Friend or Foe?

Maori cultural performers, Waitangi Treaty Grounds

Shortly after our arrival in New Zealand last October, a friend in the US asked us about  the present-day relationship between the Maori and the New Zealanders of European descent. “Is there apartheid?” she asked. This is not the type of question a short-term visitor should presume to answer without research and evidence, and our knowledge is still limited. Nevertheless, I’m ready to put some thoughts on paper. I welcome further insights.

A little history:

It’s believed the Maori arrived in New Zealand about 1200 CE in successive waves of canoe migration from Polynesia. Their first contact with Europeans came in 1642 when two Dutch ships commanded by Abel Tasman appeared at the top of the South Island. Never having seen a European or a European ship before, the local Maori came out in canoes to ascertain whether the strangers were friend or foe. Since neither party had the least comprehension of the other’s language or customs, perhaps it’s not surprising the meeting did not go well. When the Dutch blew their trumpets in greeting and lowered a boat of their own, the Maori interpreted it as a hostile action. The Dutch boat was attacked, four men were killed, and the Dutch ships quickly sailed away.

Fast forward to 1769 when Captain James Cook arrived in the Bay of Islands. Fortunately, he had aboard a Tahitian, whose language was close enough to Maori to serve as interpreter. This time, permanent relations were established and trade began. The Maori gained muskets and important new food sources such as pigs and potatoes. The Europeans were eager to obtain timber for shipbuilding and ports for whaling and sealing.

In 1840 the English version of the Treaty of Waitangi gave the British sovereignty over Maori lands. However, when the treaty was translated into Maori for the 500+ chiefs to sign, the word “sovereignty,” whether by misunderstanding or intent, came out as “governance.” It’s quite possible the chiefs did not comprehend exactly what they were signing away. Between 1844-1872, five major conflicts occurred, known collectively as the New Zealand Wars, and debate over the treaty and its outcomes continues today.

Representing our tour group, Chief Eric exchanges a greeting with the Maori chief at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds
Maori cultural performance, Waitangi Treaty Grounds
Carved meeting house, Waitangi Treaty Grounds

So, is there apartheid in 2019?

Our initial answer to our friend was No, not that we had observed. Nor have we since. The New Zealanders we have met are proud of their ancestries and at pains to be honest about past injustices and conflicts. Place names, official documents, and public signage are given in both Maori and English, and we hear it freely spoken on the streets and in the shops. Maori art is incorporated into civic structures, and Maori tours and cultural performances are widely promoted to visitors. Schools, we are told, teach children not just the language but the Maori concept of words like “kindness.” Moreover, intermarriage between Maori and Europeans began almost immediately after contact. The two Maori guides we had at Waitangi didn’t hesitate to tell our tour groups that their surnames were MacDonald and Busby. James Busby was the British Resident in New Zealand who was involved in drafting the Waitangi Treaty.

Bible in Maori and English, Christ Church, Russell
Maori fishhook design bridge, Whangarei

That said, is there discrimination in areas such as housing, educational opportunities and employment? Again, not that we personally have observed. The employees we’ve encountered at the stores and offices we’ve visited appear to be a happy mix of European, Maori and Asian. On the other hand, we don’t know any Maori people well enough to ask if they felt they had ever been denied a job or an apartment because of their race. A United Nations report from 2011 says Maori are extremely disadvantaged socially and economically compared to other New Zealanders and noted that although significant strides have been made in recent years to advance the rights of Maori people, much more needs to be done. Also, although the government has made financial settlements to various Maori groups, there is concern that the Maori have not been given the guidance and knowledge to invest the money for their long-term benefit.

Meanwhile, all New Zealanders have reason to be united on several major issues that affect their future. One is the cost of housing. We began hearing of the problem from Kiwi sailors back in Fiji whose children, as young adults, could not afford to buy a house. Prices were too high, salaries too low. In consequence, their sons and daughters had left New Zealand for more lucrative jobs in Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States. Most hoped to return to New Zealand when they had enough savings to purchase a home, after which they could afford to live on a New Zealand income. I’m not sure of all the factors driving the prices upward, but Radio New Zealand just reported that the median cost of a house here is six times the median salary. Simultaneously, a recent government initiative to build more affordable housing is woefully behind schedule and in disarray.

It all seems to be summed up in some signs we saw posted on rural land not far from the Auckland airport. The first notices–“This Land is in Dispute” and “Fletcher You Shall Not Pass”–made us wonder if we had stumbled into a feud between two adjacent landowners. A few days later, in downtown Auckland, the identity of “Fletcher” became clear.

Wherever it happens in the world, when those without economic power are forced to take on rich individuals or corporations it’s a David vs. Goliath battle. You know who I’m hoping will win.