Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Historical frictions

My holiday reading at the beach was Michael Belgrave's Historical Frictions: Maori claims and reinvented histories (Auckland University Press).

As the back jacket says, this is an "important" book. Belgrave worked for the Waitangi Tribunal during some of its most critical years, so has an insider's understanding of the forces affecting that institution. Since leaving the tribunal he has taught history at Massey University.

Belgrave explains how the tribunal is not only writing history but making history "it is just the latest in a long tradition of judicial investigations of New Zealand's past, dating almost back to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

He says these periodic exhumations, the "points of friction" in the title, are part of the continual process of Maori and the state regularly realigning themselves. While they have never resolved the problems of Maori marginalisation and resource loss, they have reduced tensions and provided opportunities for Maori communities to grab what was on offer.

Don't expect finality from the current round, but "given the time and cost of the current round of claim and settlement, it is unlikely that a new round will occur soon."

The Waitangi tribunal is required to make practical recommendations about resolving grievances, being concerned as previous commissions were about the concerns of the present. "Interpreting the past according to present values and knowledge, rather than in the context of its own time, makes historians uncomfortable," Belgrave says. For an example of that discomfort, look no further than tribunal member Michael Bassett's shrill minority reports.

The tribunal has little option as its second main role, says Belgrave, is to identify Crown breaches of the treaty, "a concept very much rooted in present interpretations of the treaty."

Tahupotiki Wiremu Rata said the treaty is always speaking. Belgrave has an elegant variant on that concept which is a valuable way to frame the debate: that there is no single Treaty of Waitangi that can be argued through the courts in a legalistic fashion, but "it is a touchstone for debates on the place of Maori in New Zealand society." The concept of "principles of the treaty" first raised on the 1975 Treaty of Waitangi Act is an attempt to create a modern treaty relevant to policy making in the present.

Since 1840 the treaty has had multiple interpretations, depending on which side of the divide you were on. By mid-last century it had become a symbol of national unity and good race relations, an interpretation which was rejected by Maori in the mid to late 1970s as notion of unbroken Maori sovereignty started to emerge.

Belgrave gets into the nitty gritty of debate with his fellow historians, defending Henry Williams ability as a translator and redeeming the reputation of Kemp, who was made the scapegoat for dissatisfaction over South Island land deals. In fact, Belgrave is sympathetic to the missionaries, who he feels were caught out by forces beyond their control and then ruthlessly slandered by George Grey.

His expositions of four claims - Muriwhenua, Ngai Tahu, Taranaki and Chatham Islands - are an excellent overview, though his wrap up chapter on the settlement process screams out for further exploration.

He rightly sees claims as an assertion of mana, which is one reason they reemerge in different guises from generation to generation. He is also one of those who sees the current round descending into a rehash of the Native Land Court battles of the late 19th century, which is why it is inevitable they will eventually be revisited.

Belgrave recognises there is a Maori sphere of operation which is far more complex than the framework of title and limited rights which the state has tried to confine it. "Patterns of interests were much more complex and variegated than the city state model imposed on Maori would suggest. They were also far more complex than assumed by Norman Smith, the Maori Land Court judge whose influential description of Maori land rights reduced them to a formulaic checklist of take (claims), based on discovery, ancestry, conquest and gift and exercised through occupation. As in other Polynesian societies, customary interests were about relationships, partly rooted in genealogical inheritance, but also reflecting present leadership, and economic and military needs. Boundaries between kinship groups were often flexible and blurred, with intermarriage drawing people into different communities... Little in this was permanently fixed, and groups often could form and re-form, sometimes absorbing others and at other times splitting into new rival groups. All of this fascinated European observers, but it was regarded by policy makers as an impediment to progress and an anachronism, to be discarded just as feudal common law rights to graze cattle or collect firewood on common land had been extinguished by enclosure in British custom."

An immensely valuable book and a cracking good read.


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