By Karl Wixon
Like many other Commonwealth nations, New Zealand shares a colonial history recording the ‘discovery’ of territories by British and other European explorers.
Of course the inconvenient truth is that whilst they were crediting and applauding themselves for the discovery of new territories and naming them in their honour, those territories had in fact already been discovered, named, and were occupied by indigenous people. In the case of New Zealand, Māori already occupied the length and breadth of the land.
How many colonial stories unfold beyond that point share many common hallmarks – stories of war and genocide, disease, suppression, displacement, wilful destruction of economy, language, and culture, and the confiscation of lands – often played out with a colonisers view that such was being undertaken ‘in the best interests of the natives’.
No matter how you describe these histories, they are not pretty or a source of national pride, nor have the long term inter-generational impacts of colonisation gone away. However, how the New Zealand colonial story starts and finishes sets New Zealand apart from many other colonial stories. It is a story of agreement followed by breach, conflict, disagreement, uprising, and ultimately reconciliation and redress, with an ongoing modern story of growth and partnership. It is far from a perfect story – but compared to many there is a better contemporary story unfolding.
There will be numerous views on when and how this story started, but a sentinel moment had to be the signing of a Declaration of Independence by a United Confederation of 34 Northern Chiefs and British Resident James Busby in 1835. It called upon King William IV of Britain to become their ‘parent’ and ‘protector’ and asserted the independence of Nu Tirene (New Zealand) under the rule of the United Tribes of New Zealand, with chiefs retaining their sovereignty.
By 1839, 52 chiefs had signed the declaration, which was acknowledged by the British government. It was seen as a significant mark of Māori national identity and it was believed it would prevent other countries from making formal deals with Māori. However, our independent nirvana was short lived when the Crown changed its mind and decided a Treaty was needed to secure New Zealand Trade and the opportunity to exploit its resources and populate its lands and the threat of French colonies being established.
Te Tiriti o Waitangi, The Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 between representatives of the British Crown and over 500 chiefs of the Māori tribes, securing sovereignty in the eyes of the British, or ceding governance in the eyes of Māori, whilst promising Māori the right to self-governance and protection of treasured assets, whilst assuring Māori access to the same rights and privileges of British subjects.
Like most colonies what followed the signing of the Treaty was repeated breaches of it – promises and assurances made and not fulfilled, allocation of land and resources never delivered, endeavours to nullify it. This pattern remained for generations and some would argue still continues to this day.
The Great War and World War II were turning points in the relationship, when, having fought opposite each other in preceding generations; Māori and Pākehā found themselves fighting alongside each other, rather than against each other.
The exposure to a wider world beyond our shores and the bonds created by fighting alongside one another changed the paradigm. We went into the 1950s and 1960s with a booming primary sector economy and a new sense of New Zealand, rather than British, identity.
The post-war baby-boomers, the children of those soldiers, emerged into a different global world with new confidence and a new sense of injustice and justice. Alongside global civil rights and peace movements, the 1970s saw the rise of a Māori cultural renaissance and protest movement, in particular ‘Ngā Tamatoa’ from young well educated Māori who raised petitions on social issues and in 1975 initiated an historic land march led by Dame Whina Cooper that was a key catalyst in the Government’s subsequent establishment of the ‘Treaty of Waitangi Act’ and the commission of a Tribunal with the role of:
At first, the Tribunal could only hear claims about current government actions. In 1985, Parliament allowed the Tribunal to investigate events dating back to 1840 and that opened the way for kinship based ‘large natural groupings’ of Māori to file claims against the Crown for breaches of the Treaty.
The Tribunal has heard thousands of claims, issuing hundreds of reports, on a wide range of breaches, and continues to receive claims on contemporary breaches.
Some of the earliest large settlements that occurred in the 1990s have seen the rise of tribal entities as key players in the national economy.
1992 saw the transfer of commercial fisheries assets into a Māori Fisheries Commission which has seen seafood becoming the largest export sector for Māori, with over 50% of the Seafood Sector in Māori ownership.
In 1995 Waikato-Tainui was the first Iwi (large tribal grouping) to reach settlement with the Crown for injustices that went back to land wars and land confiscations of the 1860s. The Deed of settlement included cash and land valued at a total of $170m, which by the end of the 2023 financial year they have successfully grown to $2.2b in total assets and total equity of $1.77b.
The 1998 Ngāi Tahu Settlement also worth $170m has been grown to $1.78b in total assets to the end of FY2023 with $930m invested in tribal development.
2008 saw another major settlement and transfer of Crown Forests worth $161m in New Zealand’s Central North Island (referred to as the CNI deal) to a collective of tribal groupings.
These milestone settlements, and many others of varying nature and scale, have played a catalytic role in fueling a cultural renaissance and growth of a rapidly rising Māori economy that is the envy of many and is providing a model for others to emulate.
Māori success and confidence has overflowed into wider New Zealand where the use of Māori language is becoming commonplace and where Māori are admired for their innovation and success.
Whilst successive governments continue to generate periods of pain and gain, inter-generational tribal planning and aspirations continue and the emergence of a ‘post-settlement’ generation and a new era of nationhood is exciting and rich with potential.
The most exciting chapters of this story are yet to come, but in itself the sense that this is true is perhaps one of the most valuable outcomes of the settlement process, it raises hope, provides inspiration, and fuels aspiration.