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d’Errico: Mãori move forward with New Zealand

New Zealand’s announcement of support for the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, after having been one of four countries voting against the Declaration at its adoption in 2007, was an opening day highlight of the Ninth Session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

The announcement stated, “In keeping with our strong commitment to human rights, and indigenous rights in particular, New Zealand now adds its support to the Declaration both as an affirmation of fundamental rights and in its expression of new and widely supported aspirations.”

Semantics is concerned with the meaning of words; and words are the core of international documents like the U.N. Declaration.

The New Zealand statement deserves careful scrutiny, both in its text and the manner and context of its delivery. The text marks a turning point, but betrays an underlying resistance to indigenous self-government. For example, the sentence, “Mãori hold a distinct and special status as the indigenous people, or tangata whenua, of New Zealand,” is followed immediately by this: “Indigenous rights and indigenous culture are of profound importance to New Zealand and fundamental to our identity as a nation.” Which is it? Are Mãori “distinct and special” or are they part of the domestic national “identity” of New Zealand?

This may seem like a quibble about semantics, but semantics is concerned with the meaning of words; and words are the core of international documents like the U.N. Declaration. One of the most important battles fought and won by indigenous peoples in the making of the Declaration was the “s” on “peoples,” which expresses the profound meaning of being a nation as opposed to being a collection of individuals. That’s why the two sentences of the New Zealand statement are significant: One sentence points toward an acknowledgment of Mãori nationhood, the other toward a domestication of Mãori individuals in a general New Zealand identity.

On balance, the announcement is a forward move, because it strengthens the position of the U.N. Permanent Forum as the arena for the struggle.

This is not a search for the “true” meaning of the New Zealand announcement, but an understanding that it moves both forward and backward in relation to the ongoing struggle for worldwide indigenous peoples’ rights. The forward move is that New Zealand acknowledges it has to work within the U.N. framework of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples. The backward move is New Zealand’s effort to hold onto its “existing legal regimes for the ownership and management of land and natural resources.” On balance, it seems to me the announcement is a forward move, if only because it strengthens the position of the U.N. Permanent Forum as the arena for the struggle.

The manner and context of the New Zealand announcement are of as much interest as the text. The Hon. Dr. Pita Sharples, Minister of Mãori Affairs, co-leader of the Mãori Party, and deputy-chair of the Mãori Affairs Select Committee in the New Zealand Parliament, presented the announcement. He spoke first in the Mãori language, then in English. According to newspaper reports, his trip to New York, and the announcement itself, were kept secret by the New Zealand government. Moreover, the announcement has sparked outbursts and innuendo among New Zealand political parties, and a threat the endorsement could “rankle voters.” Just as the text moves in two directions, so do the political implications: The endorsement is being hailed on one side as a Mãori triumph and on the other as a “symbolic act” that changes nothing basic.

The New Zealand announcement marks a turning point, but betrays an underlying resistance to indigenous self-government.

This is not the first time an act of seemingly great importance is belittled as meaningless, or vice-versa, that an apparently symbolic act carries great significance. Legal and political history is full of such events. Many times, I notice reader comments belittling Indian Country Today columns that delve into historical events, with remarks like, “What difference does it make?” or “What are you going to do about it?” Such comments show the reader doesn’t understand that history moves, not in a straight line, nor always in the same direction, but back and forth and around, sometimes taking years before an overall trend is visible.

Change on the scale of the world is an ongoing, never ending phenomenon. In fact, it is never ending phenomena: many things happening at the same time, overlaying one another, pulling and pushing in different directions, circling the same ground in varying ways. Mãori leadership seems to get this, and to have patience for the long haul, the deep commitment that underlies any real historical change.

Peter d’Errico is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues. D’Errico was a staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services from 1968 – 1970. He taught legal studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst until 2002.