New Zealand notes, #1

    I’m back in the US of A. On a beautiful mountaintop overlooking Los Angeles. Our family is gathering here for a short time to commemorate my mother-in-law, who passed away in mid-May.

    I finally have a faintly workable computer/internet setup, so I wanted to post at least the first of these screeds I wrote about New Zealand.

    Today, once again, we took a flight that crossed both the Equator and the International Date Line in one hop. I feel I’m in a time-warp but what the heck. The following was written on about June 27…

And so, what of New Zealand in the

We flew into Auckland, arriving really early on the morning of Friday,
June 17. We picked up a hire car and drove down (up?) to Taupo, a
small town near the geographical middle of the North Island.
We stayed there for a week with my sister Hilly and her partner, who
living in Taupo for this year. They chose this small lakeside
town because my Aunty Margery– the only remaining member of our
family’s older generation– has lived there for many years and is now,
at 87, living in a nursing home near the center of town.

On June 25, Bill and I left Taupo and drove east and a little south to
town called Napier on the North Island’s east (Pacific) coast. After
two days there, we drove 200 miles south to Martinborough.

It’s my first visit to Aotearoa/New Zealand. I grew up in England
in the 1950s and 1960s, and the general view of NZ that I’d obtained
then was that it was “a more perfect England”, trapped somewhere in the
genteel reaches of the 1920s. Actually, though you can definitely
still catch whiffs of that image here today, much of the country isn’t
like that at all. Starting with its geography: the portions of it
that I’ve seen are far more dramatic than anything you can see in
England, with sharp escarpments, starkly configured volcanic hills and
mountains, steam rising from geothermal features in many places, and
lots of heavy, near-tropical vegetation including distinctly un-English
flora like tree-ferns, long drapy vines, and yuccas.

The culture also seems in many ways un-“English”…

There is a refreshing
attempt at revitalizing and validating Maori culture here which makes
New Zealand, in my experience, almost unique among the former Anglo
colonies. Okay, maybe I should mention the
parallel and in many ways much more complex processes of decolonizing
multiculturalization underway in South Africa. But still, what
seems to me to be a very intentional and fairly successful embrace of
Maori-English biculturism– and this, in a context where Maoris make up
only something like 15% of the population– does make New Zealand quite

I remember some years ago, a residential conference I was involved
with in the northeastern USA invited one of the leaders of the
Parti Quebecois to its annual, weeklong session. She was a great
person called Monique Simard. “Face it,” she said in her
French-accented English, “we Quebecois are what makes Canada interesting— and even most
Anglo-Canadians would be prepared to admit that.” I don’t know
what proportion of Anglo New Zealanders– or “Pakeha” as they now
notably call themselves, using
the Maori word for themselves
— would
subscribe to a similar view that it is the Maoris’ insistence on
making/keeping this country bicultural that makes it interesting.
But I, for one, certainly believe that to be the case. In an era
in which “minority” cultures (and all the many wisdoms encapsulated in
them) are becoming extinct in many parts of the world, and in which the
massive bulldozer of Anglophonia is running rampage over so many
non-English cultures of all varieties, I think it’s really
admirable to see a group of Anglophones who seem to be making a sincere
attempt to help rescue a non-Anglo culture from what, just a quarter of
a century ago, reportedly looked like a near-certain path towards
extinction. It’s great to be able to learn of the Maoris’ many
successful efforts at cultural preservation and revitalization; and to
see both peoples making the accomodations necessary to find a way to
make biculturalism work in this tiny country of four million people.

How does this commitment to biculturism manifest itself? Well, at
a most obvious level, through the names of places and
institutions, and the use of the two languages, side-by-side, on much
public signage. Apparently the
vast majority of Maoris live in the North Island; and Taupo and the
places around it that we’ve been to so far have fairly heavy
concentrations of Maori inhabitants. Anyway, it’s been impressive
to see the high proportion of Maori place-names and street-names; and
to see public signs in which the Maori language is incorporated as a
matter of course. In spoken communications, I’ve heard people (of
unknown ethnic origins; or of apparently Pakeha origins) use a couple
of common Maori words quite un-self-consciously: “Pakeha”, and
“Kia-ora”, which means “welcome”.

But those things are only on the surface. There has evidently been a
lot more going on at a more fundamental level, including a number of
notable (if still far from complete) attempts to restitute to the
Maoris some of the rights to land and other natural resources that were
expropriated from them by the Pakeha governments over the whole
150-year period from 1830 through 1980.

The main vehicle through which these restitution attempts– and the
whole broad attempt to “re-educate” the Pakeha regarding their rights
and responsibilities towards the Maoris– have been conducted is
through the deliberate attempt to bring back to life a
key “treaty” that some Maori chiefs were (in effect) duped into signing
in 1840, called the Waitangi Treaty. One of the problems in this
Treaty was that the Maori-language text had apparently been doctored by
the Anglican clergyman who produced it from the
original English text– with a view to making the Maori text more
“persuasive” to the Maori chiefs.

Several scholars in recent times have pointed to the existence of
significant differences between the two texts. In particular,
Clause Two of the English text speaks of the Maoris retaining, “the
full, exclusive, and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates
Forests Fisheries and other possessions… so long as it is their wish
and desire to retain the same in their possession” (and that when this
is no longer their desire, they should sell them only to the British
Crown.) The Maori text of this clause, however, informed its
readers that the Maoris retained the right to exercise “tino
Rangatiratanga”– translated into English as “the unqualified exercise
of their chieftainship”– over their “lands, villages, and all their
treasures”, with sale in this text, too, specified as being possible
only to the British

Well, whichever way you translate it, it is evident that the Treaty of
Waitangi was broken massively by the British side over the century and
a half that followed. The British authorities expropriated huge
tracts of the Maoris’ land and huge portions of their other natural
resources, in order to provide a basis for the settlement of all the
Pakeha colonizers who flooded into the country over the decades that
followed, and for the building of huge, Pakeha-dominated national
economy and national society in which the rights and interests of the
Maoris were almost completely marginalized. In the early decades of the
20th century textbooks published and used in New Zealand referred to
the Treaty as only a minor, “short-lived” document from the
long-distant past– one that had no continuing revelance into the
then-present times.

Maori uprisings, the organizaing of Maori petitions and protest
movements, never ceased. But the Maoris’ economic base was almost
completely cut out from under them. Social ills and medical
crises stalked
their communities. Nevertheless they continued to organize in
defense of their rights– including those rights that had been assured
to them under the Treaty of Waitangi. In 1975, they won an
important victory from the newly elected Labour government: this was
the establishment of a new Tribunal that would examine their many
continuing claims to the country’s land and other natural resources, in the light of the government’s
obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi

In its early years, the Waitangi Tribunal, as it is known, didn’t
achieve very much. But after the emergence, in the early 1980s ,
of a large nationwide movement in solidarity with the
anti-apartheid forces in South Africa
some of the Pakeha
participants in that movement started asking themselves seriously,
“Well, what about race relations at home?” These Pakeha started
re-examining their own community’s role in the marginalization and
pauperization of the country’s Maoris, and joined in a broad movement
to provide “Waitangi Treaty education” to all New Zealanders.
This project to provide a broad and morals-based re-education to almost
an entire national community can be compared with the growth of
“Holocaust education” in Germany since the 1960s…

Well, I’ve been reading an interesting (though slightly chaotic) book
about all this. It’s by Robert Consedine and Joanna Consedine;
and it’s called Healing our History:
The Challenge of the Treaty of Waitangi
. In addition to reading
that book, I’ve read a wonderful book that my sister gave me, Archibald
Baxter’s We will not cease, a
hair-raising account of the treatment Baxter got from the New Zealand
military authorities when he tried to maintain his right to abstain
from participation in World War I on firmly based grounds of
conscience. (They repeatedly tried to force him and his brothers
to wear the uniform. They shipped him to the front in France,
where they subjected him for many weeks to “Field Punishment No.1”, a
form of near-crucifixion, in harsh and snowy weather. They forced
him right to the front-lines.. Several of his fellow
conscientious objectors did not survive their ordeal.)

Well, Baxter’s tale made some somber but inspiring reading. I
think it refers to a fairly short period in NZ history when the
government wanted to be more hawkish even than Britain in its pursuit
of military adventures led by London. Luckily that is not the case today.
The present NZ government has notably refused to join its Aussie
neighbors in Tony Blair’s current dangerous flirtation with militarism.

… Anyway, back to the Maori issue. One night in Taupo we all
went to a really great Maori cultural evening, organized on a
commercial basis by Maoris living in nearby Wairaki. I think the
Maoris there had received some kind of a settlement from the government
in return for the government getting access to the huge steam pressures
built up in the local geothermal features… The
electricity-generation corporation– that was then a state entity–
built a huge geothermal-poiwered generating plant. The Wairaki
Maoris got what looks like a fairly nice group of houses and some
investment in community projects.

So now, these Maoris…

3 thoughts on “New Zealand notes, #1”

  1. Helena
    Congratulations on what seems to be an open-minded approach to judgement of our country. Just a couple of minor points:
    1) I don’t think there’s any particular significance to the prevalence of Maori place-names. I imagine most of them would actually have been bestowed by the settlers prior to the Maori Wars of the 1860’s – and at that time the settlers were only just a majority. The country always belonged to the Maori, even though they were very recent arrivals – you couldn’t just sail here in the early 1800’s and set up a farm anywhere you felt like, not in the North Island anyway. A delegation of tattooed gentlemen would have turned up very rapidly and asked you what the hell you thought you were doing on their land.
    2) My father-in-law was a “conchie” (conscientious objector) during the Second World War. Although he was imprisoned for a while, basically he wasn’t treated too badly – spent most of his time in work camps in healthy outdoor activity. (Probably why he’s still going strong at 98 years of age.) By 1940, the mindset that produced the excesses of Baxter’s experience seem to have been long gone.
    Looking forward to your further impressions.

  2. Helena- we enjoyed reading this overview and learning some of your reactions to the culture here in NZ. I hope that your meetings with the legal experts in Auckland were equally productive as we believe that much of the world can learn a great deal from the New Zealanders attempts at reparative justice and the support given to victims of crime.
    Come back again soon

  3. Monique Simard… said in her French-accented English, “we Quebecois are what makes Canada interesting– and even most Anglo-Canadians would be prepared to admit that.”
    Actually, having known many French and Anglo-Canadians (in addition to Pakistani and Hatian-Canadians), I’d say this statement is both factually incorrect and more than a little racist. There’s a great deal of cultural diversity within English Canada – compare the Maritimes, Ontario and British Columbia – as well as vitality and creativity. Likewise with Maori and pakeha in NZ; I’ve known both, and there’s quite a bit of vitality in both their cultures. I think that, to some extent, you may be conflating “less familiar” with “interesting,” which really isn’t the case when you dig below the surface. Anglo settler societies may be more familiar to other Anglos, but they’re certainly capable of creativity, invention and diversity.

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