May 18, 2021

Maori News & Indigenous Views

Maori Critic and Conscience in a Colonising Context – Paper by Ani Mikaere

9 min read

Ani Mikaere has generously shared her paper on Maori leadership. If you would like an email copy, please contact [email protected]

Maori Critic and Conscience in a Colonising Context Law and Leadership as a Case Study (Presented at the 27th Annual Conference of the Law and Society Association of Australia and New Zealand, Victoria University of Wellington, 10 December 2010) Ani Mikaere Kaihautu, Te Whare Whakatupu MataurangaTe Wananga-o-Raukawa.


The structural relationship of dominance and subjection between the power elite of the metropolitan society and Maori subalterns became entrenched [during the nineteenth century]. Today, some of these subaltern leaders, through training, or association with the power elite have been infected with an appetite for bourgeois success. They seize an opportunity to achieve economic power by championing Maori rights under the Treaty of Waitangi in the alien fora of courts and the Beehive. In pursuit of this agenda they unwittingly maintain the hegemony of the ruling class by responding to the latters definition of how Maori cultural and economic aspirations should be achieved.[1]

Ranginui Walker made this statement some eighteen years ago, in light of the contentious Sealord Deal that had recently been struck between the Crown and selected individuals claiming to represent iwi.[2] While probably not surprising, it should nevertheless be of grave concern to all of us that his comments are equally relevant to contemporary developments. Annette Sykes recently scrutinised the activities of the National Iwi Chairs Forum, observing that hapu claims for mana motuhake and political independence are being surrendered to the iwi leaders quest for greater participation and influence in the New Zealand economy. She argued that this situation illustrates the continuing subjugation of Maori to a neo liberal economic hegemony to protect the stability of the construct of Crown unitary sovereignty.[3]
Today I want to acknowledge the crisis in Maori leadership that presently confronts us. Given the audience, it is not my intention to speak about the steps that we as Maori need to take in order to remedy the situation that discussion belongs to another forum. However, I do intend to examine the process whereby Maori concepts of leadership have been distorted beyond all recognition. I also hope to make some suggestions as to how Pakeha might avoid being complicit in the ongoing colonisation of Maori decision-making and representation.

Maori Conceptions of Reality and the Role of the Rangatira

As peoples have done the world over, our ancestors expounded their own unique theory of existence in order to explain the mysteries of the universe and to understand their place within it. This theoretical framework embodied a philosophy of life that was both reflected in and reflective of their social norms and practices. It was developed over time immemorial as they traveled throughout the Pacific, and further refined here in Aotearoa over many centuries. It enabled them to make sense of the world around them, while providing the foundations for a behavioural code that allowed them to survive and to prosper. Its core is still able to be discerned by the generations of the present and the values it embodies remain as relevant as ever.

Central to this philosophy is the concept of whakapapa which establishes that everything in the natural world shares a common ancestry. With this knowledge of interconnection comes an acute awareness of interdependence which, in turn, fosters the realisation that our survival is contingent upon the nurturing of relationships, both with one another and with the world around us. Closely related to the idea that relationships must be actively fostered is the imperative to maintain a state of balance, both amongst ourselves and between ourselves and other facets of creation. Practices such as rahui and karakia are utilised as means of maintaining balance between people and the world around us. Regular communication with ancestors through the use of karanga, karakia and whaikorero show the value placed upon the connection between present and past generations. Amongst the living, it is understood that all members of the group, young, old, female and male, have their part to play in ensuring the collective well-being. Our responsibilities to future generations continually inform and guide our actions in the present.

It is important, particularly in the context of a discussion of leadership, to note that the presence of balance necessarily negates the concept of dominance and its corollary, subservience. The principle of hierarchy has no place in a conception of reality that asserts the interconnectedness of all living things and that requires the perpetual nurturing of relationships to ensure the maintenance of equilibrium.

The word that is most commonly used to refer to a leader, rangatira, provides a clear indication that Maori leadership has nothing to do with the assertion of power by one (or some) over others. With ranga coming from the word raranga which means to weave and tira referring to a group, it is apparent that the task of the rangatira is literally to weave the people together. The understanding that survival is dependent upon the preservation of social cohesion through the maintenance of relationships is implicit in the term rangatira.

Further light is cast on Maori understandings of leadership by the following list of attributes of a rangatira as outlined by Bishop Manuhuia Bennett:[4]
Te kai a te rangatira, he korero Te tohu o te rangatira, he manaaki Te mahi a te rangatira, he whakatira i te iwi

The literal translation of first of these statements is that the food of a rangatira is speech. This is not to suggest that all a leader is good for is talking although leaders are generally gifted speakers the deeper meaning refers to the need for a rangatira to stand by their word. Integrity is of the utmost importance; if a rangatira commits to a particular position or course of action, they are expected to fulfil that commitment. Saying one thing and doing another, or taking a course of action without accepting responsibility for the consequences of so doing are not the behaviours of a rangatira.

The second statement tells us that the sign of a rangatira is the ability to care for others. Generosity of spirit and action are extremely important qualities in a rangatira, who is expected to acknowledge and enhance the mana of others in all that they do. This suggests that a Maori concept of leadership represents the antithesis of the pursuit of personal gain or glory, focusing instead on the extent to which the uniqueness of others can be encouraged and celebrated.

The third aspect referred to by Bishop Bennett harks back to the central task of a rangatira, which is to facilitate unity thereby enabling the group to move forward with confidence. It is probably no accident that a further meaning of the word ranga is to set in motion a body of people. Finding a position on any one issue that everyone within the group can feel satisfied with is no easy task, requiring excellent listening skills, an intimate knowledge of the people, a solid understanding of group dynamics, and the ability to inspire and persuade.

This model of leadership is consistent with a philosophical tradition that centres on interconnection, interdependence and the maintenance of balance through the fostering of relationships.

Western Conceptions of Reality and Power

In stark contrast to M?ori philosophy is the principle of hierarchy underpinning Western conceptions of the world. Paula Gunn Allen argues that the systemic belief that dominance is synonymous with superiority and that superiority is a reflection of the divine has lain at the root of the entire apparatus of Western civilization since its infancy.[5] According to Gunn Allen, the conviction that order, harmony, goodness, propriety, and peace are the products of hierarchy is deeply embedded in Western thinking.[6] She also makes the observation that all Western nations are structured upon a trickle-down model:[7]

Regulations are initiated at the top, then segmented and dispersed throughout the system; they are implemented and enforced by those holding ever-decreasing increments of scope, information, and authority. Power increases as one goes up the chain of command . . . approaching its maximum at the level of prime minister, president, pope, secretary-general, or CEO.

Robert Yazzie discusses the Western notion of superiority in the context of Social Darwinism, which assumes that a certain group of people (male, wealthy and usually Protestant) has the right to make decisions for others and to control the government and the economy. He also refers to the theorys corresponding assumption as to the inferiority of particular categories of people, noting that history and contemporary practice show that they are women, non-Christian, and people of colour.[8] He explicitly applies the Western concept of hierarchy to the structure of colonialism, describing it as a triangle of power[9] in which those who deem themselves superior assume the right to control the multitude of lesser beings. Indigenous peoples who were inconveniently located in parts of the globe that Western colonizers claimed a god-given right to possess were invariably classified as inferior.

The Colonisation of Maori Conceptions of Reality

While assuming the subhuman status of indigenous peoples whom they sought to colonize came easily to the European invaders, being confronted with conceptions of reality that were so antithetical to their own nevertheless presented certain challenges. Early colonists in Aotearoa needed a strategy for dealing with an indigenous population to whom the concept of hierarchy was completely foreign. Luckily for them, colonization was nothing new by the time they came to Aotearoa; they had available to them an abundance of colonizing precedents, throughout the Americas and elsewhere, upon which to model their own behaviour.

The solution lay in giving a significant proportion of the target population (in this case, Maori) a stake in the hierarchy. What better way to convince a group of people to buy into a system of rank than by reassuring them that their rightful place in the pecking order was higher than that of another group? What more effective divide and rule tactic than convincing half of the Maori population that they were inherently superior to the other half? As Andrea Smith and others have noted, instituting patriarchy proved to be the perfect first step to naturalizing hierarchy, thereby facilitating the colonization of people whose society had not formerly been hierarchical.[10]
In Aotearoa, the means utilized to institute patriarchy can be divided into two main categories. The first comprised actions that consistently privileged Maori men over Maori women. The second involved the reinterpretation of Maori philosophy so as to erase all memory of its true nature and to convince Maori that patriarchy and hierarchy had always been entrenched in our beliefs about the nature of reality. I propose to deal with each of these briefly.

The favouring of Maori men over Maori women came naturally to our colonizers during the earliest years of contact, accustomed as they were to the norm of male privilege within English society. As Linda Smith has noted, Maori men were the ones with whom the colonisers negotiated, traded and treatied.[11] Crown representatives who sought Maori signatures to the Treaty of Waitangi and Te Tiriti o Waitangi during 1840 largely ignored the possibility of women signing. This approach has been recorded as having angered Maori women, thus leading the missionaries to allow some women to sign.[12] There were also occasions where Hobsons agents refused to give in to pressure for women to be allowed to sign, probably losing potential male signatories as a result.[13] This pattern of bolstering the authority of Maori men at the expense of M?ori women has permeated the Crown-Maori relationship ever since.

A more recent example of this phenomenon is the Maori Womens Welfare League, set up in 1951 with the principle objectives of promoting Maori health, education and welfare. The League established itself as a major political force almost immediately, surveying Maori housing needs in Auckland to prove to the Minister of Maori Affairs that there was a desperate shortage of housing available to Maori. However, for reasons that will be returned to shortly, complaints were made to the Minister of M?ori Affairs that the Leagues activities were extending into areas considered inappropriate for women. The Crown response was to create and provide administrative support for the New Zealand M?ori Council,[14] a largely male and conservative institution which became a government sounding board[15] for pending legislation. It should be noted that the government provided insufficient resources for the Council to be able to discharge its functions effectively,[16] and generally ignored the Councils advice on proposed legislation.[17] Yet, the very fact that the Council was established by the Crown as a Maori voice in preference to the League demonstrates that the colonisers still preferred to negotiate with Maori men, 120 years after the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

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