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You’re indigenous? – So What?!?!

Rochelle Francis



I’ve been accused of being too political. So for those of you who couldn’t care less about what Don, Helen, Tariana and John are arguing about this week as long as you can still go to the beach next week, I’ve decided to tackle an issue that might strike a chord with a wider group of people.
I want to talk about “indigeneity”. It’s a word, although you won’t find it in the dictionary. It’s a term of art employed mainly by academics, and refers to the quality of being “native” or “aboriginal” to a land or region, or having possession of that land at the earliest stage of its history. In our society, indigenous groups are distinguished from colonial or immigrant groups. In Aotearoa, our indigenous race – the Mäori – are undoubtedly accorded a different status to the rest of the population. How many times have you heard someone say, “My family have been here for generations too. We’re all New Zealanders. It shouldn’t matter that they arrived here before us.” Does it matter?
When we talk about the importance of, for example, ensuring Mäori participation in decision-making processes, we could rely on several different bases as justification. The most obvious basis is the Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty is a solemn pact between the Crown and Mäori, whereby Mäori ceded the right to govern to the Crown (Article One) in return for the certain guarantees (Article Two) including all the rights and privileges of British citizens (Article Three). According to the Waitangi Tribunal and our courts, the most fundamental effect of the agreement was that it established a partnership between the Crown and Mäori, whereby they would work closely together for the benefit of Mäori and European settlers alike.
The Treaty therefore becomes the basis for the importance attached to ensuring that the partnership established by that Treaty is facilitated through Mäori participation in governance structures. But our government ensuring Mäori participation because it is obliged to under the Treaty of Waitangi is very different from our government doing so because Mäori are the indigenous people of Aotearoa. It is arguable that more emphasis has been placed on the Treaty because it was between the Crown and the indigenous peoples of this land as opposed to between the Crown and any other group. But is there really anything special about being “indigenous”?
“Indigeneity” is considered to be something very special indeed. The fact that Mäori are the indigenous peoples of Aotearoa could be used as a basis for Mäori participation in decision-making structures, regardless of the existence of any treaty. Jeremy Waldron, a Visiting Professor of Law at Victoria from Columbia University, explained the concept rather nicely when presenting the Quentin-Baxter Memorial Lecture in December 2002. “Indigenous peoples were not just hanging around in New Zealand, Australia or North America, waiting to be colonised. They were already living and thriving with their own systems of polity, law and economy. Those systems … were here first; and they have a continuing status that is secured by that priority.” It is this priority that forms the basis for elevation of political claims and aspirations of indigenous peoples above those of colonial and immigrant groups.
However, the issue is controversial. The possibility that a certain ethnic group is secured greater political rights on the basis of their indigeneity can get even the most mild economist all fired up. I personally believe that indigeneity is significant, but I can’t enunciate why. It is clear that indigeneity and all that it encompasses warrant serious examination.