The Treaty of Waitangi and the va between Māori and Pacific peoples in Aotearoa, New Zealand

February 04, 2021



OPINION: By Dr Melani Anae, Associate Professor Pacific Studies, University of Auckland

I was asked to write this opinion piece to address the question “Should more Pacific people in New Zealand and elsewhere take an interest in the Treaty of Waitangi?” My answer to this question is unequivocally ‘Yes!’ and I’ll explain why.

 At a community forum held in November 2006 on ‘The Pacific and the Treaty’, a panel of Māori and Pacific speakers presented a variety of views on the Pacific and the Treaty of Waitangi including legal issues and Māori-Pacific relations/expectations over time and for the future. This discussion generated much debate on issues such as sovereignty, pan-Pacific perspectives, the influence of changing Māori and Pacific demographics, Māori-Pacific relations, the ‘place’ of Pacific in New Zealand and Aotearoa’s identity as a nation.

At this hui, I was immediately reminded of the Treaty of Waitangi Forum organised by Anew NZ in 2004. This was a series of three addresses with discussion on some of the crucial issues facing Aotearoa New Zealand. 

At these sessions we talked about our hopes and dreams for better migrant relations for the future;  we covered similar ground in our united call for more understanding of the complex issues around sovereignty, ethnicity, identity politics and the myth of a singular national identity. But more importantly, what was clear was the need for migrant groups (especially Pacific, and other new settlers) to feel that they belong in New Zealand, and that they are an integral strand of the fabric of New Zealand society.

What is crucial here is that Māori and Pacific peoples share a special relationship or va. I agree with T. Teaiwa when she speaks of ‘ambivalent kinships’ which marks the Pacific migrant experience as distinct from other migrant experiences in New Zealand. These kinships can be traced through commonalities of history and culture; through oral traditions of origins; between Pacific people and palagi; through shared histories of colonisation, colonial and continuing exchange; between the nation of New Zealand and the nations of the Pacific Islands region, through shared geography and the vicissitudes of global economic arrangements. There is also the kinship relationship between indigeneity - the roots in Pacific homelands, and the diaspora – the routes of Pacific people to New Zealand and elsewhere.

 The ambivalence swirls around issues of precedence, rights and equality and may lead at times to a denial of kinship; or an assertion of seniority within the kinship frame; or it may produce moments when this kinship connection is celebrated.

This ancient and historical kinship connection is evidenced by the teina/tuakana banter of Māori kaumatua (elders) on marae all over Aotearoa when some of the manuhiri (visitors) are from Moana Nui a Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean). So, sometimes we Pacific visitors are recognised as tuakana or older sibling, which acknowledges this ancient connection, or, we are recognised as teina or their younger sibling, which acknowledges that they are tangata whenua of Aotearoa and we are visitors. Therefore, this va, this tuakana/teina recognition is acknowledgement of the social and sacred bonds of the va of our connections.

A really powerful example for me in recent history of this va between Pacific and Māori people was in 1929. In 1900 Western Samoa (now Samoa) had been colonised by the Germans. Then after World War 1 Samoa came under New Zealand administration during which the flu epidemic decimated a third of Samoa’s population in 1918. Samoan activism by the Mau challenged the brutal take-over of Samoa by New Zealand and as a consequence, some of the Mau leaders were captured and exiled to other countries. One of the Mau leaders was Tamasese Lealofi Aana III who was exiled and imprisoned in Mt Eden gaol in 1929.

Tamasese was visited by Sir Maui Pomare, a New Zealand medical doctor and prominent Māori politician. When he visited Tamasese in his prison cell at Mt Eden Prison in Auckland in 1929, he was moved to tears, and the next day he wrote this letter to the New Zealand Samoa Guardian:

To a Patriot of Samoa

“To-day I saw Tamasese in gaol. I greeted him in his own tongue. We sat and talked of many things. I said, Tamasese, I am sorry to see you here, and yet I am glad. I came to see your face…”

“And so I looked into the countenance of a Tama – an Ariki – a prince indeed. The lineal descent of kings whose genealogical lines reach back into the twilight of fable, and yet withal I looked and saw the face of a martyr – a patriot. He has given his all in the cause of his people – the emancipation of his race.

“I thought, and asked myself this question. What have we – New Zealand- done? In our blind blundering party wrangling and political humbug we put this man in gaol. That is what we have done. This man was deprived of liberty, hereditary titles, degraded, deported and imprisoned. Yet those titles will continue till the last drop of Tamesese blood ceases to flow.

“Degradation? An honour. Deportation? A privilege. Imprisonment? A crown of glory. And so we have made it! ‘Ia malosi, Tamasese’ (Be strong in heart Tamasese’)

Few would dispute that the Treaty of Waitangi is New Zealand’s founding document. In the Treaty journey and debate we have come a long way since 1840. I agree with Paul Reeves in his Treaty of Waitangi address in 2004, when he called for a shift from the widespread technical understanding of the treaty: that it is an ancient written and signed document with three articles; how today its interpretation highly contentious; how the Courts have to interpret what the Parliament has enacted; and how the issue is therefore between the Māori and the Crown only.

This technical focus for Pacific peoples and other minority groups, precludes their involvement in the Treaty debate and fuels confusion, distancing, misunderstanding and uninformed judgements about historical processes of Māori colonisation, and failed annihilation by colonisers. And subsequently negates a true appreciation of Māori sovereignty struggles and efforts by the Waitangi tribunal to address some of these historical injustices which began even before the Treaty was signed in 1840.

It is not the scope of this opinion piece to document and revisit these historical processes. However, it is interesting to reflect on a non-technical focus of the Treaty signalled by Bishop Reeves in his 2004 address:

But there’s another understanding of the treaty, which comes out of oral tradition which cannot be written down on paper…the treaty is…something intangible, something pervasive.. [a] powerful area of relationships. The treaty according to this understanding is about process…It’s about how we honour each other. It’s how we pursue common goals, on the understanding that what’s good for my neighbour must also ultimately be good for me…

This is exactly what is mirrored in the historical encounter between the two great Polynesian leaders in 1929 – Tamasese and Maui Pomare at Mt Eden prison. An encounter where indigenous historical narratives, status respect and shared colonial experiences and the fight for sovereignty in their own lands merged in the unspoken sentiments of respect and aroha in the words “Ia malosi Tamasese”.

It is urgent and timely that we reflect on the Treaty as a turning/reference point in our consciousness about the va/relationship between Māori/tangata whenua and Pacific peoples/tangata Pasifika. What is needed is a philosophical basis for reconceptualising the spaces/va where Māori and Pacific people meet, work, play, marry, and have been thrown together, in order to reach a new level of understanding and a way forward in Māori-Pacific va in Aotearoa.

Certainly, from the perspectives of my parents’ generation who migrated to New Zealand in late 1940s, and recent arrivals, there is no real understanding or working knowledge of the Treaty or what it involves. This lies in the main with the first generation NZ-born Pacific Islanders in the 1950s, and ensuing NZ-born generations (today, almost 70% of New Zealand’s Pacific population) whose experiences and growing knowledge of life in New Zealand, is extending our understanding of the Treaty.

Until it is formally taught in schools we can only learn from our experiences. There are so many historical examples of Maori/Pacific va where we have stood side by side in solidarity with each other, not only on factory floors but also in highly political and philosophical contexts. The following examples consist of my own historical and political consciousness of intersecting personal, political, academic and professional va:

The political activist group the Polynesian Panther Party founded in 1971 worked alongside Ngā Tamatoa  a Māori activist group that operated throughout the 1970s to promote Māori rights, fight racial discrimination, and confront injustices perpetrated by the New Zealand Government, particularly violations of the Treaty of Waitangi: 1972 – establishing Te Reo as an offical language of Aotearoa; 1975 the Māori Land March; 1977-1978 Bastion Point protest; 2020 – the Ihumatao land dispute.

Few people realise that it was the work of the Māori Affairs Department, certainly during my time of employment there as an Officer in the Housing section 1975-1990, which provided existing and new housing loans to both Māori and Pacific peoples and who also trained young Māori and Pacific apprentices to build new houses under their Trade Training Scheme. This was a period where existing houses could be purchased, or new houses built through housing loans which could be secured with a deposit which involved capitalising of the then Family Benefit payments. This was probably the period in New Zealand’s history where the largest number of Māori and Pacific peoples became house-owners rather than renters.

Still, there is a sense in which the Treaty of Waitangi has formally very little to do with Pacific  peoples, and yes, it is probably true that most Pacific people in New Zealand do not take an interest in it - fuelling the belief that in essence it involves Māori and the Crown only.

 However, I contend that a turning point in our understanding of the va with Māori is looming large. In 2022, for the first time in New Zealand’s history, the teaching of New Zealand history will become compulsory in secondary schools. Finally, the teaching and learning about Māori and Pacific commonalities of history, culture, oral traditions of origins, shared histories of colonialism, Christianity and capitalism, and the fight for sovereignty will re-emerge in the philosophical and political consciousness of a new generation of Pacific youth. Soifua.