The One People of New Zealand

When Europeans set off to explore and settle the world, they met other people everywhere they went. It is probably true that nowhere did they do a really honorable job of interacting with those "new" but indigenous societies. Religion, philosophy, technology or mere convenience always seemed to persuade them of their own superiority and the need or right to impose their ways on others. From the viewpoint of their already overcrowed origins, a lot of land probably looked like it wasn't being used.

Significant numbers of Europeans, mostly British, arrived in what we now call New Zealand in the Nineteenth Century. Polynesians had come only a few hundred years before, but had taken to the place right off and definitely thought of it as their home.

The conquest of the islands was subtle. The Queen of England appointed a governor to oversee her subjects there. At about the same time a French national was making noises about proclaiming himself the ruler of the islands. It was clear to the Maori that there was no advantage to being ruled by this crazy Frenchman; the Queen was petitioned to provide protection. Before you knew it, a treaty was signed on behalf of the Crown and by a number of Maori leaders (apparently quite reluctantly by some of them) which is the charter of the country we happily visit today.

It is easy to imagine that:

  • 1. The threat from the Frenchman was not overwhelming
  • 2. The text of the treaty in English was not expressed well in Maori
  • 3. The words of the treaty would later be interpreted in ways the Maori might not have been able to foresee
  • 4. Discrimination would eventually occur despite anything that was or could have been said in the treaty, as immigrants altered the racial balance
  • 5. It was just unlikely that two so dissimilar cultures could have seen exactly eye to eye on anything
Indeed the Maori leaders, invited as they were to a British home for the signing of the treaty, did what would have been natural to them: they built a ceremonial building of their own on the spot, a splendid structure which stands to this day. In the ensuing years some disillusionment occurred, and some bloodshed, and in the last part of the twentieth century there has been a cultural and political movement to reverse shabby treatment of the treaty-era Maori. See for example both arena, a network that sees these events as an early example of globalization, and the newsy Aotearoa Cafe apparent successor to the old Maori Independence page.

But for all the strife that there has been or could be, there is one difference in the entire tenor of multiracial New Zealand, one feature that sets it apart from other countries where people of diverse ancestry or belief view each other with suspicion or mistrust. When Lt. Governor William Hobson accepted the Treaty of Waitangi on behalf of the Crown, he spoke not of assimilation, or protectionism, or segregation, or subjugation, or some far-off day when all could work together; he said, "He iwi kotahi tatou" -- "Now we are one people."

Saying this doesn't mean that there won't still be differences between people, just that what they have in common is more important. Saying it once isn't sufficient to erase injustice in the world, or even in a small part of it. But it seems likely to me that saying it once, and perhaps saying it often, is necessary for a nation. In this way maybe more than any other New Zealand is a model for the rest of us.