Mine or ours?

by Brian Turner / 29 November, 2003
A response to the recent open letter from Ranginui Walker.

No one would doubt or challenge Ranginui Walker when he asserts that his sense of attachment and belonging to the place where he was born and brought up runs deep. But when he says, "I have been here a thousand years. You arrived only yesterday", he very clearly denies a similar depth of feeling to almost everyone else. Walker's empathy with his surroundings, he implies, is more authentic and valuable than that of, say, farming families of the Maniototo, or the people of the Waitaki Valley, or the townsfolk of Dunedin or Timaru. In New Zealand today, there is a relentless presumptuousness about the way in which non-Maori feelings for land and water are dismissed as less heartfelt, less sensitive, less spiritual. In this regard, Walker, and those like him, leads the way.

Living here, one often hears tiresome, incessant talk from Maori, and non-Maori urban-liberals especially, saying that if you are of European extraction, you can't possibly truly belong here, in the way that those with even the most attenuated Maori ancestry do. I vehemently disagree. Try telling that to the people I live among, and others, who go back generations here.

I am indigenous. I say, stop the bigotry whereby one culture or another claims greater moral virtue and/or spiritual sensitivity. Recognise the worth and strength - and the reality - of hybridisation. Isn't this what just about all of us are, hybrids?

This will continue to the point whereby, in less than 50 years' time, it's likely that more than half of the population will be able to claim some Maori connection. Then what? Who is a "minority"?

Recently, a friend drew my attention to a marvellous address by Susan Sontag, when she received the Friedenspreis (Peace Prize) from the German Book Trade Association. At one point, she said, "A good deal of my life has been spent trying to demystify ways of thinking that polarise or oppose. Translated into politics, this means supporting whatever is pluralistic and secular." I hope that Ranginui Walker and anyone like him might reflect on that, in this country where a sanctimonious culture of reprimand is rife.

I have found that, for many years now, to disagree or take issue with almost anything that Maori assert guarantees that you will be attacked and deemed anti-Maori, Eurocentric and racist, among other pejoratives. Some of those attackers, oddly, include a number of strange birds, predominantly of European ancestry, who insist that, in order to live here, we have to atone for the sins of some of our fathers and be prepared to keep on atoning until Maori say "enough".

All nations, all societies, all families, all individuals know and accept that their pasts are murky, that, at one time or another, they have transgressed, often badly. So, contrary to the remorseless line that we are fed by various, mainly government agencies, it is not ignorance of the past that makes most people unwilling to forever make amends, it is a belief that little of benefit is to be gained from it.

We all know that many people here live in, by New Zealand standards, impoverished circumstances. Would it not be best to provide assistance on the basis of need, and remove the racial component? For years now, I have heard people express resentment that goes something like this: if Maori are down and out, the cry is, "It's Pakehas' fault"; if non-Maori are in strife, "It's their fault."

It might be better if, instead of alleging that New Zealand's social problems are racially based, we accepted that they are, principally and more accurately, related to ideology and the changes wrought as a consequence since the early 1980s. I hasten to add, before the ranting begins, that I am not saying there isn't racism in New Zealand. Human beings are often racist, and to varying degrees, wherever one goes. In this country, there are racist Maori and racist non-Maori. There is also a high degree of preciousness and a scary, sometimes farcical eagerness to take umbrage.

With respect to the issue as to who owns the foreshores and seabed around New Zealand, Walker in effect says that although he and his tribesfolk are happy, in the main, to share the seas and beaches with other recreational users, he reserves the right to exercise control. He expects the rest of us to defer, which is patronising and unacceptable. He often seems to advocate a kind of latter-day tribalism, a society based upon a wish to replicate conditions and a world that no longer exists.

And what Walker is really saying is, "What's mine is mine and what's yours is mine, too." It's cake-and-eat-it country. He reminds me, again, of how proselytisers, when referring to rights conferred by article three of the Treaty, seldom acknowledge their corresponding responsibilities. Whether anyone likes it or not, they signed up 163 years ago to being British (read New Zealand) citizens. As such, that means a responsibility to work to improve and safeguard this society for the social, cultural and economic benefit of all. I can't see any point in us reverting to a system that boils down to pitting tribe against tribe.

To me, the seas and rivers and coastlines and lakes are part of our common heritage. It is time for us to confirm that recreational activities involving access to those parts of the outdoors are the customary right of all. That is what the overwhelming majority of people who appreciate them want, and expect their democratically elected government to protect. A great many people would be happy to define a customary right as a practice that citizens who live here are accustomed to engaging in.

Walker insists on ownership, but it would be good to reconsider what it is that we have a right to own. Our own property and personal possessions, but little else, in my view. Ownership of things we have created or, possibly, had a hand in making: but who among us made birds, fish, native forests, land and water? Give permits to use, in some cases, but more than that, no. And when it comes to recreational use, make the same regulations apply to all. The date of arrival of one's ancestors (or, often, a selected few of them) should be no excuse for the awarding of preferential rights.

Walker writes repeatedly "my coastline", "my shores". This country will remain divided until he, and others like him, acquires the vision to say "our", until he will say that not only "some ... Pakeha intermarried" with him, but "some Maori intermarried" with Pakeha.

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