Children of colonisation

It always requires a certain courage to speak the unspeakable.

The increasing number of Māori men and women who have spoken of the sexual, physical and emotional abuse they suffered while in Crown or church institutions have shown that courage. They have told of harm that no child should have to endure, and they have given a painful insight into so-called “state care” over recent decades.

It’s a shame that the Crown has not been similarly courageous in its response. Its refusal to hold any sort of inquiry shows a callous disregard for the trauma of the victims as well as an unwillingness to accept responsibility.

Yet in many ways the lack of response isn’t surprising. The immediate reason may simply be a fear of the costs of possible compensation to the victims — petty politics too often prevails over the need to remedy injustice.

However, even petty politics have a whakapapa of sorts, a context within which decisions are made and interests determined. In this country that context is always the history of colonisation, and the way it is understood or misunderstood.

In this particular case, the Crown’s refusal to publicly inquire into the abuse in its own institutions is consistent with a long-held misperception about its power, and the nature and consequences of colonisation within which it was assumed.

For while people express shock over the removal of Aboriginal children from their families in Australia, and abhor the residential schools set up to “kill the Indian in order to save the child” in Canada and the United States, there is an almost smug belief that such abuse never happened here.

Indeed, there’s a presumption that because of the honour of the Crown, colonisation was somehow “better” in this country than anywhere else.

Yet the belief that there can be honour in the dishonour of colonisation is a contradiction in terms.

By its very nature, the colonisation of indigenous peoples has always been an abusive process — if only because the imposition of the colonisers’ values and institutions could never be achieved peacefully or with any pretence to good faith. It was always a violent race-based privileging of Pākehā realities, which was only made possible by subordinating those of Māori.

No matter how it’s achieved — through a legal subterfuge or the brute force of a gun — colonisation is always a dishonourable dispossession. To assume there is some sliding scale of honourable acceptability, or a Hit Parade of comparative benevolence in which New Zealand is Number One, is a misleading lie.

The work of the Waitangi Tribunal and various revisionist historians has of course highlighted some of the violence and abuse, such as the confiscation of land and the wars. However, while that’s been welcome, the violence only tends to be acknowledged as a wrong that’s an exception to the general rule of an honourable history, rather than the norm in the overarching wrong of colonisation itself.

In that context, something like the abuse of children has been too appallingly frequent and systemic to be dismissed as an exception or an aberration. It jars too much against the colonisers’ self-image and is a historical fact that seems too hard for the Crown to accept within the context of its own misrepresentations — let alone seek to meaningfully remedy.

Perhaps it’s that same misapprehension which has caused many people to be shocked by the recent revelations, while presuming that they are new stories of unspeakable and inexplicable heartlessness.

Sadly, they are neither new nor beyond explanation.

To the many Pākehā children who were also abused, they are a long-secret and perhaps incomprehensible story. But for the whānau of the majority of victims who were Māori, they fit within the reality of colonisation, as distinct from its deceits. They are part of a history in which children were the collateral damage, and too often the directly damaged victims, of a totalising dispossession.

Iwi and hapū know that history, although it has only recently been taken off the marae where it was always held close because the pain has been too recent to share with any equanimity, rather like a wound that is too fresh to properly heal.

Much of it has been recorded in songs, which have always been the repository of our sense of place and time. Parents sang many of those songs to their children, sometimes in verses that recalled magical creatures and great migrations, or simply the names of ancestors. Often, they also sang words of comfort, as in the lullabies or oriori which rhymed the child into his or her place in whakapapa and the world.

But, as colonisation took hold, the calming intimacy of lullabies was replaced with other songs. When our people were dying from new diseases or were trying to hold on to our dignity in the face of a coded and not so coded racism, the songs became laments telling of the wrongs that were being done across the land, even against children.

They were songs in which comfort was lost in a foreboding about death and abuse — and they recorded a dispossession that was so unknown to us we did not even have a word for it in our language. Often they were a simple warning based on what had happened to other children who had been killed or raped. They are sad songs, sung in a poetics of fearful protectiveness:

“Stay by me little one/ there is an anger all around/ more fierce than the wind.”

After the wars, there were other kinds of abuse that Māori children had to endure. Some, like the physical punishment meted out to stop the use of the reo in schools, is well known, although it is usually described as a product of its time — an aberration and a misguided belief that it was for the best — which has now been re-framed in the abstraction of a Treaty breach more than the recognition of the actual hurt that it caused.

But whānau still tell different stories, of tears and pain and children being beaten so badly at school they bled and could hardly walk. Artists, like composers, have also found ways to depict that unspeakable truth, as Patricia Grace did in her novel Baby No-Eyes. There is no song, just the story of an archetypal young girl, Riripeti, who was so terrified by the punishment she received every day at school, she eventually ran away and died: “Killed by school/ Dead of fear”.     

The more recent suffering of children in so-called “care” has been shaped by the same historic and systemic violence. It has also been shaped by the particular consequences of that violence on the structures of whānau, hapū and Iwi.

As in every colonisation, the taking of land and power depended on taking away and weakening the social and emotional ties which gave Māori society its strength, and thus its power and ability to protect its children — whether it was through redefining the relationships between men and women, or introducing corporal punishment within whānau.

In many cases, the intergenerational trauma caused by such actions led to an internalisation of the brutality being experienced, until the previously unknown phenomena of domestic violence and child abuse began to tear at the bonds of whakapapa.

Our people grapple with that tragedy still — and while knowing the colonising causes does not excuse the violence suffered by too many of our women and children, they provide the only base from which long-term change might be properly made.

Unfortunately the dysfunctional purpose of colonisation which led to the weakening of many whānau has been re-labelled, so that the families themselves are now regarded as so violently dysfunctional their children are deemed to be in need of “care”.

In a perverse circular reasoning where effect is divorced from cause, the Crown has consequently assumed it has the right to take children from the whānau “for their own good”.

This presumed right to “take” Māori children is another kind of abuse and is certainly contrary to the iwi and hapū understandings of the Treaty of Waitangi. Indeed, if mana was never given away or if sovereignty was never ceded to the Crown in the Treaty — as Māori have always said and the Waitangi Tribunal has reaffirmed — then neither were the constituent parts of that mana or sovereignty given away.

To protect the mokopuna was always the prime obligation of those entrusted with mana and rangatiratanga — and to deny that obligation has been an abuse of Crown power and contrary to an honourable Treaty relationship.

It’s regrettable that the new “Ministry for Vulnerable Children” merely changes some flawed institutional practices while reaffirming the Crown right to take Māori children.

Perhaps, more importantly, it does nothing to address or even acknowledge the systemic issues that have impoverished and damaged so many whānau. Instead it adopts Māori terminology without lessening the possibility that children may still be put at risk in its care.

Although the Crown refuses to consider an inquiry into institutional abuse, a number of victims are now laying a claim before the Waitangi Tribunal. The tribunal has an independent inquiry role and, hopefully, in the safe space of its proceedings, the wrongs that have been done will be identified as breaches of the Treaty and appropriate redress will be forthcoming.

For, beyond the Treaty debates and even the new policy prescriptions around “vulnerable children,” there is a past and present human tragedy which still needs to be addressed.

The historic suffering and potential for further abuse of Māori children in care, whether in Crown institutions or placements sanctioned by the Crown, represents a moral failure as much as a political and institutional one. Its resolution depends on addressing all that colonisation has done and thus removing the impediments it has placed in the way of Māori to once again make wise and caring decisions for our mokopuna.

Perhaps a proper Treaty-based resolution for Māori will also clear the way for those Pākehā children who were abused to find some solace and peace as well. Colonisation’s cruel disregard for the wellbeing of Māori children was a corruption of the spirit which was easily transferred to others — and the Treaty has always offered the promise of something better for everyone in this land.

In spite of all its protestations of honour and good faith, the Crown has yet to live up to that promise. In the mistreatment of the vulnerable in its supposed care, it has acted in the most dishonourable way possible. But on this issue as so many others, justness can’t forever be obscured by politics or the lies of history.

It will take the same sort of courage shown by those who have spoken out if the necessary systemic changes are to be made to ensure the wellbeing of our mokopuna.

However, it’s only through a compassionate daring that their institutionalised suffering will at last come to an end and restore to them the chance to find comfort once again in the simple singing of lullabies.


© e-tangata, 2017

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