Last week saw the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, on August 9. Indigenous communities still struggle to maintain their autonomy in modern society. In various parts of the world, including Southeast Asia and the Americas, they are subjected to growing injustices every day.

In defining “post colonisation” and “freedom”, this debate is subjective and unique to each case. But, what does this mean for Aotearoa and our indigenous community? Alyssa Medel spoke with Dan Hikuroa.

Dan Hikuroa is a Senior Lecturer in Maori Studies at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in earth systems science.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Alyssa Medel: Our big question for today is ‘Are our indigenous communities really free?’. What’s your take on that firsthand without really diving into it just yet?

Dan Hikuroa: Kia ora. I don’t think they are free. That’s my short answer to that question, and I’m happy to unpack that over the next little while. But this idea of what freedom is — we need to look into who defines what freedom is. What are the multi-dimensions of freedom? And then in many ways, if it was kind of me or us in here, in the ‘ivory tower’ of the university, kind of declaring, you know, ‘We believe these people are free’, that’s kind of the very reason they aren’t free, because we are speaking instead of them. And so, if people were truly free, they would be able to speak on their behalf on how they feel.

AM: On firstly defining freedom, in a New Zealand context are there any tikanga and principles behind freedom within the Māori community?

DH: New Zealand is one of those interesting countries worldwide where we had a treaty signed in 1840, and there are a whole lot of words in there that we might align with what we call tikanga today: certainly principles such as tino rangatiratanga, such as kawanatanga, and talking about ideas such as kāinga — or houses or villages, modern interpretation — and taonga, often that word is translated into treasure. But, the idea of ‘treasure’, you might think of gold and jewels, and stuff we put into a treasure box. Surely the notion of something we could hold on to is consistent with taonga, but I think the truer meaning of the word taonga as meant in 1840 was ‘to be treasured’ — the active. So, things that we treasure, if I ask you that question, maybe things that are entirely different — might be your family, it might be the ability to go for a walk, or it might be your freedom.

AM: And with the history of colonisation and for certain countries the ‘colonisers’, the people that colonised them are no longer there. But, with New Zealand, it’s debatable whether they still are, especially with their descendants and it being a different society from before. How much has that changed the way our indigenous community here defines freedom and oppression?

DH: There’s a lot to unpack in that one. So, to the question of ‘Are the colonisers still here?’, I think it would be unkind and maybe incorrect to say that people who actively colonised Aotearoa New Zealand and the tangata whenua katoa — you know the Maori people, across the lands — were actually here, because those were really people some couple of hundred years ago. However, the long-lasting impacts of colonisation, and the structures that were put in place are still very much the structures of power we have today: the systems of parliament, all sorts of legislation that has come out of that parliament. We could look at the way we view incarceration, we could look at the way we view health, we could look at the way we view education, and whilst no doubt there has been, of some benefit to some Māori we could argue that overall Māori have not benefited as a result of colonisation. Now, if we think about that in terms of the frame of ‘Are we really free?’, that even kind of further cements it that, no, we are not. Because, if we were truly able to exercise our tino rangatiratanga or our ultimate decision-making power – as one interpretation of putting it – I believe we wouldn’t be as representative in all the poor statistics, that we so regularly get rammed down our throats as part of the media. Now, that’s difficult to prove because the experiment’s been running for a couple hundred years, but I am of the firm belief that if tino rangatiratanga had been maintained then Māori might well be experiencing some freedom today.

AM: This goes back as well to how many Māori still feel like a minority in their homeland. How is that being addressed these days?

DH: That’s another really challenging one. The reality is, we are a minority — purely and simply on a numbers basis. But, that is just on a numbers basis. You know Te Tiriti o Waitangi — the Treaty of Waitangi — is still our founding constitutional document. Is it being implemented and exercised as it was intended? Absolutely not. But, are attempts being made to rectify that and move in the right direction? Absolutely so. To feel like a minority simply because you’re fewer in number is just a human condition, that’s natural. I think where some Māori may make the claim that they’re experiencing some levels of freedom is where you free yourself of that type of thinking, when you say ‘I am a person but I have whakapapa first and foremost. I draw identity from the land, I draw purpose from belonging, and if I act and behave in that way, and I have the freedom to do that and exercise that’. That is a level of freedom.

AM: How does that relate to how our communities in New Zealand are still struggling?

DH: Because the reality is, I’m a minority amongst a minority. I have a tertiary education and I have a whole lot of lucky circumstance to thank for that. Because, the reality is that many Māori are still experiencing the effects of colonisation. And what do we mean by that? It means when you get your economic base — your lands, and ability to make decisions on your lands and resources — removed from you, then what can impact is that you no longer have any real purpose. Then you are forced to shift away from the place where you originally felt strongly identified with, and belonged to, and suddenly you find yourself out of those support networks, out of those support structures, and not doing so well in society. There is a growing body of research that shows this intergenerational trauma actually gets right down to the cellular level. That trauma experienced generations ago is currently manifesting itself, and all the poor statistics that Māori are so overrepresented in with respect to how much they make up of the population, with respect to prisons and health and poor education outcomes.

AM: How is this being addressed on the front with the youth? Are there many initiatives or programmes being put into place so that this can be something we could tackle more head-on?

DH: Yes, and to be honest I’m not completely up to speed with the breadth and the depth of efforts that are being undertaken by national structures attempting to assist the youth. [But] I think this is possibly where we need to focus more, enabling the youth to be their own agents of recovery, of hope. And, so if we can enable them and give them the tools and the necessary resources to free their minds, and to see the opportunities that are available, to put in the support structures, then I think we can start seeing some amazing things. And there are programmes underway to assist youth that might’ve had just a brush with the law, and as far as I’m concerned, a little bit of wraparound money spent now to try and mentor them and guide them on the right track, is far better than paying whatever it costs to house them in the prison system later on.

AM: And how does tikanga play a part in that as well?

DH: I think that’s one of the great success stories of the Māori experience is that despite colonisation, despite active nefarious intent to destroy Māori and tikanga Māori and matauranga Māori in the likes of the Tohunga Suppression Act and the Native Lands Act. Tikanga remains strong and perhaps it’s some of those smaller places tucked out of the way, where those practices never really died out, or they may have waned a little but never disappeared altogether. So now the Māori Youth Court, for example, looks to draw on tikanga and hold judicial processes in a marae setting, drawing upon tikanga where we come through a powhiri and the usual protocols that go with that. There is much drawing from the traditional way of doing things, the traditional tikanga, and as there is creating new. And indeed the idea that tikanga are only traditional and ancient is wrong, and it also misses the point — that tikanga were designed to enable the best possible outcomes and keep everybody safe, and to maintain balance, and it makes sense that those tikanga would evolve through time as needs, and values, and societies change.

AM: How do you think — I do agree with that, we see these days a lot of youth are becoming more active in these movements, and making their voices heard, in different mediums as well, not just in protests but in how they function in society, and in the arts and media as well. How do you think – on an international level – other countries see that and start to apply tikanga as well?

DH: I know recently a youth delegation went to the UN in New York and made presentations there about how they’d lost faith in the system, they’d lost faith in a system that allowed rivers to be polluted and destroyed, and the destruction of the native habitat. And they called upon the UN, and the people of New Zealand, to look back to putting concepts such as papatuanuku, or earth mother, right at the very centre of our law, such as places like Bolivia and Ecuador have done. And then a smaller delegation – a subset of that group in New York went on to Geneva, and similarly they made a pitch there that was more focused around ‘Why we would allow international interests to come and bottle and purchase our water, while many people in New Zealand don’t have access to drinking water?’ It seemed to them to be a pretty perverse outcome, and they felt that the system was at fault and they really wanted to change that. So that was Māori going out to the international audience to say, this has been our experience, we’re drawing from our base and we’re proposing that this might work. But that concept, they were inspired by the Bolivians and Ecuadorians who already have Pachamama, their version of earth mother, at the centre of their laws and it’s much about what Māori have to offer, what tikanga have to offer, as it is to what we can learn from the rest of the world.

I suppose if we flipped it the other way and thought about this idea of freedom. If one aspect of freedom has been able to have your dreams and aspirations reflected in acts of law, one could consider that to be you getting towards freedom. And certainly when the New Zealand government passed the Te Awa Tupua Act last year, this is the act pertaining to the Whanganui river, its catchments, its people that it considers as an indivisible whole, and gave that legal personality, that signals and ripples around the world. And less than a week later in India, the River Ganges was given exactly the same status, and almost a word for word rationale given for it — admittedly taken from the English — and so New Zealand is both offering to the world by going and speaking to people, and going this is our experience, this is what we’re drawing from to pull strength, as well as looking at tikanga, and looking at the matauranga — the Māori knowledge, the Māori worldview. And Māori worldview of course states, that everything we see on this world we’re related to because of connections with the primal parents rangi and papa, in fact everything we see in this world, in this universe is explained as having derived ultimately from earth mother and sky father. And so it is from that worldview the Te Awa Tupua Act was written, and so it encompasses the tikanga of the Whanganui people and expresses that in the legislative framework. Some would argue, the very fact that it was in a legislative framework means we are not free. So then I suppose that the response to that would be, are we free-er having the aspirations and dreams and worldview of the Whanganui people expressed in law or not? My response is, I believe we are much free-er having those acts in parliament. And then previous of course to Te Awa Tupua, we had the first act that gave legal personality was of course to the forest, the Te Urewera. The Te Urewera act is a piece of legislation that’s beautiful, it speaks of Te Urewera as ancient, as enduring, as mystical. It says the Te Urewera has mana. And one of the other great things that act does, is that it doesn’t seek to define them within the act, it says ‘No that’s up for the people of Te Urewera to determine what the maori and the mana is of Te Urewera.’ I would argue that they may not be experiencing physical freedom but there certainly is a conceptual and philosophical freedom once the Te Urewera acts and the Te Awa Tupua acts were passed.

AM: This could also relate back to language, are we moving in the right direction in terms of preserving the language and actually promoting the use of it New Zealand?

DH: I haven’t seen the stats of it most recently. A year ago the stats looked promising, but a few things have happened since then. There was a very famous former high profile politician and their friends, who publicly bemoaned the fact that they couldn’t even understand their national radio anymore because there was so much Te Reo being spoken. I’m not too sure what they intended by that outburst, but the outcome was, the Te Reo lessons that were being offered for free by various groups, among them AUT, among them Te Wananga o Aotearoa, and these have been held in high schools, community halls, around Aotearoa New Zealand — they became oversubscribed, and in some instances by seven hundred percent. So what that signals to me was there were many Kiwis out there who had been intending to do Te Reo classes for some time. The catalyst for doing it was when someone stood up and assumed to speak on their behalf, saying Te Teo doesn’t have a place in New Zealand in 2018, and their actions spoke their convictions and I believe the language is growing, and the use of the language is growing, and I need of course – it would be very omissive of me to not acknowledge the herculean or the Maui-esque — perhaps to use a Māori metaphor — efforts by all of those people who set up Te Kohanga Reo and then they set up Kura Kaupapa. And then now, you can if you so choose, you can do your entire schooling all around the way to tertiary and get a Ph.D., entirely in Te Reo — if you wanted. That core of devoted passionate tireless folks who believed in the kaupapa of Te Reo have enabled this renaissance, have enabled this growth of the language to occur. Because, without the language you really do have no freedom, without the language there is no culture, without the language there is no matauranga, without the language there is no identity.

AM: So to sum it all up, in terms of our question, are our indigenous communities really free? Are we heading in a positive direction in making efforts to make them free-er?

DH: In Aotearoa New Zealand, there are some Māori who are moving towards the concept of freedom. Many are still not even close to being on that journey just yet, or perhaps any time soon, and so while I bring a slight message of hope I think the main message is more dire, and that many Māori are still suffering the impacts manifested today for all those reasons that we know about, and that the big question for me is ‘How do we turn that around?’ And I don’t think there is any one single action or activity, but I think it has taken generations to take hold. It may take generations to realise a level of freedom, and I think the first step of freedom for those folks would be, the freedom to think that they can have a positive sort of future. If we can paint that picture for them within their own minds then we can begin to realise some great outcomes.

AM: So are there any other final comments you’d like to make regarding our question?

DH: Yeah, I suppose regarding my role as a privileged person working within the university, I see, my dream is that I can begin to work with our kore kauapapa trained students who are strong in their Te Reo, that are strong in their tikanga, that are strong in their identity, and that I can show them that there is strength in the Māori way of knowing and there is strength in other ways of knowing, and that ideally they will become better than me in what I do and that they will stage a coup and say ‘Move over you’re old news, we’ve got far greater ideas’. And so I suppose the final part of my dream is that, I can take those students and assist them to draw from the scientific understandings perhaps – from my background – to matauranga understandings and then start to dream and imagine realities and solutions to things I can’t imagine myself, that’s when I know my job’s been done. Kia ora.

 Alyssa Medel is an undergraduate student in Screen Production and History at the University of Auckland. 

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guest and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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