Dr Moana Jackson’s talk at the Imagining Decolonisation event at Unity Books in Wellington last month.

Because we all could do with more Moana Jackson in our lives — and some of you may need an antidote to the past week’s scaremongering on health reforms and constitutional transformation — here’s a double dose of one of our leading thinkers, to bring some much needed light, clarity, and intellectual heft to the conversation.

Firstly, Moana’s talk on decolonisation at Unity Books in Wellington last month. And secondly, Moana’s full chapter from Imagining Decolonisation, published by Bridget Williams Books. (See below for details on how to win a free copy.)

Colonisation has always been a many rendered thing. Since the beginning of the European dispossession of the world’s Indigenous peoples, the colonisers have defined and redefined it in a vast story archive.

Although in the simplest sense colonisation is the violent denial of the right of Indigenous peoples to continue governing themselves in their own lands, the colonisers have told stories that redefine its causes and costs.

The fact that colonisation necessarily involved the brutal taking of Indigenous peoples’ lands and lives has also been reframed and justified in stories that range from pseudo-scientific and legal rationalisations to blatantly racist presumptions.

Today there are new stories. Colonisation is a process of dispossession and control rather than a historical artefact, and now it takes on new forms. These forms may be less obviously violent, but they still deny Indigenous peoples the right to be fully free in their own lands.

Yet many stories of colonisation are written in a stubborn past tense. They are often academic texts, filled with post-colonial rhetoric or revisionist histories that sometimes admit its past genocidal effects.

Some record a detached disquiet and expressions of regret, but they often also seem to be a plea in mitigation, or try to claim that simply naming colonisation as a past wrong is somehow a defence.

If a story does acknowledge any mistreatment or contemporary disadvantage of Indigenous peoples, it usually speaks of the legacy of colonisation rather than its ongoing presence. It may victim-blame, or identify racism as a possible cause of the disadvantage, without acknowledging that racism as an ideology and practice was invented and refined in colonisation.

Indigenous peoples have spoken back against such stories but they remain the dominant narrative. Since the struggles after the Second World War of Indigenous peoples in Africa, Asia and elsewhere to reclaim their independence and self-determination, the colonisers have tried to control the meaning of decolonisation in a different story archive. They require Indigenous peoples to continue to speak the truth of their own power to the stories which the colonising states continue to tell.

Although in its simplest sense decolonisation is the reclaiming of the right of Indigenous peoples to once again govern themselves in their own lands, it has been recorded in stories that limit its meaning.

The stories never allowed that the rallying cries for freedom from colonisation would apply to all Indigenous peoples who had been dispossessed. Instead they defined decolonisation as a right reserved only for those who had remained the majority population in their own countries.

Under the “blue water” doctrine, the right to decolonise was restricted to Indigenous peoples whose lands were being governed from afar by colonisers back in the “home country”, separated by a stretch of ocean.The countries where the colonisers stayed, established a government and became the majority were redefined as “settler colonies” and the Indigenous peoples were excluded from any possibility of decolonisation.

Indigenous peoples in affected “settler colonies” such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand have always spoken back against that story too. Yet it is still the decolonising story told by the governments in those countries, even though there is an inherent injustice in restricting the basic human right of self-determination only to certain humans.

It is surely timely and just to reframe the decolonisation story so that Māori and other Indigenous peoples in the “settler states” might also be self-determining. In this country, the potential exists to develop a different and unique decolonisation discourse because there are already stories which express the power of a different truth.

These stories reflect the hopes that iwi and hapū placed in Te Tiriti o Waitangi and they offer the chance to enhance the dignity of everyone who lives here. They do not require some false blue water dichotomy or distinctions in human rights and worth created by someone else. They are stories in this land.

If people care to listen, such stories still seep through the land. Many of them were first told and learned in the long centuries when Māori became iwi and hapū, and long before those who were called the rerekē or “different ones” arrived on these shores. They are stories from non-colonising times. The values and hopes they contain for this land can provide the basis for a non-colonising future.

From the moment that the ancestors began to know this land as the Mother, Papatūānuku, stories have had the capacity to guide and teach as well as entertain or warn.

In the earliest stories there are lessons about how iwi and hapū became the “we” that is tangata whenua, and how they established whakapapa as the source of relationships and knowledge. The stories were sometimes told by those whose times have otherwise barely been remembered in the passing. Together they merged into what writer and academic Rarawa Kohere has called a distinctive “tūrangawaewae of thought”.

The stories named our right to stand in this place and provided an intellectual tradition that gave us insight into the obligations that went with the right to stand. In a very real sense, they were stories of identity and home — “home” being a concept that Jean Riki has described as the quizzical yet inexpressible joy of belonging:

Home is where the heart is
home is where the heart
home is where the
home is where?
Home is

The stories are also notable because they are stories of being at home on islands in the Pacific. The tīpuna never forgot that, as much as whakapapa tied us to this land, it also tied us to the Pacific Ocean that we call Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. When Māui dragged the land from the sea, these islands were known as “te tiritiri o te moana”, the gift from the sea, and so they have remained.

We also used the name Aotearoa because the islands were bigger than others we may have once known. Yet we never lost sight of the fact that we were still standing on Pacific Islands and that the relationships in such a place would always be mediated through a palpable sense of intimate distance.

The beaches stretched further than any we had seen before, but they were still not as long as the far blue paths we took to get here. The broad plains gave Papatūānuku a wide and chilling face in the winter, but they never put the mountains beyond our reach. Indeed, the mountains became touchstones of our right to stand, monuments of belonging that every iwi and hapū recorded in pepeha and waiata.

Wherever we went, history and the soft hands of the land kept us close. Distance was only as relative as the deep pause between sleeping and waking, and even the swirling mass of Te Kore that hung beyond the stars was only a mystery we could tell in stories where the horizon pulled at the changing tides. The night might sometimes be a long restlessness till dawn, but light still shone clear to the whatihua, the far universe where origins were forged and new thoughts flourished.

So while we learned to be at home and wondered what Papatūānuku might have to say, we developed an intellectual tradition in which the world around us was as ordinary and extraordinary as tapu.

In its cleansing waters, we learned that time and relationships moved with each other across the land like a river finding the sea. Whakapapa became a series of never-ending beginnings where the nature and effect of relationships crossed from the past into the future, through what Patricia Grace has called the “now-time”.

In that intimacy of time and knowledge and place, that sense of big-yet-small islandness, we lived the very human lives of people seeking the consolations and winds of home — the hau kāinga. Rather like the reassurance that is captured in Arapera Kaa Blank’s memories of the Waiapu, home was a “soul place binding bones”.

Thus we are inheritors
of interwoven dreams,
whose paua-shimmering music ever
echoes on the wind.

In this intellectual tradition we learned that memory and hope may sometimes seem fanciful but they can also lead to new realities. We learned of our very human fallibility, and understood that, when conflict arose or relationships were damaged, resolution would need to be found. Like all cultures, we therefore developed a jural tradition or tikanga, which Ani Mikaere has described as the “first law of Aotearoa”.

In simple terms, tikanga is a values system about what “ought to be” that helped us sustain relationships, and whaka-tika or restore them when they were damaged. It is a relational law based on an ethic of restoration that seeks balance in all relationships, including the primal relationship of love for and with Papatūānuku. Because she is the Mother, we did not live under the law but rather lived with it, just as we lived with her.

As we grew with the law and stories in the land, each iwi and hapū became a polity bound by constitutional and political norms as well as by ties of whakapapa. These two strands were in fact inseparable. The political power of mana or tino rangatiratanga became the art of recognising the interdependence of relationships, while preserving the independence of each iwi and hapū polity.

When we drew political borders, they conformed to the contours in the land because that is where the interdependence began. They marked the possibility of movement back and forth, constrained only by recognition of the relationships others might already have with the land. Like any human construct they could be ruptured in a dispute, but resolution always followed because in whakapapa no relationship is ever beyond repair.

The ethic of restoration moved with the borders too. It was part political judgement and partly an expression of aroha — only through mutual respect and affection could balance and whakapapa be maintained.

The philosophies of our law and political power were also inseparable from the questions we asked about life itself: what is the relationship between people and the power of the land and the universe? Where do the interests of the individual fit within the well-being of the collective? How can the land and its relationships be protected in encounters with those who might have a different whakapapa and a different sense of mana and tapu?

Sometimes the answers were found in more stories, because parable and reason often serve the same ends. At other times they were reaffirmed in rituals where the ideal of what ought to be merged with everyday practice.

Thus the pōwhiri to welcome manuhiri on to the marae became a tikanga story of border crossings between the distance of visitors and the bringing together of known or hoped-for relationships. On the marae the borders were metaphorical, but we knew what they were, and we developed marae kawa as a means of ensuring that the relationships within them were just or tika.

The first voice of the karanga linked the mana of the hau kāinga to the whakapapa and possibility of relationship with the manuhiri. The karanga by the manuhiri in response was a statement of their mana, and an acknowledgement that the whakapapa and authority of the marae would be respected.

Any grief or politics of nostalgia or discontent could then be laid down in the whaikōrero with the reassurance that the jurisdiction of the marae was being accepted and the mana of the relationships was being preserved. When the distance between the people was finally closed with the shared breath of the hongi, the borders faded away in a confirmation of the relationships and the reciprocity of aroha.

In the intimate politics of those relationships, new and old stories could then be told. Treaty-making was often included in such stories because it has always been part of the political and diplomatic process. In Ngāti Kahungunu, the process is called mahi tūhono, the work that brings people together. To treat is to honourably seek or mend relationships.

To be a mokopuna of an iwi or hapū was to know the stories in the land. Whether they were about heroes traversing imagined worlds or the complexities of knowledge passed on in the mind-fields of a whare wānanga, they were part of an archive of belonging that was never far away:

where the mountain meets the sky
stone of green turns gold . . .
there’s a story there
lonely river rushes to the sea
there’s a story there.

When the different ones came, they were moving into the law for our land and the land of our stories. They were also coming into our home and on to our collective marae. Certain borders had to be crossed and certain kawa laid down so that a relationship might be established.

But the newcomers came as colonisers. They had a different story to tell, and they had a different view about treaties as well as of relationships and the land.

In the nearly four hundred years that European states had been dispossessing other Indigenous peoples, the only relationships they knew were ones in which they would rule over peoples they decided were racially inferior. The only meaning they gave to the land was as property which they should own.

Those stories did not change when they arrived here. James Cook’s belief that he could take this country for England in 1769 because he had “discovered” it, and the whole discourse in the 1830s about how the Crown should “annex” and treat with us, were based on their assumed right to take over the homes of any Indigenous peoples whom one writer would later call “your new-caught sullen peoples / Half devil and half child”.

Initially iwi and hapū were not aware that the different ones would believe such stories and looked to the marae to decide what kind of relationship might be possible. Thus the 1835 Declaration of Independence, or He Whakaputanga, stressed the self-determination of iwi and hapū but allowed the kind of interdependence with newcomers that is recognised on the marae.

Five years later, when iwi and hapū first discussed whether to treat with the Crown, it was on the basis that the stories in the land could be translated into Te Tiriti as a way to bring people together — mahi tūhono. Like the kawa on the marae, the kawa of Te Tiriti envisaged the cementing of relationships that recognised the facts of iwi independence and the hopes for an inherent interdependence.

The words in the reo in Te Tiriti were an expression of that tikanga-based recognition and were signed by the rangatira on that basis. They reaffirmed that while interdependence was an honourable aim, it was always dependent upon the continuing independence of iwi and hapū. To contemplate forfeiting that independence would have been legally impossible, politically untenable and culturally incomprehensible.

Colonisation had no time for the niceties of tikanga. It fractured the hoped-for inter-dependence and denied the possibility of continuing Māori independence.

The colonisers’ need to impose their laws and institutions on people who already had their own allowed no room for an honourable relationship with iwi and hapū. Instead colonisation fomented injustice: a systemic privileging of the Crown and a relationship in which it assumed it would be the sole and supreme authority.

As they set about ensuring their supremacy through war and all the other brutality of dispossession, the colonisers wrote new stories that deliberately misremembered and obscured the injustice of what they were doing. History became a kind of rebranding in which colonisation was not seen as a violent home invasion but a grand if sometimes flawed adventure that was somehow “better” here than anywhere else because of the proclaimed honour of the Crown in treaty-making.

There is a stark contradiction in terms in the belief that there can be honour in the dishonour of dispossession, and so the new stories never found an easy place in this land. Rather, they sat uneasily upon it like the new place names and fences that were being strung across the new private properties. They were intruder stories on a land that needed no such embellishment.

These colonial stories may have helped explain the taking of power, but they could not give the colonisers the comfort of a place to stand. It was hard to feel at home when the descendants of those who had been killed were never far away and the smoke of the battlefield still lingered in the smoke of the forests that were being burned. In island stories, the intimacy of distance never lets memory entirely fade away.

Other stories had to be told in which colonisation became a wayward and uncertain search for identity. It was often easier just to continue looking back to England as “home” and to turn the valleys and forests and mountains of this land into a landscape that the colonisers could frame and try to keep at a distance even as they took its wealth.

But time gave security if not comfort and eventually the colonisers morphed into settlers and then “Kiwis”. They still saw the land as a better Britain in the Pacific, but they increasingly claimed a certain permanence — while turning away from the fact that in settling themselves they were continually unsettling us.

With each new story and each new consolidation of power, the colonisers took less care to listen to the stories that were already in the land. Instead they ignored them, or redefined them for their own purposes. Just as they ploughed their claims into Papatūānuku, so they ploughed old stories into new and damaging redefinitions.

Ownership redefined the tikanga of iwi and hapū relationships with the land, and sexism disrupted the complementary roles of Māori men and women. Racism reduced us to a warrior race or a compliant if noble savage, and arrogance turned sacred and complex understandings of the world into simple myths and legends.

The retellings contained little of our truths, instead expressing the coloniser’s belief in our inferiority: “Uncivilised folk, such as our Māori, may not do any great amount of thinking.”

In these times of loss and dying, the hope of our independence seemed to fade. The possibility of even an equitable and interdependent relationship with the colonisers receded like the mountains we could no longer touch. People sometimes lost faith in who we once were and might still be, and grew silent with the stories.

Yet as the fiercely asserted right of self-determination became a selflessly determined will to survive, the old stories were told in the quiet of the marae. Old memories and histories were sung for those who would come after, and the joy of resilience provided comfort as new challenges were faced.

So the stories survived. Just as adaptation to the pressures of colonisation never meant total submission to its presumed power, so the break in the stories’ telling never meant their disappearance or the destruction of the values they contained. They now speak of a defiant resolve that we will never be silent again, and of the certainty that, as whakapapa carries the past through the now-time, justice will re-emerge in the relationship offered through Te Tiriti.

Unfortunately, in colonisation’s current neoliberal form, the stories are being co-opted and redefined once again. These co-opted versions are used to further Crown interests — often as a clip-on perspective to its narratives of cultural respect and responsiveness.

Too often these stories are removed from their historical and political beginnings and become a cultural garnish or a concert performance, rather than an expression of the independent power and integrity within which they are meant to exist.

However, enough of them are intact. Furrowed into the whakapapa, they can still call up hope even when everything might seem lost in poverty or despair. They speak of love for the land and the ties even a lost mokopuna in the city can have with a distant mountain or river. They provide reassurance that there will always be a place to stand.

Their permanence and values are a reminder that even the greatest injustice need not destroy hope. Colonisation is an injustice that is often too painful to be fully told; and the relationships it has damaged and continues to damage can seem beyond repair. Yet the stories and their hope may be a guide to resolution.

They may in fact allow a different way of thinking about how to ease the hurt and hara that colonisation causes. For, above all else, they show that remedy will best come from the ineffable hopes in this land and from the people who wish to live with it.

“Decolonisation” may not be the most appropriate word for that kind of remedy because, like colonisation, it came from somewhere else. Perhaps it could be replaced with the ethic of restoration.

The use of this term would seek to replace colonisation not by merely deconstructing or culturally sensitising the attitudes and power structures that it has established, but by restoring a kawa that allows for balanced relationships based on the need for iwi and hapū independence upon which any meaningful interdependence must rest.

Such an ethic derives from the lessons in the stories in the land about the potential to whaka-tika or to make right even the most egregious wrong, and to then whakapapa, or build new relationships. To adapt it as a tool to create non- colonising relationships is to rekindle faith in the “ought to be” in this land; to draw upon the same land-and tikanga-centred way of ordering society that was envisaged in Te Tiriti.

Restoration (like colonisation) is also a process, not an event, and it will require a change of mind and heart as much as a change of structure. There will of course be difficulties: such transformations must confront the implacability of a power unjustly taken.

It will require courageous wisdom to change, and some will say it is impossible and unrealistic. But when the ancestors crossed Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, they overcame what seemed impossible and realised that courage is simply the deep breath you take before a new beginning.

And there has always been another intellectual tradition in this land which cherishes different values and defines the concepts of power and democracy in a different way. There has also always been more than one way of making a nation, and Te Tiriti only ever saw a relational nation in which politics was never just the art of the possible but the promise of reconciling difference across what was only ever meant to be an intimate distance.

At one level, the practical steps involved in this envisioned ethic are necessarily political and constitutional because decolonisation cannot occur within the systems and institutions which colonisation has established. The restoration of place in a non-colonising future can only be assured with the recognition and effective exercise of iwi and hapū self-determination — not as a structural subset of colonising government structures, but as the basis of constitutionally independent polities.

The right to self-determination asserted by majority Indigenous populations in other countries is also the right of Māori. Human rights are never dependent on numbers but inhere in a person’s humanity.

Māori people have discussed the need for a different constitutional arrangement ever since it became apparent that Te Tiriti was being dishonoured by the Crown. The formation of the Kīngitanga in the 1860s and the establishment of the Māori Parliament in 1892 are just two examples of that desire for change.

The recent Matike Mai programme of nation-wide discussions about constitutional transformation built upon those initiatives. It was established in 2010 by the Iwi Chairs Forum with a brief given to a representative Working Group to develop new constitutional models based upon tikanga, He Whakaputanga and Te Tiriti.

More than 5,000 Māori participated in the various hui held between 2012 and 2015 and discussed a number of different constitutional “houses” or models based upon the constitutional importance of iwi and hapū independence. The discussions were always drawn from Te Tiriti and assumed that, if the Crown was to finally honour the interdependence promised within it, then the terms of iwi and hapū political authority had to be acknowledged.

But the kōrero also focused on the values which might underpin the models. In doing so they were drawing from the stories in the land. For example, all of the values they identified were based on relationships. In particular they recognised the need to replace Papatūānuku at the centre of all political and personal relationships. To rehonour the responsibilities of a mokopuna to the earth is especially important in the current crisis of climate change.

Although the values were discussed as prerequisites for constitutional transformation they may also be seen as interrelated parts of a wider ethic of restoration.

  • The value of place — the need to promote good relationships with and ensure the protection of Papatūānuku.
  • The value of tikanga — the core ideals that describe the ‘ought to be’ of living in Aotearoa and the particular place of Māori within that tikanga.
  • The value of community — the need to facilitate good relationships between all peoples.
  • The value of belonging — the need for everyone to have a sense of belonging.
  • The value of balance — the need to maintain harmony in all relationships, including in the exercise of constitutional authority.

The value of conciliation — the need to guarantee a conciliatory and consensual democracy.

Together, the values reflect what Max Harris and Philip McKibbin call the “politics of love”, in which love is seen as both critical and constructive.

The politics of love is a values-based politics, which affirms the importance of people and extends beyond us to non-human animals and the environment . . . it holds that all people are important — and as such it incorporates a commitment to radical equality.

Constitutional transformation is only one way in which the ethic of restoration may be achieved. The earlier chapters in this volume have outlined a number of other ways in which individuals and communities can work towards the same goal. The writers are aware that change will require long-term social and economic as well as political and attitudinal transformation, but they also have confidence that such change is both necessary and possible.

Martin Luther King Jr often said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. It may take a while, but with stories anything is possible. They can even shift time — it simply takes belief. As the Cherokee writer Thomas King has said: “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.”

Ben Okri has noted that rescuing the truth from old stories in order to make new understandings is essential if a country is to be all that it can be.

Nations and people are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.

Because whakapapa traverses time between the past, present and future, the building of new relationships and the telling of new stories begins with the identification and “un-telling” of colonisation’s past and present lies. Stories for and about transformation rely on honesty about the misremembered stories and the foresight to see where different stories might lead.

That is the ethic of restoration. It offers the chance, or challenge, to clutch truth and justice for “future flowerings”.

It is concerned with the balance of relationships rather than a will to limit what they might be. And in giving back to Māori the right of self-determination, it offers everyone a place to stand — giving substance to the insight of the poet Allen Curnow that such a place could be found:

Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year,
Will learn the trick of standing upright here.

Such standing comes with the reassurance of Te Tiriti. Many people find comfort in that, and it is never too late to journey towards a tikanga-based future. Witi Ihimaera, too, encourages us to start right away, in the now-time:

It’s our watch now
The time to make dreams come true
Today is a good day to begin . . .


Moana Jackson is Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou, and Rongomaiwahine. He likes telling stories to, and for, his mokopuna and hopes they will grow up in a land where te Tiriti is finally seen as the base for respectful political relationships. Then there will be other stories to tell.

(Thank you everyone who emailed us for the free giveaway of Imagining Decolonisation. This has now closed, but copies are available for purchase here.)

© E-Tangata, 2021

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