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Land Back: On Language, Bodies and ‘Cheaty’ Settlements


Whatungarongaro te tangata toituu te whenua

(As man disappears from sight, the land remains)

Indigenous struggles against capitalism and imperialism are often struggles orientated around land. As Maaori, we base our rela- tionship with land on reciprocity, physically and ethically com- mitting ourselves to land through a just and sustainable give and take. We even refer to ourselves as ‘tangata whenua’— ‘tangata’ meaning people and ‘whenua’ meaning land as well as placenta — physically situating our bodies as being of the land. When we re- call our pepeha,1 a traditional introduction, we present ourselves as long dead ancestors, as a river or ocean and as a mountain. ‘Ko au te whenua, ko te whenua ko au’ (I am the land and the land is me), to quote an ancient proverb. This is our ontology of the world, one where land and people are one and the same — and it differs dramatically from a Western ontology where the Cartesian split separates the immaterial from the material, the natural from the built and the human from the non-human.

Where Western societies tend to derive meaning from the world in developmental terms, centring linear time and its progression (for good or ill) in their account of the world, Indigenous ontologies tend to place land at the centre of their understandings. This distinction between the West’s prioritisation of time and Indigenous people’s prioritisation of place emphasises, first, Indigenous people’s attachment to their land, and second, their ontological framework for understanding relationships. We understand each other through our respective relationships to land. My Aunty Tai, for example, would recount stories about her great-grandfather as though he were alive, like a mountain still standing or a river in flow. This is another way of saying that a Maaori ontology rejects the Cartesian split — there is no distinction between the human and non-human — and instead we understand our place in the world through our relationship to Papatuuaanuku, the earth, and Ranginui, the sky.

This is why colonisation is more than ‘land loss’ for Maaori — it’s a loss of our entire being. This relationship between land and people isn’t something you can categorise or place within monetary value systems and so you can never adequately compensate for its loss. If you take our land, you take a part of us. No compensation or ‘settlement’ can rightfully restore the mana2 of this land. No monetary value can be placed on it. This is why we are anti-Treaty of Waitangi ‘settlements’. Our bodies’ karanga tell in chants the stories of our migration, our ontological relationship to the Pacific and the land, and to our ancestors who held the land, cared for it and had it taken from them.

The 'Discovery' of New Zealand

New Zealand was the last major landmass on Earth that humans settled.3 The first European to discover ‘New Zealand’ was Dutch ‘explorer’ Abel Tasman in 1642, the former Dutch East India Company captain exploring the vast Pacific in search of either ‘Terra Australis’ or a sea passage from the Pacific to Chile. But like Te Whenua Moemoeaa, or Australia, New Zealand was eventually colonised by the British, with Captain James Cook and his syphilis-ridden crew aboard the HMS Endeavour making first contact for the English-speaking world more than a century later in 1769. Again, as in Te Whenua Moemoeā, Cook left a lasting imprint on the national consciousness, naming coastal and inland landmarks and, of course, designating various landmarks in his own name.

he initial interactions between hapuu, the primary social units in Maaori society, and European powers were tentative, with small skirmishes taking place at various points in the years leading up to 1840. But these collisions of culture would eventually give way to hapuu hopes for an exchange of ideas, technology and commerce. Contact with Paakehaa (or Europeans) exposed Maaori to new technologies for land production and between 1800 and 1850 the agricultural and horticultural base of Maaori expanded as hapuu added new crops like wheat and potatoes to their plantations.4 Ancient inter-hapuu trade networks flourished, extending all the way to Australia and California.5 While this expansion was occurring, Maaori continued to practise kaitiakitanga (guardianship) over their resources in order to protect Papatuuaanuku.

In seeking these exchanges, hapuu were also keen to ensure that the new British settlers would not only acknowledge and respect the sovereignty of Maaori, but also understand and respect the whenua — Papatuuaanuku — itself, and join Maaori in the collective duty of sustainably managing the land. The trouble, of course, is that British colonialism was underpinned by converting land to ‘property’, a commodity to be owned.6 For Maaori, you cannot ‘own’ land either as an individual, company or some other setup. You can only exercise responsibilities and rights in respect of it (land and Papatuuaanuku).7 But capitalism is predicated on property’s convertibility and exchange. This insatiable appetite for land as property helped compel the British to draft the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

The Treaty of Waitangi

In 1840, approximately 540 Rangatira or Maaori chiefs signed Te Tiriti, the Maaori-language version of the Treaty of Waitangi, with all but 39 signing the English-language version. At the time of the signing, Maaori outnumbered Paakehaa ten to one, and so there was no question as to who held power. But the country’s economic base — its ‘land, forests, and fisheries’ to quote the Treaty text — was changing dramatically. The rangatira understood its cultural (like language), social and political bases would soon follow. The intention in signing was to help retain a degree of control over the pace of economic, social and political change.8 Contact with Europe and its colonial powers meant hapuu autonomy and all of their systems and tools to protect Papatuuaanuku were at risk.9 The rangatira, many of whom had first-hand experience in the New South Wales colony, were aware of just what happens when Europe arrives.

On the face of it, the Treaty was a just exchange. In Te Tiriti, the Maaori language version, the rangatira reaffirm their ‘tino rangatiratanga’, a concept that Rima Eruera describes as ‘the retention of te ihi, te wehi, te mana motuhake me to tapu.’ In English this translates to ‘the power of authority, the protection of this authority, the control of this authority, and the sanctity of this authority over our land and sea.’10 In return for this reaffirmation over the land, the rangatira carved out for the Crown ‘kaawanatanga’, a transliteration for ‘governorship’, over its British subjects.11 This power is secondary and subordinate.

The trouble is ‘kāwanatanga’ was a mistranslation. The English-language version promised the Crown ‘sovereignty’, a political concept closer to the tino rangatiratanga guaranteed to Maaori than the kaawanatanga carved out for the Crown. In other words, Te Tiriti promised Maaori control of things Maaori.12 The Treaty of Waitangi promised Paakehaa control of things Maaori. Hone Mohe Tawhai, one of the hesitant signatories in 1840, was prescient when he lamented that the sayings of the Maaori would ‘sink to the bottom like a stone’ while the koorero of the Paakehaa would ‘float lightly like the wood of the whau tree and always remain to be seen’.13 This mistranslation — ‘sovereignty’ as ‘kaawanatanga’ — wasn’t quite deliberate. Instead it was pathological, reflecting European assumptions of superiority (the Treaty was translated overnight, reflecting the poor standard of care towards Maaori and their independence). With more time and consultation with Maaori, the drafters and translators would have realised that a Maaori equivalent for sovereignty did exist: mana. Of course, if Te Tiriti properly deployed mana, it’s likely very few (if any) rangatira would have signed. Did any Indigenous people ever willingly surrender their sovereignty? Of course not. It was uniformly taken. But the chiefs who signed Te Tiriti did so for one reason — to reaffirm their mana and its connection to the land. It is certain that had the 540 rangatira who signed Te Tiriti known that within one generation of signing the Maaori population would drop by 60 percent, they never would have done so.14

It’s telling that upon signing The Treaty of Waitangi the official British resident, Captain William Hobson, told the gathered chiefs ‘he iwi kotahi tatou’ — we are now one people. The birth of a new nation, Maaori and Paakehaa, under one queen — Britain’s.15

Cheaty Settlements

In an interview on Northland’s Te Hiku radio in 2014, then Prime Minister John Key asserted that New Zealand was ‘settled peacefully’. The offhand comment came after the Waitangi Tribunal, the permanent commission of inquiry with exclusive jurisdiction to determine the meaning and effect of the Treaty, found that the rangatira who signed Te Tiriti agreed to share power and authority with Britain. They did not, however, surrender their sovereignty to the Crown. Britain went into the Treaty negotiation intending to acquire sovereignty, the tribunal members agreed, and therefore the power to make and enforce law over both Maaori and Paakehaa, but none of this was properly put or explained to the rangaitra. In the decades following the 1840 signing, the Crown would use two tools to acquire Maaori land: dodgy purchases, like the Kemp purchase in the South Island, where the terms of the agreement were never entirely followed, and force. Entire tracts of the Taranaki, Bay of Plenty and Waikato were stolen at the end of a rifle. Maaori went from controlling the entire country in 1839 to owning a mere 5 percent in 2020. The Waitangi Tribunal is responsible for investigating ‘how’ this happened, but the Tribunal cannot ‘settle’ any of the claims made to it. It can only make recommendations to the government. The Tribunal isn’t a court of law and so its recommendations and findings are not binding (there is one exception to this non-binding rule, but it’s only ever been used once).

The trauma inflicted upon both Maaori and our land means that we continue to experience inequity in myriad ways. The Crown acknowledges that the taking of Maaori land was a Treaty breach, and it enters negotiations with iwi (which is a confederation of hapuu) to bring together ‘Treaty settlement’ packages as redress for those breaches. From the outside looking in, Treaty settlements might appear fair and progressive. Settlements include monetary redress, the transfer of some land and property, an agreed historical account acknowledging the wrongdoing and an official apology. However, the redresses within these Treaty (or Cheaty) settlements are often inadequate. These measures — Treaty settlements, the ‘apology’ and the Crown’s redresses — represent as little as 0.01 per cent of the value of the land and resources that were taken from iwi and hapuu. For example, in 2003 Professor Margaret Mutu found that in the Kaai Tahu settlement, considered the most generous Treaty settlement to date, only $170 million was repaid, even though the value of the stolen lands is in the tens of billions. The Crown has also retained process rights, such as the ‘first right of refusal’. Something is better than nothing, but these redresses hardly make up for a stolen country. The process is a farce. The payment is an insult.

Of course, it’s considered impolite to point this out. When Treaty settlement legislation passes through parliament, politicians congratulate themselves. It’s theatre; everyone knows that the Crown is buying itself a little more time, using its finance and property powers to keep iwi and hapuu quiet for a few more decades.

The media and government often frame Treaty settlements as acts of goodwill from the Crown to Maaori. But the opposite is true: Treaty settlements are acts of goodwill from Maaori to the Crown. If iwi and hapuu were to insist on full redress, meaning land and resources representing the value of what was taken from them, it would bankrupt the Crown. Fiscally, obviously, but also morally — an extensive and just settlement would expose the true extent of what was stolen. As the rangatira Moana Jackson has pointed out, you don’t ‘settle’ a treaty, you honour it.


It’s popular to imagine that Treaty breaches are a thing of the past, and that ‘settlements’ amend historic wrongs. But incursions into Maaori land have not ended. The chief examples are the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 — a piece of legislation that extinguished the possibility of Maaori claiming their customary title to the foreshore and seabed — and the 2007 invasion of Tūhoe, when police forces invaded Ruatoki in search of ‘terrorists’, setting up their search and seizure line on the historic confiscation line. But not all Treaty breaches are this on-the-nose. Near our marae, on the banks of my river, is the Huntly Coal Power Station, the country’s largest single electricity carbon emitter. Of course this industrial site, toxic and nuisance, is built on Maaori land.

But if a settlement isn’t justice, what is? Justice, to us, is Mana Motuhake. The term is older than ‘tino rangatiratanga’, and it loosely translates to ‘Maaori independence’. In practice it means ‘land back’ — nothing short of the return of what was taken, in the pristine state in which it was taken. The Crown will often transfer management or governance of degraded land and waterways to iwi, like the algae-infested Lake Rotoiti. This offloads its own liability, manipulating its Treaty obligations by transferring clean-up obligations to iwi and hapuu. It’s clever, but it’s another injustice that reinforces how land back must mean ‘land back in the pristine condition in which you stole it’.

This is another reason to name these as cheaty settlements. The Crown position is that its ‘historic’ wrongs were committed by a few bad actors, racists who didn’t reflect the true and proper intentions of the Crown. By ignoring the systemic nature of the problem, the Crown can ask us to compromise and ‘settle’. Given that these settlements cannot account for what was taken, we remain fundamentally anti-settlement.

We seek Mana Motuhake, and Maaori control of Maaori things. As Donna Awatere Huata wrote in 1982:

In essence, Maaori sovereignty seeks nothing less than the acknowledgment that New Zealand is Maaori land and, further, seeks the return of that land. At its most conservative it could be interpreted as the desire for a bicultural society, one in which taha Maaori receives an equal consideration with, and equally determines the course of this country as, taha Paakehaa. It certainly demands an end to monoculturalism.16

We are anti-Treaty settlements. We are pro-Maaori land.

Note on macrons: the writers’ whakapapa (trace their descent) to Waikato-Tainui, so instead of using macrons for Maaori words this article uses double vowels.

Hana Pera Aoake (Ngaati Mahuta, Ngaati Hinerangi, Ngaati Maniapoto, Tainui/ Waikato) is an artist, teacher and writer based in Waikouaiti in the settler colony of New Zealand. In 2014 they co-founded Fresh and Fruity, before studying an MFA at Massey University. Now they are an editor at Tupuranga journal and Kei te pai press. They only wear tino rangatiratanga colours and enjoy ripping into kai moana.

Morgan Godfery (Ngaati Awa, Ngaati Maniapoto, Tuuhoe, Lalomanu) is a writer, journalist and lecturer based in Waikouaiti in Te Wai Pounamu. He writes a regular column for The Guardian and The Spinoff and is a former columnist for Metro. His work crosses politics, history, memoir and criticism. #TRT

1. A pepeha is a way of sharing things about yourself and introducing yourself in te reo Maaori.
2. Mana is a word that means so many things that it is difficult to translate. It is both a noun and a verb. It is a non-human energy, a supernatural force in a person, place or object. It can mean prestige, authority, control, power, influence, status, spiritual power, charisma or to be legal, valid, authoritative. It can also refer to jurisdiction, mandate, freedom. For a broader explanation please see: maoridictionary.co.nz
3. Minus, of course, Antarctica.
4. Moana Jackson, ‘Land Loss and the Treaty of Waitangi’ in Te Ao Marama: Regaining Aotearoa: Māori writers speak out (Vol. 2), Witi Ihimaera (ed), Reed Books: Singapore, 1993, 72
8. Ibid., 76.
10. Ibid., 75.
11. Ibid., 73.
12. Joe Williams, ‘From Back to the Future: Māori survival in the 1990s’ in Te Ao Marama: Regaining Aotearoa: Māori writers speak out (Vol. 2), Witi Ihimaera (ed), Reed Books: Singapore, 1993, 82.
13. Judith Binney quoted in Paul Reeves ‘Te Mana Tiriti’ in Te Ao Marama: Regaining Aotearoa : Māori writers speak out (Vol. 2), Witi Ihimaera (ed), Reed Books: Singapore, 1993, 86.
14. Donna Awatere-Huata, ‘The Death Machine’ in Te Ao Marama: Regaining Aotearoa: Māori writers speak out (Vol. 2), Witi Ihimaera (ed), Reed Books: Singapore, 1993, 110.
15. Ranginui Walker, ‘Being a Māori’ in Te Ao Marama: Regaining Aotearoa: Māori writers speak out (Vol. 2), Witi Ihimaera (ed), Reed Books: Singapore, 1993, 108.
16. Donna Awatere Huata, ‘From Death Machine’ in Te Ao Marama: Regaining Aotearoa: Māori writers speak out (Vol. 2), Witi Ihimaera (ed), Reed Books: Singapore, 1993, 108.