By Dame Anne Salmond

A new column from Dame Anne Salmond challenges the legalistic, one side up against the other approach to race relations and the Treaty of Waitangi of the past 40 years.

Racist thinking runs deep. As Jess Berentson-Shaw observed in Why Anti-Racism needs Nerds,’ an article about streaming in schools, “Racism gets coded into our systems. And like a computer programme we regularly run, we may be unaware of the code behind it.”

In a recent Newsroom series, Iwi vs. Kiwi, I tried to identify some of the codes that underpin the stories we tell ourselves about ‘race,’ tracing these back to ancient and ubiquitous European habits of mind.

The ‘Great Chain of Being’

One of these was ‘The Great Chain of Being,’ a cosmic hierarchy tracing back to the ancient Greeks. In mediaeval times, God sat at the top of the Great Chain, followed by archangels and angels, a divine sovereign (the origin of ‘sovereignty’), the ranks of the aristocracy and commoners, with men over women and children; and ‘civilised’ people over ‘barbarians’ and ‘savages’, sentient and non-sentient animals, plants and rocks.

In this top-down way of thinking, everything in the lower ranks of the Great Chain of Being was subservient to those higher up, owing them obedience, service and tribute. This provided a God-given mandate for an array of exploitive relations, from ranked classes to racism, sexism and human ‘dominion’ over the earth and all other life forms.

Its contemporary reflexes include ‘1 percent over the 99 percent,’ the ‘glass ceiling,’ corporate and bureaucratic structures, the ideas of ‘resource management’ and ‘ecosystem services,’ and racial hierarchies, and the sense of entitlement that goes with such ‘command and control’ arrangements.

Stadial theories of human evolution

During the mid eighteenth century, the Great Chain was lain on its side and the Western ‘arrow of time’ (lineal history) run through it. This produced stadial’ theories of human evolution, a one-way ‘progress’ from hunter and gatherer societies to pastoralism, agriculture, and industrial ‘civilisation.’

These also have their contemporary echoes, from ideas of ‘more advanced’ and ‘less advanced’ societies, to notions that ‘private property’ is a more ‘civilised’ way of working with the living world than, for example, the idea that the Whanganui River, or the Urewera, or Hinemoana, the ocean, owns itself.

Cartesian dualism

Cartesian dualism, another of these ubiquitous forms of order, also traces back to the ancient Greeks. In the mid seventeenth century, Rene Descartes split mind (res cogitans) from matter (res extensa), subject from object, Culture from Nature; and as a thinking self, guaranteed his own existence (cogito, ergo sum – I think, therefore I am).

These binary oppositions, combined with a mechanistic view of the universe, led to the partitioning of an objectified reality, with different ‘fields’ abstracted and separated out from each other and organised into gridded arrays – the origins of silo thinking.

In the mid eighteenth century in Europe, this led to the innovation of Linnaean taxonomy, sorting different life forms into genera and species; censuses, in which different groups of people were separated and counted; the fragmentation of human thought into the different disciplines; and surveying and cartography, in which space-time was abstracted, gridded by latitude and longitude, and measured.

James Cook’s chart of the Pacific

In his gridded version of the living world, the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus divided humans into four different ‘varieties, along with the Great Chain of Being, now recognised as one of the origins of ‘scientific racism.’

As applied to people, the binary pairs are almost always asymmetric, and linked with each other: ‘Civilised’ /‘Primitive’; ‘Culture’/ Nature’, ‘People’/ ’Environment,’ ‘The West’ / ‘The Rest’, ‘Pakeha’/‘Maori’ – the ‘Great Chain of Being’ combined with +/- binary logic.

Contemporary reflexes of these patterns include Boolean logic, which underlies computer programming, Outlook calendars, balance sheets, spreadsheets, planning maps and the like. Because these framings are ancient and ubiquitous, with so many different refractions in everyday life, they are barely noticed, and extremely resilient.

In education, for instance, its easy to see how racial grids and hierarchies work to disadvantage Māori and Pasifika students, not just in streaming, but in ranked marking and subject choices (eg. those that lead or don’t lead to University and the professions). This is often not conscious, but deeply ‘coded into the system,’ as Berenston-Shaw has said.

Ethnic and racial silos cut across whakapapa. Even talk of ‘racism’ vs. ‘anti-racism’ betrays its origins in binary logic, where like ‘Iwi vs. Kiwi’ or ‘Māori vs. Pākeha,’ the relation between the categories is inherently oppositional.

Te Tiriti: legal framings

Contemporary legal framings of the Treaty of Waitangi may be another case in point. With the best will in the world, jurists steeped in European legal history and precedent have often fallen into binary thinking, race theory and hierarchical readings.

From the outset, claims to the Waitangi Tribunal have been framed in oppositional terms, X (Māori claimant[s]) vs. the Crown, and conducted like court cases, fought out between the lawyers on both sides.

Legal framings may also reflect binary logic and racial hierarchies. In his seminal 1987 ‘Lands’ judgment, for instance, the eminent jurist Sir Robin Cooke (later Lord Cooke of Thorndon) defined the Treaty relationship as “a partnership between races,” likening the Treaty to a ‘fiduciary partnership’ between ‘Pakeha’ and ‘Māori’ or ‘the Crown’ and ‘the Māori race’. He also spoke about contemporary New Zealand society as relatively ‘sophisticated’ compared with ancestral Māori ways of living.

This judgment reflects racial and stadial theory as well as binary framings, and is deeply grounded in colonial habits of mind. It was very much of its time, but needs radical rethinking. As the post-settlement era approaches, and governance arrangements are being reconsidered, it’s time to revisit the original agreement.

Revisiting Te Tiriti

As drafted in 1840, Te Tiriti o Waitangi reflected ancestral Māori ways of thinking, albeit in a rapidly changing world. Read in Maori, Te Tiriti is an exchange of gifts (tuku) between rangatira, a classic way of enhancing mana while forging and strengthening relationships.

In this gift exchange, the parties are not ‘Maori’ and ‘the Crown’ at all; but Queen Victoria and the various rangatira, the hapū, and ‘ngā tāngata māori o Nu Tirani’, the ordinary tāngata (human beings, persons, inhabitants) of New Zealand.

Thus in Ture 2 of Te Tiriti, the Queen ratifies and agrees to ‘te tino rangatiratanga’ of ngā Rangatira (the chiefly leaders), the hapū, and ngā tāngata katoa o Nu Tirani (all the persons of New Zealand).

Likewise, in Ture 3 of Te Tiriti, in return for their agreement to ‘te kawanatanga o te Kuini’ (the Queen’s governorship), the Queen promises to care for ‘nga tangata maori katoa o Nu Tirani’ (all the ordinary inhabitants of New Zealand), and gives to them ‘nga tikanga rite tahi’ (exactly equal tikanga) as her subjects, ‘nga tangata o Ingarani’ (the inhabitants of England).

Here, there is no binary talk of ‘races,’ or more or less ‘sophisticated’ societies. Rather, there’s a promise of care by the Queen, and equality between the tikanga of the everyday inhabitants of New Zealand and those of England (ie the settlers), and relationships based on reciprocity and mutual respect.

This includes respect for tikanga Māori, including te reo. Groups such as Hobson’s Pledge show no such respect, insisting on the superiority of the tikanga of the incoming settlers – ‘one law for all,’ a classic echo of the Great Chain of Being.

Unlike Sir Robin Cooke, I think that the words of Te Tiriti do matter, and in many ways are wiser than their contemporary legal re-framings.

As many early European observers have noted, leadership (tino rangatiratanga) was based on chiefly generosity and persuasion, rather than rigid hierarchies and the accumulation of wealth (very unlike the radical inequalities of 1 percent vs. 99 percent).

‘He whenua rangatira’ (a term used in He Whakaputanga, the 1835 Declaration of Independence, for ‘Nu Tireni’) described a prosperous land, where relationships across the whakapapa networks are in balance and the people are at peace.

‘Race-baiting’ (of any kind) is hostile to such aspirations, provoking tit-for-tat exchanges of anger and disaffection (a process known as ‘schismogenesis’), and tearing kin networks and communities apart. You can’t claim to honor Te Tiriti while playing this kind of politics.

Ancestral ways of talking about whakapapa, on the other hand – aho (descent lines, or strands in a cloak, a net or a rope), tāhuhu (main line of descent, the ridgepole in a meeting-house), heke (secondary line of descent, a rafter), or as streams flowing together in a river – bind and weave different kin groups together.

Ways forward?

Understood in its own right, Te Tiriti is in many ways more inclusive and closer to democratic ideals than its racialised, binary and hierarchical reframings in the ‘Lands’ judgement, or in more recent documents such as He Puapua, which likewise reflect a binary ‘partnership’ between ‘Maori’ and ‘the Crown.’

The deep question here is this – Can the hurts and harms of colonialism be healed with strategies and structures based on colonial habits of mind –-  +/- binary logic and ‘fiduciary partnerships’, ‘ownership’ and ‘property,’ ‘sovereignty,’ corporate and bureaucratic hierarchies and the like?

After more than 40 years of Treaty settlements, racism is still very real, and the inequities are still very sharp.

Rather than ‘anti-racism’ in Aotearoa New Zealand, might it be wiser to cultivate ‘non-racist’ ways of thinking? These may include whakapapa, which allows for diversity in unity, and unity in diversity; wānanga (ancestral knowledge); and tikanga such as whanaungatanga and manaakitanga, in which the idea of ‘race’ play no part.

They might also include Western relational thinking – ancestral precedents such as kin-based ways of living with land and sea, for example; or the ‘web of life’ from the late Enlightenment, that helped to drive the fight for emancipation of slaves, commoners and women; or complexity theory in contemporary science; or ideas from the Pacific or Asia, and elsewhere.

Top-down, oppositional, extractive thinking has fractured societies around the world, and threatens human survival.

Drawing on different ancestral legacies to generate more respectful, mana-enhancing and creative relations with each other (and other life forms) works towards the promise of Ture 3 of Te Tiriti – ‘ngā tikanga rite tahi’ (absolutely equal tikanga).

In Aotearoa New Zealand, we don’t have to stay locked into self-destructive habits of mind, replicating ‘racial’ hierarchies or stuck in ‘ethnic’ silos – ‘Iwi vs. Kiwi’ hurling rocks at each other.

We can do better than that.


This article was originally published on Newsroom and was republished with permission. For the original, click here.

Dame Anne Salmond is a Distinguished Professor in Anthropology at the University of Auckland. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the author’s opinion and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.

See Also:

What is the future of Māori-Pakeha relations?

Why is the Treaty of Waitangi and its history important? 🔊