Every apparent reality has its own possibilities for something better, writes Moana Jackson — and even Covid may be a catalyst for positive change, if people are brave and creative enough.
There is an unhappy temper to these Covid days. Truth and fear seem to jostle uneasily against each other, and the implacable presence of a virus is caught in the contradictions of history as much as policy and social media.
As a result, reason has often been overtaken by unreason, and the stresses of lockdowns and divisions between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated have created a gathering but certain social unease.
As usual in this country’s difficult accounting with colonisation, the situation of Māori people has too often been misunderstood or stigmatised. The original slow rates of Māori vaccination have been fretted over by Crown officials and the media in what has often seemed a coded blaming and a neoliberal framing that has concentrated more on the need for businesses to open.
But beyond the facile blaming, the admission by the Crown to the Waitangi Tribunal this week that business and economic pressures outweighed the health risks to Māori in its Covid decision-making was surprising only in its crass frankness.
The whole vaccination policy and Covid response has been race-based and discriminatory. The initial refusal of the government to either accord priority to the vulnerable Māori and Pasifika populations or at least make adjustments to suit their different age distribution ensured that Māori would be at greater risk of contracting and dying from the virus — and that has proved to be the case.
Racism or even the fundamental breaches of Te Tiriti that the response entailed have never been acknowledged by the Crown of course. Instead, its stance has been positioned in what is sometimes called the equality of a “universal” approach.
But universality and the idea that “one size fits all” are really just euphemisms for the usual advantages given to those whom Ranginui Walker once described as “the people who are seen to matter most”.
Even the target of 90 percent vaccination as a key to “opening up” Auckland seems only to be 90 percent of those who “matter most”. In spite of the dedicated eforts of hauora providers and the actual willingness of many Māori to get vaccinated, it is clear that Māori and Pasifika will not reach the 90 percent vaccination rate at the same time as Pākehā.
Yet that worrying reality does not seem to be a barrier to the calls for “everyone” to be allowed to shop and picnic.
Māori may have wanted to be part of the “team of five million”, but the frustration that expert advice from Māori health professionals has so often been ignored has meant that the team has always had very restrictive selection criteria.
It has also meant that the existing disparities and inequities in Māori health and poverty have simply been made worse.
Although many in the community have shown tolerance and compassion during the pandemic, Māori have nevertheless ended up being an afterthought in both policy and Crown practice. The funding given to Māori hauora services has not only been belated but inadequate.
If nothing else, it has proved the truth in the findings of the Waitangi Tribunal in its recent Hauora report that the Ministry of Health was institutionally racist.
The evidence being given in the Tribunal’s current Covid inquiry shows that nothing has changed. A number of respected Pākehā experts have already admitted to the Tribunal that they have been puzzled by the way that the Crown ignored even their advice about the particular health vulnerabilities of Māori and other disadvantaged groups.
Sadly, there is nothing puzzling or new in all of this. Everything has a context or a whakapapa, and the colonisation of Indigenous Peoples has always involved defining them as the “other,” the ones who counted “less” in the establishment and protection of the colonisers’ power.
The Santee Dakota writer John Trudell once described this “othering” as a “colonial assault on the Native soul”.
The sneering muttered curse
is less worthy, not human,
does not pass with time.
Instead it persists in the broken dreams
And fevered despair
Of history walking the land.
Māori have been subjected to the same “othering”. The colonising impulse to take away the lands and independence of iwi and hapū always depended on diminishing the collective worth and value of Māori people as much as the usurping of political and economic power.
In spite of the much celebrated but dishonest belief in a more “humane” colonisation in this country, Māori people have not escaped an assault on the soul, a trauma that Amster Reedy once called “te patu wairua, te patu ngākau”. Its predictable consequences were the trauma and deaths that were suffered by every iwi and hapū after 1840.
Some of those deaths are now acknowledged, and in today’s Covid environment parallels are often drawn with the 1918 influenza epidemic.
Yet, although the epidemic was tragically costly, it has almost been seen as something external to colonisation — its source was a visiting ship, and the deliberate lack of care shown to Māori at the time has been set aside in the excuse that it came from somewhere else.
However, colonisation always brings disease and death from “somewhere else”, and the epidemic happened only after decades of much earlier trauma. The true extent and costs of that trauma have always been at odds with the idea of a “better” colonisation, and over time they have been minimised or dismissed.
Even the fact that the Māori people were literally seen as a dying race at the end of the 19th century has been romanticised in a subsequent saga of survival and colonising benevolence.
The wars which the Crown waged against iwi and hapū are also now being redefined. The deaths and suffering they inflicted, and the consolidation of Crown power which they facilitated, are now being defined not as acts of aggression as much as painful steps in the almost innocent journey towards a new bicultural nation.
The public outcry whenever someone describes what happened as a genocide, or when Tariana Turia likened colonisation to a “holocaust” in 2002, is evidence of how well learned the idea of a supposedly benevolent colonisation has become.
As part of the uproar occasioned by her comments, there were debates about how many Māori actually died or were killed in the Crown wars, as if the numbers were insufficient to justify the use of the terms holocaust or genocide.
However, when the Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin first invented the term “genocide” during World War Two, he did not base it on the numbers killed. Instead, he focused on the ideas and actions that prevented a group from maintaining its unique practices and ancient life-ways. He included in such actions the forcible transfer of children out of their communities and the attempts to destroy another people’s language.
He then concluded that the resulting “cultural genocide” was clearly something in which “colonialism cannot be left without blame”. It might not necessarily cause the immediate physical destruction of a nation but it does cause “a disintegration of political and social institutions, of culture . . . and economic existence”.
When the United Nations began drafting a Genocide Convention after World War Two, New Zealand and other colonising states actively opposed any notion of cultural genocide and focused solely on the large-scale killing of peoples.
But, on that formulation, the historian Vincent O’Malley’s estimate that there were over 40,000 casualties and deaths in just the Tūranga campaign in the 1860s suggests something genocidal.
In the end, arguments over numbers or even whether colonisation is or is not a genocide are perhaps unhelpful sources of dispute. What cannot be disputed, however, is the suffering and anguish etched in the memory of many iwi and hapū. They are recorded in sad waiata tangi and in the stories that still linger in the land.
And just as the urupā of many marae have the mass graves of the victims of the 1918 epidemic, so the surrounding land is often an unmarked narrative of other forlorn and embattled times.
The “fevered despair” of those times may not be widely known because of the way that history has been misremembered in this country, but it is part of the silent backdrop against which the whole Covid saga is being played out.
Even the cries of freedom made by many anti-vaxers shatter into dubious contradiction against it.
For the very idea of freedom sits uneasily in the history of colonisation. When the Crown exercised its “freedom” to dispossess iwi and hapū, it nececessarily denied the freedom of all Māori people to be self-determining and able to chart their own destiny.
When some anti-vaxers now ignore the fact that individual freedom is always balanced by collective obligations, they also ignore how colonisation perverted that basic assumption.
Memory also underpins the very genuine fear that those who continue to be vulnerable will be placed at further risk if too many of the unvaccinated enter regions such as Te Tai Tokerau and Te Tairāwhiti over the summer. The setting up of roadblocks in that circumstance is not a negative separatist act but one of survival forged in the shadows of history and the continued privileging of those who seem to matter most.
They are also a reclaiming of the power to protect that is implicit in rangatiratanga. Indeed, as Arama Rata noted in her E-Tangata column last week, they are the embodiment of rangatiratanga, and they uphold it in tikanga terms.
They are reminders that the past is always ahead of us and that lessons need to be heeded about the risks which Māori still face. Vaccination is a necessary protection against Covid, but dealing with a living history and the ongoing discriminatory actions of the Crown requires more than just an injection in the arm.
For the problems caused by Covid, and the exclusionary view of healthcare that it has given rise to, will persist as long as the social, economic and constitutional systems established by colonisation are allowed to continue. Changing such systems will not be easy because power, and especially colonising power, always fiercely protects its unjust self.
But change is always possible if people are brave and creative enough to work for it. Covid might, in fact, be the catalyst for such bravery.
Arundhati Roy wrote last year that the pandemic could actually be seen as a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. In words of wisdom and hope, she suggested that “we can choose to walk through dragging the carcasses of prejudice . . . and dead ideas . . . or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage ready to imagine another world.”
The goodwill shown by many during the pandemic could be the guide for a similar portal in this country. It could, in fact, be the base for a new politics and a more honest constitutional recognition of Māori authority and the equitable relationship promised in Te Tiriti.
Although some will be opposed to such a change, there are also many people, especially young people perhaps, who see the need for transformation. They are willing to work towards changing what might seem an unchangeable reality.
And, if people think it will be too hard to effect such change, the Ngāi Tahu poet Ruby Solly reminds us that:
We come from a long line of people
We could shape pounamu
With nothing but water,
If something positive is to come out of Covid, may it be the same persistence, and the same stout hearts and imagination needed to heal the pandemic of colonisation.
Every apparent reality has its own possibilities for something better, and even darkness and despair can be followed by the light of a better dawn where no one should be seen as less worthy.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.