Skip to main content

Pacific Experiences: Finding Justice for the Māori People

Camille Naluai, interviewer [Ka‘iwakīloumoku]
August 2004

The histories of the Māori people and Native Hawaiians are undeniably similar. We are Polynesian cousins, bound by common blood lines, however far removed. Our languages, stories and culture are similar in ways, yet uniquely different in others. But one thing is disturbingly clear, both peoples suffered tremendous loss at the hands of Western entrepreneurs. Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr is a professor of Māori Studies at the University of Waikato. He grew up knowing his Māori culture and understanding the importance of a Western education. With his wit and cultural sensibilities, "Hotu," as his friends call him, plans to lead another generation of Māori into adulthood with a better understanding of their history and future.

CN: Tell me, first, about yourself and where you grew up. What kind of environment did you grow up in?

HBK: My first language was Māori. I was fortunate because both my parents were teachers. They actually chose to teach at this school way out in the boonies. It was one of the last districts in our country where people spoke Māori as a matter of everyday life. When we grew up, we spoke Māori first. It wasn’t until my brother and I moved to Auckland in the mid 1960s.

CN: Was that part of the big push to get Māoris out of those rural areas and into the urban districts?

HBK: Well, that was probably more in the 1950s and into the 1960s where people moved from rural living and into the cities. It was part of keeping colonization alive. They needed unskilled labor to keep things moving and that is how Māoris were regarded. They were meant to do mundane ordinary jobs in factories. It’s quite amazing. When I was growing up I had these uncles and aunties who, in the Māori world, were really well respected for their knowledge, but in the other world they were just janitors that were often treated with huge disrespect. I always remember stuff like that when I was growing up. It was pretty tough, but we moved to the city. My mother got a good job at a school. My father stayed at the other school with my brother and I moved to the city. That was when, probably in my second year at elementary school, where I sort of got dropped into it and I had to learn how to speak English real fast because no one else there spoke Māori.

CN: Were there a lot of Māoris at that school?

HBK: No there were probably about, in our class, five. There were a few things that happened back then that, when I look at it now, were pretty negative experiences. I was pretty fortunate because even though we lived in the city, every weekend we’d go back to do stuff with my; well I call them my grandparents but they really weren’t. It was something really hard to describe to all my non-Māori friends because it’s just this whole generation of old people that I did stuff with. They were all like my grandfathers and grandmothers. I guess its part of what Māori society used to be like. As children you grew up with all these older members of your tribe who were mentors and caretakers. That’s what it was like for me and my younger brothers because my parents would be involved in a lot of tribal issues like building maraes and all that other kind of stuff, so the older members would look after us. They’d take us, they’d feed us, they’d take us and explain things to us, they’d show us why different things happen, what kind of protocol was appropriate at certain times. By the time we were 16 and 17 we were really lucky because we’d grown up with all these people who knew a lot of their stuff. We weren’t the only ones. Where I come from there were a lot of people like that. A lot of my cousins speak Māori and they’ve had very strong growing experiences with these grandparents. Like I said, all of them were my grandmothers and grandfathers so when they all started dying off while I was in high school I would take a couple of days off from school. People couldn’t get over it. After about the 6th grandmother had died people were like ʻWhat’s with this guy.’ So, that’s where I learned a lot of stuff. Even at the high school I went to, there were about 1200 students, we only had about 100 Māoris. We probably had about 30 other Pacific Islanders. There was always a battle, and I never really saw it until I had been out of school for about 10 years. Even at school I was always rounding up all the Māoris and we would go and do stuff. I was trying to keep them involved with doing things that made them Māori. We were already a minority at school. In my second year in high school I was at the point where I realized that if I sat them down and talked to them about stuff a lot of them would listen. I would be proactive and get everybody together and talk about stuff happening at school. It always seemed that the Māoris were getting in trouble. It was the Māori students who weren’t doing so great academically. I’m pretty sure I was one of the first Māoris at our school to actually go all the way through, right through senior year and go on to the University. Usually, by the time they were 15 most Māoris, that I knew, had all quit school. You could finish school at 15. They would all go and get some kind of manual employment. What that does is just perpetuate within the Māori thinking that that’s all you could do.

CN: Were these the Māoris who were already living in the urban areas for a long time?

HBK: It’s kind of interesting because we lived on the outskirts of town. It seems like the middle of town now, but there were marae and everything already there. Even up until the 1970s where we lived was classified as country. It was like driving from here (Kamehameha Schools Kapālama Campus) to the Bishop Museum, that’s how close it was. Town ended and country started. The high school was about a half hour bus ride. Most of the gang we had, although they all lived here, all their parents had gone into manual labor jobs and that’s all they saw as their future and that’s what they chose. I think it was a bit of a trip for some of them to see that a Māori could actually stay in school until the last year of school and then go to the University. I think it was a bit of a trip for them.

CN: Did your parents go to a university to become teachers?

HBK: My father was probably one of the first ones from our tribe to get a degree.

CN: A tribe out of how many people?

HBK: I’m not sure how many people we have now but we’ve got quite a few who want to be in our tribe because we have a lot of tribal assets. He went to the university in the 1950s. He must have been in his 30s when he went to the university. My parents are way older than me.

CN: He was probably one of the first Māoris to get a university degree?

HBK: No not really. There were a few. More particularly there were a couple of other tribes that saw the value of education, but a lot of these other tribes are from the east coast and actually saw the value of getting a Western education but not relinquishing your traditional Māori values and they’ve done really, really well with it. They’ve got lots of doctors, lots of people who’ve studied overseas and gained their PhD’s that’s what we’re working at now.

CN: What are tribal assets?

HBK: Lots of land. So you can get rich leasing and stuff like that. At the moment our people have gone through this prolonged process of negotiating with the government. In the 1860s we had over 1 million acres of our land taken through legislation. Since the 1860s right up until the late 1980s our tribe has had delegations going to England trying to see the King or Queen. Getting petitions, trying to explain to the government that confiscation of our land was unconstitutional and the government finally reached and negotiated a settlement between them and ourselves in 1995.

CN: Does the government have to deal with every single tribe?

HBK: Yup! Well, it’s kind of difficult because we have all these small tribes descended from Hoturoa who is the Captain of the canoe that brought everybody to New Zealand and so everybody would collectively call themselves Tainui people because that was name of the canoe. Tainui is then broken up into all these different groupings or tribal clusters that when you go to negotiate Tainui negotiates for all the tribes who agreed to be a part of that. We still get some of our relatives who decide they want to negotiate themselves. What happened was that when negotiations took place there wasn’t much land left. The government had sold land off and as part of the negotiations and settlement process our tribe agreed that we wouldn’t make claims on privately owned land. There were a lot of nervous people in New Zealand thinking that if the government made a settlement agreement with the Māori than the Māori were going to take the land. The tribal leader agreed that we weren’t going to go for privately owned land, we were just going to go for government owned land. That’s land the fire stations are on, the university, and schools. The government would lease the land from us. There are power stations and coal mines all controlled by the government. Once that was agreed on, the government got a bit tricky. I think we had just over 100,000 acres of land out of that 1 million, but between the time the agreement was reached and the time the settlement was signed, which is about four to five years, the government privatized a lot of these things. The coal mines and the power stations, those all became private enterprises. What we did was put injunctions on all these things because the government tried to privatize all these things and than sell them off as assets. Soon no one wanted to buy them. What’s happened now is we have a tribal trust that owns all the land that was returned.

CN: How are those people doing handling the money?

HBK: Well, we have a management group.

CN: They’re all Māori?

HBK: Well, not all of them. But what happened is that we went through one bad phase that really slowed us down. We had these assets managers who came in and some of the stuff that they had decided to go with really weren’t good. The settlement was in 1995 up until about 2002, things went good for about two years then everything went down hill really fast. At about 2001–2002 there was a change in management with a focus on trying to rebuild the financial base. It’s starting to work out alright now. The biggest problem for us was that it really set our educational planning back a bit. One of the things we built, with some of the money we received in the settlement, was a college. It is really being set aside for research and post graduate studies. It’s brand new and just sitting there, but when everything went down hill and the management had to refocus a lot of the strategic plan for the school got held up a bit. We’ve got lease money that keeps everything running but in order to run a true research facility we need about a seven figure sum. Its something we are building up over the next few years. That’s the whole tribe’s focus, trying to educate their people so we can get our kids through college.

CN: There seems to be more Māori going to the university?

HBK: Now, and especially with our tribe. There was stuff that happened in the 1920s, 1930s, and the 1940s where we looked at the Western educational system and decided, “That’s not for us.” We sort of slowed down a bit. Recently there has been a real push. I’ve spent a lot of time with kids saying to them, “You’ve got to go to the university. For me, you guys coming over to take my job is good. Come and do it, come and take my job because than I know we’re in good shape.” We’re slowly working toward it, but there were all these little hiccups that occurred.

CN: Can you tell me a little bit about the waka (Māori word for canoe) and what you are doing?

HBK: There are a few things. One of the things that I really liked about canoe stuff is that it teaches people how to do things with other people and how thinking about yourself doesn’t work. A lot of the things that we do have always been involved with canoe stuff and I’ve been involved with canoes since I was about 8 or 9 years old. That was another thing that was dieing out where I came from. We were probably one of the last people still using and building traditional war canoes in New Zealand. The last canoe was built in 1972. I was about 12 when that happened. These guys who were involved with building canoes and fixing canoes were some of the grandfathers I was telling you about. Our marae is right in front of a river. Behind the marae is a big building where we stored all the canoes. When my parents were busy doing stuff up at the marae I’d go down there and hang out with all these old guys. At that time I was the only one who showed any real interest in what was going on. When I was a teenager all my cousins were like, “Ah! You’re mad. Why do you go and do stuff with those guys.” Than when I was about 24 they were all like, “Huh! We should have done what you did.”

CN: It seems like Māori culture never disappeared. Are there elements of the culture that are gone forever?

HBK: Stuff like navigation just disappeared.

CN: But was that because of Western influence or more from the Māoris?

HBK: No it was just that you didn’t need too. Like here in Hawaiʻi or in Tahiti or other South Pacific Islands with the colonization process voyaging was made illegal in some places. Then you’ve got other places where instead of going to another island to go get your food the boat just comes around and drops off tins of fish and bags of rice so you’re okay. But at home the culture just changed from being a true ocean culture to being really land based because the land was so big that if you needed to find another place to live you just walked down the coast for a couple of days and you’ll find a place that’s empty. The whole idea of moving from a small island to find a new island wasn’t really a major problem anymore because there was so much land and you could just go places without having to sail or make a difficult sort of voyage. Over 200 to 300 years that kind of knowledge just gradually slipped away. There’s other stuff too. There are things that I think were on the brink of disappearing. The fact that we still had communities that were still very strong in traditional practices and their language in the 1960s; that sort of real revival started in the 1970s when people were trying to protect and save the language, we were fortunate that we still had a lot of old people who still could be recorded, videotaped, and audio taped. No doubt there’s stuff that we don’t know that has disappeared. A lot of stuff was just last minute rescue stuff. Even in my life time I’ve seen an evolution in things. Things that I’ve seen as a kid and then I see happen now I think, ‘Jee, that’s not how I saw it when I was young.’ It’s different. The concept is the same but the practice is different. The process that they go through is just a little bit different.

CN: Is that bad?

HBK: Well, I just think it’s what happens. I think if people were jumping up and down and were like “No, no you have to do it exactly the old way.” I don’t believe that’s how it should be. Stuff evolves. Things change. Sometimes you do things better, sometimes you don’t. I don’t think you can sit people down and say we’ve got to be exactly the way that it was before. We can take ideas and we can look at stuff that happened in the past. We can look at the way people did things in the past and what they did. It’s just the way culture is I reckon. It just changes and evolves.

CN: Do you think working with the British Government was different from Hawaiians having to work with the American Government?

HBK: Say from the 1840s people got involved in things like the treaty of Waitangi. People got involved with that kind of stuff because they wanted to see something grow and develop at home. You had a government in New Zealand, in the 19th century, that was basically made up of people who wanted land. They got all the stuff that they wanted to do happening, so the people in England really didn’t know what was going on. They would just get reports in England of what’s going on in New Zealand. You’ve got examples that the British government said, “You need to set up this kind of administrative process up in New Zealand to take care of Māori needs in terms of rules and regulation, legislation,” and all that stuff. Then the governor at the time sent a message back and said, “Oh no that’s okay. All the Māoris are getting on with the settlers at the moment so you don’t need to worry about it.”

The people in England were like, “Okay that’s fine,” so they just let things go. They didn’t understand that what was truly happening was that the kind of agendas and power plays that were going on in New Zealand were totally focused at alienating Māori land to facilitate settlement and make certain people rich. I’m not really too sure how that parallels with the situation here, but at the end of the day I think sitting down and negotiating some kind of outcome and settlement, that seems to happen with a little bit more reason at home in New Zealand. I’m not too sure of the situation here allows you sit down and say, “I want to negotiate.” You need a government negotiator to sit down, look at what happened and than we negotiate an outcome from this other than what has been happening. The government actually has treaty negotiators at home. They have a department, they have a commission that looks at what the true definitions of the treaty are and what the implications are for this particular tribal group and then they will make recommendations to the government and government negotiators will sit down and make a settlement with the tribe that is involved.

CN: There are always going to be those people who are afraid of the Māori gaining more power and getting the land back?

HBK: Yeah! Absolutely! The problem at home is that because people don’t truly understand the history of Māori protests every time Māoris jump up and down and make a noise they think it’s something that’s just happening. Māoris have been doing this since the 1860s, protesting doing all kinds of stuff. In 1860 there was a bit of dissention over some land. This wasn’t our people these were some people further south. What had happened in New Zealand in the late 1830s was that these people speculating on land had come to New Zealand and tried to negotiate purchases of land throughout the country so they could facilitate settlement by British people. The companies would set the whole deal up. They’d get land, they’d ship people to New Zealand and if you couldn’t afford to buy the land, you became a worker for the company and cleared land for 10 years. After 10 years you would be given the land. There was one place where the company said they’d already bought the land and the chief said they hadn’t. He was adamant that they hadn’t bought this land. They had this huge debate about it and the governor at the time said, “No. I’m not going to recognize your power or your authority as the overall chief of this area but I’m just going up to people who are living in different parts to see if they want to sell the land to me. The chief said, “You can’t do that because it’s not theirs to sell. It’s not mine to sell. We just live here.” The governor overlooked that and went straight to these individuals and bought plots of land. Then he sent surveyors to survey all the land. The chief, meanwhile, sent his people down and every time these surveyors put the survey marks up the chief’s men would pull them out. They wouldn’t harm the surveyors but disrupt them. The chief knew that British law had a judiciary system in New Zealand. The chief figured that if they could get arrested for this public disobedience, then this whole issue would be taken before a court of law and he could prove that he was the true owner of this land and that the guardianship of that land was his responsibility. There is actually a memo from the superintendent of that province to the government that said, “We don’t want to arrest a parcel of old men and women on a misdemeanor but we want to raise the contumacy of the natives to the point that they will fight us. Then we can bring soldiers in and crush them as rebels.”

That’s the kind of stuff and it’s written. I tell my students, “See? Look! It’s written down in a book. You can’t escape it. This is written in the records of your government.” They just go, “Ho! We didn’t know that.” There you go. That’s in 1860 our people were doing these movements.

CN: What happened?

HBK: The first wars broke out in New Zealand. The chief and his people were pushed to that point. His people rallied and they started fighting the British troops. In 1860 our people had established a group called the King Movement where they elected a King. The job of the King was to protect the land. If anybody wanted to buy land they would say, “You have to go see the King.” They would go see the King and the King would say, “No. Our land is not for sale.” What happened was that when this fighting broke out some guys from the King movement went down to fight with them. A lot of my ancestors went down to help fight the British. A lot of people were killed. What happened was, well, superior firing power. All this was crushed and that’s when the legislation was brought in 1863 “The Suppression of Rebellion Act” and “The New Zealand Settlement Act.” People who were classified as rebels were tried and then the settlements act allowed the land of people who had been convicted to be taken away for settlement.

CN: So all the Māoris were rebels?

HBK: Well, a good Māori was a Māori who sold land and a bad Māori was one who wanted to hold on to his land.