Deepening our understanding of the Treaty relationship

A reflection from listening to the Ngāpuhi Nui Tonu claim to the Waitangi Tribunal

Susan Healy (Pākehā)

My ideas about the Treaty relationship were expanded when, in 2010 and 2011, I attended the hearing of the Ngāpuhi Nui Tonu claim to the Waitangi Tribunal ‒ which focussed on what their tūpuna intended in committing to He Whakputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni (1835) and Te Tiriti o Waitangi (1840). We heard there a view of this country’s history that is radically different from commonly-available writing, which is heavily dependent on settler interpretations. The Ngāpuhi Nui Tonu scholars started with their hapū’s history in the land ‒ a history informed by a profound philosophy, spirituality and the tikanga underlying traditional political and economic arrangements. We gained a real insight into what the hapū expected from the Treaty relationship.

As a contributor to Ngāpuhi Speaks, the independent report on the Ngāpuhi Nui Tonu hearing, I had to assess what the evidence meant for the Crown-Māori relationship today, and what is needed for positive relationships between Tauiwi and Tangata Whenua in general. By and large, the Pākehā community, in particular, has inherited a poor understanding of the values and expectations of the Māori world with regard to inter-community relationships and, hence, Te Tiriti. Our Western world is more focused on individual rather than communal advantage and is built on systems that favour monocultural dominance. I believe the fairness embodied in Te Tiriti o Waitangi means that Tauiwi and the Crown need to consider carefully what Māori intended in entering into the Treaty relationship and the values behind those intentions.

Establishing rightness of relationship between groups

The Ngāpuhi Nui Tonu speakers shared much that showed how right relationships are maintained between communities, whether people-to-people, people-to-whenua, or people-to-atua. I am not able to communicate the breadth or depth of what has been set out by the experts. What I will try to convey is the recognition given to the ground on which each community stands and how relationships of mutuality derive from this recognition.

To illustrate how this “ground recognition” manifests I will give examples that may be familiar. Those of us who attend Māori language classes are taught to introduce ourselves by naming our ancestor or ancestors, and then our mountain and river. Our place within a genealogy and in the land is established. Again, when any of us are welcomed on to a marae (tribal or community meeting centre), we take part in ceremonies expressing respect for the home people, their land, and house. Because we are coming on to someone else’s land, our leaders know we must follow the kawa (protocol) of that marae. In making us welcome, the home people in turn acknowledge the group or groups we represent and our places of origin.

At the Ngāpuhi Nui Tonu hearing I learned more about the importance of knowing where one’s people belong in the land, where land includes waterways and the adjacent shore and sea. For instance, Nuki Aldridge said:

I might look out to sea and know that I cannot fish over a certain line. I might also know that I cannot take animals that pass over a certain boundary.... I remember going to Taupo Bay to get kina [sea eggs] and fish from the ocean. When we went to a certain spot, my cousin and I were told “come back here, you can’t go there”. Later, I understood that we had a right under tikanga to go through a certain area, and that if we kept to this area other tribes weren’t allowed to touch us. That is our common law. [p103-4]

Nuki Aldridge’s explanations showed the clarity about boundaries and limits. If one wanted access to another people’s resource, whether of land or sea, then permission was sought or trading relationship agreed. The law was strictly enforced in former times and is still observed today. This is evident in the Māori Television programme Kai Time on the Road, where the cooks travel to different parts of the country to collect game and other foods for use in recipes. The blessing of the local kaumātua (elder) is incorporated as an essential part of each show. One can see how respectful entry onto another’s land engenders the building of relationships of mutuality and trust.

Māori vis-à-vis Crown political understandings

Māori respect for the ground of each community is reflected in a political order where the autonomy of each hapū and marae is valued. It is an order where authority is seen to come from the ground up, as Sir Edward Durie clarified in the F W Guest Memorial Lecture 1996:

The first [principle of traditional Māori law] is that political power was vested at the basic community or hapu level. Power flowed from the people up and not from the top down. Control from a centralised or super-ordinate authority was antithetical to the Maori system.

This order is quite different from Crown rule, which involves the centralisation of power and resource, and limited regard for the autonomy of local communities. In Dr Paul McHugh’s words: “the Crown’s sovereignty is regarded as absolute, unitary and unaccountable … it can never be shared with any other sovereign entity” [p. 273].

It is fair to say that, by contrast, the Māori order reflects the principle of subsidiarity, whereby “a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level” (Oxford Dictionary). This principle recognises that keeping decision-making as close as possible to those whose lives it affects is fundamental to human dignity.

While upholding the independence of hapū, Māori also valued their interdependence. Hapū exercised their distinct authorities and formed alliances at multiple levels of connection and interaction. Thus, very early in the 19th century, the hapū of the North joined in an Assembly of United Hapū (Te Whakaminenga) to work out strategies for dealing with the increasing numbers of foreigners coming to their shores. Speakers likened the operation of the Assembly to that of the United Nations. Each hapū retained their autonomy but their leaders came together to develop policy and provide support on matters of common concern.

In 1835, Te Whakaminenga made a formal Declaration of Sovereignty (He Whakaputanga) to the international world. They did this to gain the recognition needed to advance the expanding interests of their hapū. In He Whakaputanga, they also expressed their commitment to the relationship of mutuality and trust that had been developed between the British monarchs and the Ngāpuhi rangatira (leaders). It is Te Whakaminenga (Confederation of Chiefs) which is specifically named in the Treaty text and whose assent to the treaty was crucial to the legitimacy of Crown authority in Aotearoa.

In assenting to the treaty, the rangatira of Te Whakaminenga were granting the British governor the authority he needed to take responsibility for the Queen’s people. The governor and his people were being given a recognised place within their established network of relationships. One of the leading speakers for Ngāpuhi Nui Tonu, Rima Edwards, explained that their tūpuna (forebears) expected that the governor “would sit as one with the chiefs” – not in a role of domination but in one of reciprocal care and co-operation. Edwards described the Treaty relationship as a sacred covenant, where each party was to stand as a support to the other [p. 149, 150].

Unfortunately, the British who entered into the Treaty with Māori were imbued with convictions about the superiority of their systems. They were not geared to finding out what the Indigenous peoples intended; nor did they understand the value in an order where each community retains its autonomy and forms relationships of mutuality from that base. In the years following the signing of the Treaty, the Crown set about establishing a regime of unitary dominance, supplanting the authority of hapū in the land. This has left a heritage of wrong we are still trying to address. If as Tauiwi we are to be part of addressing these wrongs, it is important that we deepen our understanding of hapu, iwi and hāpori intentions for the Te Tiriti relationship.

Brief afterthought

There are many forums today in which we can see at play the historical tensions around the Te Tiriti relationship. Many of the recent letters to the NZ Listener have been determined to prove the superiority of Western “Science” over Mātauranga Māori – with little or no knowledge of the latter. After an ongoing barrage of these letters, I was relieved when, at last, the Listener published an editorial (8 January 2022) by Nicola MacDonald and Pippa Coom on “Saving Our Seas.” It provided an excellent example of how science from a Western tradition and Māori knowledge and practice have been brought together for the restoration of the Hauraki Gulf ecosystem. To me this is a living example of what the Te Tiriti relationship is about. It aligns with the intentions of the Rangatira who signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi: that Indigenous and Settler would work together to the benefit of their different peoples, the good of the land and the overall common good.

This blog is based on “The Treaty relationship and grounds for fairness” (2014). In N. Darragh (Ed.), But is it fair? Faith communities and social justice (pp. 87–94). Auckland: Accent Publications.

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