Sunday, May 30, 2021

Karl du Fresne: We're all in the same waka

One thing that struck me about the background profiles published about Dame Cindy Kiro this week was that while listing her tribal affiliations, they also mentioned that her father came from the north of England.

It was only an incidental point, but it stood out because prominent Maori often don’t acknowledge their Pakeha antecedents.

It has become the norm for people of part-Maori descent to recite iwi connections, but without any reference to their European lineage. That inconvenient part of their ancestry is routinely erased.

I say “inconvenient” because I suspect it suits many part-Maori activists not to acknowledge their bicultural heritage, the reason being that their bloodlines demonstrate that New Zealand is a highly integrated society. This conflicts with their aim of portraying us as intrinsically and irreparably divided, with one side exerting dominance over the other.

Here lies a central paradox of Maori activism that is never confronted, still less explained. It has possibly never been more relevant than now, when a radical agenda of change is being aggressively promoted by people whose mixed ancestry ironically gives the lie to the notion at the heart of their grievances – namely, that this is a country indelibly stained by racial prejudice and divided along racial lines into privileged and disadvantaged.

The truth, to put it in simple terms, is that we’re all in this together. We’re all in the same waka.

If this were truly a racist country, those “Maori” activists with distinctly European features and Anglo-Saxon surnames – testimony to a high degree of historical intimacy between Maori and Pakeha – would not be here. They exist because somewhere in their past, Maori and European partners were attracted to each other and procreated on equal and willing terms. That hardly seems indicative of a racist society.

It suits 21st century agitators to overlook the fact that they carry the DNA of their supposed colonial oppressors and therefore have inherited their supposedly racist legacy. But if those of us who are descended solely from European colonisers carry the taint of racism, then so do they. Have they disowned their Pakeha bloodlines, or are they in denial? Do they, in dark moments of the soul, confront their forebears’ wicked acts as colonisers? I keep waiting for someone to explain how they reconcile these contradictions, but I suspect it’s easier to ignore them.

Of course it’s the absolute right of anyone of part-Maori descent to identify as Maori if they so choose, and to take pride in that side of their heritage; no one should deny them that, and to my knowledge no one wants to. But when they exploit that point of difference to procure political advantage over their fellow citizens, despite sharing the same stain of European ancestry, I think we’re entitled to be sceptical.

This selective exploitation of racial heritage seems to illustrate the powerful allure of the politically fashionable culture of grievance and victimism. It's just one of many awkward incongruities and half-truths that go unremarked in the divisive propaganda with which New Zealanders are bombarded daily.

Here’s another one. We’re told that Maori were profoundly disadvantaged by colonialism, and that’s true – but only up to a point. Pre-European Maori were a warrior culture that lived by violent conquest and showed no mercy to tribes that were subjugated. Cannibalism, mass murder (including of women and children) and slavery were the norm.

So while it’s incontestable that colonisation resulted in Maori being dispossessed of their lands, a loss that had enormously damaging and demoralising consequences, it’s also incontestable that the British Crown treated Maori with far more respect and dignity than pre-European Maori tribes demonstrated to each other before they were pacified by colonisation. Dare I even mention the peaceable Moriori of Rēkohu (the Chatham Islands), who were massacred and enslaved by invading tribes from the mainland?

It’s also a fact that some Maori chiefs were themselves instrumental in the process of dispossession, sometimes for personal gain and without their peoples’ consent. But don’t expect any of these truths to be highlighted, or even mentioned, when the teaching of New Zealand history becomes compulsory in schools next year (as it should be, but only if the teaching isn’t ideologically skewed in favour of the woke interpretation, as seems likely).

And since I’m on the subject of inconvenient truths, what about the determined campaign – with tacit if not active government endorsement, but no public mandate whatsoever – to replace the recognised names of towns and cities with Maori ones? Like them or not, names such as Auckland, Christchurch and Hamilton reflect the fact that these cities are colonial, not Maori, creations. That’s an historical reality. The fact that the locations where these cities sprang up were once occupied by villages called Tamaki Makaurau, Otautahi and Kirikiriroa – the names now bestowed on them by media such as RNZ and Newshub – is neither here nor there. The cities are not Maori and never were.

By all means, rename these places if that’s what the people who live there want to do. Personally I’d be very happy if New Plymouth were changed to Ngamotu, Napier to Ahuriri and Levin to Taitoko, to give just three examples. Any significance the English names may have had when they were conferred in colonial times has long been forgotten. But these decisions must be left to the people who live in these places, not foisted on them by virtue-signalling elitists in the media.

The same applies to "Aotearoa" – but even more so, since it’s a name of doubtful authenticity. If the country votes to adopt it in a referendum, fine. But it’s an act of supreme arrogance to introduce Aotearoa into official usage without even a pretence of seeking, still less obtaining, the people’s consent. Such contempt for the public tells us a great deal about the prevailing cultural ethos.

None of this should be taken as meaning we shouldn’t honour and respect our Maori heritage. It is a rich part of our history and one that’s too often invisible, certainly to most Pakeha.

We still tend to think of our history in monocultural terms, assuming it began with the arrival of Tasman, Cook and de Surville. New Zealand’s centuries of pre-European history and its imprints on the landscape are largely ignored. Likewise, there is too little appreciation of the Maori achievement in navigating across the Pacific and establishing a society that, while technologically still in the Stone Age, was otherwise remarkably accomplished and sophisticated – a fact recognised by the first Europeans, who quickly grasped that Maori were not to be trifled with.

There is much about Maori culture that I respect and admire, and I’m sure I am not alone. I believe the Maori heritage has rubbed off on all New Zealanders. It’s one of the distinctive qualities that defines us as a country. The clichéd example is the All Black haka, but you can see the Maori influence elsewhere – for example, in the armed forces, which have traditionally had a high Maori participation rate (the army especially), and which are beneficially imbued with the Maori spirit of pulling together. The Maori influence is one of the reasons New Zealand forces are so respected overseas, especially in Third World countries; they have an easy affinity with locals that Australian forces apparently lack.

As an aside, I was recently reading about the exploits of the British army’s Long Range Desert Group, which initially consisted largely of New Zealanders, in the Second World War. Many of the soldiers in the LRDG were Pakeha farmers, but I found it interesting that they proudly painted Maori names on their vehicles – a tiny thing, perhaps, but indicative of pride in New Zealand’s Maori heritage and a telling signifier of cross-cultural solidarity.

We forget, too, that Maori men were able to vote 12 years before Pakeha males and that a Maori politician, Sir James Carroll of Ngati Kahungungu (Timi Kara to Maori, though his father was Irish) not only won election in a general seat as long ago as 1893, but twice served as acting prime minister. Mention these facts next time an ill-educated young zealot tries to tell you what a racist past New Zealand has.

The truth is that a great deal of beneficial cross-fertilisation has taken place between Maori and Pakeha, and a deep reservoir of mutual goodwill accumulated. Most New Zealanders would probably agree this is something unique in the world and worth preserving. We should steadfastly resist those who place it at risk by trying to drive us into angry opposing camps.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at


Steve said...

As usual, another excellent piece of journalism Karl. So very sad and also very disturbing that the issues that you have raised are never addressed, discussed or simply even raised by our disgracefully corrupted mainstream media.

Ray S said...

Good stuff here.
I have a granddaughter of Scottish and Maori descent. The Maori blood has been watered down to an infinitesimal amount as a result of about seven generations.
We often discuss this and she argues that her Maori history has more importance to her than the Scots side, even though the Maori blood line is almost non-existant. I respect her view but am unable to agree with her view. Likewise, she is unable to clearly say why she feels the way she does.
I suspect there are thousands of people out there in the same boat who would not be able to say why they ignore one part of their own history.
Sad really, without that part of the history, they would not exist.