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The unknown power of the Maoris

Want to learn about respect for indigenous peoples? Go to New Zealand.


[new meeting] Recently I flew to New Zealand for the first time. As soon as we landed, I knew I had come to an unusual place. At Christchurch airport, visitors are greeted with signs welcoming English and Maori.

During the opening reception of the literature festival I attended, an official stood up and gave a long welcome speech in Maori. To me, it was even more surprising that a number of white people in the congregation nodded approvingly or chuckled every now and then – they obviously understood what he was saying.

When he finished, he gave his speech in English. He then told that the Maori culture from ancient times was an oral culture, and when the pakehaes (Europeans) came, the Maori thought that they had no special use for the written word, because the stories lived on by being told orally or sung. Now they have changed their minds. They appreciate the benefits of written literature – how it can be disseminated and lived on without a physically present narrator. When he sat down, a white New Zealander stood up and gave a long speech in response. In Maori.

I had drunk a glass of wine – and my tongue slipped in my admiration and amazement. I came to think of the only similar speech I had heard in Australia. By then, the head of Australia's Cultural Council, a white woman, had dutifully mumbled a recognition for the Eora people (Sydney's indigenous people) when she said that in Sydney "we stand on the land of the Eora people". Not a single person from the Eora people was to be seen, and not a word of the Eora language was uttered, or understood.

But here in New Zealand, a quite different relationship between the white settlers and the original islanders has emerged. So different is it that whites use the Maori word – pakeha – to denote themselves. By using the Maori word, they see themselves from a Maori point of view, an attitude that is completely unique among colonial masters.

The Maori are said to have come to Aotearoa (New Zealand) from other Pacific islands on a small fleet of canoes around the year 1000 BC. The whites settled there from 1830 – about 40 years later than in Australia – and there were no convicts among them. Due to concerns that settlers "bought" land directly from the Maori

owners, and that the French were planning to settle there, the British government initiated the Waitangi Agreement in 1840.

About 500 Maori chiefs signed, while 540 refused to sign. In return for access to land, the Maori wanted protection from local settlers without scruples and for the many iwi (Maori communities) to be guaranteed autonomy and mana (power). This agreement is considered something of a constitution for the nation.

In Wellington I went to look at it in a separate room at the National Archives. It is a long, worn sheet with neat loop writing in brown ink and columns where the chiefs were to sign. In the dim light I was moved by the signatures: Most were marked only with an X or a small, spiral symbol.

No word has more power when it comes to invoking a law, whether to hand over or make amends, than such a text of the constitution.

No matter how much the chiefs perceived at this time, this document is the basis for hundreds of millions of dollars being distributed to a number of iwier (Maori communities) in cases involving land claims. And that's why both the grandparents and the Maori have something to rely on when they so justly share "the land of the long white cloud", New Zealand.

Anna Funder is a writer, lawyer and author

of book Stasiland. She lives in Australia and writes exclusively for Ny Tid.

Translated by Ingrid Sande Larsen

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