Decolonising: A nationwide movement for indigenous freedom

By Hayley White

I think it was around a year ago when I first stumbled across the term decolonising. It confused me a little bit because the concept of trying to decolonise from white, Western culture does not seem possible – but that just shows the limit of my own mind. Western culture permeates everything, from the food we eat to quite literally the thoughts we have in our heads. This creates a fundamental issue for indigenous people in that it makes it harder for them to connect with their own cultures.

But what does it actually mean to decolonise? Well, it can mean a whole host of things. At the root, it refers to the undoing of colonial influence on a country or people. This means allowing indigenous people to reconnect with their identity and have control over their cultural development. It is the freeing of minds from the ideology that confronts the idea that being colonised was to be inferior (University of Warwick, 2018). George (2017) says that it is also about acknowledging our ancestors’ history, being willing to deal with the consequences, impacts, and emotions, and looking past them towards a future for the culture. Even more basic: decolonisation is simply the process of the colonisers handing

By Hayley White

I think it was around a year ago when I first stumbled across the term decolonising. It confused me a little bit because the concept of trying to decolonise from white, Western culture does not seem possible – but that just shows the limit of my own mind. Western culture permeates everything, from the food we eat to quite literally the thoughts we have in our heads. This creates a fundamental issue for indigenous people in that it makes it harder for them to connect with their own cultures.

But what does it actually mean to decolonise? Well, it can mean a whole host of things. At the root, it refers to the undoing of colonial influence on a country or people. This means allowing indigenous people to reconnect with their identity and have control over their cultural development. It is the freeing of minds from the ideology that confronts the idea that being colonised was to be inferior (University of Warwick, 2018). George (2017) says that it is also about acknowledging our ancestors’ history, being willing to deal with the consequences, impacts, and emotions, and looking past them towards a future for the culture. Even more basic: decolonisation is simply the process of the colonisers handing governance and ownership back to the indigenous peoples. But when colonisers make up the majority of the population, what then? There are so many indigenous communities all around the world still working to decolonise and retrieve their culture – and they have a long way to go. The Māori culture is only but one of them.

From the moment Captain James Cook landed in Aotearoa in 1769 and the British built settlements, colonisation of Māori began. Initially, Māori people were very hospitable, offering support, protection, and land to live on so settlers could contribute to the community and coexist. While many European settlers were grateful, many were not and chose to follow the Christian Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery allowed Christians to lay claim to territories previously uninhabited by Christians in the name of their King or Queen. It also held the belief that white Christians were superior over all other races and gave them permission to dispossess, enslave, and exterminate other races, religions, or cultures (Mutu, 2019). Because of this, the British viewed Māori as mindless savages to justify trying to drive them from their own lands.

Frustrated, Māori reached out to King William IV requesting he send emissaries to help control the British settlers in New Zealand. The British Resident and a Governor arrived and drafted A Declaration of the Sovereignty of New Zealand (He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni). This was a declaration of independence signed by the rangatira (chiefs) of various hapū throughout the north, the Waikato, and Ngāti Kahungunu. It declared the rangatira assembled were sovereigns of their own iwi and hapū, and were the only ones allowed to make laws to keep the peace. An English interpretation of He Whakaputanga was sent to King William IV and acknowledged. Many hapū today, especially in the north, still consider He Whakaputanga as the founding document of New Zealand.

Because this still did nothing to deter the European settlers still taking land from the Māori, Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi) was drafted up and signed in February 1840. This treaty was essentially a backup for He Whakaputanga, preserving the tino rangatiratanga (absolute and total power and authority, including sovereignty) of the rangatira, hapū, and the people. It outlined the immigration laws for European settlers, left governance of them to the Queen of England, and made English custom available to enhance trade and friendship between Māori and English. And that is what these documents were; an expression of trust and friendship by the Māori who wanted to live in harmony with the British.

Māori held to their promises, taking both documents very seriously. The European immigrants did not, even after having gained massive benefits from the Treaty, including being able to settle. What followed were wars that stretched for years and saw thousands of Māori killed so that Europeans could dispossess their land. On top of this, Europeans forced Māori to assimilate into European life by bringing them into European schools and insisting they learn English. This often involved physical beatings as punishment for speaking Te Reo Māori in schools. There was not one area of Māori life the settlers did not invade and take. Mutu (2019) says Europeans made up policies that “sanctioned the theft of lands, forests, fisheries, airways, waterways, seas, minerals, foreshores, seabed and estates” (p. 5). These processes carried on for years as the European settlers colonised Māori, resulting in a massive loss of culture and language that saw Te Reo Māori nearly disappear. This betrayal by European settlers led to the strong distrust we still see to this day. It is for these very reasons, and more, that Māori want to decolonise.

It seems a silly question to ask why Māori want to decolonise, but it is one that so many people have asked – myself included. When looking from an outsiders’ perspective, the process of decolonisation is said to be extremely difficult. Huygens (2011) says that the indigenous experience is a continuous and ongoing process of colonialism. This is because today’s society is incredibly Western and permeates everything we do, so it leaves indigenous communities no space for their cultures or at least makes it harder to properly express who they are.

The process of decolonisation is undertaken in myriad ways. The one that most people start with is relearning the language. Another is reconnecting with iwi, hapū, and visiting the whenua. For many, their journeys include reconnecting with the Earth and their long-lost family this way, too. But quite possibly, the biggest aspect of decolonising is stepping out of the colonised mindset and putting cultural values and traditions first.

There have since been actions by the New Zealand government towards regaining some of our indigenous Māori culture – one of which is the Waitangi Tribunal. The Waitangi Tribunal was established by the Treaty of Waitangi Act and strived to provide Māori with a place they could go for Treaty claims from 1975 onwards to be investigated. The Māori Language Act 1987 was legislation passed by Parliament that made Te Reo Māori an official language and gave speakers the right to use it in legal settings.

From a Pākehā perspective, decolonising seems unlikely, and even researchers have been sceptical. Many argue that just the act of existing as a settler in New Zealand contributes to the continued colonialism of Māori, but it does not have to be this way. Huygens (2011) says that whenever a “coloniser” attempts to right their wrongs, they are seen as a custodian, as someone who brings light to the colonised darkness. Huygens says that the, “colonialist can now ‘relax’, and ‘live benevolently’ since the colonised could only be grateful to him,” (p. 55). Huygens goes on to say that aiding in the decolonisation of Māori is possible as a Pākehā, but that we need to view it as a conscious practice, rather than a process. It is definitely not something that indigenous people can do alone. Pākehā contributions to decolonisation are an essential and significant form of work towards indigenous freedom, not just in New Zealand but as a role model for the world.

 

Sources: 1. Stirring up Silence: What does decolonising anthropology in Aotearoa New Zealand really mean? Commoning Ethnography 2. Developing a decolonisation practice for settler colonisers: A case study from Aotearoa New Zealand. Settler Colonial Studies 3. The impact of colonisation on te reo Māori: A critical review of the State education system. Te Kaharoa 4. Aboriginal Title in New Zealand Courts. Canterbury Law Review 5. The treaty claims settlement process in New Zealand and its impact on Maori. Land 6. What is decolonising methodology? warwick.ac.uk

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