DIY Decolonisation


Nigel Brown “I am Pakeha”, 2008, oil on board

My good friend Dr Damian Skinner presented these reflections at a little conference on the Treaty of Waitangi yesterday. He doesn’t do social media but said I could share the text, I’m interested to see what others think about his suggestion we urgently need a Pākehā conversation…

Treaty on the Ground – Summary Notes by Dr Damian Skinner

I wanted to begin by talking about some of the connections I have professionally and personally with the TOW, as a way of identifying the various meanings of that phrase that have been circulating in this conference over the last two days.

When I work here at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, I am employed by an institution that is subject to an Act of Parliament that mentions the TOW. I brush up against formal policy documents like He Korahi Māori, which develop strategies for reflecting the TOW in the museum’s daily activities. I work in a context that has been shaped by a history of museums and cultural institutions grappling with the changing expectations of Māori when it comes to taonga, a history we might call the ‘Te Māori’ effect, and which is also affected by the principles articulated by the Waitangi Tribunal. I also think the TOW is present in more personal, less institutionally sanctioned experiences, like a twenty minute conversation I had near the start of my time here, with a Pākehā colleague, in bad te reo Māori, about whether the tūpuna in the Māori natural history galleries mind us taking food in sealed containers through their space, on our way to the staff room.

As an art historian working outside the Auckland Museum, I brush up against the TOW whenever I encounter and talk about the politicization of cultural dynamics, where claims about, for example, artistic designs and who owns them can’t be easily separated from claims to other resources, in part because of the Waitangi Tribunal process. And then there is the more direct impact of Tribunal report, especially the Wai 262 claim, which was brought up in the discussion yesterday. This came at the same time that I was thinking through the problems of writing a book about whare whakairo, meeting houses, and for me it crystalised the problem of academic ambitions divorced from communities and the descendants of the taonga I wanted to write about.

As a DIY promoter of Pākehā decolonization, I have a contract with the Gisborne Kindergarten Association to work with ECE teachers to address the question of how a Pākehā organization can serve Māori kids and their whānau – and exactly what a Pākehā organization (in a good, decolonized sense) might be. (No one really seems to know.) In this work, I encounter the TOW as an historical event, but more importantly as a history of thinking and negotiating between Māori and Pākehā, as a name for the principles that have been developed by the Waitangi Tribunal. These principles, and the history that sit behind them, act as a trigger to challenge Pākehā privilege. It is the mention of the TOW in various educational policies discussed by Te Kawehau Hoskins this morning, and in the formal documents of the Gisborne Kindergarten Association, that makes this a necessary process, even if not every Pākehā teacher initially sees its relevance or urgency.

Finally, at home, I can see the TOW at work in conversations about whether the kids are Māori and Pākehā, or Māori with Pākehā whakapapa (that one ended with a furious argument about blood quantum in US law); what it means to pursue decolonization in your domestic environment (don’t wash the tea towels with the undies); the necessity of Pākehā to support te reo Māori (still in decline, as Michael Dreaver noted); how local councils behave, and how they continue to actively resist the aspirations of Māori (there used to be a local body councillor); how ECE operates, and fails the needs of Māori children, and the difference between the kōhanga reo movement and puna reo movement (there is a Māori ECE teacher); how art history operates and art historians behave, and what it can possibly mean for a Pākehā art historian to say he is committed to the TOW and continue to write about Māori art (that’s me); and finally in all the endless tensions and domestic politics of a Pākehā living with a Māori whānau in a predominantly Māori community that, being mostly state housing for the labour requirements of the local freezing works and Wattie’s cannery, is a geographic and social reminder of the legacy of TOW breaches that, in a little over 50 years turned Māori land into Pākehā land. (It used to be called Tūranganui-a-Kiwa, and now it is called Gisborne.)

I would say all of these things come under the umbrella of the TOW. They make up the totality of what I mean when I say on my CV that I am committed to the Treaty, and to working out what it means to be a Pākehā partner in the Treaty process. I see many speakers over the last two days talking about an equally wide range of subjects; to tackle this diversity is exactly what we must mean when we say Treaty on the Ground. The TOW isn’t primarily, for me, a process of redress between the Crown and Māori for historical and contemporary breaches of the TOW, but rather it is a short hand for a decolonization process in which the task is to challenge the invisibility and power of Pākehā privilege. At first, when I realized this was a disconnect in this conference – there seemed too much focus on the TOW as a Crown thing, and not enough of what people were doing with it on the ground – I wondered if we shouldn’t discard the phrase TOW to get to these other dimensions. But after a lunch time discussion with my esteemed colleague on this panel, and another esteemed colleague at the Auckland Museum, I remembered that holding onto the idea of the TOW connects us to history – to a signing in 1840, but also to a history of breaches, of Pākehā behaving badly, of principles generated at a specific moment in time, from certain social and political conditions. And in turn this guarantees the urgency and irrevocability of the process. To decolonize successfully, Pākehā need two things: a patient Māori to explain how things really are, and a reason to look at history. The TOW brings both to the table.

I have really enjoyed the way in which this conference has evoked the texture of the period 1970 to 1990, as each speaker has contributed to the building up of a pattern of life that includes events, people, places and landscapes, language, ideas and values – even down to details of social life, such as what people wore, ate and did. The richness of this representation has been inspiring, and productive. To take a small personal example, Kim Workman’s comment that a spectacle of biculturalism led to the proliferation of Māori art in corporate foyers. I have written about some of these artists, but I have never identified the government’s shallow commitment to the baubles of biculturalism as one of the conditions of their practices.

But this also raises the question of Pākehā in this process, something that I think became spectacularly visible with Michael Dreaver’s talk – partly because suddenly there was an actual Pākehā to question (instead of a faceless entity called the Crown, or equally shadowy government Ministers), but also because I got to see a Pākehā practice, a Pākehā way of acting, a parallel to Māori ways of living the Treaty that have been discussed and presented over the last two days.

There isn’t a lot of room for Pākehā like me in the TOW if we’re talking a negotiation between the Crown and Māori. Obviously the Crown represents me, and the Crown’s actions have privileged me and my family. I believe that a big part of decolonization is linking your own history to the breaches of the TOW – tracking your personal connection to a process in which Aotearoa starts off as Māori land and ends up as New Zealand, a quarter-acre paradise for Pākehā. Overall, I have been struck by the lack of Pākehā actors in this conference. There are Māori, and there is the government. Māori initiated the challenge that disrupted settler indigeneity in the 1970s and 1980s, but some Pākehā have also, in different ways, lived a history of taking the TOW seriously, wrestling with its implications privately and publicly. I don’t think Pākehā can expect a pat on the head and a gold star for our contribution. There’s no A for effort here. But we need to find a way to challenge the idea that the TOW is a Māori issue, or the idea that biculturalism, its flawed and fascinating fruit, is a Māori problem. All the cultural institutions I’ve ever encountered are filled with Māori staff who run the cultural sensitivity training and who are responsible for articulating what biculturalism means. This just lets Pākehā off the hook. The Treaty on the Ground is going to require Pākehā to step up and shrug off the invisibility cloak of whiteness. As April Bennett said to a question from the audience this morning about Pākehā in all this, kia kaha e hoa mā. Go forth and gather together the resources that already exist, the people who are already committed, and start making a Pākehā conversation happen. As I was told once, around the dinner table, the biggest problem facing Māori is Pākehā. So what are we going to do about that?


4 thoughts on “DIY Decolonisation

  1. Reblogged this on The Non-Plastic Maori and commented:
    This is good reading. Important reading, from a pākehā, on the pākehā obligations of decolonization
    You know – our world faces huge challenges, much of which comes down to a basic lack of consciousness when it comes to how we treat the other (and by “Other” I mean other humans, and non-humans, including land, sky and sea).
    I see the Treaty as a blueprint for the type of consideration that, were we operating on an effective level of consciousness, we would be honouring not because we are bound to do so by a treaty, but because we understood that this is the right, just, and honourable thing to do, and that it is in everyone’s best interests. The acceptance and honouring of differences in the pursuit of successful co-existance requires all these things. Of course indigenous wisdom and knowledge should be protected, promoted, accessible and cherished. Of course the sources of that knowledge (at community level) should not be divorced from that task. Of course the bedrocks of culture, the arts, the language, and all that informs and shapes them, should be cared for. Of course we should engage with integrity and not in a superficial, cursory manner.
    These things are all given in a framework that allows for the prospering of humanity.
    This, at a time, when the world is CRYING out for guidance on how to be more conscious.
    We’re incredibly fortunate to have this blueprint, and the fact that people continue to view it as a historical document, something to be resisted, a burdensome weight of obligations, or even worse as some kind of cash cow, overlooks the greatest potential that it has – to guide us into a more appreciative state of co-existance.

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