearoa.
Over 20 years spent with Eruera and his wife Amiria, I witnessed the depths of whakapapa, and its generosity of spirit. As a small child, Eruera had been taught by the last tohunga of Kirieke whare wānanga (school of learning), a storehouse of ancestral learning.
Eruera always insisted on the need to acknowledge all of your ancestors, irrespective of race:
The old people told us, study your descent lines, as numerous as the hairs upon your head. When you have gathered them together as a treasure for your mind, you may wear the three plumes ‘te iho makawerau,’ ‘te pare raukura’ and ‘te raukura’ on your head. The men of learning said, understand the divisions of your ancestors, so you can talk in the gatherings of the people. Hold fast to the knowledge of your kinship, and unite in the brotherhood of mankind.
In his own whakapapa, a complex network of descent lines – from Scotland, from Kai Tahu and from Te Whanau-a-Apanui – were included, honouring myriad ancestors including his great-grandfather Captain William Stirling, the Scottish whaler after whom Stirling Point at Bluff is named
During my relationship with Eruera and Amiria, the fact that I was ‘Pākehā’ did not seem to matter. They took me into their world anyway, and in their letters, signed themselves ‘O tipuna’ (your grandparents, senior kin). Eruera’s vision of the world was expansive and inclusive, and ‘race’ existed only as something to fight against and detest.
As Taika Waititi has shown, and as many others know from bitter experience, ‘race’ is a mean-spirited, destructive habit of mind, based on denigration and exclusion. The concept has been declared scientifically obsolete, and its ugly colonial history laid bare. As the American Association of Biological Anthropologists observes
Classifying human beings into different races has never been wholly innocent [or] unbiased. The racial groups we recognize in the West developed in tandem with European colonial expansion …with well-documented histories of being shaped and structured by racial hierarchies, power inequities, economic exploitation, dispossession, displacement, genocide, and institutional racism…
The belief in races as a natural aspect of human biology and the institutional and structural inequities (racism) that have emerged in tandem with such beliefs in European colonial contexts are among the most damaging elements in human societies.
Over the past year or so, provoked by debates over ‘co-governance’ and associated flurries of racist vitriol, I’ve been thinking about ‘race,’ and non-racist ways of thinking. This prompted me to return to the original text of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, signed in 1840, in which Governor Hobson, various Rangatira, hapū, ordinary people and Queen Victoria exchanged promises about how local kin groups and incoming settlers from England and elsewhere might live together in New Zealand.
My involvement with Te Tiriti began in 1992, when I was asked by the Waitangi Tribunal to give evidence on Māori understandings of the Treaty at the time of its signing, for the Muriwhenua Land claim. For that exercise I worked closely with Dr. Merimeri Penfold and Dr. Cleve Barlow, friends and colleagues from Māori Studies and both fluent speakers of Northern Māori.
Merimeri, Cleve and I worked through the text of Te Tiriti in depth and detail, setting it in the context of life in Tai Tokerau in 1840. Among other things, we concluded that in Te Tiriti, the Rangatira had agreed to have a Governor, but that in Ture (Article) 1 of Te Tiriti, when they gave the Queen absolutely and forever all the ‘kawanatanga’ (Governorship) of their lands, they did not cede ‘sovereignty’ to the British Crown.
Recently, upon returning to Sir Hugh Kawharu’s classic translation of Te Tiriti into English, I was fascinated to find that this eminent anthropologist had come to the same conclusion. As he wrote in a footnote: “‘Kawanatanga’. There could be no possibility of the Māori signatories having any understanding of government in the sense of ‘sovereignty’: ie, any understanding on the basis of experience or cultural precedent.”
In the same way, when Merimeri, Cleve and I mused over Ture 2 of Te Tiriti, the Queen’s agreement with the Rangatira, the hapu and ‘nga tangata katoa o Nu Tirani’ (all the inhabitants of New Zealand) to the ‘tino rangatiratanga’ of their lands, dwelling places and all of their taonga, we realised that this was very different from the English draft of the Treaty.
Although Article 2 of the draft refers to the “full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates Forests Fisheries and other properties,” ‘taonga’ is very different from ‘properties,’ and ‘tino rangatiratanga’ is not at all the same thing as ‘possession.’
Rather, as Renata Kawepo protested to the Superintendent of Hawkes Bay in 1863, ‘Sir, our land is a rangatira, but now it is being enslaved, inasmuch as it is being sold for money. In the old days it was not sold.’ In He Whakaputanga, too, the Declaration of Independence, the Rangatira declared New Zealand to be ‘he wenua rangatira,’ an independent country, a chiefly land.
It is possible, then, that the Ture 2 promise of ‘te tino rangatiratanga o o ratou wenua’ refers to the rangatiratanga (chieftainship) of the ancestral territories and taonga themselves, as well as the people.
Sir Hugh also picked up on this point, translating ‘tino rangatiratanga’ in his footnotes as ‘trusteeship,’ not ‘possession;’ and noting that ‘’taonga’ refers to all dimensions of a tribal group’s estate, material and non-material — heirlooms and wahi tapu (sacred places), ancestral lore and whakapapa (genealogies), etc.’
Nor is there any mention of ‘race’ in Article 2 of the Treaty. Here, Queen Victoria promises ‘te tino rangatiratanga’ of their lands not just to the Rangatira and hapū, but to ‘all the inhabitants of New Zealand.’
Upon revisiting Ture 3 of Te Tiriti, furthermore, there is no reference to ‘race’ in this article, either. Rather, Queen Victoria promises to ‘tiaki’ (care for) nga tangata maori katoa o Nu Tirani (‘all the maori – ordinary, normal, indigenous – inhabitants of New Zealand’, and give to them ‘nga tikanga katoa rite tahi’ (all the tikanga exactly equal to) ‘ki ana mea, nga tangata o Ingarani’ (those of her subjects, the inhabitants of England).
In this promise, individual persons are distinguished, not as ‘races,’ but by their countries of origin. As persons, they and their tikanga are placed on an exactly equal footing. Again, Sir Hugh captures this in his translation, in which the Queen’s promise of equality is made alike to ‘all the ordinary people of New Zealand’ and to ‘the people of England.’
In 1840, it seems clear, the concept of ‘race’ had not yet been normalised in New Zealand. Rather, identity focused upon hapū, kin groups defined by whakapapa and active engagement, or one’s country of origin. From beginning to end, Te Tiriti o Waitangi is a non-racial agreement.
By way of contrast, then, when I recently read the 1987 ‘Lands’ judgment for the first time, it was startling to find the text of this canonical judgment riddled with references to ‘race.’ In the ‘Lands’ judgment, the Treaty of Waitangi itself is defined as a ‘partnership between races,’ or ‘between the Crown and the Maori race.’
As it happened, the ‘Lands’ case took place at the height of the neo-liberal experiment in New Zealand. In the 1986 State Owned Enterprises Act, the Fourth Labour Government had decided to transfer about 10 million hectares of land and other assets owned by the Crown to State Owned Enterprises [SOEs], government departments that were being corporatised and restructured as commercial enterprises. According to Section 9 of the Act, in this transfer the Crown was not permitted to act ‘in a manner inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.’
Fearing that once these ‘assets’ had been handed over to SOEs, they would no longer be available for Treaty settlements, the New Zealand Maori Council sought to test this provision in court. The Court of Appeal upheld their claim, ruling that before any transfer of Crown lands and other assets took place, it had to be tested for consistency with the principles of the Treaty.
In their judgments, Sir Robin Cooke (later Lord Cooke of Thorndon) and the other judges effectively rewrote the Treaty of Waitangi as ‘a partnership between races,’ ‘between Pakeha and Maori’ or ‘between the Crown and the Maori race,’ one that ‘creates responsibilities analogous to fiduciary duties’ and ‘requires the Pakeha and Maori Treaty partners to act towards each other reasonably and in the utmost good faith,’ in order to find a ‘true path to progress for both races.’
Here, the population of Aotearoa New Zealand is divided into two ‘races,’ Pākehā and Māori,’ and the Treaty of Waitangi is defined as a partnership between them, or between ‘the Crown and the Maori race.’ Like many other New Zealanders (including the judges, I suspect), I am so used to this kind of race-based framing that upon reading the judgment, I almost took it for granted.
Without Taika Waititi’s warning ringing in my ears, I might not have noticed it at all. Yet this binary distinction between ‘races,’ ‘Pākehā and Māori’, along with its linked counterparts ‘Civilised’≠ ‘Savage;’ ‘ ‘White’≠’Black;’ ‘The West’≠ ’the Rest;’ Science’≠ Superstition;’ ‘Kiwi’ ≠ ‘Iwi,’ lies at the heart of racist thinking in Aotearoa New Zealand.
As the American Association of Biological Anthropologists remarks, such race-based distinctions are scientifically invalid, and ideologically loaded: “’Race’ does not capture [migration] histories or the patterns of human biological variation that have emerged as a result. It does, however, reflect the legacy of racist ideologies.”
The idea of a Pākehā ‘race’ in the ‘Lands’ judgement, for instance, covers a history of diverse groups (including ‘African,’ ‘Asian,’ ‘Pacific’ and ‘European’) mixing, merging and migrating around the world, while a radical division between ‘Pākehā’ ≠ ‘Māori’ ‘races’ cuts across intricate exchanges of whakapapa through space and time.
If we are to ‘unteach race’ in Aotearoa New Zealand, it seems, we need to begin with Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Legal and statutory readings of this founding document (for instance, the 1975 Treaty of Waitangi Act, which defines a ‘Maori’ as ‘a person of the Maori race of New Zealand’) have retrospectively introduced ‘race’ into this non-racial agreement, and radically reframed it as a ‘partnership between races.’
In its own right, though, Te Tiriti is underpinned by a non-racial philosophy, one based on whakapapa. From a primal burst of energy, the winds of life and growth blow through the world and different life forms emerge, from the sun, moon, stars and planets to Rangi-nui the sky and Papa-tuānuku the earth, and their offspring, the forests, root crops, the ocean, the winds and tangata (human beings).
As human beings appear, whakapapa traces their migrations, settlement and alliances. It focuses on complex networks animated by exchange, rather than static binary oppositions; and is non-racial, constituting identities and groups through relationships based on descent, kinship, affiliation and places of origin, rather than racial polarities.
Since the Waitangi Tribunal was established in 1975, with knowledgeable elders deeply involved in its proceedings, its judgments have been shaped by these ways of thinking. By and large, the Tibunal’s reports stay close to the promises of Te Tiriti, often involving agreements with particular hapū and iwi to settle historic grievances over ancestral lands, forests, rivers and mountains.
These ‘co-governance’ arrangements include Te Urewera Act (2014), in which Tūhoe outline their vision for the future and their ancestral territories in te reo. Another is Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement Act) (2017), which includes a section in which the river iwi describe their kin relationships with each other and their river ancestor in te reo, and their vision of a restorative future. As many have argued, these and other collaborative arrangements work well, and hold great promise for the future.
Like these ‘co-governance’ innovations, cross-cultural experiments in the delivery of governance, education, the media, justice, housing, health and the like, and in relations with the living world also reflect the Queen’s Ture 3 promise of ‘nga tikanga katoa rite tahi’ (exactly equal tikanga). By bringing tikanga from Europe and elsewhere together with indigenous tikanga (right, proper ways of living), they also hold great promise for tackling otherwise intractable social and environmental challenges.
As Taika Waititi points out, however, the need to ‘unteach ‘race’’ is increasingly urgent. At present, the Government is involved in initiatives that, at least in part, seem to return to the old race-based dichotomies. Rather than ‘co-governance,’ these might be described as ‘parallel governance’ arrangements, which have not been subjected to scrutiny by the Waitangi Tribunal or other independent authorities.
These initiatives include governance structures that give literal effect to the ‘Lands’ case formulation of a ‘partnership between races,’ splitting ‘Maori’ from ‘the Crown,’ and ‘Maori’ from ‘Pākehā’ on a 50/50 basis, and a discussion of constitutional issues that excludes ‘non-Māori’ New Zealanders. This logically leads to the idea of a ‘bi-national’ state, split along ‘racial’ lines. Yet the idea of ‘race’, with its sharp-edged silos and its destructive colonial history, has no place in New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements for the 21st Century.
In a democracy, as on the marae, matters of collective interest should be decided by robust and respectful debate. The Government should stop trying to curate the conversation and force predetermined outcomes on constitutional matters, because this is backfiring. Exchanges based on racial framings provoke racist reactions; and questions that need airing are being swamped in a tsunami of racist abuse, foreclosing a proper (‘tika’) discussion.
In our small, intimate society, as Taika Waititi insists, we need to “unteach ‘race’’ for our children and grandchildren. What better place to start than by returning to the original promises of Te Tiriti, and its non-racial framings?
What better inspiration than the idea of gift exchange (tuku), and the chiefly generosity that runs through its text? As the saying goes, ‘Nā tou rourou, nā taku rourou, ka ora ai te iwi – with your food basket and mine, the people will thrive.’