The visit made by my son Thom and me to New Zealand in May coincided with a visit to Australia by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond, who has just directed a full-length documentary called Reel Injun, about the way Hollywood has treated Indians historically.
Neil is a close friend of my son, and Thom suggested that he might like to pop over to New Zealand while we were there. (I know: they are so close! At least as close as London is to Moscow.)
Neil’s movie has been greeted with considerable praise around the world, has been shown at various festivals, and he was in Australia to plug it. All this has probably transformed the modest Neil into probably the world’s best-known person from among the James Bay Cree, a result that I am sure has crept up on him, and taken him more or less unaware.
I was delayed in getting to New Zealand (thanks to Air Canada missing a connection in San Francisco), and Neil and Thom were already installed in Auckland when I arrived.
Neil had already been in contact with various prominent Maori in the communications business, who had slotted his movie into a Maori film festival in June, and in addition they had set up an immediate impromptu screening.
The screening was held on the night I arrived, in a fish market on the Auckland waterfront. Although it was a sympathetic auditorium, it could be argued that it might have attracted more people had it been shown in a nearby media centre usually used for such occasions. Whatever, a small audience of prominent Maoris turned up, and listened and reacted to the film with an intensity that I doubt would have been shown by any non-Indigenous audience.
Neil made a shy, brief introduction to the film, and – not for the first time – Reel Injun was an immense hit with a select audience who laughed in all the right places, applauded spontaneously at some of the points made, and when the film ended rose to their feet with a standing ovation.
They then did something I can hardly imagine any other audience in the world doing: standing and turning to face Neil, who was sitting at the back of the audience, everyone in the audience broke into a lovely Maori song of appreciation, interspersed with a riveting, appreciative chant by one of them. Neil, overcome with emotion, covered his face and wept unashamedly. I cannot think of a more heartfelt tribute being paid to any film, or to any public presentation of any kind. Reel Injun was a hit, and I am sure it will be a hit when screened formally at the festival later in June.
The next day we all drove down the 100 miles or so to Te Kuiti, a small town of 6000 people where my brother now lives, retired after 40 years of farming in the high country of the central North Island. On the way, my nephew David, now running the farm, a well-educated man who has traveled the world before settling to his life’s occupation, regaled Neil with a fascinating, off-the-cuff history of the conflict fought between the British invaders and the local Maori in all of the lands we were passing through.
It happens that the Maniapoto people of this central area are one of those who claim never to have been beaten by the British forces, and their claim to their territory is stronger today on account of that. The situation of the Maori in New Zealand has always been stronger than that of other Indigenous people around the world, for largely sociological reasons having to do not only with the fierce resistance of the Maori, who fought battles against the invaders for 40 years after the signing of the formal Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, which, according to the whites, established New Zealand as a British colony. But also with the egalitarian impulse with which the settlers met the Indigenous occupants, when all the fighting was done, and they settled down to make a nation together.
I have written the above sentence fully conscious that many Maori would not accept it as a true record of the events. Of course, the invaders, as they did in every country affected by immigration from Europe, wanted the Maori land, and took it. But arrangements were made almost from the first to ensure that Maori were represented in the nation’s political discourse, with the entire country divided into Maori constituencies in which the Indigenous people have always elected their own political representatives.
The situation of the Maori has been transformed, even in the half century since I was a boy in New Zealand. In the last 25 years, both Labour Party and National (conservative party) governments have accepted the Treaty of Waitangi as a document on which Maori claims to better treatment should be built. And in modern New Zealand Maori educational and political institutions have been created that are rapidly bringing the Indigenous people into a position of near-equality with their Pakeha (white) neighbours. Just before I arrived for this visit, for example, a deal was made for co-partnership, co-ownership of the country’s major river, the Waikato, that is of central importance to North Island life for, among other things, the electricity it provides and the water it provides for industrial and domestic use.
Many major issues remain unresolved: for example, the question of who owns the country’s foreshore, which was always a major source of food to pre-contact Maori groups. But at least these issues are under negotiation, and Maori have benefitted from restoration of lands, and from restitution grants made by the neutral Waitangi commission, that have enabled them to enter the economy in a way that was never possible to them before.
On my last visit, my brother Sam introduced us to an impressive man named Phillip Crown, who is the rangatira (head person) of the Maniapoto, who took us on an informative tour of their farms in the region, and welcomed us with traditional formality to the marae that is the Maori centre of activity for every tribe. The marae in Te Kuiti is deeply impressive, a beautiful ornamented building in which is recorded the history of the tribe. The impression one gets is of a culture that has remained vital throughout its difficult years, and is growing in strength with every year. One cannot just walk on to a marae uninvited: one has to be invited and welcomed formally with that wonderful flowing Maori oratory that has always been one of their distinguishing talents.
We took Neil to meet Phillip, who, although a busy man, gave us an hour or two of his time in which they were able to exchange experiences. It turns out, not unexpectedly, that the Maori are suffering many similar difficulties to the Cree and other Canadian tribes as they work their way through to a more equitable situation in the nation.
The area of the Maniapoto and the neighbouring Tainui is known as the King Country because it was in this area that the Maori, under pressure from the invading British, elected a king who would have equivalent status to the British monarch. The King has been an influential person in Maori affairs ever since, and we visited his domain along the Waikato River.
Crown has recently written an interesting book in which he records aspects of the oral history of his region, beginning with their creation myths, and ending with the life of the famous warrior Te Kooti, who lived in the latter part of the 19th century. “The year was 1870, a time of great hardship and upheaval in the Rohe-potae (King Country),” writes Crown. “The land, still pungent with the lingering odour of death brought about by the 1863 war-making of the colonial troops against the tribes, lay in disarray. To this landscape came the unyielding prophet warrior, Te Kooti Riki-rangi….”
Another book I read while in New Zealand this time, a novel called The Tides of Kawhia, provided me with a fascinating insight into the mores and behaviour of the tribes before contact with the Europeans. It was written by journalist Tom O’Connor, whose family in 1906 moved to the Kawhia area, surrounding one of those wonderful harbours that dot the west coastline of New Zealand, not far from the King Country. This was one of the places that provided both coastal and inland Maori with important food resources derived from the sea, and was therefore a place of contention between the warring tribes.
O’Connor is an amateur historian, and his book reads almost like an anthropological study of the Maori way of life. He has based his information, he says, on scholarly works produced by Maori and other writers, and his view of the later conflicts with Europeans is that the two most damaging influences imported were Christianity and firearms. Until the use of firearms spread to the tribes, their warfare was measured and controlled by their system of beliefs and rituals that limited warfare to a challenge and response formula. Firearms opened things up to the possibility of genocide, and O’Connor claims that Te Rauparaha, a famous warrior chief in the early years of conflict, who was born in Kawhia (and around whose early life the book is centred), pushed this possibility with unwonted enthusiasm.
“Ancient beliefs and deities were outstripped and even outlawed, and permanently lost,” he writes. The Maori society was, he says, “largely consensus-driven,” but the invaders undermined the authority of the chiefs and rangatiras. The Maori social system was based on two important factors, slavery and polygamy – both designed to enable them to function in their highly competitive environment. He writes that slavery, to which defeated enemies were subjected, ranged from “a mutually beneficial loyal servitude to complete subjugation,” and it served the Maori interest until the undermining of the rangatira class began to unravel the social order, which, with the addition of firearms, caused Maori society to “collapse in on itself.”
That the warfare could be brutal was undeniable; but originally it was based on personal fighting, led by men who had been specially trained in the warrior arts.
From all this has arisen a situation that today, I would think, could be described as hopeful and positive. I asked Crown how many full-blooded Maori he knew, and he said, “One.” Today there has been so much intermarriage with whites that one really cannot make the argument that there is organized race discrimination.
Every Saturday I went along to the local netball event, participated in at every level by Maori and pakeha. Maori were running the whole meeting, were umpires and referees and coaches, and every team was a mixture of white young women and Maori, who seemed to be interacting without any distinction as to race.
A typical event in modern New Zealand.