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CHRIS TROTTER: The Tribal Stand-off at Eden Park

An extraordinary pre-figuring of the “Aotearoa” that could emerge from “New Zealand” occurred at last month’s [22 February 2023] opening of Te Matatini.

During the powhiri to the nationwide kapa haka competition held at Eden Park, the tribe claiming mana whenua status in Auckland, Ngati Whatua, clashed with the sizeable contingent representing the people of Tainui – the Waikato tribal confederation still advancing historical claims to much of the Auckland region.

The degree of animosity on display was astonishing, with both sides trading insults. In the end Ngati Whatua refused to accept the koha laid before them by Tainui, and Tainui refused to sit down and eat alongside Ngati Whatua. The stand-off was only brought to an end by the Tainui contingent’s decision to return home to the Waikato. Astonished observers from the many other Iwi Maori participating in Te Matatini were united in their verdict: “This isn’t over.”

Is this to be the way of things in these islands once the Crown has been transformed into the passive helpmeet of the independent tribes of Aotearoa, and such Pakeha as remain have learned to keep their mouths firmly shut? Once the powerfully uniting influence of the “colonisers” has been removed, will the land be riven by conflicts reminiscent of the wars between the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of 1,200 years ago? If so, then which of the tribes will play the role of King Alfred’s Wessex?

Will it be the most numerous and, historically speaking, the most expansionist collection of clans and tribes – Ngapuhi? Or will Tainui, progenitors and guardians of the Kingitanga, gain the ascendancy? Then again, given the number of soldiers in the New Zealand armed forces hailing from Ngati Porou, the possibility cannot be discounted that it will be the second largest tribe (92,000 members in 2018) that steals a march on all the others by securing for its exclusive use the military resources needed to overawe all other contenders. Will the tribe that spawned the celebrated Maori Battalion transform Aotearoa into a military dictatorship reminiscent of Frank Bainimarama’s Fiji? And what of Ngai Tahu, brooding silently in Te Wai Pounamu? Will they even bother with “Aotearoa” – when the whole South Island is theirs to turn into the independent state of “Waitaha”?

It is just as well that the Fourth Labour Government extended the purview of the Waitangi Tribunal only as far back in history as the signing of the Te Tiriti in 1840 – rather than to the arrival of James Cook in 1769. By drawing the line at 1840, Geoffrey Palmer shrewdly excluded from the Tribunal’s consideration the years of murderous turmoil known to subsequent generations as the “Musket Wars”. Had he not done so, the bloody conquests of the best equipped tribes would have been subjected to the same unflinching scrutiny which, for the past 35 years, has been applied to the past actions of the Crown.

If the tariff for seizing the lands of rebels and inflicting casualties in the hundreds is $170 million, one shudders to think what the penalty for the 1832 killing of as many as 2,000 men, women and children near present-day Akaroa on Banks Peninsula would amount to. How does one determine the appropriate compensation for uprooting entire tribal populations and seizing their lands, forests and fisheries at the point of a musket? How does one make restitution for the genocide of the Moriori people of Rekohu (Chatham Islands)?

Such questions cannot be asked in “New Zealand”, but what will prevent them from being asked in “Aotearoa” once the mana motuhake (self-determination) of iwi and hapu has been restored, and all the old grievances of the pre-Treaty of Waitangi centuries can once again be rehearsed?

Watching the recording of the confrontation between Ngati Whatua and Tainui is a chilling experience. Speaking for Tainui, the Maori King’s right-hand man, Tukoroirangi Morgan, heaped scorn on the young men chosen to speak for their people. “Who are these children you send to greet us?” Morgan sneered. So, one imagines, did the war leaders of petty kingdoms address one another in the Dark Ages – before letting slip the dogs of war. Such is the magic of Maori oratory, however, that when the Ngati Whatua spokesman, in his ill-fitting suit, rose to reply, he did indeed look like a boy sent to do a man’s work.

Morgan’s true fury was reserved for Ngati Whatua’s decision to assert its mana whenua over Auckland in “a Pakeha court”. The King’s man spat out these words as if they were hot coals in his mouth. What he did not make clear, however, was the alternative to the peaceful judicial resolution of disputes. Those Maori demanding “transformational” constitutional change in the years leading up to the 200th anniversary of the Treaty’s signing in 2040, envisage an entirely separate Maori legal system. Listening to Morgan’s lethal rhetoric, one could hardly avoid wondering if a key feature of any such system would be trial by combat!

The excellent coverage of the Ngati Whatua/Tainui stand-off provided by Moana Maniapoto for Maori Television’s Te Ao with Moana captured not only the injured dignity of the participants – and their rage – but the consternation of the people looking on. Even Maori as steeped in the language and art-forms of their culture as the Matatini competitors could not hide their consternation at the naked hostility on display. Clearly, the world of the Maori has its dark side. The wounds inflicted by both parties will not be brushed off easily. Utu will be exacted. As one of those interviewed for the programme put it: “We Maori are like elephants – we do not forget.”

Should the Maori succeed in taking their country back (which, in spite of all the promises of “partnership” and “equity”, remains their unshakeable intention), it will not be as a unified people, but as a group of tribes no longer held together by their fierce antagonism to colonisation and all its works. In the 183 years since the signing of the Treaty, the claims of whanau, hapu and iwi have remained central to what it means to be Maori. Strike off the colonial fetters – cultural, economic and political – and what remains will be what was always there – long before James Cook’s Endeavour sailed out of the morning sun.

Proud tribes. Strong tribes. Deadly Tribes.

This article was first published at The BFD and is re-published with their permission

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